In our concluding post in honor of Black History Month, we offer the following excerpts from a recent conversation with GLIDE’s Isoke Femi and James Lin about the African American roots of GLIDE’s ethos of radical inclusion.
Isoke Femi: People who have studied African cosmology have recognized syncretism as a quality of the African consciousness, which is about bringing in and including various [ideas and influences] in the common [culture]. Part of what got Africans in trouble with Christian [missionaries] was that tendency. Because Africans said, “Jesus was cool! We’ll adopt him as a deity.” And the church fathers were like, “No, no! He cannot be one of many, he has to be the one.” There’s something about that that feels like it’s at the root of this idea of inclusion—that we can include almost anything. That’s one of the jump-off points for me.
James Lin: I came to GLIDE without any background. What I noticed was that people behaved differently here from what I thought was normal. It showed up in a bunch of ways. One example is [GLIDE staff member] Iris Butler. Iris has a way of addressing people who are, for example, breaking some rule, that really strikes me. Let’s suppose you’re having a really bad day, and you’re screaming and shouting, basically causing a ruckus, or trying to cut in line for the Meals Program. Instead of just commanding you to “settle down!” or trying to do that nice polite thing, “Please, Sir…” Iris will come up to you and say, “Hey. We don’t do that here.” There’s something about the way she says it that says, “You’re part of this ‘we,’ and I believe that you can hold yourself to a standard if I say to you, ‘Hey, this is the way it is. And you belong here.’”
Isoke: I want to bring in another cultural antecedent to that. You had this rich community of people who were enslaved. They didn’t come from the same tribes; they didn’t originally speak the same languages, didn’t have the same customs. In Africa, they might have been at odds with each other; but here, they had to figure out a way to be on this continent. You couldn’t exile people. There was nowhere to exile them to! You had to figure out how to keep them in and contain everybody’s madness, and even sometimes relate to it.
I think part of this attitude of inclusion results from being forced together and being forced to hold each other accountable. You had to figure out how to govern without kicking people out. That was just not an option. You develop a brilliance for how to intervene and how to talk to somebody. And not everybody has it, not all Black people have it, but the culture supports it in some ways so that a significant number can hold that for the rest of us.
James: I think that phrase is central: Kicking people out is not an option. Exclusion was the bread and butter of how I was raised. There was always the threat that if you don’t do it right you’re cut off, you’re no longer a member of this family. The threat of exclusion [was real], even though it never happened. But GLIDE is a place where that threat is not available, and you see that in the Meals Program. If you can’t be downstairs in the Meals Program because you didn’t take your meds, we have bag lunches. We never don’t feed people.
Isoke: I remember my mother had antipathy for some people in the community where she couldn’t stand the sight of them. But if she found out they were sick, or they didn’t have anybody to cook for them, she’d cook something and say, “Take this over to that tramp, that son-of-a, take this over because I can’t stand nobody to be hungry. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand nobody be hungry.” So while you couldn’t kick people out, you had to be able to be real, otherwise it would have been impossible. So people would say, “You know, you gettin’ on my last nerve.” You couldn’t hide, and you can’t hide how you’re being affected by people. There was a lot of truth-telling, which I think helped people to not exile you. “I just gotta tell you how I’m feeling about you.”
James: I do want to say that the particular way that this [cultural history] manifests at GLIDE goes significantly beyond just the cultural norms that we’re talking about because of the way that Cecil and Janice arrived here and immediately started working with the LGBT community. It clearly wasn’t a norm that they inherited. Cecil takes that radical inclusion to another level and into the universe. He’s one of those people who is basically looking back and thinking, “Who is next? Who else needs to come through that door?”
Isoke: Even in the way he talks about his family, as a family in which you just didn’t know who was going to show up. Everybody could show up. And he wanted to expand and extend that.
Isoke Femi is GLIDE’s Maven of Transformative Learning. James Lin is the Director of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice.