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Saturday, June 20, 2009

For author Gil Robertson, it truly is a Family Affair

It’s ironic that the cover of Family Affair: What It Means to be African American Today features a single, sprawling tree. When Atlanta-based author Gil Robertson first moved here from Los Angeles, the thought of how many lives had been snuffed at the end of a gangly old tree branch was never too far away.

But that may not be unique to Robertson. Just about anyone from “up North,” no matter their race, could be thinking the same thing.

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That’s partly why Family Affair is so meaningful. The book is a collection of essays from everyday people and extraordinary individuals sharing their ideas on family, culture, relationships, community and self. They just happen to be African-American. Seen through the prism of personal stories, anyone can identify with these experiences and appreciate the lessons learned.

You won’t have to read deeply to find inspiration and insight here. Whether it’s Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker recalling how he beat back naysayers to become a “first” on many fronts, or Bunnie Jackson-Ransom finding her value outside of being “Mrs. Maynard Jackson,” Robertson has culled stories that provide guidance and strong reminders of resilience and faith.

While some states officially celebrated Juneteenth — a holiday commemorating the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas — yesterday, Georgia is not one of them. Below, Gilbertson offers his thoughts on why that is — along with some insight of his own about the African-American community, how Family Affair came to be, and next to nooses and Confederate flags, the next scariest thing about living in Atlanta.

Gilbertson will be signing copies of Family Affair on Sunday, June 28, 1 p.m., at Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, 4185 Snapfinger Woods Drive, Decatur. 404-284-8865. www.greaterststephenministries.org.

What’s your connection to Atlanta?

I just moved here in 2003 from Los Angeles, I’m a native Angeleno, and at that time I was just really looking for change. I had lived in L.A. all of my life except for a brief stint at Howard for college, and obviously as a successful A&E journalist I was involved with the film, television and music industries in L.A. and I felt that I was missing out on some other area of life because at the time I lived my life flying back and forth between L.A. and New York.

The culture is certainly very different from Southern California living. But you know what’s interesting is that I can get off the plane at O’Hare [International Airport] or Midway or JFK or LaGuardia and immediately step into my rhythm. And I couldn’t do that here. I just couldn’t find my rhythm. And you know one of the things that really, really bothers me and still bothers me is the fact that you can go to the corner of Peachtree and 14th and still not know where you’re at. There are no signs! So that just drove me crazy. The town certainly wasn’t designed for newcomers or visitors because there are no signs. And the signs that they have, at least in the city, oftentimes are so small that you have to damn near be a giraffe. … And then the fact that in some areas there are no street lights. OK, so add up the equation: No street lights and no signs. I mean, that’s kinda scary, especially when you’re still trying to deal with the fact of, what happened around all these trees? And you’re a black man and the Billie Holliday song plays on the radio!

The Atlanta-related essays seemed to focus on the politics of the city, whether as a black gay mecca or a place of significance for African-American political advancement. Was that unique to Atlanta?

[Atlanta was the] second-largest geographic group in the collection. Atlanta is unique. There is probably no other city in this country that offers what it does to African-Americans. You don’t have any other city in America that has the academic wealth, not to mention financial. If we could harness that, this city could be an example that other metropolitan areas could follow.

The Atlanta pieces, they speak to a community that’s in transition. From this city’s painful past to the promises that are possible for tomorrow. Atlanta has always been progressive and the essays in Family Affair speak to that.

Not in My Family, your previous book about HIV/AIDS in the black community, was also a compilation of essays. What lessons did you learn that helped you with this book?

People want to share there stories, and I’m a believer in self-help and instead of turning to a source and letting them fix your problems, I think it’s very important for people to be an active participant in addressing their issues. And so by allowing a group of people to address a situation from all sides … I think it’s very, very helpful and is sort of a helpful way of being able to understand not only the motivations, the cause, but also understand and really be able to create practical action plans for correcting whatever issue you’re trying to deal with.

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What happened with Family Affair is, as I was touring the country with Not in My Family, it occurred to me that not only is the black community dealing with HIV/AIDS and health disparities issues, but we are off the charts in basically every area, from academic achievement to the status of our relationships to, you know, name an area, a lifestyle area, and more than likely African-Americans are very low on the totem poll. And it occurred to me that the reason why we have the issues that we can’t quite seem to get off our backs is due to what we think of ourselves.

When I was growing up, both of my parents, if we did something wrong, one of our punishments was to go in the bathroom or the kitchen or the den or wherever there was a mirror, and they would say, “Look in the mirror. Do you like yourself?” And so basically I think our behavior is a manifestation of unresolved issues that we have about our identity. That African-Americans are living with a fractured sense of their identity, so you have all of this acting out. Because people don’t know who they are. Because when people have a healthy sense of themselves, they take care of themselves. They take care of their families, they take care of their neighborhoods and communities. And clearly, the black community is in crisis, and it has been in crisis as long as I can recall. So I think it has to do with the fact by and large our identity was something that was assigned to us, that was given to us and has been manipulated by others who aren’t African-American, who don’t share our experiences. And this book was an opportunity for the essayists to share their experiences and share their perspectives, attitudes and ideas about what it means to be African-American today.

At the end of the day, the book is about bringing healing to our community and providing a peek for others.

Thurbert Baker focused his story on overcoming naysayers. What do you think about the notion of “haters”? Do they exist more in the African-American community? Or does it put more emphasis on the phenomenon?

What’s interesting, and what’s been an eye-opener for me living in South — just think, I had to come to Atlanta to discover this — white folks have the same issues we have. It was shocking to move here and to realize all the things black and white have in common – and black and yellow, as far as Latins and Asians.

I was at the Tavis Smiley exhibit [America I Am at the Atlanta Civic Center] this week and I met a professor there and he brought it to my attention that black people [who were] slaves, our ancestors, used to live in barracks. Our notion of — at least one of my ideas about blacks in slavery — was that people lived in single-family dwellings. And he was like, “Well, in some cases they did, but in most cases, particularly in big industrial farms, they lived in barracks.” The men slept in one dorm and the women slept in another and the only time they were really allowed to interact was to breed.

And so, I mean, when you really look at the black man in particular and you think about how his identity has just been toyed with from day one, from our arrival here, you begin to understand. It doesn’t justify the behavior of some of our brothers, but you begin to understand why they are the way they are. Because when your history begins with being basically nothing more than a breeder or a laborer or basically a tool of big business and then you find your identity also shackled by the fact that your family can receive public assistance only if you’re not present, I mean, what does that do to your identity? What does that do to your sense of self, and to your value? How you see yourself? So I think the hate comes from a place where … you know, you can only beat a group of people down for so long before they just start to believe the propaganda that they aren’t worth anything.

And so I think you have an element of that, and I think for those of us who are have been fortunate enough or who are wise enough, who’ve had supportive families, to believe something different, that’s why you have that sort of challenge, the “Oh, you can’t do anything.”

And to some degree I guess it was given out of love. Because not wanting to see the person [fail] … so that means for as many Thurber Bakers that we have or as many Matt Siegels, you have people who made those strides but who were somehow prevented from reaching their goals because of race or because of poverty or things that are tied to race.

Georgia is not a state that recognizes Juneteenth. Why do you think that is?

Girl, you know, there’s some things about Georgia [laughs]… I don’t know! I tell you, I freaked out when I first moved here and was driving down the street and happened to look at somebody’s bumper and it had a Confederate flag. I almost had an accident. I was like “What the fuck! Are fucking kidding me?” And you meet people and they start talking about, “Oh, well, it’s part of their culture, it’s part of who [I am].”And it’s like, OK, I can buy that. Your culture is just as important to you as mine is to me. And so you have to kind of look at it in a different way. But Georgia has its own special place and it’s own reputation for being what it is. I mean, Atlanta is obviously a very progressive place but as you and I both know, the rest of the state really isn’t. That’s an interesting question. Why [doesn’t] the city that gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement recognize a significant day like Juneteenth.

I can recall one of my trips here staying at the Swissotel. I was doing some media work for LaFace [Records] — so you know how long ago that was — and we were having breakfast and I look up and I saw the Confederate flag and I remember saying to one of the executives at the label, I was like, “What’s this all about?” And they just started laughing and they were like, “Well, hey, you know were in the Deep South.” So I guess that’s the answer.

Something very telling happened to me about a year after I moved here. I was going to meet Michael Thurmond who heads the Labor Department, for lunch. And I got in the elevator, and we were going up, and there was an older black male, probably a little bit older than what my father would be, in his late 70s, and so we were standing on the elevator and then like on Floor Two, this white man got on the elevator. And girl, grandpa shuffled — almost bowed — and stepped two steps back. And when I looked at him, I just was quiet for a minute. And the white guy was visibly uncomfortable. I was kind of quiet and reflective about what took place. And I was like, you know what, I can’t be mad at this man because that was the role he had to play in order to take care of his family. He had to play that position. And he had no options. No options. All I could do was look at it from a place of understanding.

And another story, to drive the point home … I had done a lecture at Albany State and I’m driving home and there’s a little road that you take to get in and out of Albany to get back to the freeway. And so, it was the next day. And I’m driving down this little country highway and I look over to my left and I see these fields. And so I didn’t know what they were. I’m like looking at them, and I got close enough to them and I was like, “Oh shit, this is cotton!” And so, I mean, you know, I [was] 42, I had never seen a cotton field. And so it was a warm day and I remember thinking, “Jesus Christ, you mean people had to get out in that and work?”

And so when you think about it… when you take it outside of just reading it in a book, and really start seeing these things, and going, “My God, who were these people?” These are some incredibly resilient, powerful people. And we spend too much time running away from that when instead what we need to do is recognize it for all of its sake, the good and the bad. Because only an incredible people could have survived that.

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