Yom Kippur 5781

Good afternoon.  

During the peak days of the pandemic, I frequently thought of my being tested by God. What do we meditate on during Yom Kippur when we must look deeply into ourselves to do better in our lives? How should we behave in our daily interactions, routine and not so routine, with others? What could we have personally done differently in these daily interactions to make the world a better place? In my own experience being on the front lines fighting COVID-19, I certainly tried to bring out my best and had to think about this throughout the experience.  

I came of age at first as a medical student and then as a doctor, as a physician, during the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic first descended upon our world. At that time, we did not know what we were running into. At that time, all we knew was that we needed to treat suffering and dying people with compassion. Other than some palliative measures, antibiotics, pain medications, etc., compassion was our only tool available. Can we catch this disease from casual contact with a patient? Will we suffer from the same affliction and end up like the unfortunate souls we were treating? We did not know. The younger version of myself was deeply moved by the experiences of what I saw and what I did to combat this affliction, and I ended up making a career of it. You could say that this is where I learned to internalize what the expression “running into the fire” means and act on that when called upon.  

At first, I was naïve about coronavirus and thought that it would not reach us in New York City. Once it hit me that catastrophe was headed our way, I knew what needed to be done. I knew that it was time to run into the fire again and that all that mattered was saving lives. 

The leadership of Downstate Medical Center quickly put together plans to convert the hospital into a COVID-only facility. We struggled to find our own personal protective equipment/PPE, the N95 masks, the protective garments, gloves, hand sanitizer just to respond to the call. The personal risks were high. We heard ambulance sirens wailing outside continuously throughout the day and night. We heard “Code 99” called out on the PA system over and over again every hour. This constant assault on the psyche was overwhelming.  

In the face of these horrible circumstances, I was deeply moved one evening watching a CNN special on Downstate’s response to COVID-19. One of the ER doctors was quoted saying: “We are going to do what we have to do to fight this thing or die trying.” I was inspired by the courage shown by front-line providers to put their own lives at risk. 

What did I really expect of myself? I considered it my duty to respond and volunteered to work with a group of pediatricians who were tasked to convert a pediatric floor into an adult COVID ward. I say that I volunteered because many did not want to take these duties on. Some refused to come to work at all. I went on daily rounds with my fellow doctors, called family members who could not visit their loved ones and gave daily updates, and experienced the camaraderie of what felt like soldiers in wartime. While we did have some guidance from adult medicine physicians, we literally had to relearn medicine on the spot.  

I did this on top of my other daily duties of trying to manage my HIV clinic. At one point later on, one of the pediatric chief residents personally thanked me for doing what I did. I responded by telling her that I didn’t really think I did that much. She quickly corrected me saying that volunteering in the first place was what mattered when many of the residents were terrified to be assigned to caring for COVID patients. The very fact that I was there by choice, when others knew that I didn’t have to be there, was what mattered and gave some inspiration to others to be there as well and perform their duties.  

I adapted to the new world we were confronted with by giving up my daily commute on the subway and biking to work every day, a ride I needed to de-stress and prove to myself that I was still alive and in good health. It was on these bike rides that I thought about how much every little act of kindness to others matters in making the world a better place. That led me to think about how I would be reflecting back on my COVID-19 experience during this year’s High Holy Days. In discussing this with Rabbi Sam, I was reminded of Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance where he writes:

It is, therefore, necessary for every man to behold himself throughout the whole year in a light of being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if evenly balanced between innocence and guilt; thus, if he commit one sin, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of guilt, and be a cause of its destruction; but if he perform one duty, behold, he will overbalance himself and the whole world to the side of virtue, and bring about his own and their salvation… 

When a friend from medical school, Dr. James Mahoney, a pulmonologist at Downstate who was teaching us pediatricians how to take care of adult COVID patients, died in the line of duty from catching coronavirus himself, the grief was both singularly for me and collectively across the hospital extremely palpable and unbearable. I believe that James’ courage and commitment to others is what Maimonides was referring to in overbalancing the whole world to the side of virtue and I dedicate this talk to him.  

The words of Maimonides resonate deeply with me; everything you do and every action you take matters. Whether it is a positive act or a negative act, it all has an impact on the lives of others. This became something immediately and profoundly self-evident for me during the early days of COVID-19. I remind myself of this every day, I teach it to my medical students, I say it to my children and hope that my few words have helped Maimonides’ teaching resonate with all of you as well.   

Thank you. 

© Jeffrey M. Birnbaum 2021

Resistance, Repentance & Responsibility

So, Bert, what HAVE you missed?  

You and I never met in person so I feel like we have a lot of catching up to do. I’m Johnny’s cousin Jeff. We are cousins by way of Johnny’s Grandma Ettie, who was my great-aunt. Although I knew all about the Manzons from my Aunt Ettie, Johnny and I first met at her 90th birthday party. We instantly became family. During Ettie’s final years, and especially during her final days in hospice care, Johnny and I became even closer, bonding over the very special woman who connected us. After all these years of learning about you through Johnny, it’s time you and I got to know each other better. We are more interconnected than I ever realized. I consider you my cousin as well!

So let me tell you a few more things about how we’re connected. In reading “What I Miss?,” I came across a photo in the piece “Being Michael.” The photo had the title “Brothers of Other Countries,” and it had Cary Alan Johnson in it. What a surprise that was! I’ve known Cary since I was 9 years old. My mother, who was white, was a wonderful elementary school teacher, and Cary was the only Black student in her 5th grade class. She took Cary under her wing, seeing that his light, potential, and promise needed a certain kind of nurturing. My brothers and I got to know him when we were all kids. Both Cary and my mother’s love for him made a deep impression on me in my youth. When I got to junior high school, Cary was also enrolled there. He was a bit of a school celebrity, always starring in the school musical productions. He was quite a talented singer and I was quietly proud to have him as my “brother.” Though Cary and I never spoke much, we always said hello and shared the connection of my mother. Even at that age, Cary took his identity very seriously and my mother often talked about the importance of supporting Cary’s exploration of his Blackness. My mother, and my father too it turns out, kept in touch with Cary and his mother well into his adulthood. I’ve kept in touch with Cary all these years as well. I last saw him at my mother’s funeral five years ago and we embraced as brothers mourning the same mother. It’s hard to explain the sense of connectedness I felt with you, Bert, when I saw him in the “Brothers” photo.  

My mother’s relationship with Cary is such a strong example of the impact a teacher can have on a child’s life. I am sure this extends itself to you. The fact that you were a high school teacher at City-As-School, a New York City school that offers students who never fit in at a traditional high school a fighting chance to get a quality education, makes so much sense to me. Here’s where the interconnectedness of things comes up again. When my own son Manny enrolled at City-As-School to finish high school, I told Johnny all about it. Johnny became all animated, telling me about your years as a teacher there. Manny was assigned to your close friend and colleague Ummi Modeste as his college readiness counselor. When Ummi and I discovered the connection between us through you, I regarded her as yet another cousin. Her attention to Manny made a huge difference in his struggles with school and enabled him to start at LaGuardia Community College last fall. The two of them have kept in touch since he graduated, and cousin Ummi will remain part of our family. I wonder how many students you took under your wing and made a difference in their lives by making the light that shined in them burn even brighter.  

I think you’d approve of the life that I’ve lived. I became entwined with HIV from the moment I entered medical school in 1982. We were immediately taught about this mysterious new disease killing young gay men in New York City. It wasn’t even called HIV yet but it was the defining health condition for medical students and residents of that era. Fighting AIDS was more of a calling than a career decision on my part. Fighting complex diseases requires expertise, intelligence, insight and straightforward humanity on the part of the treating physician. No doubt. But at the time, no other disease demanded the level of passion needed for the fight the way AIDS did. Jumping head first into a fight against a disease that had no treatments had great appeal to me. There was a war to be fought out there and I wanted in. I viewed people doing this as “HIV warriors.” It was all about staying and fighting when so many others were afraid to treat AIDS patients.  

Several years later, in 1992, I took on the job of running a clinic for adolescents and young adults both with and at risk for HIV. While I took great pride in having successfully provided care to so many young people over the years, I had a lot to learn. It is with great humility that I have learned so much about Black queerness through my work. While I take care of a diverse group of young people in my clinic, it is through the lives of young Black gay men and transgender women that I have learned the most. I would never have been able to serve these young people in the way that I have without understanding their lives. As a straight, white, Jewish man, I have had to open my mind to the experiences of others which I would not otherwise have known existed had I not chosen this path in life. I needed to see their lives from the inside to be accepted by them as a healer. It was by historical coincidence that I was right there in New York City at the dawn of the AIDS pandemic, and the things I needed to learn surrounded me on every side. It was apparent to me that this was a disease that was spread by social injustice, fear, stigma, racism, homophobia, and inequality in our society. A virus can do as much damage to a weak social order as it can to a weakened immune system.  

Health & Education Alternatives for Teens, or “HEAT,” became and remains more to me than just a clinic and community outreach program for young people. It is a reflection of my personal values, a part of who I am. Not many people in life get to do what I have been able to do through HEAT. HEAT is committed to fighting so many evils in this world, and having created a platform for so many other like-minded people to share in this fight gives me a depth of gratification that is not so easy to describe. Having a sense of purpose in the world makes it much easier to get out of bed in the morning.   

Things have changed over the decades I’ve been in this fight. We started with an untreatable disease called AIDS, which was a death sentence, and now have “a long-term manageable chronic disease caused by HIV.” I use quotes because it is a line I use every day in my work, scripted but true. Bert, I’m sorry you aren’t around to see how things have gotten so much better in treating HIV and AIDS, but I’m sure you’re smiling about the progress wherever you are. Not only are the medications life-saving in the way they stop the virus from doing its damage, but we’ve also learned so much about the impact of stigma, structural racism and the internalized fears of people living with HIV, and how addressing those systematically can make a huge difference in engaging individuals in care and treatment.    

When the newest plague of coronavirus and its acronymic disease COVID-19 descended upon us, it felt natural for me to dive into this fight head first as well. If you’ve spent almost 40 years fighting one pandemic, it is not that much of a stretch to feel you can take on another. “LET’S DO THIS!!!” was how I felt about COVID-19.

This new pandemic had both similarities as well as some stark differences to the previous one. Much like HIV getting nicknames like “the monster” and “the kitty,” the young people I treat immediately started calling coronavirus, “the Rona.”   

Also, we were fighting a virus we had never seen before, striking terror into society at large. We had no treatment and, much like the early days of the AIDS pandemic, it filled hospital wards with the sickest of patients. Although an equal opportunity offender, it disproportionately killed Black people and exposed inequalities in our society. The doctors and nurses treating these patients had little but supportive measures to offer.

I wanted to be a part of this effort so I volunteered to take on additional duties. My hospital was repurposing every unused corner for COVID care. All of our pediatric patients were either transferred to another hospital or sent home to make space, and the hospital redeployed the pediatric inpatient staff — including me — to take care of very sick adult COVID patients.    

Once part of the inpatient team, I offered my perspectives on terminal illness and called families who could not visit their loved ones to give them updates, both good and bad. The experience was otherworldly. While the rest of the planet was being told to stay home and stay at least 6 feet away from people outside their household, the team of ten or so doctors I was assigned to would be doing rounds in a small room, sitting on top of each other, talking about treating a disease we knew nothing about that could kill us in the act of doing so. We were wearing so many layers of gowns, jumpsuits, gloves, masks and face shields that you couldn’t escape how surreal the experience was.   

I have never really considered myself to be a religious person, but COVID-19 may have turned me into one. The many personal experiences I had dealing with suffering and death related to AIDS over the years had already brought me to a certain level of religiosity. But with HIV no longer being perceived as a death sentence, the intensity of treating it has lessened greatly over time. Then COVID-19 was right in my face no matter which direction I turned. It required faith and belief in something. I turned my thoughts inward.  

I spent months thinking about this without speaking to anybody about how I felt. Sure enough, as Yom Kippur was approaching, I was asked by Rabbi Sam at the Kane Street Synagogue to share my thoughts during Yom Kippur services about my experience as a physician who worked as a front-line provider during COVID and the sorry state of the world. This would all take place on Zoom (a video-conference platform that became a household name in 2020). I wrote and rewrote my thoughts to articulate exactly how I felt about the experience. As requested, I prerecorded what I had to say and didn’t watch it again until Yom Kippur. It was devastating for me to hear and watch myself on a screen express my thoughts so publicly. I realize now how deeply and permanently COVID-19 has imprinted itself on me. (Click here for the video, and here for the transcript.)

It is a brave new world we are living in, Bert. I know you have been and are still missed by those whose lives you’ve touched and the people you’ve loved. I’m sure you are missing them too. I’m not sure you really “missed” out as far as COVID-19. I know you certainly didn’t miss the abomination of the Trump presidency, although I’m sure you would have enjoyed joining the resistance against it. What a nightmare! I am really curious to know what you’d have to say about the world today if you saw it.  


© Jeffrey M. Birnbaum 2021

Jeffrey M. Birnbaum<br>
Jeffrey M. Birnbaum

Jeffrey M. Birnbaum, MD, MPH, is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University and currently serves as the Principal Investigator and Executive Director of Health & Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT). HEAT is the only program of its kind in Brooklyn to offer comprehensive medical and mental health care, supportive services, and access to clinical research for HIV+ and at-risk youth, aged 13 to 24. Jeff has built HEAT into a system of care that provides age and developmentally appropriate, culturally competent care for heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are living with or at very high-risk for HIV/AIDS, with a particular focus on serving communities of color.

A pioneer in the realm of transgender health, Jeff has championed the health care needs of young people in the House Ball Community. His leadership in advocating locally and nationally for the health care rights of transgender youth has been recognized with several prominent awards. On World AIDS Day 2009, he accepted an award from New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in recognition of HEAT’s outstanding work with HIV+ adolescents in New York City. In 2012, also in commemoration of World AIDS Day, he received the Linda Laubenstein Award for Excellence in HIV Care by the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute. Jeff was also awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service in 2013.

Since 2005, Jeff has served on the board of Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization which exists to defend the honor of American popular culture through innovative exhibitions and performances. Coney Island USA operates a multi-arts center in a landmark building in the heart of Coney Island in which dwells the Coney Island Museum and the Coney Island Circus Sideshows. One of Coney Island USA’s signature events, the Annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, is one of New York City’s largest parades and draws followers globally. Photo: Justine Cooper

Bert’s Tanka

Iridescent winged _
turquoise sea sapphire sky _
moths flame as night turns
to dawn in the south lands like
one love on your poet’s tongue…

With love…

© Gale Jackson 2021

Gale Jackson
Gale Jackson

Poet, writer, storyteller, cultural historian, interdisciplinary humanities scholar and librarian, Gale Jackson is the author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance (UNP); MeDea A Novella (Glad Day); Suite for Mozambique (Ikon); Bridge Suite: Narrative Poems Based on the Lives of African and African American Women in the Early History of These New Black Nations; and A Khoisan Tale of Beginnings and Ends (Storm Imprints). Her work has been performed, exhibited, presented and anthologized widely in publications including The African American Review; Freedomways; The Journal of Black Studies; American Voices; Callaloo; Tribes; Artist and Influence, Ploughshares, and Essence. She is a contributing writer to The A-Line; editor of Collaborative Voice: Art in a War Time anthology (CollaborativeVoice@Goddard.edu), and co-edited Art Against Apartheid: Voices for Freedom. She facilitates the Ehecatl Olin Learning Studio and The Poet in the House Collaborative with New York City students, serves as a professor on the graduate faculties of Interdisciplinary Arts and Education at Goddard College, and has been awarded an NEH fellowship for her work in griot traditions. Photo: Shelia “Chela” Anozier

Healing Our Founding Pandemic

As virus panic mounted in the United States, I was already researching the psychic and actual sickness that came with the Mayflower four hundred years ago. Appalled to find myself descended from six of its passengers in a year when big celebrations were planned, I wanted Americans to see our history through the lens of disease. A full ninety percent of the Indigenous Wampanoag people had died from European illnesses even before the ship landed—and our founders themselves faced a deadly mortality crisis. I also knew that healing was possible, even now. Then one morning it became a story.

There they were, ancestors from four hundred years ago, on a zoom call. Four boxes, gallery style on my screen, each with a family name in the lower left corner. Tilley—an older mother and father with their young daughter. Rogers—an older father and teenage son. Howland—a young man on his own. And me, in my eighties but twelve generations younger. They were calling to see how I was doing in the pandemic. 

Unmuted, we chatted excitedly. “I’m amazed to see your faces at last,” I said. There was no photography in their time and even now the light around them was dim, and the men’s facial hair obscured their features. I hoped my uneasiness about being a Mayflower descendant wasn’t showing through.

“We are curious to see YOU, Daughter,” one of the older men answered. “We have wondered which one of you was thinking about us. It means a lot here.” I struggled with the intonations in the older English and hoped I hadn’t offended with my critical thoughts. But they wanted news of our family in the crisis. I told them about my 97-year-old uncle and the zoom birthday party with my sister’s grandchildren. 

After the first flurry of conversation, it seemed like a time to ask one of the big questions that had troubled me in my research. “Dear Relatives,” I began, “you also went through a time of sickness and death. I’ve been trying to imagine what that was like for you. Elizabeth, you lost both your parents.” I looked hard at her family on the screen: John and Joan Tilley were around fifty, Elizabeth only thirteen. “And Joseph, you lost your father.” I watched the younger man draw closer to Thomas Rogers. “Half of the ‘first comers,’ dead in a few months. I can hardly imagine that level of loss. Please tell me how it was for you.” I had weightier questions to ask, but I wanted to understand their pain first.

Their stories began to pour out, first John Howland’s. At twenty-eight he’d taken ship as indentured servant to another passenger and looked strong and in good health. “It will be hard for you to picture, Cousin,” he said. “Your world has so many protections from sickness and death. We had nothing. No Lysol, no ventilators, no masks, and very little food. Less understanding of disease than your people have. It was the beginning of a winter much colder than we were used to and we were coming off a difficult voyage with no shelter on land. Almost 150 people were crowded onto a ship just 100 feet long and losing its caulking. Sea-water came in everywhere. Even our bunks were damp and cold. Many had scurvy from sea rations with no fresh foods. As you know we were blown off course, hundreds of miles north of our destination, and decided to settle near Cape Cod, but many were sick. We called it ‘the general sickness’ or ‘distemper.’ Your people say it was a mix of scurvy, tuberculosis, and viruses like flu and pneumonia. Our immune systems were weak from the rough voyage.”

As my relative spoke, I could feel the discomfort and sickness of the Mayflower in my bones, more than ever in all my reading. The close quarters, stressed immune systems, lack of good information, and uncertainty about the future all struck a chord with our times. I wanted to ask how they’d dealt with the emotional side of it, but others chimed in. Father and son whispered in the Rogers’ corner and young Joseph spoke. “Dear Relative,” he said looking into space as if his gaze could penetrate all the way to my living room. “It was very, very hard. I was eighteen, the only family member traveling with him.” He turned to the man beside him. “My father died in February, in what they called ‘the first sickness,’ the first wave, while we were still sheltering on the ship.” “Waves of disease,” “sheltering”—it all sounded so familiar. 

The screen was quiet for a long while before I heard the girl’s voice—Elizabeth Tilley. “I was thirteen that year,” she began, “and it was very hard for me too. My uncle and aunt both died on board in the second wave and then, when we finally went ashore in the spring, my dear parents John and Joan Tilley died too. The winter made it much harder for the older ones. I was left alone in this place, with no family.”

A roaring sound arose at that moment, some kind of zoom static. I heard the voice of William Bradford, later governor of the colony, speaking words that have become famous: “They die sometimes two or three a day,” he intoned, “the living scarce able to bury the dead, the well not sufficient to tend the sick.” I shuddered, thinking of endangered medics around the world today.

Then Elizabeth’s fresh young voice again, her parents nodding agreement as she spoke. “This is why we wanted to be in touch with you, dear Relative. We know your people fear this same kind of collapse—that the caregivers will not be strong enough, that many will die without spiritual assistance. That is the kind of panic we felt. We are concerned that this fear is bred into you somehow, into your bones.” 

“Yes, Daughter,” her mother broke in, “we think the fear may be unhealed suffering you inherited from us. We are here to help you release it.”

Hands on my heart, I looked back across the years at the six of them. “Dear Family,” I heard my voice tremble with emotion, “it is healing already to hear your words. I’ve wondered whether our suffering is some replay of what you felt, even though our situation is so much milder. We fear the very scenes you describe. And our scientists tell us now that trauma like yours becomes embedded in what they call our DNA. Some say we can release it from our bodies if we acknowledge our feelings—no matter how painful. To think that you have come to help us do this! Dear Relatives, I am so moved by your understanding and care for us.” 

I might have stopped there, but my heart was urging a deeper question. “Can you tell me more about your emotions and how you dealt with them? Were you able to grieve? Knowing this could help us a lot.”

The screen was silent for a very long time, and I remembered that Puritans were known for suppressing emotion. Finally John Tilley spoke, one of the elders on the call. “Daughter,” he said sadly, “We couldn’t do anything like that. We thought we had to stay strong. No matter how many of us died, we wanted to believe we were God’s chosen people, destined to make a home in this new land. We had to numb ourselves to the fear and the grief.”  

There was a murmur from his wife that I couldn’t hear, and he added, “Our spiritual leaders told us the only way we could get through this was not to break. Sadness and grieving over death was to question God’s will. It was something the Pagans and Savages did—not ourselves. Our people were called to hold fast against grief.”

“Oh my God,” I burst out, forgetting who I was talking to. “I don’t mean to offend,” I continued, “but we are learning that expressing grief is necessary—the only way to honor the pain and protect ourselves from this inherited trauma you spoke of. For most in our culture today, grief is still suppressed.”

Joan’s voice floated into the mix with words from the New Testament: “’Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Our hearts knew these things, Daughter, but we were unable to practice them.” Then a sweet silence.

“Could we do it together, dear Family?” I said impulsively. “Just let it out, whatever way seems natural?” It wasn’t the kind of thing you say to your Puritan ancestors, but already the sobs were welling up in my own throat and I let them come rumbling out, choking and gasping, moving my body as it seemed to want. Sobbing out all the bottled up fear, sadness, anger, and horror that had not been spoken for four hundred years, for all the violent ways we had displaced our trauma onto others, and for all the fear, suffering and death happening around me now. For those crowded together without food or clean water under freeways, in prisons, bombed-out cities, and locked-down borders.  

My own sobs were so loud they drowned out the others—that’s how sound works on zoom. But I could tell I wasn’t sobbing alone. Looking up at the screen, I saw each of those bodies bending and shaking in grief. It had been terrible to be stuck that way in fear and loss, and for so many loved ones to die. My relatives seemed aware of all the suffering that had stemmed from theirs. I felt my common ground with these first comers who had finally shared their grief with me. At last my heart warmed to them, and as our sobbing calmed, I knew it was time for the much bigger question I needed to ask. 

“Dear Family,” I began with some hesitation, “there’s something more I hope we can grieve.” I took a long breath and let it out slowly to calm my heart. A deep wrong had troubled me most of my life. The six of them looked at me in that strange way that happens on zoom—everyone’s eyes trained in a slightly different direction. Elizabeth and her parents held each other. Joseph leaned close to his father. John Howland sat alone in his frame and I stumbled on with my question.

“Most Americans know little about your deaths on the Mayflower, but even less about the terrifying epidemic that hit the Indigenous people before you arrived—far more lethal than our pandemic today. Descendants of survivors tell of a mysterious “great dying” that killed 90% of the coastal people, even before you came ashore. Beneath your own fear and grief, you must have felt the impact of their deaths too. How was that for you?” I took another deep breath, knowing this could be challenging for them. “Did you feel the pain of these fellow humans?”

Again the screen was quiet and I hoped I had not gone too far. John Howland broke the silence. In a few years, he would marry Elizabeth and both would live into their 80s with ten children and 88 grandchildren. Genealogists estimate ten million descendants. “Your information is accurate, Cousin,” he said quietly. “I was one of those sent out in a small boat to choose a site for our settlement. Storm winds blew us into Plymouth Harbor, where a village called Pahtuksut lay in ruins—beautiful corn and pumpkin fields with little pine trees starting to grow back. As we walked the land looking for water sources, we found the mounds of many graves. Elder Rogers can tell you more, as he was also with us.”

My eyes shifted to Thomas. “Yes, Daughter,” he began. “It’s good you ask about this part of the story. Before we got to Plymouth Harbor, our people spent a month exploring the outer regions of Cape Cod. Our own dying times had not really begun. Though we’d lost a few to sickness on our voyage, we had no idea what was coming. Just imagine what it was like ashore, feeling the strange earth under our feet as we made our way through the sandy woods of the outer Cape. Trying to sense the lay of the land and wondering when we would meet the savage people we had been told were all around us. As you know, European trading ships had plied this coastline for ten years, circulating reports back home. Even though we hadn’t planned to come this far north, we knew of massive illness in these parts the past several years. We didn’t know the diseases were of European origin and contact with us was spreading them. Reports told of empty villages with piles of human bones, unburied and unsanctified in the rapid onset of sickness.” I thought of the ‘makeshift morgues’ in today’s pandemic. “We didn’t see piles of bones, Daughter. Only clusters of abandoned bark houses and mounds of fresh graves. I felt a tingling in my very flesh to see how many had died here. After passing many graves, we came to one that looked so unusual we found ourselves opening it.”

I gasped, and Thomas must have heard me because he stopped to explain. “Yes, Daughter,” he continued. “The act feels wrong to us from where we are now. With the other graves, we’d felt respect and awe for the sheer fact of so much death. But with this one, some strange energy rose in us. We were not ourselves.” There was a stirring in John Howland’s quadrant as he nodded agreement. “We touched the bodies,” Rogers continued, shuddering. “We even took artwork from the mound back to our ship, the ‘prettiest things’ someone called them. We found ears of corn buried too—beautiful blue and rose-colored and ivory—and took them too. Now we know that corn was seed for the survivors’ crops or food for the journey of the dead. Our theft likely prevented them from reaching the place of their ancestors.”

He paused, bending forward as a wave of emotion passed through him, but John Howland took up the narrative. “Thomas speaks truly, Cousin. We violated a grave and stole corn—completely against our spiritual principles. And we exchanged fire with Natives at one point. We justified these things with a story our leaders began to weave after we reached the empty village near Plymouth Harbor. ‘God promised us this homeland as He did the ancient Israelites. He’d cleared the land of savages through this dreadful pestilence.’ This was wrong thinking.” He paused for a moment, bowing his head as I sat spellbound to hear him speak so critically of his own beliefs. “Throughout the ordeal of settlement, we held tightly to that story. It became our foundation, explaining our title to this land and why we could steal and kill for it.” He paused again. “Most of our descendants still feel this entitlement, dear Cousin. Most are frozen numb in it, unable to feel grief for these deaths or the four centuries of killing that followed—the burning of villages, our quest to wipe out a whole population we saw as ‘savage.’ There is a terrifying word in your language for it now—‘genocide.’ We have not been able to grieve this action or forgive ourselves, and we need your help.”

Hands on my heart again, I looked slowly around the screen for confirmation. All six ancestors were nodding agreement. My head spun with the implications. It sounded like they wanted us to change our founding legacy—or what we had thought was that legacy. Malidoma Somé had been right about ancestors—once they leave the earthly world, their vision clears. They see the harm they caused and yearn to repair it, to restore the balance they disrupted. They’re ready to acknowledge, restore and repair, but can’t do this without the help of their living descendants. And most of us are still stuck in false stories, unable to assist. 

Now it was Joan Tilley who spoke. She hadn’t lived to see how their early relationship with the Wampanoag people near Pahtuksut would deteriorate into distrust and warfare, how her descendants would want more for themselves and use the land in ways that harmed its delicate balance. “No one of us on this call personally caused the disaster,” she began. “But we all share the misguided mind that came from Europe. We thought we were separate from, wiser than, this land and the other humans here. Our ideas have led to sickness and distress for you now, your loss of connection to the earth. All of us who share this mind of entitlement are accountable. From our side, we stand ready to help our living descendants do what is needed to restore the balance.” A general murmuring of agreement rose from the others.

I looked at Joan, marveling at her freedom to speak while our male relatives listened with attention. It hadn’t been so in her day. “Thank you dear Family,” I said, “Restoration and repair will mean a big shift in consciousness for us—and maybe the pandemic will help. It is teaching many of us to deepen our relationship to life on earth and learn the Indigenous version of this history. But at the same time, our leaders are exploiting the turmoil, taking even more land and autonomy from the First People. Just recently officials used the courts to take land from the very Wampanoag people we’ve been talking about. The Wampanoag are responding, as other tribes face renewed attempts to build oil pipelines through their remote communities—bringing infection like the trading ships did. There are many actions we can take as citizens to stand with them.” I paused for breath because I knew of some remarkable healing initiatives underway as the Mayflower commemoration drew closer, but the ancestors on my screen had something of their own in mind.

Several of them started to speak at once. Then the noise of voices fell away and I heard Thomas Rogers say four words, “Grieve, apologize, repair, forgive. This is how we hope our descendants will commemorate Mayflower history, Daughter. Go deeply into your grief for the harm we initiated. It is our grief too—we welcome the tears we could not shed in our lifetimes. We need release from the stuck suffering—as you do too. Acknowledge, offer apology for all you have gained from our misdoings. Make your apologies public, share them widely, and find ways to give back. Please understand that to move forward without shame, you will need to forgive yourselves and your ancestors. Already some First People are responding to apology with forgiveness for the most heinous acts of this history. We hope for our sakes, yours, and our entire earth system that you can live into this vision.”

I was sobbing gently now, with something like relief, for this seemed the kind of deep change we could make as the pandemic opened our hearts. Where I had once felt loathing and even shame, I now felt love for these six people who had come to share their need for healing with me. “Thank you, dear Relatives,” I said, reaching toward them on the screen. Alas, I must have clicked an unfamiliar zoom signal. All of a sudden, with a “bing,” their faces faded into bright light that hurt my eyes. Zoom had cut us off, with no link to get back. But we had connected at a deeper frequency than zoom, and I knew they would be around to help.

© Louise Dunlap 2020

Louise Dunlap
Louise Dunlap

Louise Dunlap is a writer, Buddhist practitioner and active elder living in a place once known to the Ohlone people as Huichuin (now Oakland, California). She knows B.Michael only through this website but feels a deep connection across time and space and into the spirit world. Back when B.Michael was teaching, she was also an activist teacher—in the Boston area at MIT and with communities of resistance. In the years leading up to 1992—like B.Michael—she worked to counter the colonialist narratives around the Columbus quincentenary. Her forthcoming book, Inherited Silence, looks at her ancestors’ role in colonization of the continent and how descendants, ancestors, and our country can heal. It’s an honor for her to contribute a story to What I Miss? Learn more at www.louisedunlap.net. Photo: Skip Schiel

Being Michael

B.Michael Hunter considered himself a poet long before he came out as a writer. In 1970, he wrote his first poem, “My Problem,” at age 12. At 17, he wrote a poem for his mother, who would be his muse at different points over the next two decades. “Writing poetry” appears among his hobbies on college applications and, later, as part of his Personal Profile on his résumé.

As he explained to a publisher in 1991, he would claim the stylizing of his writer’s name with intention:

Please note I deliberately do not put a space between the period and M when I write B.Michael Hunter. Michael is the name which my family uses when they refer to me. I am trying to “Be” Michael when I write. Namely to be more natural / true / childlike / innocent / real.

Brothers of Other Countries: (L-R) Cary Alan Johnson, Colin Robinson, Olubode Brown, B.Michael Hunter, Donald Woods

B.Michael wrestled with “being Michael” in his life, aware of the pressures and limitations he perceived early on, particularly as a Black Gay man. In his essay, I’ve Come Here to Die, B.Michael is introspective about the challenges in fully embracing his creative sensibilities:

I have always wanted to teach, to dance, to act in the theater, and to write. But these were things that “faggots” did. And I was not a faggot. So I chose careers that were strong, tough, and highly principled, like accounting, law, and computer sales, professions you might identify with your father. In fact, people relied on me and I was very comfortable in the role of provider. In turn, I was rewarded with a career and incredible security. I wanted to be a respectable man in a respected profession.

As an undergraduate at Adelphi University, B.Michael took advantage of the range of extracurricular offerings. He would befriend classmates who were steeped in the arts and engaged politically. He saw how being in decision-making roles influenced the flow of resources. He stepped into leadership positions in student government and helped decide who came to lecture and perform on campus. With a keen commitment to uplifting the experience of African-American students, he co-hosted the radio program “The Black Reflections” on WBAU, chaired the Black Student Union, and pledged the local chapter of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, serving as historian, dean of pledges, and president. In 1980, he spent a life-changing summer in Kenya, which he wrote about in his essay on Operation Crossroads Africa

After Adelphi, he moved to Boston to attend law school at Northeastern University, where he was exposed to legal writing and further developed as a critical thinker. B.Michael was the first in his extended family to pursue a post-undergraduate degree. Included in this collection is a paper he wrote in 1983 on the compelling topic of “Homosexuality and The Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

Upon graduation, he was recruited by IBM and excelled in the realm of sales and marketing. With a steady corporate salary, he supported the arts as a donor. He was also that beloved uncle, brother, cousin, godfather who made sure to expose his younger relations to the worlds of music, theater, dance, and film and the likes of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Then in 1986, a turning point for B.Michael, thanks to Sheilah Mabry, his beloved Bisexual cousin and roommate for a time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who “introduced me to the work of Kate Rushin, Lorraine Bethel, and Audre Lorde, as well as Joseph Beam’s Black Gay anthology In the Life. I met many of my closest New York friends as a result of Joe Beam’s book.” B.Michael wrote these lines in “Cousins,” a collaborative piece with Sheilah about their journey toward healing in their extended family of origin.

The following year, after effecting a transfer to IBM’s midtown Manhattan office, B.Michael discovered Other Countries, a New York City-based collective of Black Gay writers. He might say that writing broke him open, and the communities he found as a result saved his life. He was emboldened and inspired by fellow Black Gay men who threw down artful, dramatic, and raw. A participant in the Other Countries weekly writing workshop, he found siblings who provided him a channel for authentic and vulnerable self-expression. Over time, he would gain confidence reading his own work at open mics and stage performances.

B.Michael’s name appears as marketing and finance committee chair on the masthead for Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, its first volume published in spring 1988. It was no coincidence that, by September 1989, after five-and-a-half years with the company, he left IBM in order to deepen his quest to “be Michael” and pursue a life with more truth and realness. His next chapter consisted of exploring jobs with nonprofit agencies and academic institutions, before realizing his dream of teaching at a public high school.

His experience with Other Countries and organizations like Gay Men of African Descent, which he joined around the same time, led him to organize more intentionally in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People of Color spaces. His contributions to cross-movement work were considerable. Leveraging his training in finance, law, and sales and marketing, he was intrepid with bylaws, budgets and fund development strategies. He had a head for navigating systems and skill in managing group processes. B.Michael could chair a meeting like nobody’s business, and keep a classroom engaged and on task.

I first met B.Michael in 1990 at a community meeting to determine the order of People of Color contingents participating in the New York City Pride March that June. I recall his efficiency in facilitating the agenda; he also stressed the importance of recruiting and training enough volunteer marshals along the parade route to ensure that our communities were safe as well as visible. In other words, he understood that the river’s banks were just as important as the river’s flow. He got shit done, he made infrastructure sexy.

In 1992, he took up the role of managing editor of Other Countries’ second volume, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. This journal won a Lambda Literary Award in the category of Small Press Book Award, about which he was exceedingly proud. In Sojourner’s Introduction, B.Michael disclosed for the first time his HIV-positive status, which he had learned just months prior. For him, his determination to see the project through — during which time Black Gay men he knew personally became ill or died — was more potent than any cocktail of antiviral medications.

B.Michael wrote about the things that shaped him: love and trauma, a complicated relationship with his mother, family life growing up in Spanish Harlem, navigating being a Black Gay man in the U.S., self-care decisions as a person living with HIV, injustice, joy and rage, sex and relationships, activism, and more. As his friend, poet Donald Woods opined about the power of writing, which was increasing true for B.Michael: “Wherever you land your sea-tossed vessel is a strategic location.”

He ended up embracing writing as a critical tool in education. He was thrilled to discover Andover Bread Loaf, a summer program designed to bring creative writing to teachers, and ultimately, for him, to the inner-city young people in his high school classrooms. Like Other Countries, this experience offered B.Michael a unique opportunity to hone his writing craft while further integrating different parts of himself. A number of poems included here emerged from those Bread Loaf summers spent alongside his fellow teacher and cherished sister-friend, Ummi Modeste. He was about democratizing writing as technology, as healing balm and, as he would often quote, “passing on to others that which was passed on to me,” a line from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

B.Michael’s writing appears in chronological order. Thirty-two poems and 11 essays and other pieces in all, most of which were written during the late ’80s and ’90s.

Various contributors to this anthology reference his work. Jacquie Bishop in her short story mentions the enduring impact of his poem, “When Mommy Breaks Down.” And Robert E. Penn, at the launch event for Voices Rising, Other Countries’ third journal in 2007, lifted up “Bridgetown”

It is my favorite B.Michael Hunter poem. The narrator, swimming off the coast of Barbados, suddenly gets tired. He goes under: once, twice, three times. Just when he believes all is lost, he sees a black man tossing a life preserver to him. His mind hesitates, but his body grabs hold. Once pulled ashore, catching his breath, the storyteller admits, “I didn’t think a black man could save my life.”

It sent and still sends chills through my body. In the closely knit, God-fearing, upstanding, self-righteous Black community, I often felt a black man rebuke me, deny me, make fun of me or abuse me. I never thought a black man would want to save my life.

B.Michael’s literary bones had been resting in the sediment of some 70-odd stored file boxes. And even just a few months before publishing What I Miss?, I unearthed a handful of poems from notebooks I had not previously opened. Clearly they weren’t meant to be seen until now. Like cicada nymphs, his writing was hibernating underground for almost two decades before finally bursting out here in a dazzling brood.

Poet Colin Robinson writes about remembering as excavating grief. Archaeology requires time, care, and patience.

Johnny Manzon-Santos
11 November 2019

Tribute to B.Michael (aka Bert) Hunter

I had the pleasure and honor to meet you in June 1994 during my visit to New York City. You and John Manzon were so very kind and gracious to let me stay with them for a few days while I was attending the National Gay and Lesbian Health Conference and the historic Stonewall 25th Anniversary LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration.

Since you passed away in 2001, you missed the emergence of the transgender community becoming more visible within the LGBT and mainstream communities. The transgender community can be inspired by the timeless African American National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which resonates with me because this song reflects inclusion, visibility, civil rights advocacy and activism, and lends a voice to underserved people or others who have been or are currently ignored and disrespected by society.

I am honored to contribute some of my creativity to this project. More and more transgender artists are sharing their talents with the world through live and recorded performances, social and print media, television, radio, and other formats. Please enjoy my piano performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lyrics by James Weldon Johnson
Music by John Rosamond Johnson

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Paula Santos
Paula Santos

Paula Santos is a social worker, public health scholar, LGBT and people of color activist, musician, figure skater, gymnast, dancer, baton twirler, writer, and tech geek. Connect with Paula on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and on her Figure Skating and Piano YouTube channels. Photo: Harold Johnsen

Meeting in Clouds, thinking ∞G might reach you

Dear Bert,

I remember the last time you called me. It was 1999 or 2000. Your T-cell count had fallen to a dangerously low level and your doctor had again suggested that you take medication that could possibly keep you from developing full-blown AIDS. Several promising options had been tested and proven to be effective at controlling the replication and spread of the virus once it was inside an HIV+ person. You were aware one of several Highly Active Antiretroviral Treatment (HAART) regimens, combinations of medications commonly referred to as “drug cocktails,” could slow or stop HIV from overwhelming your immune system, but you were also concerned that since you’d lived so long without taking medications that the sudden about-face might do more harm than good. Was one right for you?

We met. You asked about my experience with HIV medications. I shared my medical history with various treatments, such as AZT, an early protease inhibitor Norvir, and several combination therapies my doctor had prescribed since 1996. While AZT had proved worthless, at best, the others had increased my T-cell count and nearly stopped “my viral load” to a clinically undetectable level. I could only suggest the same process I’d used: be your own best advocate, research all the available medical and alternative treatments, and make well-informed treatment decisions. We both knew that no one could say if a HAART that worked for me or another person living with AIDS (PLA) would work for you, or for how long. You left our meeting undecided, but later I learned that you’d started a HAART; that it seemed to have shocked your system and inadvertently accelerated your demise.

Did you ask, “What I miss?” Lemme tell ya.

First and foremost, because the last thing we discussed was HIV/AIDS, I’m sorry that the HAART you tried was fatal. However, it may console you to know that some NYC gay men who were infected with HIV in the early to mid-1980s continue to thrive today. Some are rare “non- or slow-progressors” whose ability to cope with HIV invasion and/or seeming immunity provides hope: If medical science can isolate the cause of their survival, they could find a cure or, at least, an inoculation. Most of us long-term survivors benefit from treatments that didn’t exist when you died in early 2001.

The current state-of-the-art anti-HIV medical treatment is a once daily, fixed-dose, multiple-drug, single pill HAART! One pill containing 24-hour doses of four anti-HIV medications effectively stops HIV replication, thereby extending the lives of people living with AIDS (PLAs) for years. In addition, the single-pill formulation means PLAs don’t have to leave home with a backpack full of anti-HIV meds. My doctors prescribed a single pill HAART in 2014 after a decade of taking multiple pills at different intervals throughout each day. My viral load was already clinically undetectable, which means no disease progression, and the single-pill kept the viral presence in my blood so low that labs couldn’t find it. I had expected the convenient one-pill HAART to keep my viral load down. I also got an immediate and unexpected benefit. Taking the four-drugs-in-one pill once daily in the morning reduced my PLA depression and fear, and gave me hope. I rarely curse my medicine cabinet anymore because the single-pill relief continues to this day. I wish you could have experienced this feeling. I miss you and hate the fact that modern medicine didn’t advance quickly enough in the right directions to extend your life.

I’m sure you’ll want to know what children and “the children” are doing these days because that would make you a more effective teacher and community organizer. Here’s an example. The other night I binge-watched a season of a new release on Netflix. That sentence meant nothing during your lifetime when the only seasons you could watch in one sitting were reruns on tape or DVD. Today people take the existence of Internet broadcasters like Netflix for granted. People expect constant access at home and on the go, and subscribe for access to Internet entertainment and sports. A viewer can watch all the episodes of a new season in a single day. That’s “binge-watching.” It’s only one example of the high tech activity made possible by several digital advances, such as, smartphones – 5-ounce hand-held computerized communication devices, high-speed Internet service, wireless private networks, and high-speed mobile phone connectivity. Internet service is now available to Wi-Fi devices on every continent at every socio-economic level.

These developments have accelerated the dissemination of non-conventional points of view across the world and have had a direct impact on Other Countries, Black Gay Expression. Our NYC creative collaborative established by and for Black gay men in 1987 to tell our stories celebrated 30 years in 2017, but our membership has dwindled steadily due to AIDS deaths, member relocation and a wide-spread changing sense of urgency for Black gay men to gather and support each other. We failed to attract significant numbers of younger Black same gender loving writers to our group and could no longer afford the rent at The Center. However, several of us wanted to continue meeting, to critique, to use our shared interest in creative expression from our many Black LGBTQI+ points of view and to sustain each other. Thanks to widespread cheap or free video-conferencing portals, Other Countries moved its workshop to the World Wide Web in January 2014.

I wish you were here. It would be great to see your headshot on my laptop screen beside the others on our Other Countries Virtual Workshop. I’d like to read your new work, hear your critiques and share some shade and more laughs with you. Moreover, I want your voice back in the struggle for equality for People of Color and LGBTQI+ Rights in the U.S.A., and the world. 

With Love, Respect and Acceptance,


© Robert E. Penn 2019

<strong>Robert E. Penn, Jr.</strong>
Robert E. Penn, Jr.

Robert E. Penn, Jr. is a New York City-based writer, digital filmmaker and producer. His fiction and non-fiction appear in magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Voices Rising, Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, and Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. His digital films include public service announcements, documentaries, projection design and ephemeral video remixes.

Robert is currently completing a novel that chronicles the life of a brown girl who survives U.S. border family separation, and also developing a film/TV series based on a West African legend. Photo: Michael Cho, CHO Media

I Missed You

More than these bodies
Connects us

Words seem inadequate
To capture
What is
Between us

Somehow I miss you
Even though
We never met
We never were
We are nonetheless

In between
Lies the distance between
Life and death
Black and white
Queer and trans
One generation
And another

For something more
Than words
To tell us
How different we are
How much the same

Our lives have been woven together
From a distance
Through the body of another
Through the echoes of love
And of loss

Enduring connection
Shared hope
Community emerging
From beyond either
Of us

What did you miss?
You missed me
Missing you
But I will remember
With gratitude

© Chris Paige 2019

Mx Chris Paige
Mx Chris Paige

Mx Chris Paige is an OtherWise-identified writer, educator, organizer, and coach, who authored OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation. Chris was founding executive director of Transfaith (http://www.transfaith.info), a multi-tradition, multi-racial, multi-gender advocacy organization by and for people of transgender experience. Chris continues as operations director for Transfaith and Dean of the Transfaith Institute. They have also launched OtherWise Engaged Publishing, where they provide a platform for prophetic, transgender, intersex, and OtherWise voices. Chris has been a catalyst and/or contributor to several other ground-breaking projects for and by transgender faith leaders. Previously, Chris had been publisher and co-director of the (now defunct) award-winning progressive Christian magazine, The Other Side. Photo: Dezjorn Gauthier

With Whom Will I Teach The Children?

For Bertram Michael Hunter: Teacher, Colleague, Brother

I keep thinking I hear your voice in this place —
Not words, exactly, but the resonance that is exclusively yours here.
I always know when you’re around a corner or on the next flight of stairs,
Because I can hear your bass booming in conversation.
It doesn’t matter how quietly you think you’re speaking,
I always know you’re there …

But now you’re not
And I miss you indescribably.
The kids miss you, too;
they ask for you every day.

Because you respect them
Because you challenge them
Because you listen to them
Because you won’t take their nonsense.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

Grading the history tests made me cry.
Everyone thought it was because our students did so poorly.
It was that, too, but really, I was missing you.
Your humor
Your honor
Your power
Your integrity in the face of a system that totally lacks it.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back…
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

I keep thinking I hear you calling me, “Ummi, is that you?”
Reading me, “Don’t even try it, Miss Honey-One.”
Encouraging me, “OK, Miss-get-her-Masters-go-right-back-to-school-with-a-baby-to-take-care-of-and-gotta-get-all-A’s!”
Teasing me, “G’head and work that second job, girl.”

Again and again, the students say,
“I’m doing this because Bert told me to, that’s why.”
‘Nuff said.
They quote you like World Book, Wikipedia and their favorite rap artists.
They look to you for guidance and a reflection of themselves.
They see you as hope for what they might become.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

R. Ummi Modeste

© R. Ummi Modeste 2019

<strong>Rhea Ummi Modeste</strong>
Rhea Ummi Modeste

R. Ummi Modeste is proud to be both a native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of the same New York City public school system in which she now teaches. Ummi is a college advisor and teacher at City-As-School High School, a unique alternative high school. She is an alumna of LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts, Performing Arts Division, where she majored in Drama. Ummi earned her BA from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY, her MSEd from Hunter College in Manhattan and completed the American Sign Language/English Interpreter Education Program at LaGuardia Community College with a 4.0 GPA. Ever the student, Ummi recently earned a second Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services/American Sign Language Interpreting from Empire State College of the State University of New York, where she is also an adjunct professor of educational studies.

In addition to her full-time job at City-As-School, Ummi is an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network, an international group of teachers who strive to provide innovative and engaging ways for their students to become stronger readers and writers. Every summer, she is one of the facilitators of the Andover Breadloaf Writing Workshop (ABL), a two-week professional development workshop held in Andover, MA, that focuses on social justice work through literacy. The program helps urban teachers find the writers within themselves, in order to do the same for their students. Concurrent with the teachers’ workshop, ABL also hosts a workshop for students from the neighboring school district in Lawrence, MA, where the majority of ABL teachers are based. ABL teachers are proud to have breathed new life into that struggling school district. ABL provides professional development for teachers and workshops for students in cities all over the US and has also held international conferences for teachers and students in Karachi, Pakistan; Nairobi, Kenya; and most recently, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. 

A founding member of the group, East Brooklyn Poets (EBP), Ummi seeks to create opportunities for herself and her friends to grow in their own creativity and share it with others. EBP has performed in Brooklyn, Harlem, Lawrence and Andover. Its members are always looking for a chance to facilitate workshops, coach other performers and work with young writers. She gives honor to the memory of fellow founding members and dear friends, Tray Jackson and Keith “Just Sayin” Richards.

During the solitary time created by the COVID shutdown, Ummi published her first book, Because I Knew, an anthology of poems written over the course of many years. In it she reflects on her identity as a Black woman, a mother and a child of the Diaspora. Because I Knew is published by Muse City Press, and is available through The Book Patch Bookstore.

Ummi is the last of four children; her sister Wendi Alexis Modeste was an internationally recognized speaker on behalf of People Living With AIDS/HIV; her brother Keith is a retired stagehand and gifted photographer; brother Leon Adrian is a veteran coach, teacher and recently retired athletic director at Phillips Academy in Andover. Ummi’s mother, Daisy R. Modeste, was also an educator until the day she died, and her father, Leon E. Modeste, MSW, became a college professor at Albany State University (ASU) in Albany, GA, after retiring from many years of social justice work at The New York Diocese of the Episcopal Church, Manpower Foundation and The Urban League. He retired from ASU in 2009 at age 83, but continued to be a voice for social justice reform in Albany until his illness and death in 2017 at age 91.

Ummi is proud to be the mom of her daughter, Adunni, second mom to her “bonus baby”, her son, Tarence, loving mother-in-law of Jean Marie and Grammie to Nasir and Skyler. Photo: Melissa Beech