Here at the Mecca, under pain of selection, we have made a home. As do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded as survivors of catastrophe. As do black people toasting their cognac and German beers, passing their blunts and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon the shores.– Ta–Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I just finished Ta–Nehisi Coates’ brilliant letter to his son. “I write you in your 15th year”, he says. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. ..I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” I have only read this book once, and I know I will read it again; it is beautifully written and full of passionate insights. And it got me thinking about the black power movement that so deeply affected me in my late teens and twenties, and my first exposure to this movement, which arrived in a circuitous fashion that was quite personal.
In my freshman year of college, I was invited to join a sorority in which I was the only Jew. I discovered this fact when I was told, “You don’t look Jewish”, as if that were a compliment. For the first time, I felt that faintly uncomfortable sense of tokenism, knowing somehow that I was representing “my people”, but only because I fit in to “their” world. I’m sure that my response at the time was to smile, because I had been socialized that way. Perhaps it was a confused smile that attempted to cover up any latent anger doused with gratefulness for being accepted in this upper-class bastion where I did not belong. I continued to hang out with friends from my freshman dorm who had also joined the sorority, creating a transition to this new world as I walked a tight rope of social acceptance, wearing outside markers of belonging, with long flowing straight hair, short skirts and hip boots with heels. It all seemed so “natural”.
The sorority was housed in a giant mansion where we “sisters” were invited to partake in formal dinners served by young college students whose lower class brought them to their jobs as “houseboys”, young men who were not allowed to enter through the front door, but came to work instead through the kitchen in the back of the house. This was not the South, as you might be imagining. This was Syracuse, New York in 1968. Meanwhile, I was having fun with my old friends from the dorm who had joined the sorority, and was excited about the prospect of sisterhood. Only occasionally was I feeling pangs of dissonance, despite my excitement about feeling welcomed. My parallel passion was dance, “my true home”, and I had jumped head first into the Dance Club at my university, because there was no dance major in those days. It was there that I found the greatest solace and a full spectrum of kindred spirits. The world of dance was a place that had always felt like home.
After my first summer break, when I came back to college, I arrived at my new dorm excited to see my friends, and discovered that all of my friends from the sorority had moved into “the house” without letting me know their plans. Rather than feeling excluded at the time, I begged my parents to allow me to leave the dorm and move into “the house” as well. They agreed. Once settled in my new abode, I gradually allowed myself to see the real truth about the institution of which I had become a part. As a sister, I was part of a formal stratified system which included some and excluded many others. There were rules about behaving properly, including at three formal meals each day where we sat quietly and were served by the houseboys. Add to that the endless meetings which were governed by Roberts Rules of Order, further reinforcing the hierarchical stratification of our numbers. Hovering over our sisterhood was a small group of older women, den mothers of sorts who ensured this proper behavior. It was stifling, and this beautiful mansion began to feel like a prison.
young modern style dancer posing
My world outside was growing as I increasingly identified as a dancer, a creative soul who hung out with other artists who laughed freely, partook in group massage, and smoked weed. My best friend was a young gay man with a sharp eye and wit. Together we began to deconstruct the precious world of my sorority, finding absurdity in this bastion of the rich. As we absorbed the various social movements of the day, including a rising counterculture and a burgeoning civil rights movement, I had hopes that I could change the institution from within. I called for a meeting with the trustees of the sorority, and sitting in front of a small tribunal of the den mothers, I proposed that the sorority be transformed into a “collective”. Of course, they looked at me like the outcast that I was, their negative response confirming for me that this was a place where I – a Jew, an artist, a non-conformer – did not belong.
My parents gave me permission to move back into the dorm as long as I got a job to pay for my room and board. I got a job in a fast food joint, a precursor to McDonald’s, where you could get fired for pilfering one French fry. From the fancy sorority house, I moved into a simple dorm room – a double – which I shared with Cheryl, an African-American student from White Plains, New York, whose father was a psychiatrist and mother an accountant. My guess is that Cheryl didn’t have any say in the matter of my arrival, treating me cordially but with a cool distance. Each Sunday, my dancer friend and I would slip through the back door of “the house”, along with the houseboys, to pick up a delicious Sunday dinner – since my parents were still paying for the sorority through the semester. I was greeted by the lovely cook, who welcomed me with even more open arms now that I was no longer “in the fold”.
Over the few months that Cheryl and I shared a room, we developed a friendly-enough connection, but when the more radical “Harlem girls”, as they were called, came for a visit, Cheryl ignored me, and when I saw her outside of the room, she would not return my “hellos”. Eventually I moved out of the double and into a single room, and I’m sure my presence was not missed. I understood at the time that her lack of interest in me wasn’t personal, necessarily. This was a period in which black students on campus were building a movement of solidarity, separate from white people, even white roommates, and that this was an important moment of building confidence and connection amongst one another that didn’t include white women, even Jews who were rejected from Christian sororities. I remember feeling somewhat awed by the Harlem girls, who were beautiful and strong, and while Cheryl clearly came from a different class background from them, they all shared a special connection.
These were confusing times. I had gone from feeling like an outsider in the sorority because of my class and my Jewishness to being placed in the company of a young black woman who was an outsider, because of her race. Cheryl probably came from a “higher class” than me, but her racial background defined her in this predominantly white university setting, and the people she sought out for friendship were the Harlem girls, with whom she shared blackness, but not a class background.
In 1970, during my junior year, Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party, came to campus to speak. By that time, my sorority days were far behind me, and I lined up with hundreds of students to get into a packed university chapel to hear him. I was blown away by his love of black people and his analysis of class-based hierarchies. I was struck by the power of celebrating one’s collective identity, as a way to build self-esteem, as a way to achieve solidarity with others, as a way to build a movement. Somehow, despite the fact that he was black and I am white, I felt that he was speaking to me, in his understanding of class divisions as well as racial divisions. I found myself a part of a group of white activists who supported the black power movement and Malcolm X., and felt that Martin Luther King was not radical enough. Of course now I see that the full spectrum of black leaders was necessary. But this was the early 1970s. My experience as a Jew who “passed” allowed me to understand tokenism, and my experience as a woman allowed me to better understand prejudice, being regarded as less than, not smart enough, not equal to…
As I read Ta–Nehisi Coates’ treatise to his son, I am reminded of the long and hard struggle of African-American people in this US of A. I reflect back on my earlier experience. We still live in a world of deep economic and social inequality and systemic racial injustice. I am appalled by some of the current insidious and frightening reactionary movements, fueled by politicians who take advantage of people – white people particularly – who are ignorant of possibilities and their own oppression. Sometimes I feel despairing, and yet there are places of light in the movement of people who are dedicated to social justice, people who fight for and support the current civil rights movement through Black Lives Matter, people who fight for survival on this planet through the climate change movement, people who fight for the rights of immigrants, following the line of so many people who have fought for acceptance in American society over hundreds of years, and people who continue to fight for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. I think back to my old roommate Cheryl and the Harlem girls and wonder what they are thinking and doing today.
 Ta–Nehisi Coates refers to his alma mater Howard University, an historically black university, as the Mecca.
Melz Durston: This weekend, Jamaica Plain will come alive with the sounds of local songwriters and the scents of citronella burning on the breeze. Inspired by Somerville’s annual community gathering, Mindy Fried and Marie Ghitman established JP Porchfest officially last summer, and this year, the duo sees the culmination of their hard work unfolding all over the neighborhood. Featured at Saturday’s all-day festival are more than 130 musicians playing across 72 porches, including Mark Lipman, Sugarcoma, Between Trees, the Isabel Stover Trio, and former Fuzzy member Chris Toppin and her band LOVE LOVE.
Vanyaland caught up with Fried about the behind the scenes work involved in setting up JP Porchfest, the evolution of her community, and her efforts to bring everyone together for the event. For the full list and schedule of performers, click here.
Melz Durston: Jamaica Plain has its own personality, when you compare it to downtown Boston. How did Porchfest evolve to fit in with what JP currently has on offer, for music-minded folks? Mindy Fried: There are many neighborhoods throughout the city that have a personality and a life of their own. I have lived in Jamaica Plain for almost 35 years, and when I meet some native Bostonians, my lengthy tenure in the city doesn’t translate to actually being from here! That said, I have seen a transformation in Jamaica Plain over the years. Jamaica Plain, as long as I’ve lived here, has also been a welcoming destination for people in the LGBTQ community.
In the past, you have hosted Chris Toppin (Love Love, Fuzzy) and Mary Lorson (Madder Rose, Saint Low); do you have plans to create a mini festival taking place in just one venue in the future, featuring Boston musicians, or is the whole point of Porchfest, to feature different locations and in doing so, give people who are local to JP, the chance to perform?
Our focus is to create a decentralized festival, one in which the audience moves around from place to place. It’s almost like a backyard barbecue on steroids! We tried to cluster the porches so that the audience could stay within a fairly small radius, and be able to hear five or six bands or solo musicians within the four hour period of the event. This coming year we will expand the hours to six, and we are also expanding the event to other parts of the neighborhood. The whole point of Porchfest is to feature different locations and give local musicians an opportunity to perform.
Do you think that Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Allston have a passionate undercurrent running throughout their neighborhoods — where musicians are always seeking ways to create? Certainly, the other neighborhoods you mention, and many others throughout the area, have a lot of creative people looking for ways to connect. Through our experience with JP Porchfest, we found that musicians really welcomed the opportunity to be part of a community building experience. This year, we will have more bands, and we will also include circus arts, theater, dance, and spoken word.
Is there a harmonious collaboration to be found, between existing venues and separately organized events in JP and other neighborhoods that do not rely on established venues? We are following our instincts as organizers and lovers of music, and are just beginning to make some really nice connections with other groups that are putting on music events. I think that over time, we will explore some of these connections further. But what distinguishes what we are doing from the more traditional performance venues is that we draw from the community — including professionals and aspiring musicians — who perform in the community, and they have an equal opportunity to be part of the event — it is not curated — whatever level of musicianship they have.
Have you noticed a difference yourself, in your home-city, over the years, with people becoming more insular and less likely to go out and enjoy a live show? Especially with online-focused interactions including live streaming of concerts such as Boston formed Concert Window? That is an interesting question, Melz. As a sociologist, I think a lot about the issue of community and the extent to which people feel isolated and disengaged. In my own experience, I am finding that the people in my universe want even more opportunities for social connection. Every time I think that my street or my community is so unique, I discover that other communities around the country are creating opportunities for people to gather and connect. Consider the phenomenon of “meet ups”, where people use the Internet to find a group of people who share an interest in some sort of activity, but then get together — in person — for a particular event or gathering. One might point to this and say that it is borne out of the lack of community, but I think it speaks to the desire of community and the willingness of people to reach out to create it themselves. As to whether people are going to live shows, I’m really not sure. I know that I think twice about going to a live show these days because of the cost. Right now, there is a touring alternative chamber orchestra that has a storefront in Jamaica Plain called A Far Cry. Some of my friends and I provide housing for them when they are in Boston, in exchange for going to their concert. They’ll be playing at porchfest on Saturday.
In what ways do you hope that JP Porchfest will bring people out and together again? I think Concert Window regularly ties in with live shows at Club Passim, which keeps this live element… In order to have a successful event, we realize that we need to work throughout the year to deepen our relationships with people in the neighborhood. We are working closely with a variety of community organizations to reach into neighborhoods where we only had a small presence this past year, to broaden that reach. One of the staff people from a community organization we work with has excellent contacts in all of the Latino media outlets, so this will be tremendously helpful in bringing out this segment of the population. We are continuing to work organizations to ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds are involved. We reflect on what a success the event was last year, even though it was just our first year. We believe this speaks to the hunger for community and the desire to create and consume art.
How much organizing and inspiration has the whole project taken and are there things you might do differently at future Porchfests? Organizing Jamaica Plain Porchfest took an extraordinary amount of time and energy, but we loved it. In order to create an event that would go smoothly, we established relationships with the City of Boston arts administrators, the local police, the city’s neighborhood services, and the Office of Inspectional Services. We didn’t want to have any surprises undermine the success of the event. And then we discovered that in meeting with all of these folks, we were creating a community of support that not only helped us avoid problems, but also established the event as part of the City of Boston roster of cool things happening.
Any plans to take them outside of JP or to other cities, or is this a purely local project? We believe that any community could create its own Porchfest. We have friends all over the country who want to do it. The main barriers are motivation and time. Marie, my co-organizer, has begun writing a simple ‘how to’ guide, and has had one meeting with a musician who would like to organize a porchfest in her community.
Would you bring former GRCB (Girls Rock Camp Boston) or LRCB (Ladies Rock Camp Boston) bands/acts into your program, in the future? As you mentioned, LOVE LOVE played last year’s porchfest. Now that the event was a success, we would love to work more closely with Chris Toppin and GRCB and LRCB girls and women.
What was it that inspired you to start up Porchfest in the first place? I am a closet singer and pianist, but definitely not ready for prime time. My inspiration came from a desire to build community through the power of music. Marie, my co-organizer, and I have been friends for many years, co-ran a childcare cooperative when our now adult kids were babies, and we welcomed the opportunity to work together. The experience of organizing JP porch fest was truly wonderful. There was a lot of laughing and inspiration in this experience.
What was the last gig you went to in the Boston area, and have you discovered new local music, through hosting Porchfest and through the people you have met? The last gig I went to was a concert by Debo Band, which is headed up by Ethiopian-American musician, Danny Mekonnen. A couple of Debo off-shoots played JP Porchfest and they were amazing. So it was thrilling to hear them play in concert. Debo has gotten quite a bit of recognition, and we’re hoping that they’ll still honor us with their musical presence in our home-spun event!
JAMAICA PLAIN PORCHFEST :: Saturday, July 11 from noon to 6 p.m. All-ages, free: Full schedule of performers can be found at jpporchfest.org