Yeye Luisah Teish on Storytelling, the Global Impact of Black Panther, and Expressing Your Creative Gifts
Interview with Yeye Luisah Teish by Phil Bolsta
Watch Yeye Luisah Teish’ interview:
Allow me to introduce you. Yeye Luisah Teish is a storyteller, writer, artist activist, and spiritual guidance counselor. She is internationally known as a conference weaver, workshop facilitator, performance artist, and ritual theater director. She also designs spiritual self-help guidance programs for individuals, families, and groups. And I understand that you'd like to start off with a chant and a visualization.
Yes, indeed. The first thing I want to tell people is when I greet you with "Alafia," your response is "Shalafia ni." And what we're doing here is passing blessings between each other. Alafia can be interpreted to say, "May you have good health and be at peace with your neighbor," because that is what we aspire to, what we reach for. So I'm saying alafia to you.
And I want to begin by saying a chant that was taught to me by my elders. It is an all-purpose chant for bringing in energies for helping you to ground, for bringing in energies from the earth and the sky in all of the directions. It's a very popular chant and it's only four words. And in that, we are saying respect to the power of the spirit, respect to that power with feeling, respect for the sky, respect to Mother Earth, and respect to everything on the horizon. So I'm going to ask you to relax in your seat as you're listening to this tape, and feel yourself, feel yourself standing or sitting somewhere on our beautiful planet Earth.
The first thing you want is to know that you belong here, that you are a part of this planet, just like the earth and the water, the sun and the wind, and the trees. Now imagine that you are looking out at either the sunrise or the sunset, whichever pleases you most. I tend to be partial to sunsets myself. And you are going to raise your arms above your head and bring them around so that you're drawing a circle with you in the center.
And then with open hands, you'll bow and look down at the earth, and you'll lift your arms with your hands together and point up to the sky, and then, with straight arms and hands, point down to the earth and bring them up to your heart and open up so that when your arms go up, you're talking for the sky, when they come down, it's Mother Earth, and when they open up, you are looking at the horizon.
[Luisah performs this all-purpose chant.]
Let yourself feel centered. Feel the ancestors around you like points of lights. Feel the wind and the trees and the water, and know that you are made of the same thing as them.
And now I'm going to ask you, who are in the center of the divining tree, to go inside of yourself for a moment and realize that every cell of your body, every breath that you take, every part of you is made of energy that has always been here, and that everything that you have experienced, that your ancestors have experienced, and even the planet, is inside of you. Take a deep breath and look at that sunrise. Take a deep breath and look at that sunset. Take a deep breath and look at the miracle that you are. Thank you. Thank you for participating in that.
Thank you, Luisah. That was beautiful.
It's important. It's important.
Now, you've stated that in confusing, chaotic times like these, it's liberating and healing, both individually and culturally, to write the stories of our lives and share our creative gifts with others, and that it's especially important for people of African descent to do so, because their primary story has been told by somebody else. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about this.
Yes, this radiates out from the individual to the group to the culture to the country to the globe. My concern these days has to do with what has been labeled, quote unquote, fake news, which is just the baby brother of fake history. If we consider that the past 5,000 years, the story that we call history has been in the hands of and told by, number one, the people who are conquerors, who are invaders, wherever that is, number two, the people who had access to education and to printing and had various other kinds of resources. So the more I learn, the more I am suspect of the accuracy of what we have been taught as history.
One of the things that is really, really important is that there has been a manipulation of separation. We have, over the centuries, concentrated more on great wars... when were human beings at war with each other... and there's almost no information about the interaction between people during peace times. We are led to believe that all of our encounters with each other are invasive, we have been led to believe that one group of people are more intelligent than others, or some other group more violent than others, or somebody…
Imagine if there is somebody who is sifting through your life and creating an anthology where they only place the stories of your life that they want in there, and then I pick it up, and I think that this is a whole picture of who you are. This is what happens with various cultures, especially when an oppressor or an invader takes control.
As a storyteller, I am privileged to sit with storytellers from many other cultures, and I find two things. The positive thing is I find that I can sit in circle with storytellers in Australia, and when they start telling the stories of their culture, I can identify for them the equivalence of that story in African culture, so there is something very primal that connects us there.
The other thing that happens is when I am with Indigenous Australia people, when I am talking to people from the Hawaiian islands, when I'm talking to people from the Irish culture, which has some amazing storytellers, what we find is that we are all cultures where we have been denied our own language.
The business of outlawing somebody's language is a way of shutting down and or stealing their consciousness. If I take that same idea and bring it in to what it means to be a person of African descent, that means that the image of me, the story that is told to me, and the story that is told to my children, and then to other people is that of, "We were nothing or nobody except a bunch of savages until we were enslaved," and that is inaccurate. It is a dangerous image to paint of anybody, and I am concerned, because that kind of dehumanizing story, that narrative, that picture, is being painted about a large group of people who are trying to come here to escape oppression.
I am upset when I encounter something that paints a one-dimensional picture of Jewish people, of Latin people, of black people, of women, of men. The storyteller in me wants the whole story. I want the whole story, and I'm a little pushy, because I don't want the anthology that somebody else created about you, I want to know your story, how you feel, how you see things, and what happened for you.
So for a long time, I have advocated that people write, sing, paint, dance, express, express the spirit that is in you and share what is in you with the people around you so that we can have a richer understanding of who we are as a species, as a culture, as spirits. I'm a greedy story gatherer in that respect, and I think it's important that we change the stereotypes we have of each other. Whew.
That was so well said, Luisah. I'm really glad you're talking about this. This is wonderful. Now, you and I have talked about what a game changer the movie Black Panther is, that it's had as much impact, you like to say, in the world of creative endeavors as the civil rights movement had in civil rights.
In what ways has this movie galvanized the black community and how has it changed the way their stories will be told going forward?
Oh, I am so grateful, because Black Panther is the answer to a prayer that I have had for a long time. Decades ago, I used to do a slideshow on the history of the image of black people in media, especially in film and theater. And there were certain stereotypes... Bubbling Brown Sugar, the black buffoon, the tragic mulatta... these images would be thrown at us over and over. And when I was in college, I led demonstrations in the theater department, because they were saying that there were no plays that didn't cast black women as either slaves or prostitutes, and I knew differently, because I knew playwrights and had been involved in community theater.
So what has happened over time, the aspect of African American culture that got expressed the most was always the trials of slavery, and we must never forget two things, that enslaving others is something that a lot of cultures have done and that the enslavement of people of African descent was a peculiar kind of slavery that included the inability to ever integrate into the culture, because of the difference with your skin. Not your religion, not what country you came from, but how you look.
So, for the longest time, among black artists, we have secretly asked the question, "Who would we be if the slave trade had not happened?" We wonder what we would have evolved into if the slave trade had not happened. And, of course, it did happen, but the people who created Black Panther knew that that desire for a different expression was there.
And what is brilliant... I mean, there's so many things that's brilliant about this piece, but as someone... as a cultural historian and a storyteller, when I look at it, I see that it incorporated many aspects of African American culture and the best of each culture that it incorporated. There is more African history frame for frame in that movie than in most history books. It is not flat and one-dimensional. There are no flat characters in that, so that you understand the king, you understand the leader who is alienated, you understand the brother who is the villain, you understand they are all developed, they're all developed characters.
And I'm especially grateful for the role of the women in this movie. They were empowered women without being castrating women. There was no tweakin’, there was no hoochie mamas in it. It put together the best of our culture.
Now, what is amazing, truly amazing, about it is that it was received globally, and this is a very important message to black artists. Because of Black Panther, we now know that we have a place and a voice that can be heard and received by the world, with respect and understanding. And it was wonderful, because even the white characters in Black Panther were not one-dimensional, they were not flat characters. You could understand them, there was the enemy and the ally, there was the mother and the women warriors, there was the brothers in conflict, there was the amazing environment.
And it left us with the question of, "Do we join the rest of the world and risk being oppressed, or do we continue to hide our gifts?" It left some wonderful cliffhangers, and what I know from where I sit is that it has sparked enthusiasm among black artists, especially black writers and performers, where we now feel like we can create things that, number one, tell the whole truth about our history.
The mosque at Sankoré
Here's an example. One of the projects that I'm going to be working on... When I was coming up in... and maybe, Phil, you might have experienced this... when I was coming up, if somebody said, "I'm going to send you to Timbuktu," that was a joke. That was an insinuation that you was going to a mythical place that didn't exist. We now know that Timbuktu, in the Sudan, was the learning center of the ancient world, that people came from as far as China to study at the mosque at Sankoré, and, thanks to my longtime friend and colleague, Max Dashu of Suppressed Histories, I now know that that town was named after a woman named Buktu.
So we're coming into a place now where the true history of peoples, the true history of women, the true history of class differences, the true history of the changes that our Earth are going through, something has happened to raise global consciousness enough that the real stories can be told. And I'm telling you that what happened to you yesterday and how you're going to feel tomorrow is a vital part of the narrative of real history and real news, so I'm being very, very pushy about people writing their stories and about people creating their plays and doing their creative expression. It's time. I feel like the future of the human race and the life of the planet is dependent on our ability to tell the truth, and Black Panther has opened that door wide, wide, wide open.
I think this is the most inspiring interview I've ever done and we've got a few questions left. I wanted to ask about... there's a recent Entertainment Weekly article on the Black Panther phenomenon that said before the movie came out, the viral clips that spread of African American children looking up at the actors on the movie poster — and these children for once were faced with a choice which black character they wanted to be — were the early flowers of cinematic revolution. As was the video of a black teenager asking, "Is this how white people like, feel all the time?" Are you hopeful that this question won't need to be asked by future generations of black youth?
It really hits home for me, as... When I was coming up, what we had was Amos 'n’ Andy. We had caricature, we had Sapphire, who was the ignorant, dominating women, and these images shaped your image of yourself, because it is supposed to be telling you who you can be in the world. And then things happened such as... still during my formative years, Star Trek, the original Star Trek came on, and you had Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman as the communications officer, and I remember looking at that and saying, "Wow. They think that we can be in space. Wow. We can be educated enough, we can be trusted enough. We can be." And it continues to get better as different truths about what people of color can do and what people who have been pressed down can do.
I know that every child continues to need inspiration from somebody, somewhere, but that child's statement that, "Wow, this is how white people feel all the time," that's amazing, because prior to this era, prior to the Black Panther era, there wasn't a lot being produced that could make us proud. In the late '60s and early '70s, I boycotted quite a bit of what was called blaxploitation movies.
So I hope that in the future that black child will have a lot of positive images for him to identify with. I hope that in the future that female children... Because, oh, God, I was watching something, some old thing the other night, a couple of old things the other night, and all of them relied on the woman being dumb, backwards, submissive, full of trickery, and that kind of stuff. And what I am hoping for is a future where we project holistic images of real people who are sometimes weak and sometimes strong, who are sometimes kind and sometimes mean, who sometimes respond positively to the challenges in their life, and other times who fail. But we've got to stop the fake news, the fake history that has us running in place.
So yes, a day is coming... and I hope I live long enough to see it... a day is coming when our children will look at images on the screen that bring them great pride in their culture, in their race, and in the potential that they have as human beings.
Oh, yeah, I mean, I get a little, what I call, world weary sometimes, but when I get world weary, I have to remind myself that there was a time, in the early ’80s, when I took a sticker of Shaka Zulu and I stuck it on the wall in my garage, and I pointed at it and I said, "I want to see the end of apartheid before I die."
I don't why I thought I could holler at the image of King Shaka, but I did. And back then, it seemed like that was something that would never happen, but it's happening. So I remember times like that and I say I may not be here to see it, but maybe, maybe my great-grandchildren will be able to take that holistic point of view for granted. Maybe it'll be commonplace for them, if we do our job.
That will be a beautiful day.
It really will. And this planet is too beautiful and too generous for us to be messing around the way we do sometime. Come on now.
And on a related note, you said that one of the questions on your mind these days is, "Do we see ourselves as human beings?" Can you elaborate on that and how the answer to that question may impact the black community in particular?
Oh, Phil. Oh. See, when that question comes up, that's Teish when she's most afraid. See, I got to clear my throat, child. I try to stay optimistic. I'm one of those... I'm an eight on the Enneagram, so I'm one of those people who always thinks that she can do something about what's going on. But I need to plunge down into the valley for a minute in order to address your question.
First of all, I cannot be around polluted water. I'm sorry. Polluted water makes me ill. Water should not be polluted. I cannot stand the idea of children going hungry, so global food insecurity drives me crazy. It gets even worse for me when I think about the fact that you cannot go to a concert, you cannot go to the mall, you cannot go to the theater, you cannot go to school, and you cannot go to church without some alienated person opening fire on people. We have families where the father kills everybody and then kills himself.
I thought that we thought that being human made us somehow above the “kill or be killed,” the aggression that we expect between two wild animals. I thought that being human meant that you worked to be better than that.
And I worry, because I think that either a combination of always seeing violence on television, a combination of scarcity of resources and greed, a combination of people being demonized because they're seeking asylum, the idea that somebody should be killed because you don't like who they sleep with, it just makes me wonder, when this person walks upon these other people, what do they see? Do you not see another human being? Or is there some kind of psychotic thing going on where I look at you and you look like a monster, so I have to kill you?
I know that's the severe... but I'm not supposed to be upset that children are being separated from their mothers or... This is where I get stupid, Phil, this is where I get scared, because I believe in conscious evolution, you see. I believe that what we choose to concentrate on shapes, helps to shape, who we become. So my question to myself and to other people becomes, "Who do you see? What do you see when you look at somebody who is not you?" because that energy is going into our evolution.
And when I'm thinking like that, I end up with a problem. I really do. It's like, "What can I do to put some medicine on that?" What can I do to put some medicine on that? And it comes back to the same thing, to encourage people to tell their story, because maybe, if we are sharing our story, we can really come to understand each other and not send ourselves to the brink of extinction. That's the big fear. I fear that the creature we call “human being” is on the brink of extinction.
And see, I shouldn't have said that out loud.
No, I think it needs to be said.
It's painful and it can make you feel schizophrenic, because in the next minute, I can hear a piece of music, see some people dance... I confess that one of the things that I do... I don't take Prozac or any of those drugs, but when I feel down, I go on YouTube, and I play the funny baby videos. I really do, seeing these kids trying to hug daddy before he goes to work or drinking too much milk in the milk bottle or skiing in the snow and laughing, or getting mad at mama because she ate the last cookie... that re-humanizes me.
Your answer reminded me of a Mahatma Gandhi quote. He said, "I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet."
I hear that. That's funny that you bring that up, because my family laughs at me, because one of my... and this is so black woman-ish... one of the things that I have said to certain people is, "My behind is too wide to walk through the narrow corridors of your mind."
I love that. Gotta remember that one. I don't know if I could pull it off like you could though.
No, you got to have a big butt like mine. But yeah, I understand what he's saying. It's like you have to hold onto your sense of humanity and hopefully be able to share it with other people.
Yes. And, you talk about the importance of creativity, and with so much at stake for our own healing and for the healing of the world, how can the average person get in touch with their creatively?
Okay, so the first thing... because I teach creative expression, among other things... the first thing you got to do is rescue yourself from artistic elitism. Every child comes in with creativity, and then we have an educational system that tells some of us that we are dumb.
I want you all to know that when I was in college, this man came by... and this has happened to me several times with IQ tests and the different kinds of tests... this man came through with a test that they had us take. And when I went in for my consultation, he told me that I had... get this... I had, "no creativity worth mentioning," as the result of his test. And I knew he was lying, because I'd been in plays as a child, I'd done choreography, I'd written stories, but there was this bias, this determination, to make me believe that I was not creative.
And it starts in elementary school. I remember coloring some bunny rabbits in second or third grade, and the teacher came over and she said, "You've never seen a purple bunny rabbit!" I said, "Yes I have, it's right there." Now, in her mind, I was doing something crazy, because she ain't never seen a purple bunny rabbit, and in my mind, if you only wanted me to color the bunny rabbit brown, then take all these other colors out of my box. You see what I'm saying? I can color this rabbit any damn color that my imagination says it can be. Now, she's never going to put my painting up on the wall, but that don't mean I shouldn't paint it.
I want to say that there are people who are professional artists, but everybody is an artist. If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance. If you can draw a straight line and a crooked line, you can draw, if you are drawing what is inside of you, not something outside of you.
I want to take a minute to thank Shiloh McCloud... Shiloh Sophia, who I think is doing some workshops for The Shift Network right now. I grew up as a wounded visual artist, because I used to draw and paint, and my father burned my paintings because he didn't want me to waste my time trying to be an artist. So I was artistically wounded for a long time and wouldn't even try, or I'd try and do something and I'd hide it in the closet or I'd... that whole thing that you go through, doing something and destroying your work because it's not good enough.
And one day, Shiloh came over. She knew this narrative, this story. Shiloh came over and she said, "Luisah Teish, today you going to heal from that." She put me in my backyard, she gave me some paints, she said, "Dip your brush in the paint, close your eyes, and then touch the canvas. Now open your eyes and keep painting." And she had me paint for four hours, I didn't have any idea what was going to come out. And she put me on a track where I was doing something every night, because nobody was critiquing me, it was just doing whatever came out of me.
And to make a very long story short, what I drew, what I painted, was a goddess rising up out of the river with spirits behind her and animals coming up out of her body, and today, that painting is the cover of a book, an anthology, on the works of Octavia Butler, who is the only black woman science-fiction writer to win both the Hugo and the Nebula award.
Yes. So, what I want you to know is if you start out drawing, painting, writing, singing, dancing, primarily to express your own spirit, somebody will see it, somebody will enjoy it, somebody will share it. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Just do it.
That's wonderful, and I was thinking of Shiloh as you were talking, because her course is coming up at The Shift Network, and one of the bonuses in her course is a video dialogue with you for an hour.
That's right, that's my girl, baby! Shiloh made me realize that that wound that I was sitting on... I can paint. I can draw. And my mother died three years ago, so I went to New Orleans to sit bedside with my mother, and the way that I channeled my grief was just doodling, and I kept on doodling and kept on doodling. And I'm thinking I'm just doing this to keep from crying, but as I walked around, other people would see me doodling and they'd say, "Ooh, you're a genius," and I'm thinking, "No, I'm just depressed." "Oh, you're a genius. Oh, you're a genius." Make a long story short, today, my doodles are a published coloring book called Spirit Revealing Color Healing.
See? Just do it. just do it, don't judge it harshly. Let the spirit of the thing come through.
That's great. And as you were saying with your own example, many people have suffered so greatly that the bright light of their creativity is blotted out by the darkness of their pain, so what is your advice to the wounded artist?
Put that pain on paper. Put that pain into a song. Plant that pain in a garden. Allow your spirit to transform the pain. See, that's what's so wonderful is that we have an inner-healing facility, that once you get in touch with that, whatever it is, whether it's doodling, whether it's planting a garden, whether... A lot of people sing at the clothesline and in the bathroom, and that's the only place where they sing, because they think they got to get up on stage and do karaoke or something like that. No, I'm saying sing. Just let it through and watch how the healing occurs.
Now, I'm going to take a minute to plug myself here and say that I've spent a lifetime of helping people to get in touch with their spirit and helping people to create things, so don't feel like, because you're wounded, that you're never going to come out of it, and don't feel like you're not going to get help. Because I teach creative expression to other people and I can do that because Shiloh helped me to open up another avenue. I mean, I saw myself... I had a wonderful career as a dancer, I've had a wonderful career as a storyteller, I've written some profound things, but that painting was my place of wounding, and Shiloh came and helped me heal. Healing is always going on. Don't be afraid. Or, better yet, be afraid and do it anyway.
Thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today, Luisah, and thank you for making such a beautiful difference in the world.
I'm loving it. I think... I forget the man's name, but there was somebody who had folks talking about releasing their inner child. You know? And I had to tell people, I said, "Well, you know what, I'm really fortunate, because my little girl is running rampant, honey. She's having a good time." Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you. It's been a real treat.
Luisah Teish: Alrighty. Keep your ears open. I'm hoping to write something profound real soon.
Watch Luisah relate a profound experience in this 6-minute video:
Yeye Luisah Teish is the author of Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. She co-authored On Holy Ground: Commitment and Devotion to Sacred Land with Kahuna Leilani Birely. Her latest work is Spirit Revealing, Color Healing: A Creative and Soulful Journey.
Luisah offers online classes in the Elements of Ritual and Casting Lots Divination. She is a co-teacher in the Afro-botany immersion class online, and the annual conference in Costa Rica. She also created the video series "At the Crossroads: Finding Your Life Purpose."
She is a storyteller-writer, an artist-activist, and spiritual guidance counselor. She is an initiated elder (Iyanifa) in the Ifa/Orisha tradition of the West African Diaspora and she offers healing services such as divinations to determine the source of disease or dysfunction, purifications to remove negative energies, and rituals of empowerment. She also uses mytho-synthesis and spiritual enactments to help people embody their guiding archetypes.
Luisah is internationally known as a conference weaver, workshop facilitator, performance artist, and ritual theater director. She designs spiritual self-health guidance programs for individuals, families, and groups. She conducts a weekend intensive "UnCommon Kinship: Cultivating Community Across Diverse Lines" for professionals whose clients are from a different culture. The workshop includes exercises and practices to prevent compassion fatigue. She serves as an advisor to the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth group.
Luisah has contributed to 35 anthologies and has written numerous movie, play, and book reviews. She has submitted artworks to the Coreopsis Journal of Art and Ritual; published an article in Cascadia Subduction Zone (a literary quarterly of speculative fiction), and has interviews in magazines such as Essence, Ms., Shaman’s Drum, and Yoga Journal.