2/2015
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Megan Amal Rogers

Exploring racial identity and cultural heritages

Megan Rogers' essay on finding her identity

I grew up in the suburbs of south Florida in predominantly white neighborhoods. My white American father and Somali mother got divorced when I was eight and my mother, sister, and I became a brown family surrounded by white ones.

I didn't name this and the tensions it created until I was much older, but I began to struggle with my racial and cultural identity at a young age. I remember lying to my first grade classmates and telling them that my family was Hawaiian. The next year I checked 'Hispanic' on a standardized test. I was confused and I was uncomfortable with myself. 

I came to resent being different. I was young when I learned I was not like the white kids and not like the black kids. I did not attempt to understand this, beyond trying to fit in, until I was near college. My mother instilled in my sister and I a respect for our Somali culture and in high school I was almost proud of it.

Megan Rogers in Helsinki, August 2015. Photo: Marja Tiilikainen

I really began to explore my racial identity and my cultural heritages in college through academic inquiry and through art making. For the first time, I learned about Somalia on my own terms. I researched its history and its culture. I learned to understand why Somalis call their country the land of the poets.

I read my great aunt's poetry and learned about experiences of holding onto culture against assimilation and resignation. I learned to sing popular songs and to cook popular foods. I learned about my family. With this knowledge I felt a part of a larger group. I found my respect for my mother and what she has faced, as a Somali, as a woman, as a refugee, and as a mother, increase beyond its already high level.

The stories told by white men

Also in college I named some of the things that make me feel connected to American culture. I researched the blues and how it led to the music that I so loved, rock 'n roll. The blues brought up some challenges for my expanding college identity. I was relating to these African American musicians and feeling that I was learning about my culture, but I have no claim to that cultural heritage. My American family is white.

I was learning that the stories I related to frequently did not reflect my experience. As a teen I loved the punk band the Ramones. I thought that if my mom would just let me be more like the Ramones, then I could be more of me.

I idolized The Beatles for all of my adolescence. Their stories guided me. They shaped my imagination. I memorized countless Bob Dylan songs. His lyrics, I thought, spoke so much truth to who I really was. I adored Jimi Hendrix and so wanted to emulate his attitude and the feelings in his music. These are only a few examples, but these mostly white and entirely male group of artists are representative of my role models until I found dance.

Megan Rogers in Helsinki, August 2015. Photo: Marja Tiilikainen

I started dancing because I was experiencing distance from my body, and I wanted to connect with it positively. While dancing I began to associate positive bodily experiences with womanhood and my woman's body.

Leymis, my generous teacher, encouraged body positivity and valued the student's personal expression. She was pregnant the first year I took her class. I regarded her so highly. She was a powerful woman who believed what she had to say was valuable. She operated (and still does) a company called Sarasota Contemporary Dance, in Sarasota, FL. Through this company she presented her own work and the work of other, mostly female, local artists. Her life was very different than the lives I had been idolizing and modeling my self-perception after.

Through learning to dance and witnessing and experiencing the physicality of womanhood I was awoken to another realm of story and experience. I realized how truly the stories I related to did not reflect my lived experience. I regard the stories I upheld before this transformation as the stock stories of my life. These stories of my favorite books, movies, poems, and songs, are stories dominated by white men, and they taught me, a young biracial woman, how I was 'supposed' to behave and think from the perspective of those white men.

I learned how to explore my spirit and my life through consuming the stories of these men. My celebration of these stories supported the status quo of white male dominance. The fact that these are the stories I related to reflect this dominance. To celebrate a story means to culturally invest in a story and the stories of white men are most available for consumption.

Learning female centered stories

When I started dancing with Leymis, I was discovering a concealed story. A story of someone who was living a life that was not celebrated in the mainstream. She, and the other dancers I met, were female artists who were speaking and dancing their truths.

I had been rarely exposed to the lives of female artists, or to the inner worlds of women. Women were exposing their inner worlds in their dancing and dance making. Their lived experiences were concealed stories to me. Their stories were being celebrated by their community on the same college campus where I was trying to be Bob Dylan.

Learning their stories opened my mind to female centered stories and taught me that my perceived shortcomings or struggles were not isolated. I was learning about feminism. I learned, as I learned to dance, that there were other ways to live, other ways to regard oneself.

Connection through movement at our community performance. Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

I was ravenous to learn all I could about dance. I watched all I could find, practiced in my dorm room, and choreographed dances so that I could perform in them. I took every class I could afford. During this time I was meeting and getting to know dancers. I was learning of the various ways they lived their lives. These were resistance stories.

I knew one dancer who lived on five acres in the woods. She canned food, and ate roadkill, and made art. I knew another dancer who preached the power of female pleasure and she moved so sensually. I was inspired and felt revitalized just to imagine the potential alternatives in my thinking and planning. I was learning to regard my ideas as valuable, despite my womanhood and whatever Cream says. And not only were my academic ideas, supported by formulaic method, valuable, but so were my creative ideas that were born of my intuition.

When I came to my masters in dance program I came with the plan to collect oral histories and create dance performances with the goal of bringing attention to stories not often told. I planned to create a transformative story, a story of change. As I completed the program I came to see in myself and my peers a need to build intentional community. My plans changed to acknowledging this desire for community and the power it can bring to its members.

Creating an alternative storytelling community

I had been struggling more furiously with my racial and cultural identity than ever. The more I had learned about the possibilities of living, good and bad, the more difficult the questions around my identity had become.

I had moved from the suburbs of Florida to Oakland, CA and spent my days at a small school in a small program full to bursting with white people. I felt that I was solidifying my path in a world without people I felt similar to. I felt anxiety that I would never be accepted or welcomed by communities of color, that it was somehow too late. That the stories I was choosing to celebrate, of modern dance and of academia, were not reflective of the self I want to be.

Looking to my tried and true method of self discovery, I researched. I learned of how communities can be built across cultures, how sharing stories builds deep connection, and how powerful the gathering of women can be. I chose to facilitate the creation of an alternative storytelling community that celebrates the stories of its members and of Somali female artist collaborators, and a dance performance and community event to celebrate that experience.

As facilitator I explored my two cultures and how they coalesce into me. I personally engaged in the art of the Somali female collaborators and I analyzed their stories while immersed in the experiences of the alternative storytelling community.

We explored our personal histories, which are concealed stories, to determine the ways that they have been influenced by stock stories. We looked to our experiences and to the experiences of Somali female artists, and to art, to find resistance stories. We created an emerging/transforming story by creating a healing community and sharing its narrative with others.

Four of us: Megan, Adrienne, Aiano, and Jaq. Empowering each other to make change.Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

I asked three fellow dancers from Mills College to participate in this project. I asked people that I felt had an open heart and an interest in community building and healing through the arts. Jaq, Adrienne, and Aiano said that they would participate, and I was so grateful. We set a time to meet and the process began.

Our advisor suggested that we call our meetings “gatherings.” I am so glad she did. When these four women come together we gather with us all of our emotional, cultural, political, and familial histories. We gather our composure from the cracks in our busy lives. And we gather a small bit of something we didn’t know we had, something extra, to share with our siblings.

My excitement and gratitude was untethered. My heart was bursting. The first time we met we chose to commemorate our first gathering by cooking a meal together. We called this a ritual. We cooked some Somali foods. Together we made curried vegetables, bariis, anjeero, and fried eggs. Through this act of production we came together. With our first shared goal, to eat, we formed a growing bond.

While we cooked I shared information about Somalia. My sister Leila and I had many discussions on how to curate this information. We decided it best to keep the focus on concrete data, such as the length of the Juba river and the names of the flowers that blossom in the Spring, rather than the sentimental and sensational information we assumed they had already heard.

I shared information about Somalia for the purpose of a glimpse into understanding the vast continuum of female experience. We would be learning about the personal experiences of a few Somali female artists and I wanted to give some context.

Feminist spirituality

Our community aimed to engage in and craft a process that is re-integrative. In our processes of storytelling, the teller is influenced by the listener, and the listener creates, from their own experiences and perspective, the final story in their mind.

We planned to create ritual around our storytelling and art making as a group to help us build a space for healing and integration. We felt that valuing the stories and expressions of women as sacred was a radical act.

That feeling was validated in our discussion of feminist spirituality at our first gathering. Feminist spirituality is a spirituality constructed by women that is made and experienced outside of the patriarchal religious structures. Feminist spiritualities, in their myriads of expressions, celebrate the experiences of women and acknowledge women's inherent spiritual power.

The performers and the audience/participants engaged each other at our community performance by playing percussion instruments and moving through space. Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

Feminist spirituality recognizes the historical and contemporary oppression of women and seeks to change societal structures and individual attitudes to stop oppression. It does not view women as failing to live up to some vision of mental and emotional health but encourages alternative ways of identity making and shares tools to function within this patriarchal, oppressive structure.

Feminist spirituality values women to women solidarity and support. Feminist spirituality does not necessitate a divorce from other religious practice. We were excited by this discussion and by the potentials we saw in our group.

Creating a community that practices a feminist spirituality can create real alternatives to patriarchal religions. They can teach women that they can reclaim their female power and that they are self-transcendent. These groups create rituals around storytelling. Rituals can be activities that mark transitions in the life cycle and major moments of individual and collective lives, or they can be performed by bringing special attention to an everyday activity.

Creating ritual around storytelling is regarded as a healing act by feminist therapists, and we believe that we heal through the act. When we share stories, we take care to curate our space and protect our environment. We mark the storytelling's beginning and end. Our behavior reflects the sacred.

The articulation of identity

Through dialogue we discovered that it was central to our group to value the needs and desires of each member and allow those to determine the appropriate course of action for each activity. We create our own rituals and our own processes as the needs for them arise. We know when the needs arise by working to be engaged with our inner selves and observing our inner worlds.

As I was beginning this process of gathering I was also beginning a process with three Somali female artists located in three different cities. I engaged with Idil a dancer and comedienne, Farah a writer, and Ifrah a curator and law student. Throughout the project we interacted digitally.

Soon after we began we created a list of questions about identity and identifying that we posed to ourselves, the Somali artists, and our future collaborators. The self reflection and articulation of identity that came with answering these questions is an experience that all participants in this project shared. This connection would become a root of our community.

How/why/when do you identify as an artist?
How/why/when do you identify as a woman?
How/why/when do you identify as Somali/American?
How/why/when does religion inform your work?
How/why/when does race inform your work?
How/why/when does gender inform your work?
What is essential in your work?

Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

These questions became a tool for me as the facilitator. Receiving the participants' answers helped me to contrast and compare our experiences, which resulted in a deeper understanding of my stories of self.

Most significant was when I was able to compare my answers with both the American female artists and the Somali female artists. The questions also helped me to engage with the collaborators that would join us for the creation of our dance performance and community event. Our community formation was significantly briefer with this new group and the questions helped me to learn quickly how each dancer articulated their relationships with different aspects of themselves.

Creating safe space

The initial group of four women continued to meet for about a year. During that time those participants became facilitators. They were the guides and the directors for creating the performative celebration with three other women. This shift occurred half way through the project. As facilitators these women were able to utilize the strength and clarity that was built in our gatherings. The power that they gained was put to immediate use with the goal of sharing the healing processes and practices that we had created.

During this project we successfully created a space that we felt safe in and felt able to share and listen openly. By regarding our stories as sacred, we felt the power of sharing and hearing them. We felt adrenaline and empathy. It felt good to share and to hear. The amount of energy created from the act alluded to the potentials for social engagement. If we could feel so much from sharing our stories in such a controlled environment, what then are the possibilities of sharing stories publicly?

The flyers for our culminating performances. Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

And so we did share these stories publicly. We performed and celebrated our experiences for an open audience and for an all woman audience. We chose to perform for an all woman audience because we wanted to promote the celebration of women’s stories. We hoped to encourage the audience to regard their own stories as valuable. We also sought to acknowledge the power of the gathering of women by providing an opportunity to come together in a woman centered space.

Through our creation of an alternative storytelling community that celebrated the stories of female artists we were repeatedly transformed. We engaged with the identity of the female artist through others’ lenses and through our own. We explored our own identities and stories, and we learned the ways that people have used them against us. We learned about women who have pushed back, when their identity and their stories were used as a tool to oppress them. We rewrote our stories and celebrated our experiences. We pushed back. We shared our celebration with others, working to transform the narratives of our lives.

We followed methods of collaboration that we had grown organically through our community building during our gatherings. We had learned how to work together. We held the needs and desires of each participant to be primary. We valued what the group needed.

We directed our energies toward the expression and celebration of our stories and away from the concerns of our egos or beliefs about achievement. We did not seek to alter ourselves or our expressions to fit an externally imposed structure. Instead, we sought to acknowledge the wisdom of each of us and to follow our intuitions.

Stories shared to survive

As facilitator of this project I was doubly transformed. I was transformed in my role as facilitator and as participant. Participating in this project, in the community that was created, was an educational experience for me. As part of this community, I was supported, encouraged, pushed, and loved. I made myself vulnerable to the processes we were creating. I was able to contextualize my identity by working to understand the effects of dominant narratives and by becoming a vessel for the stories of other female artists.

Holding the stories of both American and Somali female artists is significant to me. I have been encouraged to celebrate each story that contributes to my identity. This includes the stories of other female artists. I have felt a decrease in the drive to assimilate my bi-furcated self into one thing. I now feel a vastness. I can hold my own stories and others. I can transform stories that harm into stories that warn, guide, or uplift.

Through this project, a methodology for community empowerment was created and simultaneously tested. The methodology narrates how an alternative storytelling community can function with the goal of empowering its members, or increasing their ability to define their own reality.

A still from our stage performance. Photo: Megan Rogers' archives

This methodology is currently being written into simple pamphlets for distribution and can be applied to any number of groups. The central tenant of this methodology is that by valuing the needs and desires of each community member as central (rather than imposing external structure) and by recognizing and questioning the dominant structures of the culture and society in which the community resides, the members can experience empowerment. The goals of the community can be met.

The transformations that occurred will not live in our memories alone. Memory must be transmitted. Stories must be shared to survive.

Megan Amal Rogers

The author uses art as a means for personal, social, and political transformation. She is a dance artist and community educator who works to challenge dominant and oppressive structures. In her practice Megan connects narrative, physical experience, and scholarly inquiry. Megan holds a masters in dance from Mills College. She is a co-founder of OTISgroup, a community arts organization based in Chicago, IL and Oakland, CA. She also dances with Perceptual Motion, Inc., a Chicago based dance company and writes for the online feminist art publication Art for Ourselves. Megan currently studies yoga, herbalism, nutrition, and other somatic systems to use as tools for change. She currently lives in Chicago, IL.

meganamal(at)gmail.com