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Hartford Courant
 
 
 

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Photos by  Patrick Raycraft

 
A Drumbeat For Unity
 `Dismantling Racism Through Music' Is The Goal Of African Dance Troupe Founder Earline Robinson

April 7, 2002

Every Friday night, starting around dinnertime, the sound of bare hands pounding out rhythms on jembe drums reverberates off the concrete basement walls of a community center in Amherst, Mass.

Soon, they are accompanied by the choreographed stomping of little feet.

Coats and shoes are piled in a heap by the door. Parents cluster at the perimeter of the room chatting and sometimes clapping.

For 14 years, Earline Robinson has been teaching this free class, which attracts more than 40 participants a week, from toddlers to young teens.

It is part personal ritual for Robinson, part community service. She started the class as a focal point for her own son and daughter, who are now in their 20s. She doesn't charge, but donations are accepted.

Now she is preparing a core group of drummers and dancers, who perform around western New England under the name "Umoja Too," for a summer tour of Japan.

As an African American growing up in Hartford (the second oldest of her mother's eight children and the oldest of her father's 24 children), Robinson became aware, as she came of age, how little she had been taught about Africa. She had very little appreciation of her ancestors' cultures, but still, from age 11, she's had a yen to visit what she calls "the continent."

Robinson insists that "what I know is not that much," but it's been enough to form the basis of a career as "a consultant for dismantling racism through music." She is a teacher not only of some basic rhythms and steps but also of an attitude of respect and curiosity about African arts and culture.

In 1994, Chieko Yamazaki, a Japanese woman who had brought her child to Robinson's classes in Amherst before returning to Japan, heard of a contest that made her think of Robinson. It sought ideas for a cultural event that could be sponsored by an organization for women and children that publishes a newsletter called Niramecco.

Yamazaki had been impressed by the fact that a single mother ("by choice," Robinson emphasizes) with little money (she lives on an annual $12,000 disability income from Connecticut, resulting from an injury sustained while working with severely retarded people) was offering free classes for children every week.

Yamazaki wrote to the newsletter and captured the imagination of Niramecco's editorial board. The board extended an all-expenses-paid invitation to the city of Kagamigahara, an area that Robinson said the locals refer to as "the bellybutton of Japan." Robinson brought her repertoire of rhythms and steps and stayed for nearly two months in the suburb of Nagoya and has been invited back every summer since.

Robinson recalled her first trip in 1994. Her hosts presented her with a barrel of Kentucky Fried Chicken as a way of making her feel at home.

"Somewhere, from some piece of information, they got chicken and black folks," Robinson recalls with a wry smile. She doesn't eat fast food of any kind. Her hosts enjoyed the chicken and at the same time were impressed by her desire to dine locally.

It was a small first step in breaking down stereotypes. "I'm there strictly as Earline Robinson in Japan, even though they'd like me to be a spokesperson for the African American community," she said, adding, "But I do tell them that I don't own a gun."Robinson said the lesson she most values from her trips and the Japanese people she meets is that each can appreciate the others' culture without trying to appropriate it.

She's no stranger to cultural shifts. Robinson left Hartford in 1987 with her two then grade-school-age children in tow to pursue a relationship with someone living a "crunchy granola" lifestyle in Wendell, Mass. The town, in the highlands of Franklin County, is known for its 1960s-era "back-to-the-land" residents.

Robinson wanted to get her children out of Hartford, where they were headed toward a life of "ducking and dodging bullets," she said. But in Massachusetts, she found herself resenting the affluent white people ("I was a black spot in the snow") who, from her point of view, appeared to think they could buy their way into African and African American culture. She calls them "wannabes."

For her part, she had to adjust to an existence with outhouses and journeying through the snow with groceries. "Coming from the inner city, it was culture shock, regional shock. It was like, `I don't believe people live like this'," she said, "But it was definitely an experience, and I suggest that all people from the city take a month in Wendell."

Nonetheless, Robinson set her sights on Amherst, a place she had visited years earlier to hear African drumming and see plays at the University of Massachusetts.

Also, as a "more prominent" town anchored by several academic institutions, Amherst might have a more sophisticated approach to bridging racial and cultural divides, Robinson hoped. Soon after finding an apartment and enrolling her children in school, she waged a battle for access to the Bangs Community Center for drumming and dancing, an activity some thought would be too loud for the space. "I had to explain that what you consider noise may be music to somebody else," she said.

That's when she started to teach what she had learned in the mid-1980s. Robinson's exposure to and education about African music and dance came when she volunteered for three years at a progressive bookstore-cafe in Hartford, since closed, called Reader's Feast.

As a young black woman, she first experienced the bookstore as a place she could go without having "to worry about somebody looking at you like you were a thief," she said.

The women who ran the store, Robinson said, were committed to people of color in leadership roles, and they promoted books by and about Africans and African Americans.

Robinson relished her virtually unlimited access to reading material both for herself and her young children. With her 40 percent discount, she also was able to start a personal library.

The bookstore organized book signings and concerts. Robinson served as the master of ceremonies for many of these, and through them she met authors she admired and connected with musicians in the Hartford area. She took up drumming and joined some others to form a group called "People of Good Will."

Those years helped prepare her for later experiences. A few years ago, some people in Leverett, Mass., created an international expedition called the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, which centered on a year-long overland journey from Boston to Dakar, Senegal, and on to Cape Town, South Africa.

The route, much of which they walked, passed through New York, Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans and then through all the major Caribbean islands, to the east coast of South America before setting off across the Atlantic for Africa. Along the way, participants visited and meditated at sites associated with the African slave trade.Robinson saw her chance to further her learning about Africa, express her political and artistic convictions and see places she wanted to see. She was part of the support team, flying ahead to Senegal to prepare for the arrival of the pilgrims, some of whom made the journey by boat.

"When I got there, my first reaction was, `Wow, this is how they got so many Africans out of Africa,' because of the open arms," said Robinson, "They let you in 100 percent without knowing who you are. That blew me away."

She also recalls the sense of joy she derived from the familiarity of many of the faces she saw on the street, even though they were strangers. "It was like, `Oh, my God, we really do belong somewhere,'" said Robinson. "We didn't just appear at the white man's hands, but we came from somewhere."

Meeting people from other parts of the world "does away with fear; it does away with not having trust," she said, because they get to "understand you on a humanistic level instead of exotic or mystical or something else."

Robinson is preparing to bring her Umoja Too ("umoja" is Swahili for unity) troupe to Japan this summer. She is raising money through local performances, fund-raisers and grants.

Reflecting on the role she plays in Amherst, a predominantly white town, Robinson said she notices white people's fear of African Americans, often expressed most frankly by children. She long ago got over the feeling that she had to go out of her way to make white people feel comfortable around her, she said, but the fear she sees saddens her. She attracts a diverse group of children to her classes, including many from multi-racial families.

Robinson's repertoire of eight dances and the songs that go with them are one vehicle through which she communicates with the students. Beyond that, she said, "It's really important that I am visible in these children's lives."

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