From the ground floor you walk up an open-aired, red-carpeted staircase situated between ornately trimmed walls. At the top you enter a ballroom, with a red and white band shell stage with Greek columns, a wooden dance floor, and a sixty-foot long, wooden bar with matching windows looking onto the street.
It is here, in The Grand Ball Room on 6351 S. Cottage Grove Rd., where great musicians – such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Earl Hines – used to perform. Directly below it, in the building formerly known as the Loeffler building, is a small studio that for almost two years has operated as the Coltrane Conservatory, a nonprofit music school.
Girls from Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods now have a refuge thanks to the dance program Recycled Barre. Having faced similar struggles in low-income communities, Benito Juarez public school teachers Dianne Martinez and Barbara San-Roman started the dance program so that their students could take affordable and accessible dance classes.
Most dance classes in Chicago are located in the city or in the northern suburbs and classes are usually too expensive for these families. To keep costs low, Martinez and San-Roman are transforming under-utilized spaces in closed-down public schools and in the community into dance studios. They are also partnering with the Dance Center at Columbia College, enlisting dance students there to help teach the classes.
Young women from Chicago’s South Side can find a safe space through a non-profit called Teena’s Legacy. Jamika Smith founded the organization to teach women how to repair their lives by repairing furniture. The summer re-upholstery program helps Englewood women, ages 17-21, through a path of self-discovery and economic self-sufficiency.
Like torn, worn out and broken-down chairs in need of re-upholstery, these young women want to mend the pieces of their lives back together. Most of the participants come from challenging backgrounds and rough neighborhoods like Englewood. Many have been mentally, physically and verbally abused since childhood. They are products of inter-city communities and victims of poverty, poor education and violence, Smith says.
A passing thunderstorm left tiny puddles in the courtyard entrance of Canvas, an art and performance studio in Wicker Park. The rain’s clearing up and a crowd’s trickling in. Every second Monday of the month the space hosts Gala, an open mic, where Ayinde Cartman refuels.
“Everything else is work, but this is replenishment,” says Ayinde, a 26-year-old performance artist and musician.
Ayinde drums and acts, but tonight he’s a poet. Before the show starts, he’s standing in the crowd as four, five, six friends greet him. He hugs one – another poet – wearing long giraffe earrings and asks how she’s doing.
“Not good,” she pouts, before laughing at her own frankness.
Canvas’ walls are filled with paintings and a pegboard with yarn strung into geometric designs. Red stage lights heat up the room along with the warm bodies filing in. An emcee lets Ayinde know he’ll be one of the first up on a long list of acts.
“What should I perform?” he asks in a soft voice that just barely rises above the music. He strokes his face and looks down at his feet. He stands a little above six feet tall, with thick black-rimmed glasses and pec-length locs that his sister helped him start to twist during his sophomore year of high school. Most of them are tied in a low bun with a few paintbrush-thick strands falling over his shoulders and chest.
When it’s his turn on stage, he’s still unsure of what poem to perform. The crowd tries to help him out by calling out the names of a few he’s done before.
Finally, he claps his hands and looks up. He fixes his eyes straight into the crowd.
The next lines – and more – hurl out of him, seamlessly strung together in a flood of acrimony:
“Where is my kale on 79th and Jeffery?”
“Why do I have to drive 20 minutes for ground stuff?”
“It’s preserved! It’s fried! It’s fat! It’s fraudulent!”
“It’s not about the resilience of our children! It’s about how they shouldn’t! Have! To be! Resilient!”
After he’s done, a full 15 seconds of applause fills the air. Ayinde smiles and steps off the stage. One emcee, a high school counselor on the South Side by day, tells the crowd that his students eat Flaming Hot Cheetos for breakfast.
Afterward, Ayinde gets a stream of compliments from friends and people in the crowd.
He hates compliments. He thinks his delivery takes attention away from the issues he’s trying to highlight.
“A lot of what makes my material hit is how relevant it is, as opposed to the writing itself,” he says.
On the other hand, they could just be agreeable choir members.
“It’s nice to be around the choir, to folks that you don’t have to explain this to.”
Ayinde performs “Prisons” at the Gala in January. (Video by Bryant Cross)
But Ayinde didn’t just adopt this mission to promote social justice – he’s cultivated in it. That’s thanks in large part to his mother, Carla, who Ayinde says has been an example of kindness toward others and a source of love growing up.
But now, at age 58, she’s living with early-onset dementia. As Ayinde paves his way as a performer and an artist, he’s also reimagining himself as something else entirely: a caregiver.
Ayinde mentions a corner on the South Side in his poem, but he’s lived his whole life in Richton Park, a suburb south of the city limits.
Either his father, a chiropractor, or his mother, a homemaker, would make the drive into the southern reaches of the city to his and his siblings’ elementary school. They made the long trek so their children could attend Afrocentric institutions – private and charter schools focused in African and African American history and culture.
They would begin the day with a 15-minute drum circle. There were only black students. That didn’t bother Ayinde, but “set me up perfectly,” he says.
“The only way you can recognize your purpose…is to have an extensive understanding of people and time before you,” he says. “It made it easy to love different people and different cultures because what was ingrained in me was self-love. When you have self-love, it’s just easy to extend that.”
Home life and school life were one in the same. His best friend, Jihad Kheperu, 24, is the son of his old kindergarten teacher. They wound up attending elementary, high school and college together.
“By the way, it was not intentional,” Kheperu says, laughing. “He’s not that awesome.”
Ayinde was also embedded in support and love at home. He was his mother’s baby and was treated as such. He and his brothers and father drummed together. Taheera, his older sister, would watch his performances and encouraged their parents to put Ayinde in a magnet high school. (He later landed a full-ride to college). His father owned a successful chiropractic business and they grew up comfortably.
But the beacon of that home life love was his mother, Carla Cartman.
“Everybody called her mom,” Taheera, 31, says. “She would just take you in and you could come stay the night, stay for days if you want. She’d cook, make sure you were comfortable. She’d even teach you a lesson. She was just the sweetest thing.”
But what Ayinde calls his charmed life wasn’t without hardships.
He has younger half siblings, the result of his father’s infidelity, he says. When Ayinde was 16, his father, a champion scuba diver, died drowning. He says his mother, coping with the fate of a man “you love and hate simultaneously,” sunk into depression.
And then something strange happened to his mom, he says. It started with warm – but abnormal – gestures.
Carla would get in her car, pick up strangers and give them rides home. But later, completely out of character, she would approach strangers with no inhibitions – commenting rudely on their looks or weight.
At the same time, Carla was gaining weight herself, even though all her life she took her health seriously: watched what she ate, hired a personal trainer.
Taheera remembers a time her mom said she was craving burgers from White Castle.
“We were raised with no beef, no pork, no red meat at all,” Taheera says. “But that was a childhood thing, so she was pretty much going back to the things that she loved. She was regressing before our eyes.”
Ayinde noticed the differences even more acutely when he’d return home from college on breaks.
“She looked really young,” Ayinde says, adding that most people mistook the 50-something for 30. “So when I came back and she began not to care as much about her appearance, that was just a clear sign that in no way is this the same mom.”
Carla was diagnosed with early-onset dementia during Ayinde’s senior year in college.
“I was on autopilot,” he says. “I can adapt to anything, especially when I have to.”
Ayinde immediately moved back home after graduation to take care of her. Now, four years later and with help of three other siblings and his two uncles, Ayinde is ushering his mother into her 60s.
He’s not alone.
As of 2008, the American Association of Retired People says 34 million unpaid caregivers support someone over age 18 who has a disability or is ill.
As a large number of Baby Boomers age into retirement, younger family members are learning what it takes to provide home care. The U.S. Census reports that in 2060, adults over 65 will make up 20 percent of the population. That’s up from only 10 percent in 2010.
Some caregivers – in what’s nicknamed the Sandwich Generation – are raising their own children while taking care of their elders. Taheera falls into this category, but her 7-year-old daughter Zaire finds ways to help.
“She kind of watches to make sure [Carla] doesn’t hurt herself,” Taheera says, adding that Zaire will say ‘Mommy, grandma’s up again!’ “She’s like a little security lady,” she laughs.
Ayinde says runaway attempts used to be more frequent in the past six months, but she also doesn’t say much and moves a little slower than she used to. Taheera takes care of their mother’s hygienic needs, while Ayinde, his brothers and uncle will pick up cooking and cleaning. They’ve brought in a nurse who will stop by weekly to check their mother’s vital signs.
“It’s not easy. We just go with the flow,” Taheera says. “We knew how much she cared for us and how much she dropped for us. It’s like, ok, you did it for us. We’ll do it for you.”
The thought that crosses both Taheera and Ayinde’s minds is that perhaps more early intervention could have prevented their mother’s decline.
“We knew how much she cared for us and how much she dropped for us. It’s like, ok, you did it for us. We’ll do it for you.” -Taheera
“I think we all feel like we could’ve saved her,” Ayinde says.
“We thought that she may just snap out of it, but I wish we could’ve taken action,” Taheera says. “Bring in the community, people that she knew, that we grew up with.”
Though Carla went to therapy, journal entries her children found revealed a depression deeper than they had previously realized.
“We knew how much she loved…how much that gave and took from her,” Ayinde says. “It felt like she was incapable of curbing her emotional reactions to things to the point of losing her mind.”
But through it all, Ayinde says he tries hard to keep his mother’s true self at the forefront of his mind.
“I’ve been struggling with not attaching myself to what she is now more than what she raised me like and what she has meant to me,” he says.
More than anything, Ayinde says his mother showed him genuine kindness, something he tries to exercise as a friend, as an organizer and as an artist.
“He’s definitely my most sensitive friend,” Kheperu says. “He doesn’t like it when I say that.”
Ayinde wrote his first poem in his freshman year of high school about female circumcision.
“I was raised by my mother, so any major, systemic, cultural and spiritual thing destroying anything pertaining to women – it still to this day pisses me off,” he says.
“I’ve always found myself most useful lifting up other people’s stories.”
So it goes
It’s 10:30 p.m. and the Canvas courtyard’s spilling over with people following the featured poet’s act. The smell of rain still sticks in the air and the night’s cooled down.
Ayinde can’t find the sweatshirt he took off while he was inside. Outdoor lights show he’s got a big button on his shirt with the words “I AM AFRICA” splayed across a silhouette of the continent.
We get into bigger questions of life, which is the apparent result of exposure to expressive poetry or exposure to a nosy reporter.
If Ayinde could change anything with the snap of his finger, the first thing he’d do is eliminate poverty since “it makes people do everything else they do.” The next thing he’d do would involve something a little less tangible.
Creating “better ways of establishing – through our systems – how to treat each other like people.”
He mentioned this in another interview.
“Well-being and happiness is not important to our overarching government and society,” he says. “So I don’t want to ask, I just want do it. I want to show. I want to exemplify it in our community and we have the space and opportunity to do that now.”
Back in the courtyard, another friend makes his way over to give his two cents. Bryant Cross, 30, one of the emcees of the night, says he’s heard a lot of poets.
“A lot of them don’t mean what they say. It’s just a show or it’s just an act or just something to do, right? It’s like a persona,” he says. “[Ayinde] really is the person that he talks about in his stuff. And for me that’s a really rare thing: someone who’s authentic and original.”
“Alright, alright,” Ayinde says, waving him off.
Photo at top: Ayinde performs “Prisons” at The Gala’s old location at CityPoint Loft in Chinatown. He also performs at other open mics around the city and periodically with the Seneke West African Percussion Ensemble (Bryant Cross/YouTube)
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