Vernon Butler | A Message From Our Elders

Vernon Butler

Elder, Community Organizer, Creative

[Success] “I don’t even think in those terms anymore…”

Previous to this conversation, it would have been a few months since I last spoke with Vernon, but whenever we reconvene, the conversation always picks up where it left off. Read on as I sit down with Vernon, an elder, who is an embodiment of genuine love and care for one’s community, about his life, and the importance of inter-generational communication.

An Apology From One Generation To Another

“I’m so sorry that we didn’t hold the door open for you…”

Who I Am

I’ve been in this struggle since I was 13, that was the first time I ran away from home…I was then and very much now, still committed to this. It’s who I am.

I am originally from Chicago.

I’m a panther, from the Chicago chapter…Chairman Fred used to call me “Fat Boy”

I went to Hales Franciscan High school, which at the time was the only All Black Preparatory Catholic High school in the city. It picked up the name, the Morehouse of High schools because we were cranking them out and folks were getting into college. I went to Loop City College, which is now called Harold Washington Community College.

On Going Back To Africa

There’s still folks in jail for standing up in the 60s. I walk funny, because my body’s been touched with night sticks. I did that for a reason. And none of it had to do with celebrities and consumerism. And I like fashion just like the next person, you know, but no,  at the end of the day this is about keeping ourselves alive, keeping our heads filled with knowledge, and getting as many people off of this continent and home, as possible.

If all they do is go and look and touch it and go, ‘oh, wow, okay, I made it to Africa, I wanna go back to Massah,’ I ain’t got no problem with that, but go home. Do it at least once. See what it’s like to be in the majority, you know, where everything is black. You turn on the TV and its black…let’s do that instead.

“They taught us to hate Africa. The question is why?….We come from some place and that place is a continent called Africa.”

I am extremely proud of the fact that I am African. And that when I see them, I see myself. And I’m glad to see them here and I’m like,

‘help me get home, I want to go home. Help me.

Well, where do you wanna go?

I want to go to all of it.’

I may never get back to the exact place, of the defining ancestor, but I know where it is. And if I can go to all of it, I’ll get to a place where at some point, where I’ll go ‘Oh. Yeah. Mhmmm. Yes. This is mine.’

I think once we start dismantling the residual chains that are on our brains and in our hearts about who we are on this soil, we get to change how we do stuff. How do we free ourselves from the residual shackles of enslavement? Because if we can figure out how to do that, change as a whole, changes how we think about what success is, who we are as a people, why we do the things that we do. We’ve adopted and continue to adopt so much of white people’s stuff, consciously and unconsciously, that we separate ourselves, we’re fracturing our own community.

We’re separating ourselves from ourselves and then wonder why we’re not together. Excuse me, you can’t have it both ways. We’re either community or we’re individuals. We’re either community, where regardless of how you are, we are one or everybody’s an individual and if in the course of your existence our paths cross at the intersection, we can get down.

No, I’m sorry, I can’t live my life like that.

His Work

How long have I been in my field? Which one? Because I don’t think that we’re designed to have one little niche and run around in that.

I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a Theatre Director,  Choreographer, Set Designer. Worked for, wow, Kuumba Theatre, New Concept Theatre, Steph & Wolf for a little while, Second City for three years.

I always wanted to be a Renaissance person…for knowledge. I’m always learning new stuff.


” It’s static, it’s not alive.”

In general my work is two things. And I just recently found out how to put a corral around that. My purpose on the planet is to just absorb information and then disseminate that information. To disseminate that information, so that those I’m disseminating it to are able to utilize that, if they choose to. So that, at the end of the day, because I’m not attached to it, they can never say ‘I didn’t know’. That’s number one. Number two is to bear witness.

 “My heart hurts. My soul hurts.”

On Being A Bridge Between The Past, Present & Future

I was born in the middle of the century, in the middle of the year, in the middle of the damn night. And I know, because I’ve laid eyes on them, they touched me, people that were behind me, that were doing the precursors to the sixties craziness. I got to meet people like, the first female black judge of Chicago, [Judge Edith Sampson]. I got to meet Dexter Cort. I got to see pictures of my grandmother and her mother, with Ella Fitzgerald, because the movie Cabin In The Sky, that’s about a night club that was actually in Chicago, that belonged to my great, great grandmother, that was hers. It stayed open during Prohibition, because they got their booze from Al Capone, because we were in Chicago. I got to meet Gwendolyn Brooks.

All these people behind me, I touched them. Their lives were parts of mine.

Not an everyday thing, but I knew who they were. I knew what they were doing.

When I first met Harry Belafonte, I did not connect him to the song, I was a kid! I knew the song! I did not connect him, the person I was sitting in a room with, with a whole lot of other people, talking about how they were gonna amass money to get it to the south with that song. It had nothing to do with that, and when I did realize who that was, it was like ‘Oh!’

It was the same feeling when I met James Baldwin.

On The Catalyst To His Journey To Love

On Removing The Word Triggering & Thinking For Ourselves

You used a word, that I want to snatch out of Black people’s mouths, triggering.

Who was getting triggered originally? White folks.

Who was looking for transparency, originally? White folks.

Why did we adopt their stuff?

Because we’re learning the ways of our oppressors. Do you feel that is something that people want? People aren’t truly aware of that is what they are doing. We’re learning the ways of our oppressors, like everything from language on down and even with success and what our definitions are. But is it something that people want to do? Like, they want to learn the ways of their oppressors or is it something like it’s just happening and they’re not aware of it and they don’t want to change it ? | Jakia

For me, it’s part of the apology, of the things that we did not give our kids. Had we given them that, instead of $300 Air Jordans, the ability to emulate the people who came before them. Because I wonder what it would have been like for Harriett Tubman to talk about being triggered, or to have one of the people that she was taking through the underground talk about being triggered.

And no, that doesn’t take away any of the anxiety, the trauma, the sweats, the fear. It doesn’t take any of that away, you do that in spite of…because of…

On Success

I don’t even think in those terms anymore.

It’s a question, that’s basically implying, ‘ How do you compare yourself to other people?’ Number one, I was never allowed to compare myself to other people, because other people didn’t want to have anything to do with me, because I was this little short, fat, round kid and there was very few times that I was invited into the Rudolph games. So I was not even attached to the sled with the rest of the reindeer. So…Deuces! And if I were to compare myself, so then I could say, yes I am, this success, it would have to be to the people who came before me. Am I doing the stuff that Mr. Dick Gregory would talk to me about when I was a kid? Am I living to that expectation? Am I living to the expectations of my great grand-father? Am I living to the expectations of my father? And my step-dad? Then I could say that I am successful.

When I had run out my years with um Second City, theatre, it was suggested that I leave Chicago and go to New York. And I said why? And they said, ‘and you know, then you can be discovered’ and I’m like no, I don’t need to go someplace else, with no support system to do exactly what I’m doing right here with a support system. Struggling, starving, and trying to figure out where I’m going to sleep at night. I have a support system, it’s not a great support system, but it allows me to eat, it allows me to sleep,, I’m not going to do that and furthermore…

Recommended Reading Suggested by Vernon

The Man-Not, Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, Dr. Tommy J. Curry

Yurugu: An African-centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, Marimba Ani

The Diary of Malcolm X

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

Post traumatic  Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy

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