Pam Grier: Growing awareness through education, activism

Pam Grier: Growing awareness through education, activism

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Last week I started my interview with film icon Pam Grier. We spoke about her time on “The L Word,” life in Hollywood and how her upbringing in Wyoming and Colorado inspired her love and concern for the environment. Grier is in town March 1 as a special guest for the annual LGBT Flower Show party. Once called “the baddest one-chick

hit-squad that ever hit town,” Grier now spends time fielding offers and supporting the many causes she feels passionate about, including LGBT rights and Dining Out for Life.

A self-described melting pot, when we left off, Grier was talking about oppression in its many forms.

PG: I live right behind the site of the Sand Creek massacre, where 500 Cheyenne women and babies were slaughtered by the cavalry for their land. We’ve all been living on land that was stolen from the Native Americans and we’ve forgotten, but I have friends who still live with that pain. Just as I have Jewish friends who live with the Holocaust and we have memorials and tributes to remember, but we must carry on. I just saw “Selma” and it reminded me of family on my father’s side from North Carolina who had to constantly deal with oppression — not being able to ride the bus or go into restaurants or use a restroom — and it wasn’t that long ago. In my book, I write about it and say I don’t know how my parents didn’t go crazy at the time. And there were white people too who wanted to support them who were lynched and terrorized right alongside them for daring to help people of color. It was insanity.

PGN: My great-uncle was a jazz player and they used to pretend to be Arabic when they performed down South so they could get into restaurants.

PG: When I did “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” Peter Douglas and Ray Bradbury really wanted me in the film so they told Disney that I was Egyptian! [Laughs] It was a running joke on set. So many of us have faced that. Look at Maria Tallchief; she was the first prima ballerina for Balanchine — he later married her — and she was Native American and fought to keep her last name when so many told her it was too ethnic. So things come along. And as you see images on screen — whether they be black or Native American or gay or trans — it opens doors, minds and hearts. I got work because I was capable but I thank and applaud those who gave me a chance.

PGN: One of those chances was when you were the first African-American woman on the cover of Ms. Magazine.

PG: Yes, people told Gloria Steinem the magazine wouldn’t sell with a black woman on the cover, but she fought for me. She is amazing: She formed the movement that gave many of us courage to talk the talk and walk the walk. She was the spirit and the vanguard. Once I was on the cover, it opened the doors for a lot of women of color. I hope everybody reads and knows about her; she’s extraordinary. And she’s still working quietly under the radar. I treasure the Gloria Steinems and the Bella Abzugs, the Barbara Jordans and Shirley Chisolms who’ve made a difference. I’ve studied hard in preparation for directing shows that I’ve written, and my screenplay is now getting a lot of attention. [Laughs] I wish I’d done it 30 years ago! But hey, hopefully I’ll get it done before I need a walker or before I’m 2 feet under. Ha, I still have a few years to go and I want to tell great human stories.

PGN: Speaking of being 2 feet under, at one point you were given 18 months to live. What was your first reaction and how did it change you?

PG: The first thought was, Who do I tell first, which of my family members? It didn’t change me until after I’d had two surgeries and years of treatment and going down to Chinatown to find twigs and leaves and alternative therapy. It changes the people around you too; you lose friends who don’t want to see you die or think they can catch it. You lose people who really weren’t your friends.

PGN: Do you think being a cancer survivor helped propel your interest in being a spokesperson for Dining Out for Life?

PG: No, not at all. [The issue of] people living with AIDS is much bigger than me and what I had. I was lucky enough to have the resources to care for myself. Dining Out for Life helps people who don’t have the care or resources that I had access to. There are people who cannot work and/or don’t have food or shelter, who have families that have ostracized and abandoned them — I didn’t have to worry about that. There are so many variables that people have to deal with. I believe that Dining Out for Life is every day. If you can’t afford to take people out for dinner, maybe you can just drop by a participating restaurant and donate $5. In Denver, we have Angel Heart where they prepare meals and serve 900 people a week and growing. They help people with HIV and AIDS and also cancer patients. When you’re sick, you can’t go shopping, and when no one comes around it’s tough. I lost a dear friend back in the ’80s. He was my hairstylist and just brilliant. I’d fly from Colorado to have him take care of my hair and he had several other celebrity and political clients. I didn’t know he had AIDS; back then we didn’t know much about it. It was hush-hush. People would just disappear and die. I called him and he told me that he’d lost his friend and that he was closing his shop and I asked him what was going on. He didn’t say much but the next time I was in town, I called him and asked if I could come by. I had no clue what was wrong but he was very thin, the house was bare and there was nothing in the refrigerator. I was not frightened but deeply concerned about him. He had no will, the complete antithesis of what he’d been before. He told me it was just something that was going around and he gave me an ornate carved green and gold folding screen and told me he wanted me to have it. I was like, “Why are you giving me your furniture?” He told me he was going home and wouldn’t need his furniture anymore. It was sad because at the time there was no cure, no treatment. He told me that I shouldn’t stay too long, but my thought was, I don’t know what’s going on but this is my friend. If I get it, I’ll fight it, whatever this is. I just saw my friend disappearing right before my eyes. Six months prior, he was robust and healthy and, shortly after, he was gone. It wasn’t until I read the obituary that I said, “Oh, that’s the disease they’ve been talking about.” It was several more years until we started getting valid information about it. I still have that screen and it’s precious to me to have a part of him.

PGN: You’re involved in so many causes, but since it’s Flower Show time, tell me about the Pam Grier Community Garden and Education Center.

PG: It’s part of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum. We teach people about organic gardening, health and nutrition among other things. We’re just getting it off the ground. I hate the fact that people go to the store and don’t have the option to buy organic foods at reasonable prices. It just makes such a difference when you can eat cleaner foods, get more vegetables in your diet. It’s preventative, it helps keep people out of hospitals. I want to work with Langston University, which is an Historically Black University; they gave me an honorary Ph.D in science because of my work with organic gardening and farming. I believe the agricultural students will be the game changers for the future. We need to get back to the kind of farming my grandfather did before we started using DEET and other pesticides and pumping our livestock full of hormones. If we can teach the young people to reject it, to refuse to be poisoned, we can turn things around. We need to be informed. Companies will say, “We didn’t use any pesticides on the plant” but then we find they used pesticides in the soil the food was grown in! It’s all about knowledge. Don’t get me started on GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or the issues with water. You’d be shocked at how many people can’t afford water to bathe in, never mind use it to water a garden. It’s a fight, but we’re going to win.

PGN: Let’s talk about a different kind of fighting. Where did you develop your athleticism and martial-arts skills?

PG: On the farm. That and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of my first boyfriends and we loved going to kung-fu movies. I studied martial arts, karate and jiu jitsu, Qigong, etc. I saw them in Asian films first and it was exciting. If you’re curious about life, you want to learn from every culture.

PGN: I saw the piece Oprah did on you at your farm and it looks like such a peaceful place.

PG: It was a property no one wanted! It was an old ranch house that we made home. I have horses and animals … a lot of rescue animals here. Everyone wants giant mansions that they can’t heat but there are so many good properties that just need a little love. When I was in Detroit driving around I saw so many fabulous little properties, cottages, abandoned and boarded-up. I thought women could fix them up and live in these. All you need to do is watch a couple of episodes of Bob Vila’s “This Old House.” Stop buying shoes and invest in property! Fix them up and flip them and make some money. Businesses are coming back to Detroit so instead of living in an apartment, you could have your own little house with a yard for your kids. If people would just open their eyes, they could see that opportunities are abundant. Daddy Ray would always say, “Don’t always look for the green on the other side of the fence, it’s right underneath your feet.”

PGN: Very true. It’s amazing what you can do with a little ingenuity and desire.

PG: You can build whole communities. It’s not just about the bricks and mortar. Community is when you see a piece of paper on the ground and you pick it up. I pick up trash because I enjoy beauty. I’ve worked in some of the most beautiful gardens and in some of the most treacherous parts of Los Angeles with people trying to grow food for their families — trying to find any little square foot of space to grow good food because they can’t afford to go to the market, nor do they have the transportation to do so. When I see people doing that, being resourceful, I smile and say, “That’s Daddy Ray, that’s his spirit.” Out of necessity comes genius.

PGN: What a life you have!

PG: It’s wonderful but things are busy these days. It’s a holiday today [Presidents Day] but not for us. I have a few other interviews today and I have calls in about current projects to discuss hair and wardrobe and that kind of thing. And projects keep coming in. [Laughs] It’s to the point that I have to say, “Can you call me in a few years from now?” I have a couple of people who help me and our days are full. They’re like, “So-and-so keeps calling. What should I do about this? This needs to go out today!” and I tell them, “Go home. That’s what the three answering machines are for.” When you have people doing things for you, you want them to do things well and on time but you have to honor their time and space and families as well. I have to make them take the weekends off. I tell them, “Mama’s OK, don’t worry about me.” [Laughs] I want them to take their days off so they don’t start resenting and hating me! But I have the smartest, most dedicated people around me. I can’t ask for much more.

PGN: Let’s wrap up with some random thoughts. Favorite toys?

PG: My brother’s train and my first bike. But more than toys, I loved our horses.

PGN: When was the last time you cried?

PG: Two weeks ago when I saw “Selma.” It harkened back to my relatives who were hosed and who were refused service in restaurants. I heard the song “Glory” and it reminded me of them.

PGN: Best birthday?

PGN: When I was born.

PGN: If there was a Foxy Brown award for strong independent women, who would you give it to?

PG:  Beyoncé, Angelina Jolie and Michelle Obama. Those are the top three but I could name about 30 more.

PGN: Will you have some time to spend in Philadelphia?

PG: No, I’m in and out. I have to leave right away but I’m looking forward to the Flower Show. I’ve heard so much about it. We have a home show here and I like to take my mom but it’s hard because of the snow; she doesn’t do well in the cold weather anymore. But there’s so much to learn, I live in the mountains and we have all sorts of flora and fauna around here. I get to see how nature survives and adapts and the teacher reminds me every day not to squander. But there’s always something new to learn.

Suzi’s note: There were so many more topics we didn’t get to cover. In her book, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts,” Grier speaks about being raped at age 6: “You try to deal with it, but you never really get over it, and not just me — my family endured so much guilt and anger that something like that happened to me.” She also faced discrimination in Hollywood — including her role in Rocket Gibraltar (1988) being cut due to fears by the film’s director, Daniel Petrie, of the “repercussions from interracial love scenes.” Her relationships with Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze and of course her many triumphs along the way. By the way, she also has another connection to this area. Her cousin, former NFL football star Rosey Grier, attended Penn State University. The original member of the Fearsome Foursome was known for challenging gender stereotypes. He was famous for his needlepointing and authored his own book, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.” He also recorded the song “It’s All Right to Cry” for the children’s album from “Free to Be … You and Me.” Unfortunately, even with two columns dedicated to Grier, we still only touched the surface. Hopefully you’ll check out her book or, better yet, come to the Flower Show and meet this remarkable woman yourself. 

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