Liza Jessie Peterson photographed in Brooklyn by  Frederick V. Nielsen II  for THE TROVE.

Liza Jessie Peterson photographed in Brooklyn by Frederick V. Nielsen II for THE TROVE.

TheTROVE_LizaJessiePeterson.jpg

With its curving balustrade, the small balcony suggests box seats as the drama of Crown Heights unfolds below— sirens, laughter, life on a block of turn-of-the-century limestone buildings. Overlooking a park, it is a recharge station for self-described artivist Liza Jessie Peterson and the multitudes within— citizen artist, peculiar patriot, medicine woman, saloon broad, gangsta goddess, thug mama genie, black love advocate. It too offers a prime view into the world of this fierce, yet unexpectedly shy sister warrior who has spent nearly twenty years enmeshed in the carceral system without ever having been arrested. Her journey has led to a particularly heady year, with her appearance last fall in the Ava DuVernay-helmed documentary, 13th, the publication of her book All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island and the opening of her powerful, illuminating one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot at the National Black Theatre.

When we meet, it is summer, just as she is to start rehearsals for the play. She is radiant and welcoming. Her breezy dress, dipped in the colors of sunset, compliments her coronal mass of sun-kissed curls. Fitting as we take the deep dive into her Kemetic studies and Ra energy. "Ra is the sun disk; represents concentrated, undiluted, undifferentiated solar energy; light manifested, the sun we see," she says as she begins to explain the symbolism of her stunning Khepera (scarab) necklace. "I took my pilgrimage to Kemet (Egypt) in 1999. I had the honor of going with Dr. Ben; it was life-changing." Although she'd already visited Senegal's Gorée Island and the "Door of No Return," which was, she says, "impactful," the trip to Egypt was "like a homecoming." She was unsurprised by her sister's later ancestry DNA test results. "We are from Blue Nile Ethiopia, which was part of Kemet before it was all cut up." She felt it deeply as she stood amid the ancient ruins. "To stand and see your reflection in stone, it does something to your cells. You see hieroglyphs inside of mountains; so there could be no mistake, or you'd have to find another mountain! This level of mastery," she says in awed tones, "This is us. It blew my mind and shut down everything I thought I knew." She laughs and says, "They say the aliens built the pyramids, well if they did, we was talkin' to 'em; communicating with them. We were cosmic and galactic too. We were fabulous, doing heart surgeries and putting organs in jars and mummifying people and making paper from papyrus and writing." It countered her educational experience in the States — "the white supremacist matrix, the colonized education" that warps history and creates false notions of superiority and inferiority. "I came back from Egypt like 'There's nothing a white person can say to me but thank you. That's all. Thank me that you can talk and know how to use the toilet and you can write on paper and have an astrological sign. That's what Egypt did for me. Kemet."

 Baby Lee Lee; Afros and turtlenecks—twinning with mom; Ninth grade: snatchback, gold hoops and no pork on her fork; Laura Biagiotti shades and a Dior bag-working the wicker and rocking the boots is a theme she'll reprise in a glamazon calendar. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Baby Lee Lee; Afros and turtlenecks—twinning with mom; Ninth grade: snatchback, gold hoops and no pork on her fork; Laura Biagiotti shades and a Dior bag-working the wicker and rocking the boots is a theme she'll reprise in a glamazon calendar. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

But before all that, she was Lee Lee, a West Philadelphia Girl Scout, raised in the Episcopal Church. She was William and Helen's baby girl, Leslie's little sis and the dance group partner and cousin of Pebbles and Kim. "We had our little routines; thought we were Destiny's Child before Destiny's Child. My mother made our costumes," she laughs. "I grew up on 48th and Osage." Not far from the spot where a bomb dropped on the MOVE compound at 6221 Osage Avenue would claim the lives of six adults and five children on May 13, 1985. “I always had a passion for fairness and justice, and I’m a Libra too, I’m cosmically, astrologically wired that way. I was always interested in the plight of black people. My mother made us watch Roots as a family. I was a little girl, and I just remember being mortified. I went back to school fired up. They had to call my mother to come get me." All pre-teen indignation and scorn, she gave her white teachers a piece of her young, woke mind. "It's Alex Haley's fault," she laughs. "He put me on that path. But my family has always been very conscious of our blackness, loving our blackness. That was ingrained, that sense of identity and self-love. My father was a strong man, an alpha male, very powerful (and born with a caul).  He walked with that I know who we are. We're African. We're crème de la crème African because we survived the Middle Passage, we survived the diseases, we survived the plantation, we survived Jim Crow. Mm-hmm." Her speech peppered with it, Liza's mm-hmm is melodic, marrow-deep and multivalent, a blues, a snap, an affirmation.

She was in high school when then-Mayor Wilson Goode authorized the unthinkable— a Philadelphia police helicopter dropping C-4 explosive on the headquarters (located in a residential area) of the Black liberation group, MOVE, purportedly to destroy only the bunker on the roof and flush out the inhabitants. Only one woman and child surivived; eleven others perished. The resulting fire spread and destroyed 65 neighboring homes. "It's the whole phenomenon of the sunken place," she says. "Mayor No Good felt he had to prove that he was a good and safe negro and that he was going to maintain the white supremacy agenda former Mayor Rizzo had in place. That he was going to carry the torch." She says that Mayor Goode had been "so infected by white supremacy that it manifested in self-hatred. He aligned himself with the oppressor because he thought it was the winning team." So although the greater Black community of Philadelphia hadn't "embraced" the MOVE members widely thought of as "radicalized Rastas; living very outside of the matrix," Liza says, they were "outraged" when "No Good's self-hatred manifested into murder." 

High school was an awakening, she says. "Subconsciously, the MOVE bombing had an impact, it was so shocking, infuriating, but what politicized me was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Her boyfriend introduced her to Minister Louis Farrakhan's speeches. "I thought whoa, wait; I never heard black people talk like this before. Mm-hmm."

Then at seventeen, she lost her beloved mother. "I was in my senior year, so I'm applying to colleges, I'm getting acceptance letters, it was the pre-prom season, pre-graduation season, and my sister, Leslie, who was nine years older than me, just stepped right in; she filled a big gap. I was her sister-daughter; she was my sister-mom." Sadly, Leslie, author of over 40 books, including the popular Vampire Huntress Legends series would pass away in 2012, eight years after their father, William.

 Cherished family: William Toney. Peterson, Helen Thornton Peterson and Leslie Esdaile Banks (née Peterson) May they rest in peace. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Cherished family: William Toney. Peterson, Helen Thornton Peterson and Leslie Esdaile Banks (née Peterson) May they rest in peace. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

After high school, Liza brought her West Philly realness to Georgetown University, a bastion of whiteness in the Chocolate City, Washington, DC.. She studied International Relations and interned on Capitol Hill. “I was thinking about law and politics, though I knew I didn’t want to be a politician. I was interested in becoming a lobbyist since I worked for a black think tank and saw that this is how policy gets influenced—through lobbyists.” 

“There was a close-knit community of black students, the Black Student Alliance. I ran for president my first year there, and I won. I was like ‘BSA what y’all doing? We should be having black study groups not just doing fashion shows, you know, socialite stuff. We need to be learning about who the fuck we are up in this piece!’ I was militant, radical. I brought scholars like Ivan Van Sertima to campus. I tried to bring Farrakhan, but they wouldn't give me the money,” she says cracking up. “But I did try. It was really challenging to be immersed in so much whiteness in a black city.” She seethed when as a freshman, she was required to take a course, European Civilization, yet there wasn’t a single course in African American Studies, not even as an elective. (A program wouldn’t be instituted until 2003, and it only became a department in 2016.) “I just got so angry,” she says emphatically. "Where were my people? My history? Where is Africa in this equation? So I had to take my African American Studies classes at Howard."

She wanted a break after four years of hard work at Georgetown. “I remember all the white kids, the rich kids after graduation, they were going to Tibet and backpacking the Himalayas; all this exotic shit, right? So I had my little bougie black girl moment and said ‘Dad, I want to take some time off.’ He was like ‘Yeah, okay, you can take the SUMMER off,’ she cackles, ‘But come September, your ass is gonna be in law school, grad school, something. What’s the plan?’”
 

 William T. Peterson, decorated veteran under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific during WWII and proud father of Georgetown University graduate, Liza. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

William T. Peterson, decorated veteran under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific during WWII and proud father of Georgetown University graduate, Liza. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Six-foot-one, lithe and beautiful, she headed to New York City—where her best friend was living— to seek representation with a modeling agency. Metropolitan Models expressed interest, but said she’d have to go to Paris before they’d sign her to a contract. “When you’re young, you do shit on the fly, so I bought a round-trip ticket to Paris. I’m going to take the Paris litmus test, and I’m on the plane, and I realize in the sky What the fuck did I do? So I’m crying, and there’s this one black lady, a Parisian; she says to me ‘Ma chérie, What is wrong?’” Holding a scrap of paper scrawled with a hotel address near the agency she was to visit, Liza said through tears, “I don’t even know how to get here, I’m not French.” The woman reassured her —“Don’t worry, ma chérie,” and helped her get from the airport to the hotel. As providence would have it, the woman was a bartender at Les Bains Douches, “the hottest club in Paris,” and extended Liza an invitation to come. “I had no idea how fabulous it was! It was very exclusive.” There she would meet a young college student, Claude Grunitzky (Founding Editor of TRACE magazine and Founder of TRUE Africa) who had a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Paris in Neuilly. “We met up on the Champs-Élysées after meeting in the club, nothing romantic, he’s into hip-hop, I’m from the States. He was so curious, and we clicked on the music thing. He had extra room and needed someone to cook for him; I became his live-in cook,” she laughs. “I didn’t have to spend money on a hotel. I was able to go on auditions, and he was helping me navigate this world. Then I got booked for Jean Paul Gaultier, one of the biggest shows in Paris. I ended up living there for six months, and it opened up my world. I didn’t know about being an artist. I didn’t even know that was a thing. My sister did the corporate thing for Xerox and IBM; I was doing the political thing, planned to work on Capitol Hill and have my little Brooks Brothers suit. The mantra my parents had set for me because it was all they knew: Get a job with benefits, security, house, picket fence, do better than us. I was, as a dutiful daughter, on that path until I got on that plane to Paris.” She gasps. “I just felt free. Fashion and models and designers and artists and musicians and dancers and freedom. I was turned out!”

 WIth Claude in Paris; the model on set.

WIth Claude in Paris; the model on set.

She didn’t know yet that she was an actress, writer, and poet, that hers was a powerful voice. “The world of modeling opened me up to explore creative expression.” But she didn’t like being judged on her looks. “That was really problematic for me—being the beautiful model who just giggles. I always had a big mouth. I still had a lot of West Philly edges to me, so Paris helped to smooth those edges out,” she laughs heartily. She hopped from Paris to Milan and back to New York where she did the shows for a few years until unfulfilled she turned to acting. A “dirt cheap” copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare from The Strand Bookstore, copped because Othello had a black character, ignited her love of language. “It read like poetry,” she says. “I was so turned out by the language and the story; I dove into it. I remember writing down Othello’s monologue because it was so passionate. I wanted to speak it. I thought I want to perform this." She’d seen Shakespeare in the Park, and she learned of the National Shakespeare Conservatory's eight-week summer intensive. Waitressing at the time, she “saved up my coins, got some financial aid, and went to study and perform in the Catskills. I LOVED it,” she exclaims. When she performed her first scene, as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, the acting teacher stood and said, “that is the best Cleopatra I’ve ever seen in my life. Who are you?” She'd given it her all— “it gave me a channel to tap into my pain. It was very therapeutic to work through the trauma of my mother’s death. It helped me get in touch with the pain in a way that I had not experienced before. It opened me up. To be able to give it over to a character was liberating. Mm-hmm."

Though she'd already stopped eating pork when her Muslim boyfriend declared he wasn’t down for kissing lips that touched the swine, it was her mother’s early death from metastatic cancer that inspired Liza to stop eating red meat. She was seventeen and searching for answers. “What is this thing that took my mother? Toxins in the body feed cancer cells. Well, what are the foods that create the toxins? I discovered that red meat takes the longest to pass through the system and that with all the stuff they inject into the beef, that gets into the body. That was the spark, and it grew.” 

 From the page to the stage,  wokring  it out with Carl Hancock Rux at Central Park Summerstage.  Healing in a jar, Liza's Gangsta Goddess Hot Sauce.  Photos: Sharon Pendana

From the page to the stage, wokring it out with Carl Hancock Rux at Central Park Summerstage.  Healing in a jar, Liza's Gangsta Goddess Hot Sauce.  Photos: Sharon Pendana

After moving to New York, she was “in need of a mother,” and several women, as Leslie had, stood in the gap. Amy Olatunji (wife of master drummer Baba Olatunji) became her “spiritual mother, an elder who mothered and nurtured me," she says. "She gave me tips on juicing and introduced me to clean eating. I studied with her for many years.” The potent Gangsta Goddess Hot Sauce that Liza whips up in her kitchen and distributes in mason jars has an impressive lineage. She got the recipe for “plague sauce—it’ll cure any plague” from Ms. Olatunji, who in turn got it from Nellie (Mrs. Thelonious) Monk. Liza recalls meeting Mrs. Monk: “Sister Amy took me to Nellie Monk’s house. I was not allowed to enter the kitchen because it was her laboratory—she actually wore white gloves—but I could stand at the doorway and observe. She was a healer.”

 Left, In Kemet: "Our holy book is written in stone, not paper, baby." RIght, Initiate of Queen Afua's Sacred Woman Village. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Left, In Kemet: "Our holy book is written in stone, not paper, baby." RIght, Initiate of Queen Afua's Sacred Woman Village. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Queen Afua and the path of the Sacred Woman was a natural progression. “I did sixteen weeks—soldier-like boot camp. That changed my life. It heightened the medicine woman in me and the awareness of health and womb care connected to my Kemetic ancestors and legacy. She changed my life and how I eat. It’s a lifestyle. I came out of Sacred Woman a medicine woman warrior.” Years later she would share her knowledge with incarcerated adolescent girls and those in a re-entry program designed to “help them not recidivate back into jail after release with counseling, education, court advocacy, life skills and job training, all the support needed. I’d bring my juicer in, and have conversations about the colon and womb wellness. I was planting seeds. They saw me doing it consistently, and they would be excited when they came in with a freshly squeezed juice. 'Sista Liza, look what I got!'” 

She gets choked up as she remembers the late Janet Carter, a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem, gallerist, and first wife of jazz great, Ron Carter. “She was so committed to bringing young black women into this creative fold of masterful artists. She was always bringing people together, having strategic dinners. ‘Liza you need to be at this dinner party, darling.’ She was so classy. Aunt Janet calls, I show up." A friend suggested that Liza and her waitressing colleague visit Africa. "I said 'Girl; I'm a waitress, I don't have no Africa money.'" Mrs. Carter paid for the young women to travel to Senegal, making sure to connect them with her community there.

 Above, Liza with fellow  artivist ,  Danny Simmon s and "Uncle Ron," jazz legend,  Ron Carter  at BRIC Arts in 2015. Below, Liza with Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bönz Malone at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for the Grand Jury Prize-winning film,  Slam;  the film's editor, Emir Lewis in the background. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Above, Liza with fellow artivistDanny Simmons and "Uncle Ron," jazz legend, Ron Carter at BRIC Arts in 2015. Below, Liza with Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bönz Malone at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for the Grand Jury Prize-winning film, Slam; the film's editor, Emir Lewis in the background. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Liza joined the community of underground artists at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the early years of their poetry slams, before the spoken word movement of the 1990's made its way to the screen in Slam and HBO's Def Poetryshe appeared in both. She's also had roles in Spike Lee's Bamboozled with Damon Wayans and Jada Pinkett Smith and Love The Hard Way with Adrien Brody and Pam Grier. Over the years, she's worked with an illustrious coterie of progressive-minded kindred spirits including Nona Hendryx, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets and Toshi Reagon on her festival, Word*Rock* & Sword to name but a few.

 Photo by  Frederick V. Nielsen II  for THE TROVE

Photo by Frederick V. Nielsen II for THE TROVE

Like many independent artists, Liza needed to supplement her working artist's income and in 1998 accepted an invitation to teach a poetry workshop for adolescent boys. Little did she know that Island Academy, where she was assigned, was the high school of Rikers Island. "I was supposed to do a three-week workshop and then get assigned to another school— a teaching artist gig where you bounce around to different schools."  Three weeks turned to three years as teachers kept requesting her. "I literally became the poet-in-residence there." She recalls her first day and the strategic first impression she made. "Walking in as a woman, I didn’t want them to sexualize me. I went in dressed like a soldier: green army jacket and fatigues. And I walked with a commanding presence—I think I get it from my father—like I'm not here to be cute. I know these are our warriors. How I walk is very deliberate; how I speak; what I say to them right off the bat, 'I'm here to give y'all brothers some information about who you are as a Black man in America. I’m not gonna hide the truth. You gonna know why the fuck you up in here. Look around; you see anybody that don't look like you?' I’m not coming in mousy. I’m using my theatre voice. I’m talking from my diaphragm, so I'm giving an alpha tone. Yeah, I pushed aside the fantasies. They were like, 'Oh, she's coming with some Sista Souljah shit!' So there was some respect."  Purple gele on and the soldier's last name, "Spell" still affixed to the army jacket she wore, she strode in, a mojo-working warrior queen casting spells. 

A Correctional Officer hipped her to just where she'd landed, saying of the almost exclusively Black and Latino inmate population, "This is the new plantation, and they're the crops, that's the new cotton." He told Liza to search "prison industrial complex" online. "I didn't know. It started me down the abyss of statistics and information about the privatization of prisons and how it morphed out of slavery. I was Google Mommy. Every article took me deeper in the rabbit-hole. At the time my boyfriend, a former drug dealer, had violated parole and was serving time."

 Photo by  Yoshinori Hashimoto  for  The Peculiar Patriot .

Photo by Yoshinori Hashimoto for The Peculiar Patriot.

And so began her plunge into to the penal system in America. "So now, I'm with the kids during the day, and I'm on the bus visiting him on the weekends." When he transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, she'd take the five-hour bus ride to see him. She looked at the mass of people—hundreds gathered at Manhattan's Columbus Circle at midnight— queueing up to board the fleet of buses that would take them to visit their incarcerated loved ones at various facilities. "I was so impacted by what I considered a tremendous love story. This hidden community that looks normal, but walks with a heavy burden. Lining up at 12'o'clock at night with bags and food and care packages and children to visit this incarcerated nation— loving through barbed wire," she says. "Then I'm on the visiting room floor, and you bond with a community of women that you see every weekend. Oh, hey Cheryl, how you doin?

She remembers lamenting the weight of it all: working with the boys, anxiously awaiting phone calls and letters from her man, going upstate to see him, and getting new information about the system itself. "My life was immersed in prison. So I had my little pity pot, and my friend said, 'Girl, get off my phone, you have a story to tell.' When I stepped out of myself and looked back at my journey, I was like yeah, I've been witness to something that needs testimony. I just started writing a monologue, and that was the genesis of The Peculiar Patriot.

 With Ava Duvernay on the set of the Emmy award-winning,  13th . "I was honored to have been interviewed for  13th . Ava's an  artivist  too, her activism really comes strong through her art . I’m putting it in the ether that I hope my work will land on her radar.  I just hope our energies reconnect I would LOVE to work with her.  It would be a dream come true; our sensibilities are so aligned.  I’d love for her to come see  Peculiar Patriot ." Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

With Ava Duvernay on the set of the Emmy award-winning, 13th. "I was honored to have been interviewed for 13th. Ava's an artivist too, her activism really comes strong through her art.I’m putting it in the ether that I hope my work will land on her radar.  I just hope our energies reconnect I would LOVE to work with her.  It would be a dream come true; our sensibilities are so aligned.  I’d love for her to come see Peculiar Patriot." Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Initially, theaters weren't receptive to the project, and in frustration, she "took the play to prison.” She adds, “it was so well received, that I came off the grid in the New York theater and performance world and toured the play for three years exclusively in prisons. Rikers wanted it and Houston Correctional Facility, so I thought I'd try another facility.” And another until she’d toured it in 35 penitentiaries across the country. She'd felt “invisible” in the theater world, but had "a feeling of validation" when she performed in the prisons. "The inmates, the incarcerated population, they saw me. They felt invisible to the rest of the world because they’re behind the wall. When I went there, I let them know I SEE you; that this play is about YOU. We both had a connection to invisibility, and we both validated each other seeing each other. I think that’s what kept me performing in prison for so long because I was being seen and loved. And I was seeing and loving. It was a very symbiotic relationship.” This was before Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th were released. "Thank God for them,” Liza says, “for catapulting the issue of mass incarceration into the zeitgeist.” She’s grateful for the prison launch, but is eager to bring the piece—and its unflinching truth to a broader audience.

Between all this, she took on a full-time teaching gig at Riker’s Academy in 2008. Yes, she knew the ropes a bit already, but this wasn’t a single poetry class, she was to teach her charges, whom she affectionately called her "rugrats" in all subjects, from 7:30 am to 2:30 pm— all day. She started writing about her year-long experience and sharing/workshopping it at Brooklyn writer Amy Linden’s series, (reading) our words at Fort Greene mainstay, Frank’s Lounge. With a crowdfunding campaign, she set about to self-publish a chronicle of her year as the teacher for the boys of C-74, a book she’d call All Day. The campaign garnered her an agent and ultimately a book deal with Hachette. Written with love, humor, and warrior-spirited righteousness, the book deftly chronicles her experience while letting the boys' individual voices be heard, shining an inside light on their humanity under inhumane circumstances. She'd momentarily fretted over whether it should have a more "intellectual" approach, but "once I got off of that self-flagellating thing that I do, I got out of the way of the kids. What are THEY saying? I found my lane, and I’m okay with it," she says. "I know the shorties are going to be able to access it." 

 LJP records the  audiobook  for her incredible book,   All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.   Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson and Hachette Book Group.

LJP records the audiobook for her incredible book, All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island. Photos courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson and Hachette Book Group.

 

We speak of the racism running roughshod in our society and she says, "Abiodun [Oyewole of The Last Poets] told me something that Fannie Lou Hamer told him. He was raging against white people: Crackers this, honkies that. She just patted him on his knee like an old church lady and said 'Baby, it’s not their fault, we were brought here to raise them.' And he said that just cooled him out like, we’re the elders. Mm-hmm, just remember that we are the elders of this whole thing."

She becomes reflective. "The last twenty years of my life have been so immersed in prison—prison advocacy, working with kids, in the trenches doing the work and even though I'm not officially at Rikers anymore, I'm still doing court advocacy for some of the kids; I'm in touch with their mothers. Even my play is about prison, takes me right back to it. It is a weird paradox that I find my identity is so linked with prison. It's where I feel most free—or the safest because I know it. So the interesting thing is finding out who I am outside of it."

 Liza Jessie Peterson photographed by  Frederick V. Nielsen I I for THE TROVE.

Liza Jessie Peterson photographed by Frederick V. Nielsen II for THE TROVE.

"There’s a bigness about me on stage, that’s where I get to use the expansiveness of my body and my energy, but in my every day, I’m a little shy." Though she's an incredibly engaging conversationalist and masterful listener—evidenced by her spot-on characterizations—she finds it hard to strike up conversation. And she is empathic, intuitive and deeply spiritual. "That comes from losing my mother and having to discover another way to communicate with her. I was introduced to the ancestor realm very early; the spirit realm because that’s where Mommy was. So I had to dream about her or pray to her. I was training my ear to hear messages from her. I needed that. I’d pray and ask for things, and they’d show up through other people. So I have an awareness of signs, how spirit moves through people. I’m super sensitive, but I also have," she laughs, "a really dark sense of humor. I think that’s why I was able to find the humor in the rugrats' crazy shenanigans. I probably go more towards the humor than towards the heartbreak."  

She's not certain what's next, but is excited by the possibilities. "I don’t know what my advocacy will continue to look like with the kids. I would like to bring them along with me wherever I go. I’m putting this in the universe—my book is turned into a TV series. I want to hire some of my kids to work in production and some as actors. I wanna bring some of my little rugrats into the industry." Mm-hmm.

Liza's TROVE:

 Family photo courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

Family photo courtesy of Liza Jessie Peterson.

1. My ankh. Custom-made by Baba Heru, it is magnificent. "The top of the ankh is the goddess Nut she’s the goddess of the sky and of the celestial stars. She swallows the moon and gives birth to the sun. She’s the cycle of the moon the sun and the stars. She’s being held up by the feathers of Ma’at, which is truth, justice and balance. Reciprocity. The cross on the ankh is the eye of Heru and the eye of Tehuti, the ancient Kemetic eye. This," she says, pointing to the center, "is Het Heru, who Aphrodite gets her identity from. She rules beauty and music. She’s Venus, the divine nurturer which is why she’s always got the cow horn. Then Khepera, the scarab, which represents rebirth, regeneration, it’s being held up by the cosmic star of Nut and at the bottom is a lotus flower that is opening up. On the other side, it’s the same thing except here you have the eyes of Heru and there the wings of Ra. Aten Ra is the sun we see. Amen Ra is the solar power and Ra is the sun energy—we see it, we don’t see it, it’s all Ra."

2. My ancestor altar. Private, it holds her ankh, photos of her departed beloveds and other sacred items. 

3. Family photographs.  A gorgeous 1931 photo of her father, William Peterson at age six surrounded by his older sister Julia and younger sister, Hettie hangs on her living room wall, other photos dot the mantel and more hold hallowed ground on her altar.

 Helen Peterson, Liza's mom, and one of her journals. Photo:  Frederick V. Nielsen   II  for THE TROVE.

Helen Peterson, Liza's mom, and one of her journals. Photo: Frederick V. Nielsen II for THE TROVE.

4. Journals. Both hers and her mother's. She found her voice by journaling, encouraged to do so by her mom. "My mother used to write in her journals, Dear God, She was such a healer, always absorbing other people's problems and having their issues heavy on her heart. So almost everything in her journal was about wanting to see others get better. She never asked for anything for herself." Liza cherishes her mom's three humble, spiral notebooks. And she keeps all of her own musings from the adolescent diary with lock and key to leather bound artisan journals.

 Photos :   Frederick V. Nielsen   II  for THE TROVE.

Photos: Frederick V. Nielsen II for THE TROVE.

5. My ring. "I’ve had this ring for years, 15, maybe twenty years. Got it from Dr. Foots in New Orleans. He was definitely a witchdoctor. It's agate from Botswana."

6. My earrings. Rarely is she without her "authentic, circa 80's shrimp earrings, my first pair of big hoops when I was a teenager. Or my bamboo. They're my hood earrings." And she always wears one of many feather earrings. "My coming into consciousness earrings," she says. "Paying homage to my Native American ancestry and paying homage to Ma’at, my Kemetic legacy with the feather which reminds me to stay light." She shares that in Kemetic tradition, upon death one's heart is weighed against a feather on a balance scale and must be as light as the feather for the soul to transition to the afterlife. "You can’t be carrying dark things, heavy things. I always have a feather in my ear. But one day I was rushing and forgot to put it in and the kids were like Sista Liza where’s your feather? I teach them all about our legacy and that’s us."  

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7. Children’s laughter. "I’ll be up here and I’ll hear them screaming from fun and it just makes me laugh. I’ll be like, They are wilding out in that park, having a good old time! I love children’s laughter."

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8. Red wine. "And I mean a gooood bottle; in my next life I want to be a sommelier. I’m such a wine snob with my friends. I really like Tempranillos, I like Mencía; I like some Cabernet, I like some Pinot Noir. Malbecs can be heavy, but I like one with a peppery finish. I know that it must be an aphrodisiac because I love red wine."

9) Kale. She's been loving it long before it became the It green. 

 Claudine (Diahann Carroll), her six children and new husband, Rupert (James Earl Jones) walk triumphantly down a Harlem street on their wedding day.

Claudine (Diahann Carroll), her six children and new husband, Rupert (James Earl Jones) walk triumphantly down a Harlem street on their wedding day.

10) Black Love stories. "My all time favorite is Claudine. I love the scene where the daughter is in love with Abdul and she’s pregnant and she beats her with the brush and then she hugs her like we can work it out baby and then Claudine falls in love with James Earl Jones, the garbage guy and they’ve got this blue collar thing going on with her and the kids and they have to hide the gifts that he buys her from the white social worker lady. I just love that story. Oh, I could watch that movie a thousand times. I love seeing black people kissing on the train and holding hands. I love seeing black couples' public displays of affection. I love seeing that. We don’t see enough of it. I love seeing black love, whether it's on film, whether it’s on the train, I just love seeing black love."

Find Liza on Facebook, Instagram @lizajessiepeterson, and Twitter @lizajessiep