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By Nikki Harmon
I once was in my twenties—all youthful and energetic, hopeful and creative, determined and intelligent. I decided, as I was at the end of my college career, that I wanted to pursue video and film production. It was the early nineties. VHS cameras were horrible quality, we now know, but accessible. Video editing was financially feasible and even an amateur could figure it out. The nineties were full of great works exploring self-identity. People who did not see themselves reflected or reflected accurately in mainstream media suddenly could make films and video about themselves, about their truths, and I wanted in. Although, honestly, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it.
So, I worked around Philly, helping both new and experienced independent filmmakers do their work. I did sound over here; I was a production assistant over there; I did some terrible acting out yonder; and finally I felt the burn to make something of my own. But, as it turned out, I did not have a script or really an idea.
After a few months of proctoring, I finally took a scriptwriting class at The Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia. It was just really starting up at the time, but it’s mission, then as now, was to empower everyday people and communities to learn and express themselves primarily through video production. And that’s when I met Toni Cade Bambara.
At that time, Scribe was small, squinched in a second floor of a tiny row house in downtown Philly. The Scriptwriting class was intimate, probably less than 10 people, so there was no hiding out in the back, doodling. Toni was welcoming and warm, but you felt, you just knew that behind that friendly smile was a vast intellect, told and untold life experiences and god-given talent. But she didn’t flaunt her accomplishments or literary fame. She just laid back in who she was and tried to figure out who you were and what you wanted to write about.
Was I intimidated that I was going to be taught by a nationally known and well-respected artist and writer? Naw, I was in my twenties! Bold and narcissistic, with my BA under my belt and my life laid out before me; I was not at all star-struck.
Anybody who knows me knows I have a terrible memory, so I have no idea what she actually taught or said. And I do not remember who else was in that class with me; though, they are probably friends of mine now. I only remember being focused on doing what she said, those words pouring through, the feeling I had when she critiqued, and finishing that script. I also remember the most important thing she gave me.
Twenties bluster or not, before meeting Toni and having her guide me through that script, I was just a groupie, a wannabe hanging out with the cool kids who were making cool films. But she took me seriously. She thought I had a voice. She thought I had something to say and that it should be said and that only I could say it. She made me take myself seriously as an artist. If she thought it, how could I not believe it too? I valued her opinion and she thought of me as an artist! What?!?!
And so, I believed her.
Validation. One class with Toni. Her looking at me and wanting to know what I wanted to say, coaxing me to say it “my way.”
Validation of my right and my imperative to create and express myself as I saw fit.
Validation that my voice was “needed” in the world. One person. One class in 1992. That validation kept me going for about 25 years!
True, I was motivated and pretty determined to be this thing, a filmmaker. But I did not know myself as an artist until she said it to me. I did not claim it, until she assumed it and affirmed it.
I took that anointment. I made that short film — Sangre de Toro. I showed it at festivals. It got me into graduate school. I went on to make a few more short films; I got my MFA; I worked on lots of different productions in a variety of roles—I always enjoyed the “work” of it, you know? I produced television shows for national audiences.
Validation. I have not thought about that magical time in a while. When all my dreams were up for grabs, when youth and energy and the righteousness of self-expression defined my existence. When art was activism and activism was art and we created ourselves right into existence.
But it’s been a long while since I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Toni’s voice. Eventually, I stopped thinking of myself as an artist. I became a producer, a mother, a homeowner, a driver of mini-vans, but I also became a teacher.
I love teaching. I didn’t think I would. It was my back-up plan, I admit. But I love watching my students grow comfortable with equipment, ambitious with ideas, adventurous with camera angles. I love pushing them to think deeper, raise their own expectations, setting goals higher than just assignment completion.
I try to get them to take themselves seriously. Happily, some of them take me seriously, too and make outstanding work. Their work validates me as a teacher. I know I helped to get them there. I don’t know if I ever thanked Toni for what she did for me, but I doubt it. I was too busy rising into my role, busy carving out my space in the world. I wish I had. But I bet she knew. A good teacher knows their power in the world way before their students ever catch on.
Powerful. We teachers, we mentors, we olders or elders or just one step aheaders, we must consciously remember to keep validating the young person who respects our opinions. The child who is unsure, the confused teen, the artist who just needs someone to look at him or her and say, “Yes, you can do this, in fact, you have to be the one to do this. The world needs you.”
What a beautiful thing to say to another person. How lucky was I to hear it. How blessed I am to remember it all over again. I’m sorry she’s not here to receive my thanks in person but I am really grateful. Thank you, Toni.
Nikki Harmon is a film and video professional who lives and works just outside her native Philadelphia. She received her BA from Wesleyan University and her MFA in Media and Film Arts from Temple University in 1999. She has written, produced, worked on or directed on several documentaries, short narratives, educational, and industrial films, music videos and feature-length films. In 2002, She joined Banyan Productions and worked on three seasons of TLC’s “A Wedding Story” as associate producer and producer. Throughout her production career however, Nikki has maintained her commitment to teach and has worked for various community organizations, such as the Big Picture Alliance and Scribe Video Center teaching youth and adults video production. Most recently, she has taught at both Drexel and Arcadia Universities as an adjunct professor.