Sociologist, Author and Comedienne, Dr. Bertice Berry
Growing up poor in Wilmington, Delaware, the sixth of seven children, Bertice was told by a high school teacher that she was "not college material". Fortunately, there was another teacher who believed that she was destined for more. Berry applied to several schools without any idea how she would pay the tuition if she were accepted. The day her application arrived at Jacksonville University in Florida, a wealthy benefactor called the Admissions Department looking for a potential student "who could swim if they had the right backing," and might sink without it.
Bertice not only graduated magna cum laude from Jacksonville where she was awarded the President's Cup for leadership, she subsequently earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from Kent State University at the age of 26. Dr. Berry taught sociology and statistics at Kent, and demonstrated that she knew a few things about humor, as well. She became one of the most popular teachers at the university; so popular, in fact, larger lecture halls had to be found to accommodate the ever-increasing number of students. "A colleague said to me, 'You're funny', and I said, 'No I'm not, I'm a scholar," recounts Dr. Berry. It was then that she realized by using humor in her lectures to address such difficult subjects as racisms and sexism she was making a more profound impact.
Shortly thereafter, Berry left Kent to become an award-winning entertainer, lecturer and comedienne. From 1991 through 1994 she won the coveted national Comedian of the Year Award, and was also named Campus Lecturer of the Year and Campus Entertainer of the Year. She had created a niche as both a gifted speaker with a comic edge and a comic with a serious message. Her busy schedule included over 200 appearances a year.
Berry was the host and co-executive producer of her own nationally syndicated talk show, "The Bertice Berry Show," and hosted "USA Live," a four-hour live interview and entertainment show on the USA Cable Network. She's been featured on numerous other television programs, including appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and more recently on ABC's "20/20".
Dr. Bertice Berry is also the best-selling author of an inspirational memoir, I'm On My Way, But Your Foot Is On My Head, and the hilarious bestsellers Sckraight From the Ghetto, You Might Be Ghetto If and the sequel You STILL Ghetto. Her first work of fiction, Redemption Song, published by Double Day in 2000, is also a Best-seller and has been praised by critics for its' ability to entertain, inspire and educate. Berry followed Redemption Song, with another bestseller, The Haunting of Hip Hop and took her readers on a journey to the other side. In August 2002, she released her most passionate work ever with Jim & Louella Homemade Heart-fix Remedy, a tantalizing yet spiritual tale that has won several awards. Berry's wit and wisdom shine through in her novel about looking for love in all the wrong places---and with all the wrong people, "When Love Calls, You Better Answer"; released the summer of 2005. A gifted and accomplished singer, she soothes the heart and spirit with her soon to be released CD, "Breathe", a delicate mix of meditation and song. Her next book, "The Ties That Bind", bridges the past with the future and is more personal---tracing the history of her family.
Despite all of her honors and achievements, Dr. Berry is most proud of becoming the "instant mother" to her sister's four young children. She lives in Savannah, GA where she is active in the community. "When you walk with purpose," Berry says, "you collide with destiny!"
Dr. Bertice Berry has the unique ability to inspire laughter and light-heartedness when talking about things that are not necessarily funny and without "making light". She spins golden nuggets out of seeming despair and she will tempt you to re-examine your own capacity to live a selfless and beautiful life...
DR: What do you have to say, as a Sociologist and as a Comedienne, about the state of our culture right now with regard to the conversation around race? I feel like we have taken a step or two backwards and I'm having a hard time lightening up about some of the things politicians are saying now, things that hearken back to some of the uglier times in our history.
BB: I live in Savannah, Georgia just behind Henry Ford's old plantation. Where I live was a rice plantation. I swear, in the morning, I can hear people telling me to come out and harvest rice.
There are days that I think, when I am talking to my children sometimes, I feel that there is no progress. And, then sometimes when I am talking to my children I feel that there has been so much progress that we have forgotten our core; our center. For example my daughter decided the other day that she was going to "tell me about myself". And I said, "Let me tell you something. We have come a long way but I am always going to be a Black mother. And there are some things you don't say to me. That is just the way it is". She asked me why things always have to be about race and I was like, "Sit down"!
My mom died five years ago. She was eighty-seven. I would come home after riding first class and complain to her about the flight attendant questioning me about whether I was supposed to be there and I'm furious and my mother would say, "I know just what you mean. I lived right next door to the whipping post." Oh, okay. Never mind.
So, this morning I got an email from a wonderful friend and poet, Bebe Coker. She wrote this amazing play called Mo' Tea Miss Ann?. It was The Help written by the help. She wrote it in the '70s. She is a wonderful woman. She sent me this email saying that she was sick of the fact that we don't see the progress that we have made. So, what do I do? I wrote back and told her that she was right. I have decided not to identify with my people based solely on race. I have decided to identify with "Soul Shiners". Anybody whose soul shines - those are my people. Bebe Coker is a woman who has lived a little longer than I have and who has seen a little more than I have, but who is experiencing the same feelings. We have to stop and look back and look at where we want to be.
DR: Tell me about your work. What are you working on right now?
BB: Life is really beautiful.
I am a Sociologist. I have a PhD in Sociology and I get to lecture to large corporations and associations everyday on different topics and ideas. I think that my job is to inspire people who are already motivated and to let them know that they are doing a good job and then to outline tools so that they can do it better. That is what I call my day job. My night job is writing.
I just finished A Year to Wellness and Other Weight Loss Secrets. It chronicles the year that I took becoming whole and well. I lost 150 pounds but that wasn't really the point. It was more than that. Now I am working on a novel called Beauty Thieves. It's sort of like a form of people who are like vampires, who suck the confidence from others...
DR: You said that the weight loss wasn't really about losing the 150 pounds. So, what was it really about then?
A Year to Wellness
Dr. Bertice Berry shares her amazing journey to wellness and outlines a unique and effective year long plan to become well in Spirit, Mind and Body. The book includes your own personal journal which will enable you to create a plan based on your unique challenges and strengths.
BB: I have been a strict vegetarian for thirty years. I exercise daily so why did I gain so much weight? What I came to were a couple of things:
Everybody's goal weight is exactly where it was when they first thought they were fat. There is something about the idea that we are not good enough that turns us into what we don't want to be.
Research shows that diets don't work. On average people lose weight but then they gain back what they lost and an additional ten pounds. What we often see is the cycle of gaining and losing. We are better off if we thought we were already okay and stayed where we were.
The other thing is:
People who care a lot for a lot of other people tend to carry the stress that comes with it. Stress adds a lot more weight than food ever will...
DR: Does it really? I believe you and I've never heard that before.
BB: I was able to find evidence of it in research. It was written so "science-y". But, it's there.
Stress is going to cause you to hold on to cortisol, which is the fight or flight hormone, which causes the body to puff up like a bird does when the wind is blowing... you are going to add more belly fat.
It's not just that. It's also that people who care a lot don't eat. They tend to eat one or two meals a day and that is usually in the evening so the metabolism shuts down because the body doesn't know when it will be fed again.
It's those kinds of patterns of caring, that cause a lack of wellness. The weight gain as a result of it is not the problem. In our culture we treat weight gain as if it is the problem when it is really the symptom of lots of other problems.
DR: So the wellness program that you completed successfully for yourself, is that something that you are inviting other people to join you in?
BB: Yeah! I blog about it everyday. I am back on the Wellness Program. I started on the day of President Obama's Inauguration. I lost the weight and got really fit. This year I decided to create this a blog for friends and family who are joining me on this wellness program. The blog is separate from the book. It's additional information and tips and ideas. The reason I am doing it now is because I need to be more fit than I am because I was asked by a friend, well...
A couple of years ago I was asked to be a kidney donor for a friend and it turned out that I was a perfect match but so was her husband. So we had a kidney run-off and he won. She called a few months back and asked if I would be willing to donate a kidney for this woman that she knows. At first I was like, "I don't know this woman! Who is she"? Then I asked myself why I wouldn't be willing to do it for someone in need if I would be willing to do it for my friend. So, her husband explained to me that the more fit you are the quicker the recovery and I don't have time to be down. He recovered in three days. I am now working on My Year to Wellness again so that I can be the best version of myself...
DR: So you are gearing up right now to donate a kidney?
DR: I'm a little bit blown away by that Bertice, actually...
BB: It's kind of funny to me when I get that reaction. It doesn't hit me that way...
DR: O my gosh...
BB: I don't know why. I had to discuss it with my family but - yeah.
DR: I am somebody who does a lot of talking and I have been known to walk the walk, but I am not so sure that I would really be willing to walk that particular talk. I mean, it's one thing to do it for a friend but it's an entirely different thing to do it just because there is someone in need. I mean, wow. I just don't know what to say.
BB: Well that was the line that I had to cross.
I love your 100 Years Project. I love that! I want to be remembered as someone, and not just after I am dead. When I leave a room I want people to be inspired to consider ways to do something for somebody else that will inspire them. That's all.
When I was willing to donate a kidney for my friend, even at that I had friends asking me if I was crazy...
My immediate family, my sister Christine and my kids and my other siblings, thought it was cool. I guess you have to ask yourself, "Who do I want to be?" I don't think that everybody should donate a kidney but I think everybody should give something of themselves. My mother instilled that in us.
I have to tell you that I have five adopted kids. Three are my sister's children. All of them are fetal alcohol and crack addicted and when you raise kids that are on that kind of journey, you are kind of game for anything....
DR: And so you don't feel like "I've already done my part?" I might be tempted to go there a little bit.
BB: Well part of it is "Oh, a vacation!"
No. No. It's you know...Well, you write about it. I read your beautiful piece about going to the long-term care facility where your mother-in-law was. The moment you committed to sharing yourself, you wanted to do more. It is that same way. The moment you open yourself, you become more open and you can't go back and say "No I meant the blue pill".
For me it's not that deep. It's the friend of a friend who is in need and who is really sick.
DR: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
BB: I have to see the world as an optimist. I don't see anything as half empty or half full. It's all full because there are molecules that we can't see. The fact that I can't see it doesn't mean that it can't happen. But, if I can believe it? Look, I grew up on a street that was really an alley. There were two houses and the rest were lime green garages. My mom raised seven kids. We barely had food. We hardly ever had electricity. We never had a phone. Today I live on a marsh and I stand around looking at birds. When you see that gap that leap in one generation you have to go, "What?!" When President Obama won the election, people accused me of being happy because he was Black. I'm like, "No! His name is Barack Obama!" My name is Bertice Berry. To grow up with a name that nobody cared about, that nobody could pronounce, that nobody cared about and to see Barack Obama in the White House? Wow.
The other thing is I don't listen to a lot of stuff. I turn it off. I am well informed enough to know what to meditate on and what to care about. I tell my kids, "You want peace? Be peaceful. You want joy? Be joyful." "Oh, it's not that simple mom! It's not that simple!" They are absolutely right. It's not that simple. It has to be done everyday and you've got to tell somebody else.
DR: Have you heard of David Hawkins, the Kinesiologist?
DR: Have you read Power vs. Force?
DR: I am reminded of something he says in his book. I might get the stats a little wrong her but he says that 85% of the people in the world are calibrating at a human energy level less than courageous, where courageous is the level at which people start to live constructively as opposed to destructively. On this spectrum from 0-1000 points, he measures the energy by which human beings calibrate, 0 being death and 1000 being Enlightenment. He concludes that 15% of the people in the world are responsible for the fact that the universe doesn't implode on itself from all of the negativity. He asserts that 15% of the population having the kinds of conversations that you are having with me and saying the kinds of things that you say to your kids, without that is that we would not exist. So my point is that it doesn't take a whole lot of optimism to overcome the ton of pessimism.
BB: And that belief is in every religion. It's in every scientific principle:
All you need is this tiny bit of energy in the other direction to move things in the way that we need them to go.
One day I was talking to a group of attorneys who donate time to represent children. They were wondering if there is a giving gene. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that people are probably wired to be givers. Somebody said to me the other day that I am surrounded by takers but everybody is.
Spud Web who is a basketball player who is short and not genetically predisposed to play basketball and yet he won the slam-dunk contest. So, even if you don't have the gene doesn't mean that you can't learn it. Anything you don't know, you could start today and figure it out.
DR: Dr. Bertice Berry, a hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
BB: I want to be remembered for inspiring people to inspire somebody else.
The Ties That Bind
When novelist Bertice Berry set out to write a history of her family, she initially believed she'd uncover a story of slavery and black pain, but the deeper she dug, the more surprises she found. There was heartache, yes, but also something unexpected: hope. Peeling away the layers, Berry came to learn that the history of slavery cannot be quantified in simple, black-and-white terms of "good" and "evil" but is rather a complex tapestry of roles and relations, of choices and individual responsibility.
In this poignant, reflective memoir, Berry skillfully relays the evolution of relations between the races, from slavery to Reconstruction, from the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power 1970s, and on to the present day. In doing so, she sheds light on a picture of the past that not only liberates but also unites and evokes the need to forgive and be forgiven.