Open Letter to Michael Jordan

jordan

Dear Mike,

I’m sorry but we just don’t have time to listen to you right now. We’ve been a little too busy burying children…some of whom looked up to you … some of whom may have even dreamt of being “like Mike”.

So many young Black boys see so much of themselves in you. I wonder how many more we’ll lose before you begin to see yourself in them. Remember when you were a little Black, impressionable boy, Mike? Remember when you were Tamir Rice’s age? Trayvon Martin’s age? MICHAEL Brown’s age? JORDAN Davis’ age… hell, two of their first names form your whole name. Remember??

I’m trying to get to your soul Michael. Now I am no advocate for the killing anyone of any color but if I am honest, I find your timing a bit troubling. You wait until after a rash of police officer shootings to say something? Yet the epidemic, the apparent “open season” on Black lives at the hands of police officers didn’t warrant your concern?  I’ll admit Michael, I don’t know your entire life story but I don’t think you have ever been a police officer… but I’m pretty sure you’ve been a little Black boy.

I don’t know, Mike … maybe I’m being too harsh. Perhaps I shouldn’t beat you up because at least you’re on record as having said something. But I’ve got to be honest… I’m not there yet. I can’t help but think – in the shadow of the death of Muhammad Ali less than two months ago – that I can’t put your names in the same sentence. See, Mike, the athletes of those days gone by gave their all and they didn’t have half of what you’ve got in the way of resources but they had double what you’ve got in heart and commitment to social justice.

In the remembrance of the late Muhammad Ali,  Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson and so many other unnamed heroes, I need you to speak up more. In honor of the Jim Browns, the John Carlos’ and Tommie Smiths and all those who used their talent and celebrity to further the cause of the least, the lost and the left out, I need you to speak out, more. For the many whose glory  days were spent in a courtroom, jailhouse or battling the residue of racism that beset their collective spirit, for those who knew they wouldn’t get lucrative endorsement deals because they couldn’t remain silent in the face of those who only loved them for their athletic prowess and damned their politics, I need you to show up, differently.

For all these young Black boys who have died in the streets for whatever reason… whether by the hand of those sworn to protect and serve or by another jealous, misguided young child, who wanted his victim’s “Air Jordans” …I need you to show up more, to say more …to do more…  to be MORE …than a brand.

So forgive me if I don’t rush over to kiss one of your championship rings … there’s work to do. I’m not sure if you are seeing he light or feeling the heat … and while I’m glad you finally said something I really can’t hear you right now. I may get there …but not yet.

Peace,
Wendell

The Sermon on the (Tennis) Court

CLP Eden TournI know we all count our children as a blessing but we are really blessed if the time comes when our children become our teachers; teaching us things about ourselves and how to “be” in the world. Well, let me go on record and say that I am REALLY blessed! Many of you have seen this picture of Clarke on Ruth’s page but let me share the story and lesson behind the picture.

Considering all that she is involved in, Clarke has maintained a solid B+ average for the past couple of years. She is a member of the student council, number 3 seed on the varsity Tennis team at her school (15- 20 hrs per week practicing) and she’s just 15 years old. Let me go on record and say I was doing NONE of that when I was 15 (16,17, 18, 19 or 20)!

This was her first tournament of 2015 and only her 2nd tournament since moving up to the 16yr & under category but in this particular tournament, though she signed up for 16 & under (16&U) there was only one other 16yr old who signed up along with her. So the tournament officials said, “well we can just let you two play your match then you can just play with the 18 & under (18&U) bracket, too”.

Well, the USTA folks gave the “OFFICIAL” official word which said Clarke and the other young lady would have to make a choice: either they stay in the 16&U group, play the one match and whoever won just that one match would take home the trophy OR they could enter the 18&U group and play the tougher competition where the players were much more advanced. In fact, the #1 & #2 seeds in this particular 18&U tournament were High School Seniors who had already been accepted to college and offered full-ride tennis scholarships (they were signing the following week). Clarke knew these two girls because they just happened to also be the #1 & #2 seed at her school where she is the #3 seed. In fact, they were the very reason why Clarke was seeded #3! But there were five other 18 yr olds (and the other 16 yr old) Clarke had never seen and didn’t know standing between her and the 18&U trophy.

So, play one match where there’s a 50% chance of winning the 1st place trophy and 100% of coming home with SOME hardware (though most of it is plastic now) OR play with the much stiffer competition where there is just a slim chance that she would come home with even the 3rd place trophy? After a “quick” call to her coach/ mentor/ grandfather figure/ friend and Godsend to us all, JW Quick, Clarke decided it was better to play the tougher competition and more matches for the experience rather than play one match for the trophy. So she entered the 18&U tournament much to the dismay of the 16 yr old who was now forced to play 18&U or go home. Since Clarke and this girl were the youngest and originally signed up for 16&U, they were paired to play each other first.

Clarke was a little rusty but in a little more than 90 minutes, she got through that match (split sets and a tie breaker) victoriously. She had about the same amount of time to rest and get something to eat before her next match. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we would have been on our way home with the 1st Place trophy! But Clarke chose to play 18&U.

Her next opponent was the #2 seed who happened to be her teammate from her high school Tennis team. She was an aggressive player, strong and athletic like Clarke and she had a few more years of experience than Clarke. At times like these, we have grown accustomed to hearing and saying, “oh well, anything is possible”, but I knew the likelihood of Clarke’s winning was slim. In fact, we all had just watched this #2 seed obliterate her first opponent in half the time of Clarke’s match without even breaking a sweat. We could only hope that Clarke’s defeat wouldn’t render her feeling distraught or hopeless.

Clarke played some of the best tennis I had seen her play to date. Her serves were fire! Her overhead shots had gotten so much better and her placement was spot on! Passersby and parents of other children who had already lost hung around just to watch the battle of these two titans of tennis (cue theme music from Rocky).

Clarke in Swing

Clarke lost consecutive sets (7-5, 7-5) and most of those games went to multiple deuces or she lost by a point. It was a great match to watch even though Clarke lost. We’ve taught Clarke that losing isn’t the end of the world but how you lose makes all the difference in the world. She was exhausted but Clarke had left all she had on that court. With first and second place now officially out of reach, Clarke was to return on Sunday to vie for 3rd place.

The next morning Clarke could barely move, her entire body ached but she got up and got herself together. Her opponent lost to the #1 seed the day before in split sets and a tie breaker; yet another worthy and more experienced opponent. From the outset of the match it was easy to see that Clarke was stiff and needed some time to work the soreness out of her muscles and the kinks out of her gameplay. On any other day I believe, without a doubt, Clarke would have beaten the young lady but fatigue began to set in midway through the first set. Clarke would lose the first set in a tie breaker.

As the second set began, I was amazed that Clarke still had enough power to serve some untouchable zingers but she had more trouble keeping her forehand in play on this day than the day before. The second set got lopsided early. The score was 4-1 and Clarke seemed to be completely spent; I thought she had given up … but I was wrong. Clarke came back … 4-2 … then 4-3 came quickly. Her opponent won another game and it was 5-3 but then Clarke kept coming, pulling strength from some place deep within her… 5-4 … then 5-5! Her opponent won the last two games for a second set final of 7-5 but it sure wasn’t easy; so now the door had closed on 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies for the 18&U tournament.

People could tell Clarke was tired but marveled at her comeback, especially those who had been there a day earlier. They were still talking about Clarke’s grueling match from the day before! She had earned the respect of perfect strangers and imperfect friends.

As we were leaving the manager of the tournament stopped Clarke, shook her hand and said, “You played some great tennis out there and I’m sorry we don’t have any hardware for you to take home after all your hard play in the 18&U tournament…”

“Thanks”, Clarke replied.

“… but technically”, the tournament manger continued, “you did beat the only other person who originally signed up for the 16&U tournament. So that means you won 1st Place in the 16&U group. And, Oh, by the way, and the points you earned playing the 18&U will be applied to your 16&U ranking”.

He picks up the trophy we didn’t know existed and hands it to Clarke. My exhausted, defeated young titan’s face beamed with an outrageous joy that couldn’t be contained. Though she didn’t get what she had hoped to get, her hard work and discipline had gotten her something more than she expected.

The lesson I learned from a 15 year old? Keep pushing. Regardless of how much you practice … no matter how hard you’ve toiled and it doesn’t seem to be working out in your favor … keep pushing. Employ all the gifts God has given you. In this case, quite literally, “the last was  first”… and all the points she lost by not choosing to enter the 16&U tournament were restored for having the courage to take on the bigger, more difficult challenge.

Funny, I never thought I could attend “church” on a tennis court… with my 15 year daughter as the preacher … living The Word right in front of us all. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we wouldn’t have even been there that day! But Clarke chose to play 18&U and we all were blessed… I hope you were, too.

In the Halls of the Hospital

hospital hall

This summer’s ordeal with Clarke’s eye injury was interesting for many reasons. Clarke’s amazing display of maturity in the face of uncertainty and discomfort was one reason. All of the waiting, shuffling and shuttling from the Urgent Care center, to the Emergency Room, to the Pediatric ward for subsequent exams, was another. When all was said and done, Clarke had endured more than any parent would want their child to experience including a CAT scan and a visit to the Ophthalmologist for a final opinion. A few thousand dollars and day-and-a-half later, Clarke was on the mend, all thanks be to God, and I began to observe and reflect.

For me, hospitals have always been interesting places. I remember accompanying my father when he would visit sick family members, parishioners, folk he knew from the neighborhood or elsewhere in the community he happened to hear were sick; fellow clergyman, political constituents and the like. There were even occasions when people who had no known church affiliation would holler out into the hallway and ask if he would come and pray with them. As an older teen, I was Dad’s chauffeur and personal assistant; his “body man”, if you will. But when I was a young tyke, I would sit in the designated waiting area and if it wasn’t a terribly busy time, I would be entertained in fits and snatches by members of the nursing staff.

To me, the hospital was the equalizer. Unlike churches, hospitals weren’t among the most segregated places in a city at that time. And, if truth be told, I would say there was more fervent prayer in the hospital, on any day, than in many a church … even on Easter Sunday. The hospital was that place where people of all colors, creeds and religions would go seeking a remedy for whatever ailed them. Some would pray to God while others, who never prayed before, would pray hoping there was one.

Whether they were sick or recuperating, in some emergent need or undergoing a battery of tests to keep tabs on those pesky symptoms, the hospital was either the first line of defense or the last stand for people of every background. The circle of life, with its perfect rhythm and syncopated beats, both began and ended here. And no matter which, families were forever changed.

As Clarke and I moved from station to station I remembered my younger years moving through hospitals with my father. While I was just as quiet and observant now as I was back then, I was also much more aware; though I was still an emotional magnet.

The discomfort of those being wheeled from room to room; the moans of those being carted in and out of the elevators … it was all so palpable. For this reason, each time I cross a hospital’s threshold I work at making it my practice to utter a silent prayer for all who find themselves in the hospital; the patients, the doctors, the caretakers and the family members of each patient. No matter the reason, every patient, every family, every life is being altered in some way in a hospital. God is working overtime in a hospital. True, God always works overtime but it is so much easier to see – should you ever take time to notice – in the halls of the hospital.

By God’s Grace, I was afforded the comfort of knowing that Clarke would be ok. Her injuries were nowhere near life threatening or even life altering beyond her time of recuperation. But I never lost sight of the fact that there were those I “met” spiritually that day – if only in the brief moment our eyes locked – whose lives would, indeed, be altered.

As I was finishing this piece I learned of an old friend, Levonne Garvin, who was the passenger in a tragic motorcycle accident. According to news reports, a crossover vehicle crossed over the double yellow lines, struck the motorcycle head on and both vehicles burst into flames. Levonne was flown by helicopter to a shock trauma hospital where she later died. She was just 50 years old. She was a mother and she was a friend to many. I thank God for our paths having crossed and her wonderfully vibrant spirit and zest for life.

So I ask that we all remember life is just as fragile as it is precious. It can be altered (for better or worse) or ended in the blink of an eye. Transitions are happening as you read this … on roads, in homes or on battlefields in foreign lands. And yes, even in hospitals. Some too soon, and yet, others not soon enough when we think of those enduring great pain and discomfort.

I am grateful to God that Clarke will be ok; I can only hope that God’s Angels snatched Levonne’s soul to Heaven before she knew any pain. I pray God continues to watch over and comfort those with sorrowed eyes – like those that locked with mine – as I moved through the halls of the hospital.

ENOUGH! (for Trayvon Martin, et al.)

Like many of you, I, too, am outraged at the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin. I am sure there will be those who will speak of the tension between Blacks and Latinos or Black and whites; and those discussions will deal mainly – if not solely – with blame and victimization. In that discussion there is little talk of solution. Depending on what they believe, one picks a side and is either declared “racist” or “not racist”. If you side with those who are being blamed you will be considered “racist”; side with the victim and you are cleared. But what if I suggest that while we aren’t all racists, we are all victims? Of what, you ask?

We are all altered, if not victimized by what social psychologists refer to as identity contingencies – the things we have to go through based on our social identity (i.e., race, gender, political affiliation, age, sexual orientation). Claude Steele, in his book, Whistling Vivaldi, speaks specifically to a particular type of identity contingency that he calls “stereotype threat”. It has a negative effect on our performance, our psyche, how we view others and even how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin is the latest victim of this phenomenon. My prayers are with his family and all parents ( like Christa Olgesby of CNN ) who live with this fear daily.

The common denominator is “Black”. “Black” seems to carry an almost universal nefariousness. Black Monday. Black October. Black Market. Black Male. I have never been any other race but I can assume that white parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children before they walk out of their homes and into the world. By, “the talk”, I don’t mean sex … I mean survival. The laundry list of “don’ts” that every Black male has heard from one or both of his parents regarding how to simply be in the world; all the things that must be done just to exist. Growing up it was just another inane rule, we didn’t know any different. As an adult and, especially in light of Trayvon’s murder, I shudder to think of the foolish things I did. Trayvon obeyed every rule.

These rules were and (sadly) still are universal. Washington Post columnists, Jonathan Capehart and Eugene Robinson felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy. First, Capehart stated “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it if you’re lucky”. Jonathan was raised in New Jersey and had the same rules that I had growing up in Baltimore, Maryland years earlier. His colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, being raised in South Carolina and nearly ten years my senior certainly knew the rules. “For every black man in America”, says Robinson, “from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal.” Trayvon’s demise struck a low, deep chord that united all Black males in sorrow regardless of social status. It could have been anyone of us growing up.

These statements get at the crux of Steele’s “stereotype threat”. Steele contends while some identity contingencies influence us by constraining behavior, the greater danger, a tad more subtle but exponentially more dangerous, is “putting a threat in the air.” I could recite stereotypes for every social group but since Trayvon is Black, I will summarize the “threat(s) in the air” to which much of society subscribes as it pertains to Black teenagers: they are suspicious by nature, abnormally prone to skullduggery, crime and drug dealing; untrustworthy and generally guilty until proven innocent. Of course all of this is utterly ridiculous but there are those who hold these as self-evident truths. We can place George Zimmerman’s name high atop that list.

What will it take for us to speak life in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s senseless death? What will it take for us to vote those out of office who support legislation that promotes vigilantism – like “Stand-Your-Ground”? Since the passing of that law in 2005, deaths due to self-defense are up over 200 percent. The Tampa Bay Times reported 132 cases where the “Stand-Your-Ground” law was invoked; 74 defendants (56%) were cleared. Now, almost half of the states in America have similar legislation on the books. Laws like these coupled with a growing desensitization to violence and a disenfranchised electorate work to create and embolden the George Zimmermans of the world.

Trayvon Martin was a victim of the stereotype threats that Steele defines. We have allowed these threats to pollute the air for far too long. We will never conquer what we will not confront. Let’s clear the air because all of humanity is gasping, if not choking…pleading for help in the same way Trayvon pleaded for his life. Let it not be in vain.

 

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 4 of 4)

(Continued from January 16, 2012)

By the eighth grade, I think, emotionally, I had enough and was ready to go. It had gotten to a point where my day was consumed with trying to discern the motives of others. Did that group of kids really forget that I was going to walk to gym class with them? Or did they just leave me because they didn’t want to walk with the Black kid? Was Mr. “So-and –So” pushing me to uncover and develop gifts or talents that he recognized? Or was he picking on me because I was Black and thus too dumb to be there? My grades had dropped off enough for me to believe the latter and the school to feel comfortable enough to declare me “not Gilman material” which was odd because Gilman was the only school I had ever attended and for the seven years prior, one could safely assume I had been “Gilman material”. That declaration, “not Gilman material”, cut my parents deeply but they didn’t mention it to me until years later.

I remember coming to my father on one particular occasion and expressing my concern about the racial tension I felt I had to endure. We talked but I remember not being totally satisfied with the discussion. I couldn’t put my finger on it but the conversation didn’t seem to help much. It may have stopped the pain, momentarily, closed the wound, at least temporarily, but there was still the ugly scar with which I would have to contend.

As a child I had no idea the fine line my father had to walk. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered this journal entry and as I read it, I was taken back to that moment and I wept. I wept for him knowing full well he must have wept for me in the aftermath of that moment. And the thought of the strength in his restraint is overwhelming. He was unwilling to project what had been his truth on me … all the while hoping against hope that his reality wouldn’t have to be mine. Aside from the loss of a child, God forbid, there is no greater pain for a parent than the inability to “fix it” for their child. While he had some idea of what I was dealing with I had no idea the bind I was placing him in until I read the following journal entry and prayer:

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my son’s education and motivation or perhaps I should say lack of motivation. I’m torn between him leaving Gilman and not leaving Gilman.

Pooh has bad study habits and lacks discipline. Gilman does not help that situation. I cannot help but think that were he White and I a big contributor, things would be different and they would help us help him develop good study habits.

The racism leaks through in every conference I’ve had at Gilman! It’s not blatant – which makes it even more damaging! The phrase is “Gilman material” – that means preferably WASP!

How does one teach his son pride in being Black and the dangers of White racism without it taking effect in his whole educational process? I want so much for Pooh to be the best possible Christian warrior he can be. It’s an uphill pull! They’ve led him to believe he doesn’t have the brain energy to do the work – when I think of that I get hostile!

I pray God that we correct that and that Pooh will get turned on academically. He’s a fantastic son, bad grades and all – lazy study habits or not. I just pray he clicks on before something happens to me. I’ll die much easier knowing that’s happened.

Hear my prayer O Lord –

Turn not away from me or my son –

Though he seeks not thy help –

Turn to him – make known to him his worth to you – his sonship –

Take him and keep him forever in your presence. Amen.”

EPILOGUE

Though this is just one story, of one student at one school, my purpose here was not to shine a light on the school but rather to lift these young trailblazers. I wanted to create a forum where more stories like these could be told and different experiences shared. Yes, I believe we were trailblazers. No, we didn’t lead marches; we didn’t organize protests or stage sit-ins but we were the children of those who did and we carried their spirit through halls they were never allowed to tread. The sacrifices of our parents’ generation afforded us opportunities they all but demanded we take. We were tramping in an environment they had never experienced and that’s what made us trailblazers. These experiences are the types of things that get swept under the rug or dismissed as part of the coming of age experience we all go through. But I submit this experience, for me, was much more than merely another coming of age story. The fact that it’s been more than forty years since the first day of my private school experience and I am still writing about its effects should prove how large this period loomed in my life; yet I rest assured that things have changed for the better and great strides have been made as now concrete has been laid on the raw trail we blazed.

I have no axe to grind nor any score to settle but issues like these are rarely talked about. You need to know that I have some great friendships that still endure. Some of my closest friends in school (and to this day) were Jewish, Greek and yes, even some folks who would be considered by folks other than themselves, WASPs. They are all over the globe doing great things and if I were to call on them they would remember me and be willing to help. I did sleepovers and parties at their homes, learned about their culture and quirks and my family reciprocated. Though I attended high school and graduated from the New Baltimore City College High School and absolutely loved everybody from my graduating class, I still receive information and invitations to class reunions at Gilman and when I can, I attend. In fact, I plan to attend the thirty year reunion this May.

My parents wanted to give me the best of everything they could afford and often reached beyond what they could afford just for me. I can find no other way to thank them than to continue to grow, learn, teach and love my children enough to afford them every opportunity. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me how to love that much. Education was then and still is such a lifestyle determinant. A private school education has always been a hugely expensive endeavor and an academic leg up. That said, I have grown to count all of my years in private school as extremely valuable though not all of my lessons were academic and while I have no regrets, I cannot tell you how many times I have thought back on those years and the two educations that I received; the academic, paid for my parents and the social, offered freely by immersion and without solicitation.

I am hopeful that this story and others like it will help parents and their children better understand the unintended consequences of their choices regarding education. That is not to say the choice to send your child to a private school is a bad choice. In fact, I could argue, without much real opposition, you will not find greater academic resources or intellectual agility than in private schools. But, parents of minority students, please know there will be “home” work that must be done to reinforce self – esteem and define self-identity. I am sure there are those who will argue that – no matter the school or the child – everyone’s self-esteem and self-identity take hits during the coming of age years. However, I believe these normal struggles are only compounded by issues of race and class; the ever-present, rarely confronted elephants in the room.

Gilman has made great strides and continues to do so. It is only fitting that for all his compassion and hard work that Gilman recognizes Finney’s contributions and legacy by naming an award after him that celebrates the student who distinguishes himself “through his dedication to and practice of those human values necessary to eliminate racism, prejudice, and intolerance”.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention with some level of pride, Gilman’s current Headmaster, John E. Schmick who was my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Schmick was also a product of Gilman graduating twenty years after Finney. Like my father knew that Finney “got” it, I know that Schmick “gets” it. He was not only my homeroom teacher but also my Language Arts teacher. It was in his class where I first remember having good feelings associated with my writing. He would invite us to let our imagination run wild on paper. I remember writing a piece that mentioned most everyone in the class and when I read it aloud. They loved it! Mr. Schmick made it a “treat” and if we finished all of our work early he would allow me to read the story to the class again. He would say, “Wendini, come on up and read that story”. I know Gilman is in good hands and there are probably many schools across the country that are to be commended … but so too are the young trailblazers from all private schools from 1965-1985.

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 3 of 4)

(Continued from January 9, 2012)

I have no idea if the same ideology is still employed but back then the teachers in grades one through three were all white females. They taught the basics; reading, handwriting, composition, social studies and the like. Industrial Arts (commonly referred to as “shop”) was the only exception with one of two white male instructors. Shop was taught in the basement of another building with an enclosed drawing room and a work area that would have made any “do-it-yourselfer” proud. I don’t remember even seeing a woman so much as walk through the “shop” and my first and third grade homeroom teachers were married to the shop instructors! But once we got to the fourth grade all of my teachers were white and male. I got along and played well with everybody for the most part. I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers and my family followed suit and did the same. I had no “behavioral problems” to speak of and managed to stay on the honor roll with consistency through the third grade and into the fourth before things started feeling different. While rummaging through old pictures and papers in preparation for this essay, I ran across one of my fourth grade report cards. I noticed that the teacher made reference to my being “scrappy”. This was a sudden and definite change in the character that had been exhibited in grades one through three. It seemed as if this new character trait was beginning to stick without anyone questioning what might be causing this previously likeable, friendly “young man” to become so “scrappy” all of the sudden.

 

 

Most of the “scraps”, of any kind, happened at recess or on the way to the gymnasium. For me, they were usually the result of being called some name or having to somehow prove my right to be there. One student used to constantly call me “motor oil boy” but because my last name was Phillips I didn’t initially hear this as an insult. Phillips 66 service stations were all across the country back then and they sold motor oil.  Being in school with the children of rich business owners, chief surgeons and law firm partners, I imagined being part of the Phillips petroleum dynasty would afford me membership to the rich kids club. Little did I know that even if my father had owned the entire city, I could never have been a member of that club. With the naiveté of a child, I would smile when he would say it … the first 100 times … then I began to look at him with a tilted head … as the fact that motor oil was black kicked in. I rushed him with fists blazing wildly. Of course, I was viewed as the aggressor because no one heard any profanity. Motor oil ain’t a bad word. And the troublemaking, “Eddie Haskell” types are always keen on where figures of authority are and when they are not nearby. But in those days, calling me or any other Black kid, “boy”, was enough to warrant a beat down. You may as well have called me “nigger”. And some did.

 

 

In January of 1977, Roots, aired on network television.  The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s semiautobiographical book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family that follows Kunta Kinte from Gambia, West Africa to America spanning from 1750 – 1867, five years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and two years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. I remember the air being thick with nervous anticipation in the Black community. On the one hand, we felt like the story of slavery in America was finally going to be told on a large scale from our point of view; the same story told to everyone at the same time. On the other hand, with the cynicism that accompanies centuries of murder and abuse, decades of desegregation and years filled with countless broken promises and deferred dreams; some quietly feared the Black man’s story would be whitewashed. Nevertheless, it was reported that 130-140 million viewers, as many as eighty-five percent of American households with televisions, watched all or some of Roots on ABC. Clearly, it wasn’t just Black folk who were watching. The miniseries began airing on a Sunday evening, January 23, and ran through January 30, 1977. I was in the seventh grade, a little less than a month away from my thirteenth birthday.

 

 

As that week progressed so did the depictions of mistreatment and struggle for Kunta Kinte and his descendants. I remember hoping none of my white classmates would mention anything about the miniseries. I felt, either intentionally or unintentionally, it would just come out of their mouths wrong so it was better left alone. If it had to be mentioned at all, I would rather have had it come from a teacher. Acknowledgement on that level could serve as an endorsement and would have given it even more validity. As fate would have it, the opposite happened; I don’t recall any official class time being devoted to Roots. However, I do remember it being mentioned by some of my classmates.  One encounter is to this day as vivid in my mind as if it happened only just yesterday. As you may have guessed, it was outside at recess. Now in middle school, we were much closer to the gymnasium and relegated to playing between it and the middle school building, on or around the curve of the track that served as the “home stretch” or the last leg of the relay races we used to run in gym class during the spring. There was blacktop just inside the curve that held four basketball hoops and ample field space to kick a soccer ball or toss a football around.

It was late one sunny, crisp, Baltimore morning. It was a normal, uneventful recess and then I heard it. The poor imitation of a supposed African chant rose above the snickering and laughter of a small group of troublemakers convened at the end of the track. As far as I can remember, the other Black kids were otherwise engaged with the rest of the kids or too far away to hear. I then began to make out certain words amidst the cowardly incoherent mumblings of my WASP “friends”. “Blah, blah, blah … Roots”. Giggles. I stopped. “Yada, yada, yada … slaves … back to Africa”. More giggles and snickering. I turned. “Blah, blah, blah … niggers”. I began walking toward the crowd that was now dispersing. Leaving this incident’s ring leader to fend for himself.  “What did you say?” I asked, now standing right in front of his face with fists balled at my side. It felt as if everything stopped moving. All the other games stopped and a crowd of kids began to close in around the two of us.

“Nigger!” he said. And as he swung, I blocked then countered with a shot to the gut that robbed him of the wind to produce any words much less derogatory racial epithets, as if there were any other kind. I drew back ready to deliver a hellacious left hook but by the time it reached his face my hand was wide open with fingers fully extended. When my palm made contact with his face it rang out with the loudest slap I had ever heard. As he fell back to the ground I could see his face had reddened almost instantly and his glasses were knocked off his face. The crowd moved in closer as I followed him to the ground straddling his chest with my knees pinning the great wrestler’s arms down. I drew back once again amid the cheers and jeers to “Kill’em Phillips!” Ironically, some of the cheers came from members of the original group of troublemakers that were moments ago part of the problem. He was clearly the underdog and at a definite disadvantage.  Just when I was about to unleash the blow he, while bawling, looked at me and said, “So what?! Hit me! You’re still a nigger!” With that my arm, already cocked, began to tremble and my fist shook with rage. I burst into tears and got up having never thrown the punch. I didn’t understand what had happened but I was momentarily inconsolable.

I was too young to know what I was experiencing but I remember being awestruck at the level of what I then could only describe as hate. How does a preteen child build up enough hate for another anything much less another human being?! Most people in a position of such disadvantage find some way to compromise or plead for mercy even if they are right … but to find someone to be so wrong and so defiant … someone who seemed to dislike me that much solely because of the color of my skin was heartbreaking. If I had to offer some explanation of my tears, I would have to say they were, in part, from the shame of allowing this fool to cause me to lose control and come outside of myself but my tears were also representative of the hopelessness I felt about the possibility of this ever changing. The realization that no matter how many classes or experiences we shared, some would never consider me or anyone who looked like me their equal, was disheartening at best.

By this time one of the teachers monitoring recess was rushing over to break up what I had already stopped. The bell signaling the end of recess was sounding simultaneously. While everyone else went to class my “friend” and I were marched to Head of School’s office. I am sure we must have been a sight for the Head of School.  There my “friend” was with broken glasses resting askew and half of his face reddened and swollen in a spot that, oddly enough, was shaped an awful lot like my hand and me sniffing and drying tears but untouched.

 

 

We sat together but were asked for our account of what happened independently. My “friend” spoke first and said that I “hit him in the face and broke his glasses”. Hearing no denial from me the Head of School looked to me as if to ask, “and what do you have to say, Wendell?” to which I quickly retorted, “He called me a nigger!” With that, I was sent back to class with a note explaining my delay. My “friend” stayed in the office for an extended period of time and while I have no idea what was said I do know that he had to report to detention for the better part of that week.

For those who think my punishment was really no punishment at all I suppose we could argue that point, after all, I was the aggressor but what would a fair punishment for me have looked like? If I were the Head of School what would I have done … especially if I never had to deal with a race issue like that before? This was more evidence of the murky water that Dad and Finney muddled through years before.

The unchartered waters of race relations and other culture clashes made visible an Achilles’ heel not only for private schools but society in general. There were rules on the books that seemed to unintentionally expose the cultural exclusivity of some schools. For example, here’s one rule that actually worked in favor of Black kids; there was a rule that stated your hair could not grow past your shirt collar. Well, we all wore afros and our hair grew straight up and out instead of down our neck toward the collar. We got to let our hair grow as long as we wanted. While that sounded cool to us as kids, as an adult I realized that was proof of the fact that we were never expected to be there in the first place.

My worst experiences regarding race were perpetuated by a small group of “blue-blooded”, “WASP” kids who had an elitist, untouchable air about them and their parents were loaded. They seemed to get some joy from giving me hell for being Black in much the same way they may have gotten joy from teasing a poor white kid from Arbutus or Dundalk. Whatever the reason … whatever the case … this was getting old.

(Continued January 23, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

I was introduced to private school without ever having to concern myself with the differences between public and private. My father was bought on to teach a Black History class in the upper school. If he wasn’t the first Black teacher he was among the first. Dad really had a love for young folk and their energy. He had started and maintained a viable and noteworthy Youth ministry at the Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland where he was the founding pastor, so working with or teaching teenagers was not foreign to him, especially not on that subject, and he loved it. What was new to Dad was working with upper middle to upper class white teenagers. The trouble was rarely with the youngster though navigating through the garbage they had been fed at home proved to be more than a slight impediment to the academic learning process.

I remember Dad telling the story of the young white student who stepped reluctantly into his classroom, head down and clearly bothered he slumped in his seat and was silent for the entire Black History class. Sensing something was obviously wrong Dad approached the boy and asked what was wrong. The youngster said that he liked learning about Black history and loved having Dad as a teacher but he would no longer be able to continue with the class. When Dad asked why, the boy replied, “I can’t … well I don’t want to say it”. After Dad reassured him that he was free to say whatever he needed to say, the boy said, “My dad says a nigger can’t teach me anything”. By this time the boy’s eyes were filled with tears. In full pastoral mode, Dad consoled him and told him not to worry. Headmaster Finney’s office was the next stop for Dad.

Redmond C.S. Finney was a warm, likeable and fair minded guy. He was visible, accessible and genuinely concerned about the well-being of each boy on that campus. It was not uncommon for Mr. Finney to show up on the playground at recess and toss a ball, or borrow some kid’s lacrosse stick to play catch with another. He may even pop up in your classroom and perform his legendary headstand. I remember being less impressed that he could do it and more impressed that he, as Headmaster of the entire school, would do it!

Finney was comfortable with a lacrosse stick or football in his hand. After all, he was an athlete’s athlete with a bowlegged, heel-to-toe gait that allowed him to be identified a mile away. His head rolled from side to side when he spoke in much the same way as any John Wayne impersonator. Putting all that together made it look as if he moved on wobbly wheels rather than feet. But none of that seemed to get in the way of his academic or athletic prowess. In fact, to this day there are only two people in the history of the NCAA to be first team All – American in two sports in the same academic year – Redmond C.S. Finney and James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown – yeah, that Jim Brown.

Mr. Finney and my father had a great relationship replete with a tremendous mutual respect. Finney was a change agent for Gilman. He and Dad had many conversations and Dad recognized that “Reddy” Finney “got” it. If that were not the case … if Dad did not believe in Finney’s willingness to do the heavy lifting that all institutionalized culture change requires, he would never have agreed to teach there and I, with absolute certainty, would not have been enrolled in the school.

Finney cared about all of the boys in that school and his concern was both genuine and palpable. He was a great internal and external ambassador for the school. Having graduated in 1947, Finney was a product of the school and had been raised with the exclusionary traditions he was now seeking to broaden to include those who were never meant to be there at the school’s inception. Yet, there was no question that Reddy bled “Blue & Gray”. Stalwart alumni and supporters knew this and where they may have hurled pejoratives at someone else in the face of perceived threats to tradition, they believed in Finney even if they didn’t necessarily believe in the change he was championing.

In spite of the mutual respect, Dad knew his primary responsibility was to the God he was called to serve and the congregation of the young church he pastored. He viewed the instance with the young student as more of a preview of coming attractions and, in all honesty, didn’t have the patience to wage these small battles when he was already engaged in the war for equality and justice on a much larger scale that impacted many more people. Both men knew and expected to muddle through uncomfortable moments, for all parties involved were in unchartered waters: administration, faculty, student and parent.

Dad knew that fighting the proverbial good fight , while important, was no more important than knowing when the fight isn’t yours – doesn’t mean the fight is not worthy … it’s just not yours. Fighting with those who would fight against Gilman’s culture change was both a good and worthy fight but it wasn’t Dad’s fight. More poignantly, it was Finney’s fight and with the tenacity of an All-American football center, he was up to the challenge. He was passionate about the changes he was ushering in but that doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks and hiccups – like the situation Dad endured – along the way.

Dad left Gilman’s faculty around ’71 or ’72, when I was in the second grade. Because he taught in the upper school and the schedules were so different from the lower school schedules, our paths never crossed so I never missed the fact that Dad wasn’t there. I continued through lower and middle school without ever knowing that incident with the young white student ever occurred. It was never brought up or discussed around me. While I was one of only two Blacks through the first, second and third grades (with no more than five or six in the entire lower school at that time) life in the lower school, for the most part, was pretty cool. Things didn’t begin to become “different” until the fourth grade.

(Continued January 16, 2012)