On Words

On Words

 

I have no recollection of when it actually happened. In fact, as far back as I can remember, there was no one “moment” that moved me to this place but, the truth is, I love to write. I suppose that on some subconscious level I was always aware of words and the power they possess.

When I was a child my father would pick me up from school and we would go to the church where his office was housed. His office was full of books. The walls were filled with books that sat upon crude, do-it-yourself shelving that had warped and bowed from the weight of the volumes. The shelves rested upon narrow metal brackets with small slots that were anchored, or sometimes not, to the wall.

On the spaces of the wall that weren’t covered with books were framed pictures and posters of some of the authors whose works sat on the shelves; people who played a significant role not only in my thoughts but also in the progression of human or civil rights around the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey P. Newton, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Parren J. Mitchell, Joseph C. Howard, W.E.B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Dad’s older brother Channing Phillips, Bobby Kennedy, Eldrige Clever, Angela Davis and two relatively famous Harry Anderson prints, “Prince of Peace” and “Christ of the City”.

I remember hating to read because it just seemed to take so long. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again (just messin’ with ya). Ironically, I remember beginning to enjoy writing in the fifth grade . At that stage , Mr. John Schmick, encouraged me to write and to do so creatively without much regard for factual boundary.

I loved the way words would play in my mind. How “united” things could in a moment become “untied”. Just by the shifting of an “i” you could exchange unity for chaos. You had the ability to be “nowhere” or “now here”. Depending on how you choose to use your space, you could convey how you saw yourself in the world. I liked the way some words were virtually self defining in their spelling. For instance, did you ever notice how “evil” is to “live” backwards? Or how well-balanced the word “level” is on either side of the “v”?

I guess I have loved and respected words for most of my life. The power they wield is unsurpassed and I suppose that makes sense … after all, “in the beginning was the Word …”

Those for Whom Life is Lit by Some Large Vision

I believe in the training of Black children even as white;

the leading out of little souls into the green pastures

and beside the still waters, not for pelf or peace,

but for Life lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth;

lest we forget, and the sons of our fathers, like Esau, for mere meat

barter their birthright in a mighty nation.

-W.E.B. Du Bois-

I have always loved that quote by Du Bois and I am obviously not alone. The late Ossie Davis must have liked the quote so much that part of it was chosen as the title for the posthumously released book of his selected speeches and writings. Along with so many other blessings in my life, I count meeting him and his lovely wife, Ruby Dee, an honor; not because they are entertainers and I was starstruck but because of my appreciation for their unwavering sacrifices during the civil rights movement; for their unquenchable thirst for freedom and equality the world over.

Ossie Davis who emceed the March on Washnigton, eulogized Malcolm X and spoke at one of the first gatherings of the Congressional Black Caucus in the early 1970s was not afraid to take a stand. Where social activism and acts of consciousness in the world of celebrity were concerned, Dee and Davis took their cue from Paul Robeson. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee shared a willingness to fight for what was right even if it meant there would be roles for which they would never be considered let alone cast. I reserve an unconditional love and respect for those who use their gifts for something more meaningful than self-sustenance.

Ossie n Ruby Collage

Some twenty or twenty-five years ago I got to introduce the pair as emcees for an event for some organization; I believe it was a TransAfrica event when Randall Robinson was still at the helm but my memory is sketchy around that fact. However, it is clear the person who was supposed to handle the introduction could not be found … and there I was … able to speak clearly and distinctly … at the intersection of Opportunity and Preparation streets. There is something to be said for just being “there” at the “right time”.

Just before I was to go deliver my line I spied Ossie Davis and moved in his direction. I, a relatively shy, twenty-something thrust myself in the path of this acting icon and stuck out my hand.

“Mr. Davis”, I said interrupting his leisurely stroll to the other side of the room to meet his wife, “it is a pleasure and an honor to meet you”. I continued, “Thanks so much for all you have done for us”.

“Young man, the honor is all mine” he replied, as his hand met mine firmly and with great purpose.

Somehow that was all I needed that day. I immediately reported backstage to deliver my line with no time to rehearse.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman. Please welcome your hosts for the evening, Mr. Ossie Davis and Ms. Ruby Dee”.

That was it. That was my line; delivered in my best radio disc jockey voice, a voice that I had practiced no less than a million times in the comfort of my bedroom and, at times, in the shower.

God afforded me an opportunity that and I made the best of it. I had acted on what felt right in my spirit without knowing how those few moments would linger for years in my mind that I may share them with you … at this moment.

I learned how to discern when it was my spirit or God speaking at a relatively young age. My father used to tell me whenever you find yourself saying, “I knew I should of …” that was God’s way of letting you know that you had just ignored His option. It makes itself known to us with “that feeling in our gut … and it’s not gas”. Dad would often punctuate his comments on heavier subjects with humor thereby making them easier to digest and impossible to forget.

God always gives us the right answer but most of us seldom listen. Many of us are either too weak or self-absorbed to follow God’s directives at the first request. And it wasn’t just Dad but the majority of those with whom he encircled himself reinforced the same sentiment; living proof that iron does indeed sharpen iron.

God has a way of taking the ordinary and ordaining it thus making it extraordinary. Throughout all scripture God used ordinary folk to affect His kingdom in extraordinary ways. And as disparate as these folk may have been they had two things in common … a willing ear to hear God’s voice and a responsive heart ready to respond to God’s call. That day, with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, started out as an ordinary day for an ordinary young man yet something quietly extraordinary happened. Though unbeknownst to anyone in the room, a spark had ignited a flame that still burns today.

We have all met men and women who have heard and responded to that voice in their gut; that voice that lets them know when something isn’t quite right; that voice that whispers charity and justice are not synonymic; that voice that recognizes even though we may be “preachin’ to the choir” the choir must not be singing… or at least not loud enough.

It has become cliché to speak of the passing of the baton from one generation or one person to another but rarely does it happen that way. Usually that baton is carried for as long as one can maintain his or her grasp, for, like power, the baton is never passed or given it can only be taken or perhaps, in this desensitized world of indifference, one need only bend down and pick it up. But for God’s sake let it be from a pool of those for whom life is lit by some large vision of beauty and goodness and truth; lest we forget …

The Threat to Democracy

My friends, here we are on the eve of yet another Election Day. This Election Day, like many before it, has been touted by many as “the most important Election Day …” and guess what? Each claim has been correct in accordance to the condition of these United States of America at any particular moment in time. In fact, there were some elections that turned out to be “most important” in hindsight – each Presidential election this millennium has been extremely important.

I am reminded of the well-known experiment of the frog in the boiling pot of water: If you place the frog in boiling water, it will immediately and instinctively jump out as an obvious measure of self- preservation. Place the same frog in a pot of water and turn up the heat incrementally? The frog is boiled alive in the pot.

The heat of new voter suppression tactics became noticeable with the activity surrounding the election of 2000 and each subsequent election. In 2000 Florida’s “hanging chads” made it hot! In 2004? The denial of more than 5.3 MILLION Americans who had previous felony convictions made things a little hotter. In 2008? More than 98,000 registered Georgia voters were removed from the roll of eligible voters because of a computer mismatch … making things hotter still. And here we are, the heirs to democracy – on the eve of the 2012 Presidential Election – more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs; sweating profusely, insides boiling from the fire, barely able to breathe, hoping against hope that our impressive, albeit last ditch, exercise in early voting pays off.

Below you will find a letter from O. Patrick “Pat” Scott, the youngest member of the Baltimore’s famed Goon Squad, still on his “j-o-b”, still arming the community with information explaining what we need to watch for tomorrow. It is obvious part of the letter is partisan but readers who may not agree with Pat’s choice for President should not lose sight of the greater message – the threat to democracy that voter suppression represents.

Thank you Pat,

WFP

My Friends:

Forgive me for preaching to the choir, but not many people really want to hear this.

SECURING THE VOTE for OBAMA & the DEMOCRATS

If our frame of reference is the U.S. Federal Elections of 2000 and 2004, photo ID laws, the campaign of 2012, the catastrophic flooding of the northeastern states, and the national conversion of voting machines to devices that do not provide for recounts, to say the least, then we should expect the worst next Tuesday … Vote Stealing … and not be surprised.

We should expect vote stealing where:

  •  Confusion exists due to dislocation caused by the weather or by voter suppression attempts.
  •  Published poll results show competing candidates are “tied” or either is leading by an amount within the poll’s margin of error;
  •  One party “spins” that their own negative poll results actually reveal how close their candidate is to the other and therefore should be viewed as a “virtual tie”, no matter the margin.
  •  Polling organizations release “consolidated” polls that reveal almost everything is a “toss-up”. And the media amplifies this kind of message because it provides controversy, drama, or great story lines;

In a national election, a state’s Exit Polls are not covered by the national media because that state is not considered to be “in play”. For example, on Nov. 6, 2012 “TV Election Night news coverage” will cancel “exit poll data in 19 states” while House and Senate seats are still at stake. Given the circumstances above, the following states might need extreme monitoring:

  •  Toss-up states are: OH, NH, VA, WI, IA, CO and FL.
  •  Leaning states are: MI, MN, PA, OR, NV, and NC.
  •  States excluded from detailed exit poll data coverage are: AK, AR, DE, DC, GA, HI, ID, KY, LA, NE, ND, OK, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, WV, UT, and WY.

According to Bev Harris, BlackBoxVoting.org, the people have the right to know:

1. Who can vote

2. Who did vote,

3. The chain of custody, and

4. The accurate count

Thanks,

Patrick Scott

November 1, 2012

On Maryland’s Question 6

Though Marylanders will be spared the barrage of presidential campaign commercials those in “battleground” states are forced to endure, they do have to deal with commercials and media campaigns on a different battleground. Question 6, a referendum to vote FOR or AGAINST same sex marriage, will be on the ballot for Maryland voters this November and it is causing divisions within political parties, ethnic groups and religious affiliations throughout the entire state.

As Election Day draws nearer my inbox seems to get fuller! Lately, emails about Question 6 and my thoughts on the issue appear most often. While the temptation to offer a knee-jerk response is, for me, ever present I have learned over the years it is better to start with investigation before prognostication. I am sure we all have “feelings” about the issue; many of us feel something about this issue yet one fact remains; I have neither seen or heard any legal basis for denying anyone anything this referendum attempts to address.

Question 6: Civil Marriage Protection Act

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

A few of the commercials I have been able to find online feature some of the biggest names in today’s Black church with a few local Maryland pastors sprinkled in.  Most of the email I have received has been from those who would consider themselves Christians – mad Christians. Their disgust is aimed at the commercials but some are clearly conflicted as to why they are harboring so much anger; is it because many well-known and heretofore well respected ministers are speaking up in support of Question 6? Or are they bothered by the silence of others in the local faith community they feel should have something to say? At the end of the day, the responsibility of how we vote on this, or any other issue, ought not to be dependent upon what celebrity dictates.

There are those in the faith community who are choosing to support this referendum for one of two reasons. First and foremost, many in the faith community see this as a “civil rights issue” – declaring the struggle of the LGBT community “the same as” the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  While I believe wholeheartedly it is an issue of civil rights I do not believe it is the same as the struggle of Blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  People can’t always see that one is gay but they can certainly see if you are Black and that, for some, was all that was necessary to determine how you would be treated (pardon my digression, we can argue about that later).

Secondly, this referendum protects churches and other places of faith from having to perform these services should they choose not to. Further more it protects them from fines and prosecution for making the choice to say “no, not here” though it may not protect them from persecution for the same. Is this new? No. Don’t believe me? Is buying alcohol legal? Yes. Can you buy a drink in your church? No. I don’t care how “jiggy” your pastor is or how many buttons his suit has or how fly her hairdo may be! Those are choices that churches make based on their religious beliefs and they have a legal right to practice those beliefs as long as no one is harmed.

Still others in the faith community are arguing against this referendum and doing so solely on the basis of “what it says in the Bible”. Am I belittling that? No. Does the Bible have any legal standing? No, and those who support a wide distance between matters of Church and State should be ecstatic regardless of what side of this issue they find themselves sitting. But let’s flip it for a moment. Let us, for a moment,  suppose we were going to consult the Bible as the basis to make laws. If we stick with this argument of doing “what it says in the Bible” – that marriage is between a man and a woman – would we also allow a man to take multiple wives? Should we be happy if our daughters settle for being concubines? I mean, why not?! That, too, is “what it says in the Bible”. And let’s not even talk about “what it says in the Bible” about divorce and the acceptable reasons for getting one. We all know a lot of divorced folk and I am willing to bet not all have divorced for reasons the Bible deems acceptable.

At the end of the day I have heard no legal argument against this referendum. In fact, all that I have heard against this referendum has come from self-proclaimed Christians, based on  biblical interpretation, emotion and judgment. Should that be enough? For some, perhaps but if memory serves me correctly, Christians are not supposed to judge others, right? At least that’s “what it says in (my) bible” … how ‘bout yours?

 

In Memoriam: Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

If we have to die (and contrary to the belief of some, we all must) odds show that more people will do so in January than any other month of the year. While three of the most significant and life altering deaths of my existence thus far happened in January – two of them mere days apart in the same year –here lately the month of May has given January a run for its money. My dear friend and “Brother” Michael V. Dobson died in May 29, 2010. On May 9, 2012 another very close friend, campaign manager and “Brother”, Terry W. Taylor died and days later, on May 17, 2012 the Reverend Doctor (“Uncle”) Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr. made the transition and joined with six fellow Goon Squad members who crossed over years before.

After Uncle Marion’s Memorial service Saturday, May 26, 2012, I had the honor, pleasure and self-appointed duty to chauffer around two of the four remaining Goon Squad members, O. Patrick “Pat” Scott and the ever dapper Dr. “Uncle” Homer E. Favor. Lalit “Lal” Gadhia had to get back home for another engagement. Rev. (“Uncle”) Vernon Dobson had already endured a draining week of emotional extremes. The high was a celebration of his life in the ministry and the low was the overpowering fact that Uncle Marion – who certainly would have been physically present for that celebration – had left this earth just three days prior. Understandably overwhelmed, Uncle Vernon was not in attendance. After spending a considerable amount of time that morning wrestling with a bowtie dawned for the first time in my effort to pay respect to Uncle Marion’s signature style, Pat and I rode together to the church. When it was over I had hoped to connect with at least some of the others. Uncle Homer did not disappoint.

“Pooh, you goin’ to the cemetery”, asked Uncle Homer.

“If you want to go…”

“No …” Uncle Homer interrupted, “… had you planned to go to the cemetery?”

“Not unless you wanted to” I replied in a tone reassuring him I was at his disposal.

“Hell no! I saw the funeral director looking at me sideways …”, he bends and leans to demonstrate, “… sizing me up! I told him, ‘Man, stand up and look me in my eye! I’m ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere any time soon”, he jokes playfully.

With that the three of us left the Douglas Memorial Community Church where Uncle Marion had pastored from 1949-1995 and headed downtown to break bread at McCormick & Schmick’s, one of Uncle Homer’s favorite restaurants. The stories and political, socio-economic discussion began almost as soon as I shifted our “chariot” into drive. It seemed as though every block we traveled held memories of both joy and pain. We talked and laughed through our late lunch and then on to Uncle Homer’s home. The conversation never stopped.

Funerals and Memorial Services are bittersweet occasions but, for me, Uncle Marion’s service was much more sweet than bitter. I saw many old friends, heard and retold stories that will never lose their splendor and most importantly remembered the life of one of God’s servants so well lived. Some asked if I were going to write something solely about Uncle Marion as a supplement to The Goons (Take: 1) piece I authored about a year ago. While I knew Uncle Marion’s life was colorful, robust and clearly worthy of its own literary treatment I had yet to process Terry’s death and what his loss meant for my life. So once again, a member of the Goon Squad comes to our rescue. I am publishing Uncle Homer’s unedited words about his dear friend and brother, Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

(W.F. Phillips)

 

 

 

Marion Curtis Bascom, My Friend and Brother

Members of Marion’s family asked me to pen a few lines about him that might capture the essence of his being from the view point of one of his many close friends. Reflecting upon the matter proved to be challenging, if not daunting. How can the highlights of one so accomplished be treated adequately in just a few words? I was reminded of my feelings when queried about him by Tosha, our physical therapist. Among the many superlatives that I used in describing him to her, irascible provided the three of us considerable amusement.

I arrived in Baltimore in 1956 to begin a long career in teaching and administration at Morgan State College. The Reverend Gus Roman, Pastor of the First Baptist Church on the east side, took me to meet Marion, whom he held in highest regards. I found him to be imbued with concern about the abject denial of his people, at the time. For instance, there was not a single person of color serving in any capacity above the most menial category in department stores, supermarkets, banks, print/broad-cast media, or any major sphere of economic activity. In fact, there was only one black in the City Council and only a single one in the legislature. Persons of color were not accorded gainful employment in either municipal or state governing bodies. Those with the Federal government were relegated to positions below Grade 5. My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland and the other exclusively white institutions were welcomed to break bread with me and my faculty at Morgan State. The reverse situation was a no-no. Suffice it to say, this absence of fair play exasperated the economic well-being of Charm City’s black population.

Marion, like Jesus, literally wept. It was at this juncture in 1967 when eleven of us from disparate walks of life were brought together to ponder these disconnects. We become known pejoratively as the Goon Squad. Subsequently, we welcomed the designation as being meritorious. Marion moved us into roles of supporting the development of Camp Farthest Out. This is where Inner City children were enabled to escape the summer’s heat by spending a few weeks in this pristine setting. This facilitated the broadening of their appreciation of nature and improvement of their academic prowess. In another vein, Marion’s then new position as Fire Department Commissioner allowed him to press several of us into service when the city began to burn in 1968. We went into the hot spots in order to ensure the safety of the residents.

I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ favorite passage in Proverbs, “Seeth thou a man diligent in business. He shall stand with Kings.”  With this fervor we further integrated the Congress by seating Parren J. Mitchell, one of us, as the holder of the 7th Congressional district seat. Additionally, another one of us, Joseph C. Howard, broke the longstanding “Sitting Judge Principle” by winning a seat on the lofty Supreme Bench of Baltimore. Ironically, this is the same body that suspended him for daring to air the racist practices and procedures utilized in the administration of rape cases by Maryland’s judicial system. Subsequently, he was appointed to the Federal judiciary with the endorsement of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Another accomplishment of Marion’s was the opening up of television and radio in keeping with the laws that should have been avoided, assiduously. Two of our members, Vernon N. Dobson and myself, along with Samuel T. Daniels of the Masonic family, served nearly 20 years on a weekly television program, “Look at It This Way.”

There was a lasting bond of brotherhood developed between Marion and me which embraced the highest values of human endeavor. We grew to be such friends and brothers that we were often facetiously referred to as the odd couple. To me he became “Macuba” and to him, I became “Hoelfa.” The endless hours we spent fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, along with bowling well after midnight in our younger days, provided us with fond memories. Initially, there were eleven of us but with Marion’s passing, only four remain. The spirits of the departed, fortunately, transcend the distance between earth and bright glory.

In ending the discourse I must acknowledge the ecumenical reach insisted upon by Marion and the rest of us. We interacted constantly with others. Persons typifying them would be Sam Daniels, James Rouse, Henry Parks, Chester Wickwire, Peter Angelos, Robert Embery, Martin Jenkins and a host of others too numerous to mention. Curtis, as his grandmother called him, had multifaceted interests and capabilities in many genres. For example, he loved gardening, raising beautiful roses, other flowers, and some vegetables. In another vein, he established a competitive office supply business to demonstrate further that people of color harbored such talents. On many occasions, Marion had me join him in visiting those hospitalized or recovering from illness at home. Parren was not always hospitable, at times, wishing to be left alone. The minister’s persuasive power, however, always prevailed. It was a joy to share the podium each year during Black History Month by addressing the residents at Broadmeade Retirement Community. Spencer Hammond always accompanied us with a musical ensemble. The evening, conceptualized by Chester Wickwire was highly regarded by all and sundry. John Dunn was right, … “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Marion takes a portion of me with him but leaves an even greater share of himself with me.

Thanks for the journey, dear Friend.

Homer E. Favor

The Help, The “Oscars” & The Questions (Part 2 of 2)

(Continued from March 3, 2012)

I contend, inviting the ire of some I am sure, the standing ovations were less about the performance of the actors and more about assuaging feelings of guilt associated with one of two things (or both): 1) the length of time it took Blacks to be recognized for their talent by the Academy and 2) the type of role they played for which they received the award engendered some guilt, pity or fear. Let’s look at the characters portrayed by the only four Black actresses or actors I have ever seen to receive standing ovations:

BEST ATRESS OR ACTOR

“Leticia Musgrove” (Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball – the wife of a convicted and executed murderer left to care for her morbidly obese son alone. She begins an affair with the white racist corrections officer, who with his son, assist in the execution of Leticia’s husband. A rough, explicit alcohol and pain induced sex scene ensues that borders on soft porn. While that is not the crux of the movie the scene is burned onto the retina of all who have seen it. – “Make me feel goooooooood!”“Leticia Musgrove”

“Homer Smith” (Sidney Poitier*) in Lilies of the Field – the ex G.I. and itinerant handyman who “carried his home on four wheels”; a “big, strong man” is “just what five lonely women were looking for … just the man to make their prayers and dreams come true” says the voiceover in the movie’s trailer. WTH?! Wait! My younger readers are probably thinking, how can Sidney Poitier win for this kind of smut?! Well, before you go too far down the road I’ve paved so nicely, these five women are nuns in need of a chapel in the Arizona desert. The movie highlights the tension (with tenderness and humor)between a Black passerby and the stubborn, Austrian mother superior, Mother Maria. Seeing this as a very idealistic, “hands across America”, “Kumbaya” kind of movie, the revolutionary in me could attack it but the Christian in me is bigger and can’t argue against a movie that uses the Sermon on the Mount as its foundation. – “I ain’t building no ‘shapel’! Not only am I ain’t buildin’ no ‘shapel’, I’m takin’ off!”“Homer Smith”

Detective “Alonzo Harris” (Denzel Washington) in Training Day – the maniacal sociopathic, highly decorated detective gone bad. A street tough, lying, manipulating, drug peddling, misogynistic, pimp-like thief. – “Myyy nigga!”, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” – “ You motherf**kers will be playing basketball in Pelican Bay when I get finished with you … I’m the man up in this piece … who the f**k do you think you’re f**king with? I’m the police, I run (ish) around here. You just live here. King Kong ain’t got (ish) on me!” – “Alonzo Harris”

“Ray Charles” (Jamie Foxx) in Ray – the biopic of a phenomenal American musician and entertainer who happened to be Black and blind. He battled his demons (infidelity and drug addiction) and the demons of this country (racism and segregation) while revolutionizing the world of music with a blend of gospel, jazz, rock and pop music. Charles even crossed over into country music. Biopics are demanding for actors as they are in so many scenes but Foxx masterfully yet believably came to life as Ray Charles. – “I’m gonna make it do what it do…” – Jamie Fox as “Ray Charles”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary Lee Johnston” (Mo’Nique) in Precious – the extremely abusive, unemployed, highly dysfunctional “monster” of a mother of the obese, illiterate, pregnant sixteen year old Precious, for whom the film is named. They live in Section 8 housing and deal with one conflict wrapped in another and covered by yet another. A grim, turbulent look at the lifestyle of a dysfunctional “family” that both Blacks and whites alike spend most of their time trying to ignore. While Precious doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset, I would guess we would have to consider Precious as somewhat triumphant. – “That was my f**kin’ man. That was my man and he wanted my daughter. And that’s why I hated her because it was my man who was supposed to be loving me, who was supposed to be making love to me and he was f**king my baby … and she made him leave … she made him go away.” – “Mary Lee Johnston”

“Minny Jackson” (Octavia Spencer) in The Help – quick witted, wise cracking opinionated maid, cook and caretaker for whites in the Jim Crow south during the Civil Rights era. Minny is the wife of a physically abusive, never seen husband, who has trouble holding jobs due to her uncontrollable outspokenness. – “You cookin’ white food, you taste it with a different spoon. They see you puttin’ the tastin’ spoon back in the pot, might as well throw it all out. Spoon too. And you use the same cup, same bowl, same plate everyday. And you put it up in the cabinet. Tell that white woman that’s where you gonna keep it from now on out. Don’t do that? See what happens.” –(speaking to her daughter, “Sugar”, before her first day on the job as a maid like her mother and grandmother before her). – “Minny Jackson” .

All of these performers were extremely convincing in their portrayals and all were deserving of their awards but was Training Day’s Denzel Washington really that much better than Malcolm X’s, Malcolm or The Hurricane’s, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter? Or was the Academy more at ease awarding an Oscar for the portrayal of a flawed fictional character rather than a real life figure who helped to expose America’s flaws? Am I reading too much into all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the only place many in the white community would meet an “Alonzo Harris” would be in the movies. As real as the “Alonzo” is in some Black communities he is distant fiction in the white community and thus easily dismissed. Malcom X (later El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was real and he scared folk, especially white folk – and truth be told, some Black folk, too!

I know there were other Black actors who received Best Actor and Best Supporting actor awards but they didn’t receive standing ovations. However, the roles for which they won their award helps to prove my point:

  • “Pvt. Silas Trip” (Denzel Washington) in Glory – a cocky, ex-slave soldier
  • “Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry McGuire – a cocky jock
  • “Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ DuPris” (Morgan Freeman) in Million Dollar Baby – a not so cocky ex-jock.
  • “Idi Amin” (Forest Whitaker) in The Last King of Scotland – the notorious Ugandan dictator who reportedly murdered no less than 80,000 people.

Again, all well played parts and deserving of awards … but … do I really need to go on?

Let’s look at Monster’s Ball for a moment. Did the standing ovation make those white men feel better? The white men who had father’s like the one the late Peter Boyle portrayed in the movie? The white fathers that told their sons they weren’t men until they “split dark oak”? What about the men – Black and white – who secretly harbored less than noble thoughts about Halle Berry? Did they feel better when they stood and clapped? What about those who wished and hoped they could change places with Billy Bob Thornton just for that one scene? Was their guilt for finding some degree of pleasure, crouched somewhere deep and hidden, in that animalistic sexual display of “Leticia’s” pain somehow washed away?

Many southern whites, even The Help author, Kathryn Stockett were raised and nurtured by “Minnys”, “Aibileens” and even Hattie McDaniel’s, “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind. Was the ovation some way to say thank you? Hell, was the book itself a big “thank you” letter from Stockett to Demetrie, her family’s “Help” in Mississippi for generations? And were those who clapped so feverishly as so many additional signatures upon that letter?

Look, I may have only stirred up a lot of questions but for now, that’s all I have. One of the biggest questions about The Help was raised by Karina Longworth in her piece in the Village Voice: “Why do little white girls who are raised lovingly by black maids turn into raging racist a**holes once they’ve grown to run their own households?” Or let’s take one more trip back to the Awards show when Chris Rock mentioned that a white voiceover actor can portray an Arabian prince but a Black voiceover actor is relegated to “donkeys or zebras”. Yes there was a small amount of nervous, uncomfortable laughter but the question still remains unanswered. Why is that? Are those fair questions? Why does this race thing perpetuate and replicate and, at times, reinvent itself? I think it’s because we won’t have the conversations and we continue to let the opportunities to have those conversations pass us by. We refuse to be uncomfortable for more than about two hours or whatever the average length of a feature film.

I don’t have the answers nor do I claim to … and neither do you. But we, you and I, do have the answers. In fact, we are the only ones who can solve the problems but we will never find solutions to issues we refuse to confront. I’m not looking to blame any one. I’m looking for peace … wanna help?

* – The multiple camera angles and views to which we have grown accustomed were not available to us in the Academy Awards show footage of 1963. I was unable to discern whether Sidney Poitier actually received a standing ovation but the applause sure made it sound as if he did. Since he was the first Black Actor to receive an Oscar, this writer finds it fitting that he be noted regardless.

The Help, The Oscars® & The Questions (Part 1 of 2)

So once again Oscar’s night has come and gone and I’m left with a couple of thoughts that I’d like to share. Since I am apparently hardwired to pick up on certain social vibes from these events it just makes sense to use this space to posit my thoughts.

These events always tend to make a statement about us all. Beneath the hype, glitz and glamour looms evidence of our values, politics and even the fragility of both. We are confronted with things we perhaps thought we believed and still other issues we may have found ourselves ignoring wholeheartedly.

All the buzz this season had been around the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help. I never thought The Help would win Best Picture; movies that deal with race issues –especially Black/White issues – no matter how much critical acclaim or box office success (also rare) never do. Don’t believe me? Check it out and get back to me. Now, let’s move on.

There was much discussion about the strong possibility of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, respectively, winning two of the big three entertainment awards (Screen Actor’s Guild, Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  Davis finished the run with only the SAG award for Best Actress while Spencer came away winning all three. She actually won four awards but since Americans tend to ignore what’s happening in other countries I figured it pointless to mention that she also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for the Best Supporting Actress category.

Those of you who know me or have read me before will not be surprised by this fact but I tend to notice things. Being the social/cultural critic and humorist I am, I feel it’s my duty to bring them to your attention. If you are the type who thinks entertainment is just entertainment, that politics and social critique ought not be comingled then you should probably stop reading. You will no doubt take offense to what I am about to suggest. If you are still reading then I will assume you are, to some degree, interested. Let me offer a couple observations. I don’t suggest these are negative or positive; merely observations … my observations.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Being a lover and student of comedy, I was excited to hear last September that Eddie Murphy was going to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards show. Imagine my surprise when, not three months later, he wasn’t going to host the show. Murphy pulled out after his friend and Tower Heist producer, Brett Ratner, resigned as the producer of the Academy Awards Show after making some pretty raunchy public remarks and topped it off with an anti-gay slur. It stands to reason that Murphy would step down since Ratner is the guy who bought him to the table; but, man, was I upset – relatively speaking, of course. Whatever the case, this highlights an example of politics or “political correctness” coming into play. Eddie Murphy, arguably a very capable host, through no fault of his own, is out and Billy Crystal, also a very capable host, is in. Mind you, I am not agreeing or disagreeing with any of this, I am just… observing.

Now let’s move to the undercurrent of tension surrounding The Help. I read some of the book and listened to most of it as I was often on the road between Washington, DC and Greensboro, NC during that time. Sidebar: If I can find a good unabridged audiobook, preferably read by the author, I can think of no more thought provoking a companion on long drives. If not read by the author, then a well-produced rendering with great voice actors is a wonderful experience. Such was the case with the audiobook version of The Help. In fact, I was first introduced to Octavia Spencer through the audiobook where she first embodied “Minny Jackson” (a well-deserved shout out goes to Bahni Turpin for her portrayal of “Aibileen Clark” on the audiobook). I found the story humorous, mildly disturbing, corny and oversimplified at times, deserving of being told yet entertaining throughout.

Never once did I think, “Why is a white woman telling this story?!” or “Who does she think she is?!” There were those who knocked the book for not being factual and a host of other things the author probably never set out to do. She set out to tell a fictional story her way, loosely based on factual events as a reference point, nestled in a turbulent time in America’s history. Something we all are at liberty to do should we so chose. Would we have felt better if Stockett had sided with the racist white women and told their story and justified their treatment of the domestic workers? Or how would we have felt if the story was ignored altogether? But I digress. Let’s get back to the Awards show.

And the Oscar goes to … Octavia Spencer”, said Christian Bale as he pointed to Ms. Spencer seated just below stage and to his right. A shocked Spencer covers her face with her hands and hugs and kisses cast mates on her way to the retrieve her Oscar. The crowd almost immediately erupts with applause … and … a standing ovation! For the best supporting actress?! Please know that I am taking nothing away from Ms. Spencer’s performance. She was masterful and I believed she was Minny but … a standing ovation for one of the earliest awards in the evening?! Why? Make your your seatbelt is securely fastened, I’m making a hard left turn here using a right-wing writer. I believe, in large part, white guilt is to blame. What is that you ask?

In the fifth chapter of his twenty year old, nationally best-selling book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, conservative author Shelby Steele gave name to a phenomenon most Blacks have experienced and many whites have exhibited – White Guilt. Essentially, Steele asserts that Black American politics is rooted in “challenging” whites or any white power structure with the assumption they are racist until proven otherwise. So-called Black leaders work to keep “the pressure on”, to keep white folk “on the hook” for all of the issues that hold Blacks at a disadvantage. That type of “pressure” causes whites – and to some extent our institutions –  to live under threat of being called or considered racist, thus personally attaching individuals to the shame of America’s cruel and racist past. The need to do, say, advocate for or promote anything to the contrary is driven by what Steele refers to as White Guilt. It can manifest in something as mundane as an extraordinary tip at a restaurant to something all-encompassing like political policy, i.e., the civil rights act of 1964 or even affirmative action programs, according to Steele.

So when people started standing up to join in the ovation, what white person would have wanted to have been caught sitting down when the whole friggin’ room was on their feet applauding and cheering for this little known Black actress from Alabama (Racism Headquarters during the Civil Rights era) who played a maid in Mississippi (Racism Headquarters II)? Spencer wasn’t the first Black to win best supporting actress. Hell, she wasn’t even the first to win Best Supporting Actress for playing a maid. Hattie McDaniel holds both those distinctions from her Oscar win in 1939 … and you know she didn’t get a standing ovation! Fast forward fifty one years to 1990; Whoopie Goldberg wins for best supporting actress – no standing ovation; Jennifer Hudson wins the for the same in 2006 followed by, my homegirl, Mo’Nique in 2009 and neither of them were met with such a rousing standing “o”.

Why not?

Because none of the films for which they won their Oscar had characters that had to suffer racist white people or institutions, directly, for much of the movie in the movie. So, I contend, Steele’s “White Guilt” got a holiday. The only other standing ovation for a Black actress was given to Halle Berry for her 2001 Best Actress win for Monster’s Ball. On that same night Denzel Washington won for Best Actor and as he said during his acceptance remarks the Academy got “two birds with one night”. The first ever Black actress in the Academy’s almost seventy-five year history to win Best Actress and only the second Black actor to win Best Actor? In the same night?! White Guilt was working overtime because they both got a standing ovation that night!

(Continued on March 13, 2012)

On Police Brutality

Let me start by saying “some of my best friends are” police officers. No, seriously, they are! In fact, my father’s best friend in the world, George Guest, was a Baltimore City police officer during an ugly time in this country’s history; when the brutality within the ranks was just as bad as the brutality in minority communities everywhere. But that’s another story for another time.

I think there’s a special place in Heaven for those who are willing to risk their life to serve and protect others. My heart goes out to those who lose family members and friends in the line of duty and others who endure sleepless nights worrying if their loved one will make it home safely. While many officers do the right thing every day – or at least try to – there are a number of officers who seem to have forgotten why they joined the force. Some have simply had enough while others have decided to protect and serve only themselves.

It is precisely because of my respect for those who I know do the right thing and those who have lost their lives protecting the rights and lives of others that I feel compelled to touch upon the subject of police brutality; especially in light of the recent brutality and terrorizing of the Latino community in East Haven and New Haven, Connecticut. Star Trek fans will remember the exchange between Spock and Kirk from the movie, The Wrath of Khan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” but when it comes to instances of police brutality and misconduct, the acts of the few taint the deeds of the many. The Connecticut case has plenty of attention  so I am not as concerned with that case as I am with the instances that go un– or under– reported everyday because citizens feel their word will never stand against the word of an officer of the law.

If we study all that America believes about justice; all that America believes about law, order and honor; all that she believes about security and protection (both personal and collective); if we funneled all that – and a good portion of the Constitution – into a person … it would be an officer of the law. It could be argued a judge would better personify those values but I would counter with the fact that judges merely offer interpretation. But a police officer? That’s where the rubber meets the road literally and figuratively. Think about it. Why else would the instances of their misconduct command such attention and horror?

Whether consciously or subconsciously, fairly or unfairly, we hold law enforcement officers to a higher standard; at least we used to. The same can be said for ministers, teachers and the like. But lately, there have been examples of each falling hard from the pedestal upon which we’ve placed them. Police officers and, in some cases, entire police departments are only reflections of our larger society. Like it or not, whether your police department is an exception or not, we all bear some of the responsibility when things go wrong. From the Sheriff of a small, one-horse town to the chief (or permeating the ranks) of the biggest metropolitan police force you can bring to mind, these officers are at once a personification of our values and evidentiary of our fears and shortcomings.

What tends to be overlooked in most discussions is the fact that “they” (police officers) are part of “us” (the larger society). They are shaped, molded and affected by the same things that shape, mold and affect us all. They grew up in our neighborhoods, attended the same schools, were impacted – positively or negatively – by the same institutions that impact us all but somehow we expect them to behave differently. We expect them to show up free of preconceived notions or prejudice. We expect them to be able to remedy any situation; most of the time in the heat of some of the most hellish moments … moments with which many of us will never have to suffer. We expect them to enter a situation as blind as Lady Justice, with balanced scales in hand, into areas where nothing is balanced and playing fields have been unlevel for years. But do we enter situations without a certain degree of judgement or prejudice? Probably not. Their prejudices are our prejudices in uniform … fortified with a badge and a gun. And yet, when they (re) act, we find ourselves shocked and astonished … as if they somehow are not representative of us all.

We review footage; we rewind tapes and reenact uncomfortable moments in the comfort of our homes or court rooms frantically searching for some “other” way something could have been “handled”. Somehow, somewhere we must find someone to blame and usually the culpability of the accused is directly related to his or her economic viability. But the news, almost daily, exposes yet another story of police misconduct at the intersection of “Oh God” and “Not Again”, where immediacy and (re)action rule the day; where a “second look” or “another chance” are nothing more than tardy, unaffordable luxuries. And we find ourselves horrified … again. But what do we do? And what do we expect?

Color me naive and idealistic but I, for one, expect us all to do better … to be better … to be better stewards of this God given gift called life. Yeah, I expect that. I expect the Golden Rule to prevail. I expect respect. I expect to be viewed as a human being, first. I expect that all citizens are innocent until proven guilty and should be treated as such. I expect when officers “misspeak” (read: reveal who they really are) that their apologies be remorseful and sincere or not offered at all. I expect that in cases of blatant police misconduct or brutatlity that the Constitution of the United States be interpreted as a weapon of justice for all rather than a shield from blame for some.

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)