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.

Speak Life

Speak LifeJust STOP IT!  Right now … whatever it is … whatever you are doing … whatever you are saying … whatever you are thinking about … in your own life or anyone else’s life that isn’t positive or life affirming … STOP IT!

Here’s why:  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. “  (Proverbs 18:21)

 Those of us who believe in a God believe that when God breathed life into us there was some divinity in that breath. Hence, there is some of God in all of us. That is what I define as one’s spirit. And It is that spirit that connects us all to everything else and vice versa … plants, animals, trees, earth, water, stars … and yes, even and especially, each other.

I recently learned of the death of someone I didn’t know but knew of.  We weren’t close at all. I didn’t know if she was married or if she had children or any of that … our “conversations” consisted of nothing more than the pleasantries exchanged in passing. I seem to remember meeting her once and shaking hands as I was exiting an elevator she was preparing to enter.  Suffice it to say, our day- to- day interactions were limited. She worked on her part of the puzzle and I worked on mine. We, together with everyone else we worked with were helping to create the “big picture”.

There is no “big” job or “small” job … there is only “our” job.  In the case of higher education, all of “our” jobs are about creating a safe, healthy, life affirming and capable space for future leaders to be groomed and released to change the world. For those of you in another field, you have your “big picture” and whatever that picture is, be certain discord, chaos, “mean speak” or anything that isn’t life affirming is NOT part of it. But I digress.

With the exception of what I felt to be her spirit when we met, I really hadn’t learned this person well enough to remember anything most would consider substantive. However, I DO remember what helped short circuit my learning was the residue … the remnants of “mean speak” and skepticism concerning the extended period of leave she had taken. But I have come to learn much more about her.

I learned she was strong … much stronger than the mean spirited words spoken about her or those who spoke them. I learned she was a fighter. I learned she had already survived at least one bout with cancer before she came to us and, after a brief respite, she was in the throes of yet another battle with what had become stage 4 cancer. I learned she must have known the type of environment she needed to be in to heal and knew she knew she wasn’t in it … and it was while fighting this battle she found need for an extended period of leave. I learned on the tail end of that leave she suffered a brain hemorrhage and some paralyzation as a result.  She survived all of that and now, little more three years after our meeting at the elevator, I learned she is gone. No more pain … no more fighting … only Glory.

Though I didn’t know her, I felt I had met her spirit. I believe our spirits connected in that brief clasping of hands at the elevator. There was something about her countenance … something that conveyed the divinity that God deposits in us all with that breath. No, it doesn’t always translate as jovial or what many would consider “approachable”; at times, it may be pious or stoic … but however God’s spirit shows up, its energy is unmistakably sure and true.

I believe we all are in possession of that energy. In some, it bursts forth almost daily and you can feel it. You see them and you begin to feel better. In others, the vicissitudes of life seem to have been piled high atop that energy by feeding doubt, sowing seeds of cynicism and speaking words that are indicative of where they are in life or how they feel.  Whether the energy is good or bad, we project that – sometimes knowingly but most times not – onto those we share life with … in our homes … in our places of work … in all of our interactions, we put that energy out into the world.

All that I am saying is, words matter. Be aware. Speak life. Choose to be blessed!

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 …