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!

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.

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 …

Letter to a Hurting Friend

I believe Dad wrote this letter to a church member who had recently lost an adult child. I can think of no greater pain than for a parent to outlive their child but it happens every day. Even though our day may be going along smoothly we ought to remain cognizant of the fact that someone, somewhere is suffering. I have left off the recipient’s name and you may notice the letter never mentions the issue or what happened. On the contrary, it is aimed at helping our “Hurting Friend” continue on, in spite of the pain. You or someone you know could be hurting … perhaps these words, written decades ago could speak to you right now.

Take care & be blessed,

WFP

 

 

Dear “Hurting Friend”,

I feel a need to write to you to let you know that though I have not yet been over to talk to you, I still carry you in my daily prayers and thoughts. You have been heavy on my heart and mind, for I have a grasp of understanding of what you are presently going through.

Be ever mindful of the ever present need to keep the situations which life throws at you in their proper context. There is no darkness so black that God’s light cannot and does not penetrate. The danger is that sometimes we become so accustomed to the darkness that we cease to search for the light.

The hurt and agony which I saw in your eyes when you were at church is still clearly imprinted on the screen of my mind. Remember as well, [my friend], that no matter what or how another interprets our existence, you are a child of God, first of all, and as such, you are of immense value to Him. Never let another human or situation rob you of that bit of knowledge!

The “whys” of life cannot always be answered for they are a part of the mystery of existence. There is a certain mystique about life which can only be understood by the creator of life, and that’s where your faith comes in. It’s a matter of trusting your God enough to lay the “whys” at His feet and then go on about the business of living in the assurance He’s got everything under control and that His knowing the “whys” is sufficient!

The alternative is devastating! That is to stop living now and spend the rest of your days trying to piece together a puzzle to which you do not have all the parts, for in every puzzle there are external pieces which God keeps for Himself and places them down when He sees fit! Faith is to live knowing that God will put these pieces together when He sees fit, and knowing further that He does this when it is most advantageous for us for He loves us dearly!

Lastly, do not let other humans bring you down to a level of life which is less than God intended for you. Bitterness, revenge, hatred and the like serve no purpose other than to shrivel one’s soul until it eventually dies and in its dying chains one to a fixed position in the past and hence, all growth and forward movement ceases for one’s purpose in life becomes contradictory to that which God had initially intended for it to be! That life becomes, in the real sense, possessed with demons. It’s a dead end street.

My friend, keep the faith and remember that oft times that which we interpret as “life falling apart at the seams” is not a “breaking down” but rather an “opening up” of life with all kinds of possibilities of unlimited service to God.

May God sustain you in your moment of need – we love you. Take care of that gift which God has given you – LIFE.

Love,

Rev. Phillips

P.S. I will still get around to talk with you.

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?

 

Texting Text in Times of Trouble

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”  John 14:2 (KJV)

I was awakened this morning at an early odd hour without as much sleep as I would have liked to have had yet somehow feeling rested. My cellphone was blinking as it always does when there are unread messages. Some of you may know it is not my practice to immediately respond to blinking lights during the course of a busy day. The blinking doesn’t always connote an emergency, it isn’t always indicative of something that must be responded to right away. True, the blinking could be due to an urgent text but it could also be a voicemail message from a solicitor – or worse – a bill collector. It could even be spam from one of three email accounts I have foolishly funneled through to my cellphone. I learned from years of jumping to respond at every blinking light that more often than not it’s not an emergency. How Pavlovian have we become?  But in a dark room … in the still of the night, I could no more ignore that blinking light as I could ignore the blinking “Check Engine” light of my SUV the day before a cross country family road trip. So I “awakened” my phone.

I began reading text messages from a spiritually and physically strong friend who has been struggling with what seem to be her father’s last days here on earth. She is a Christian or perhaps I should say working to become a Christian. If the truth were to be told none of us who profess to be Christian are … at least not yet. I don’t care how old or holy you think you may be we all are in the process of becoming that which we profess to be. Her father is a Deacon at his church and has been for many years. He is a large part of the foundation of her faith. He is eighty years old if he is a day and it appears he is coming around the last turn of this race.  She typed.

Text Message #1 [3:28 a.m.]:      “He’s talking about being scared to die. It’s not the same as when we used to talk about it …I guess it seems more real now, or we’re spiritually weaker.”

Text Message #2 [3:28 a.m.]:      “Maybe both.”

As I was “listening” to her I could feel her fear … that same fear we all experience whenever things we were once sure of become uncertain. Her father, who had been this staunch Deacon of the church for so many years, the same man who had explained and displayed faith for her and shown her how a righteous man walks in it, was now expressing a palpable fear of leaving this place to be with a God he had come to know over the last eighty years. The “distant shore” he had heard so much about in word and song wasn’t so “distant” anymore. His fear causing her doubt. Her doubt giving birth to her fear. Their collective strength giving way to a weakness we all recognize as innately human. Suddenly it dawned on me why I had been awakened at such an odd hour with a clear and empty mind. Without contemplation I began to type the words as they came:

My Response Pt. 1 [3:52 a.m.]:     “There is a fear of that which is unknown. We talk a good game but here’s the test: if given the choice of dying and having eternal life without the body that has defined us for as long as we have been living AND in a place we have only heard about but never actually seen?! And no one we know has ever been there and come back to tell us about it (and if they had, we would dismiss them out of hand as crazy)?! Would we want that or eternal life here … in this familiar place … this place we already know to be crazy? I would be willing to bet many (if not most) would choose to stay right here for eternity.

My Response Pt. 2 [4:04 a.m.]:    But in my moments of despair and doubt I look at us human beings and the wonders of our intricate design: Almost 30 feet of intestines folded into such a compact space, a complex brain that helps us make thousands of decisions a day, all the complicated organs and systems within the human body and think this can’t be coincidental! SOMEBODY had to make this thing on purpose and with purpose in mind!

My Response Pt. 3 [4:07 a.m.]:    Imagine, if you will, us walking along and finding a watch laying on the ground. Under the scratch resistant crystal we’d see the twelve markings on the face that correspond with the twelve hours of the a.m. and the p.m. The short hand marks the hour, the big hand marks the minutes and the second hand counts each second of every hour in the day. Beneath the face we’d find all sorts of gears moving in opposite directions; moving levers connected to mechanisms that move the hands on the watch day in and day out. Would we think all of that just happened by coincidence?

My Response Pt. 4 [4:12 a.m.]:    And what if that watch were to break? Would we try to fix it ourselves and risk destroying the delicate mechanisms designed by someone much more capabale and intelligent than we? Or might we just be willing to concede that … somewhere … there must be a watch repair shop with a watchmaker? Someone who knows how to fix that which is broken because he made it in the first place. So tell your Dad  … the good Deacon … it’s ok to be unsure and we naturally fear that which we don’t completely understand. And let him know he was right about what he said he believed all these years. There is a Human maker – called God – who made and loves him … a God who has watched over him for these past eighty years … a God who will eventually call him home – to that divine Human Repair Shop –to fix all within him that this world has broken and then some … forever. He can rest. Assured.

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

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)