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)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 2 of 4)

(Continued from January 3, 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued January 16, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 1 of 4)

PROLOGUE

In the mid to late 1960’s, a generation of unwitting trailblazers learned to navigate unsure waters and relationships by constructing new bridges built on the hopes and dreams of their parents. In spite of the culture clashes they would experience along the way, they were still expected to make grades indicative of any student who had obtained the privilege to matriculate at such “prestigious” institutions. Yet the effects of these clashes, though varying in intensity, lingered. The results of these socio-intellectual experiments met levels of success that were equally varied but that was to be expected. Change was coming and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

In June of 1963, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway. In November of that same year President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. On July 2, 1964 the Civil Rights Act was enacted. A little more than six months later, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was killed. Wednesday evening, April 3, 1968, while speaking to a group assembled at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. requested that America “be true to what you said on paper”.  Less than twenty-four hours later presidential candidate Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy would help spread word across the nation that Dr. King had been shot dead.  Almost 200 years came and went between the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence and the last words Dr. King would utter in public.

Two months later, in June of ’68, Bobby Kennedy, himself, was killed.  And we were waist deep in the-war-that-wasn’t-a-war that divided our country in ways not seen since the Civil War. It had become crystal clear that change was not high on America’s list of priorities. Our big cities were being destroyed with riots spawned by the outrage of one America that feared change and another America hell bent on assuring its arrival. And in that same year, some seventy-one years after its opening, The Gilman School for Boys (and I will assume schools like it across the county) graduated its first Black students … all four of them. In 1969 we put a man on the moon. And just one year later, in August of 1970, against the backdrop of all the aforementioned, the six year old son of a uniquely radical yet prominent Baltimore City preacher and the secretary for the first Black elected Judge to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City began his first day of private school.

There were revelations and epiphanies galore. Myths were debunked and stereotypes destroyed while new ones were created. Lines were crossed and conclusions were drawn. Feelings were hurt, friends were made, identities were lost … and some were found. But change was coming! There were fights and there were truces; confusion and clarity. There was humor and humiliation. But change was coming! There was confrontation and denial. There were cheers and there was the “gnashing of teeth”. There was Black and there was White. There was Jew and there was Gentile. There was Asian, European, Latino, Mediterranean and Indian. There was gay and there was straight.  And still others who sat on the fence trying to figure all this stuff out. Yet change kept coming! There was teaching and there was learning. There was fear and there was faith that each would grow to recognize the other’s worth. And, thank God, change kept on coming!  Not all experiences were positive and not all were negative but whatever the experience, all lives involved were changed; mine among them.

We were students in these schools at a unique juncture in both America’s history and the history of the schools we were attending. In fact, some of us even made history at these schools. Life’s hard, social lessons and racial tensions were neither part of the curriculum nor were they intentionally exacerbated by the administration, faculty or staff. But it was “out there”. They – social lessons, race and classism – found their way to the playground at recess or the quarter mile jaunt from the lower school to the gymnasium.  Though equality was now a legislative reality, socially it tarried; even, and at times, especially in private schools.

Many, if not all, of us were the first in our family to attend a private school. Our parents stuffed their dreams in our pockets, zipped up their hope in our jackets and sent us on our way – to an academic “promised land” that would all but guarantee a scholarship to “any college we choose”. Some of us were ridiculed in school for being too Black then maligned once more upon our return to our neighborhoods for not being Black enough or “talkin’ white or “thinking you are better than us”. Still others made it through relatively unscathed … or so they’d like to believe.  All in all, our experiences were rich; our stories compelling, empowering and deserved of being told.

(Continued January 9, 2012)

The Black Community & Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns

January of 2012 will mark 25 years since The Honorable Clarence “Du” Burns held office as the first Black mayor of Baltimore City, Maryland. The “Du” in his name was fabled and symbolized the fact that Clarence Burns was a person who could “get things done”.

In the late 1940’s Mr. Burns helped to deliver the Black vote for then Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Dad) which helped get Burns the job as a shower attendant at East Baltimore’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. Word of his ability to get things done began to spread … so much so that his middle name may just as well have been “Do”.  

And so the “Do” was adopted as his trademark. I suppose spelling it with the “Du” gave more of a surname prefix feel. I would wager there are still a good number of folk would be amazed to know that his last name – as far as Uncle Sam was concerned – was “Burns”. Nevertheless, I am anxious to see how loudly and how clearly the name Clarence “Du” Burns will ring when January 2012 rolls around … or if there will be any real mention of his legacy at all.

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer headed to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987, “Du”Burns, who was the sitting President of the Baltimore City Council, moved into the Mayor’s office to finish out the remainder of Schaefer’s term. “Du” Burns and Schaefer knew each other and worked well together. With Schaefer moving to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis and “Du”Burns in the Mayor’s slot, Baltimore was well positioned to benefit from both a Mayor and a Governor who knew Baltimore intimately. The fact that Schaefer and “Du”Burns got along well together could only be viewed as a plus … but there were those who felt differently.

Baltimore had been an industrial, blue collar town for many decades but times were changing and the industrial age was coming quickly to an end. Bethlehem Steel and the General Motors plants were closing. Good paying jobs were being lost and undereducated workers were going to be at a tremendous loss if they could not get back to work. Schaefer, ½ Vaudeville showman and ½ mayor but all politician, sprang into action! He began to focus, almost totally, on the revival, reconstruction and repurposing of Baltimore’s inner harbor. One minute he was playing “Trashball” in an effort to promote keeping the city clean and the next minute he donned (no pun intended) an old fashioned bathing suit – replete with sun hat, water toy  and mermaid – in an effort to lure the National Aquarium to Baltimore. He was successful.

William Donald Schaefer became known for what some would call a home grown charm and appeal but he was just as well known for his temper with those who disagreed with or criticized him and could be quite snarky. Billowing in the wings of Baltimore’s cirque de politique was an intelligent group of young, ambitious Blacks who had grown tired of Schaefer, his antics and their belief that he lacked the urgency necessary to remedy the tragedy that had become the socio-economic condition of many of the city’s poor folk. They saw the harbor thriving while the entire public school system and neighborhoods, less than one mile in any direction from the harbor, languished.

Famed attorney, fellow native son and former Circuit Court Judge Billy Murphy, Jr. rolled the angst and impatience of many Baltimoreans into a fiery campaign against Schaefer in 1983. Murphy believed that Schaefer’s neglect of neighborhoods was apodictic rendering his challenge (Schaefer’s camp would probably chose “attack”) both necessary and inevitable.

The 1983 Murphy vs. Schaefer campaign caused further division in the Black community. There were a large number of Blacks, particularly in Edmondson Village, the area in Baltimore’s western region that was Schaefer’s birthplace, who loved William Donald Schaefer. They felt a victory for Schaefer was a victory for Edmondson Village. In like fashion, an attack on Schaefer was an attack on Edmondson Village. But Murphy could not be easily dismissed. He had an electrical engineering degree from MIT and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. Billy Murphy possessed the rare coupling of intellect and pedigree but his unbridled passion made some uneasy and was viewed as reckless by many of the “old guard” Black politicos. The campaign devolved and become less about issues and more about personalities. In the end, the race wasn’t even close. Schaefer won handily but his Achilles’ heel was exposed in the process; “Schaefer didn’t like criticism and (Murphy) was full of it during the campaign.”

As time moved on more of these “young guns” became prominant. None were as quick on the draw as Murphy, but they were all just as ambitious. They believed that if “Du” Burns were to be elected mayor he would be nothing more than Schaefer’s puppet, paving the way for at least four more years of “Schaefer-esk” policies, neglect and further despair for neighborhoods and the public school system.

One of these young, ambitious Blacks was Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke. Here was yet another young, native son who was intelligent and had been to the “best” schools in the land. In 1967 he entered Yale and after graduating in 1971 he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University then went on to get his J.D. from Harvard. Twenty years after entering Yale, Kurt Schmoke was running to be the first elected Black mayor of Baltimore City … against the first Black Mayor, one Clarence “Du” Burns.

“Du” Burns was no longer a “shoe-in” for the post. Quite to the contrary, many people jumped aboard the Kurt Schmoke bandwagon primarily based upon his education, though I doubt many (if any) will be honest enough to admit that fact. The irony was that a great number of those folk had less education than “Du” Burns and much more in common with him than with Schmoke. And if we didn’t know then we need only to look to President Obama to learn political prowess and expediancy have more to do with relationship building and trust than intellect.

When the Sunpaper and other polls showed that “Du” Burns was trailing Schmoke badly (some had Burns as many as 30 points behind ) all the “smart” (pun intended) money got behind Schmoke making it extremely difficult for the “Du” Burns campaign to raise money. As one might be able to discern – lack of education, age and inability to raise money (based on what the polls were showing) – all of these factors hurt “Du” Burns’ chances tremendously. The Schaefer connection cut both ways … in some areas of the city it was a help, while in others, it was a hindrance.

Many were expecting a landslide victory for Schmoke, but he only won by about 5,000 votes. It was one of the most competitive elections in Baltimore City Mayoral history. With all that “Du” Burns had to contend with you could almost call that a victory for someone many thought would never amount to much more than a high school shower attendant.

You may ask how I came to know so much about this particular race and if you did I would reply, “Because my father was ‘Du’ Burn’s campaign manager”. Below you will find what Dad wrote in his journal regarding timing, respect, the oneness of the Black community and why he supported, believed and worked for and with Clarence H. “Du” Burns for Mayor of Baltimore City.

Wendell F. Phillips (August 2011)

“Power and growth within the Black Community is dependent upon, at the very least, the following:

  1. The integrity of each individual’s commitment to the overall agenda of the Community.
  2.  The subjugation of personal agendas for the agenda of the Community.
  3.  Each individual’s commitment to heal.
  4.  The commitment to true community (not to be confused with uniformity) must transcend all other commitments and drives, be   they religious, political, social, educational or financial.
  5.  Singleness of purpose and vision: the liberation of all, yea, even the least of these!
  6. Willingness to risk by reaching out and down for a brother or sister who has lost all hope.
  7. A thorough understanding and appreciation of our unique history and struggle that we might better understand from whence we’ve come and that we are where we are in life only through the grace of God and because others who have lived before us were willing to make the supreme sacrifice! There is an interconnectedness which must be passed on from generation to generation.
  8.  A trusting of each other for our destinies are intertwined!
  9. A commitment to look for God in each other rather than searching for that which divides us and causes us to dehumanize one another by labeling each other. (There is a part of each of the disciples within each of us, yea even Judas!)
  10. We must realize that when we encounter those who think differently than we do, the moment of encounter calls for celebration of their uniqueness not denunciation. As they may be difficult to endure for the moment, each one of us has his/her moments of being difficult with others!

I say all this to say that an enormous amount of blood, sweat & tears has been shed in the struggle to achieve one of the high priorities of our total community … a Black mayor of Baltimore City! Finally, through the grace of God and perseverance, we have one, the Honorable Mayor Clarence ‘Du’ Burns!

But now, even before he begins to take the reins, there are those who wish to unseat him and risk losing mayoralty altogether, sending the total community back to square one! Why? Because some ‘don’t like the way he talks’ or ‘he hasn’t been to college’ or ‘he’s just a shower attendant’! But does it not make a significant statement on his behalf that he has been able to move up from a shower clerk to city councilman to President of City Council and finally to Mayor?

The real mark of a man and his character is NOT determined by the heights he may achieve but rather the depths out which he has climbed! Certainly, God has had a hand in the Mayor’s journey! One would also have to admit that the Mayor must have accumulated a tremendous wealth of knowledge about City government and the politics of getting things done. And now, after all the struggle and grief that the Mayor and his family have endured, as he comes to the sunset of his career and life, there are those who not only would oust him but risk our –Blacks – losing the mayoralty for good!

Certainly Mayor ‘Du’ Burns has weak points – so do we all! But why not, where ‘Du’ is weak, shore him up? That’s the history of our whole struggle from Day 1! Can you imagine a more positive statement or a brighter ray of hope for all young Blacks than ‘Du’ being ‘Mr. Mayor’? It says no matter how humble your beginnings, if you have the faith, determination, singleness of purpose and commitment, there is no height to which you cannot ascend!

We now have a city with the major pieces in place; a Black mayor, a Black state’s attorney, a Black city solicitor, a Black superintendent of education and a Black police commissioner … the question is, WHY RISK IT ALL BY PITTING ONE AGAINST THE OTHER, THUS SPLITTING OUR COMMUNITY, ONCE AGAIN, RATHER THAN WORKING AND STRATEGIZING TOGETHER ON BEHALF OF ALL THOSE BEHIND THE “GLITTER” CAUGHT UP IN SEEMINGLY HOPELESS DESPAIR?!  I strongly believe that wisdom and compassion would advise a better alternative: Mayor ‘Du’, the elder and his family deserves an opportunity to be Mayor for four years and then a smooth transition to the “younger” (who would be learning much about the politics of city government and getting things done). We, as a community, cannot continuously fracture and segment ourselves each and every election and then ask afterward, ‘Why can’t we get together?’

The piece we ought be fighting for, which is NOT in place, is ten seats in the City Council! That would be a much more productive and beneficial endeavor for all of us; for if we insist on spilling blood on the mayoralty, the fall-out will negatively impact every other political race in the city and we will lose!

Isn’t it strange that Jesus wasn’t embarrassed by His disciples even though they left much to be desired?! They were just twelve ordinary men … some of whom were crude, rough fishermen! No orators, certainly not scholars but men who had a desire to serve their fellow man! But their experience enabled them to deal with the most powerful of all principalities. ‘Du’ may not be the most learned of all men … he may not have the eloquence of a King but he does have the ‘toughness’ and know-how bestowed upon him by years and years of struggling just to survive and lift himself up. That is what’s needed in these difficult days in which we are presently living. Degrees, has ‘Du’ none but scars from the struggle, many!

Do we let our own struggle to the top just so we can topple them once there or do we enable them to remain there a few years by strengthening them where they are weak and working along with them to make sure they have the best administration ever? Do we not realize that what happens to the first Black mayor, especially, makes a statement about all of us?! Do we honor him and thank him for persevering to this point or do we just toss him aside?

In short, though Du’s politics may differ from some, his struggle has been just as real as many and, in some cases, more severe than most of our own. In spite of all he’s been through, Du has achieved and made history for us all. Let us thank the man, respect his achievements gained against all odds and honor Du as MAYOR CLARENCE ‘DU’ BURNS, THE FIRST BLACK (ELECTED) MAYOR OF BALTIMORE CITY, who has worked the system well to our advantage. His being mayor makes a powerful statement, chocked full of hope, to all those young Blacks caught in that quagmire of hopelessness and despair which says,  ‘It is possible, if only you would dare to dream!’ ”

Rev. Wendell H. Phillips (1987)

For Those Who Say There Is No God: Exhibit (A)

This morning was not unlike most mornings. Eugene, called which made me get out of the bed. I was not asleep but like many mornings, Eugene was the first person I spoke to. It is usually a race between Eugene and my daughter, Clarke, to see which one will get me to talk first. He asked if I would ride out with he and his daughter, Lynn, then two-years old, to check out the progress the builders were making on he and his wife’s new home.

It was an overcast day. One of those days it would have been just as easy to roll over, close my eyes and go back to sleep but I was feeling good. It feels good to see friends doing well and “making it happen”. Eugene and Tanya were doing just that as were James and Malone. I am very proud of and extremely happy for both of those families – they are the kind of folk that make me glad that I am a human being. I thank God for the blessing of their friendship. You’ll pardon my digression.

When I got back from hanging out Eugene and Lynn, Ruth and Clarke were literally on their way out the door. Perfect timing! They were off to get their nails done – a necessity for Ruth, a novelty for Clarke. As much as I love family and the idea of “family time”, I really love the occasions when I am by myself. It is at those times that my mind really gets to run wild. It is in those instances that I communicate with God. Through music, writing, being otherwise creative, goofing off or just being quiet and listening to Him or listening for Him. In the space those times afford, things are on my mind; not necessarily troubling things but the kind of things upon which one can ponder while going about mindless chores around the house.

Eugene calling me first thing in the morning prompted me to do the same to another good friend of mine. I called JD and mentioned to him that I had all of these sermon titles rolling over in my head but I needed some hermeneutical “meat” to put on the bones of my titles. It is important to note that though almost all of my male predecessors were ordained ministers I was far from a bible scholar … very far. I knew principles taught in the Bible but couldn’t point you to where to find the support for those principles in the Bible … at least not with any certainty. At the same time, my mind was always full of spiritual thoughts and sermon titles that related to the principles that I knew but needed help finding where those lessons were referenced in the Bible. JD had a great command of scriptures and where to find what in the Bible. He went on to tell the story of how a good minister friend of his had told him he had much promise – in fact, the minister said he believed that JD had even greater promise than he! Part of what JD remembered was a sermon the young minister preached that was directed at the young men who had the energy that was needed in the church but most of those said men had not the time for church. JD said, “I think . . . he said Aaron or something like that . . .”

After we got off the phone, I decided to grab my Bible and look up Aaron. I knew that he was Moses’ brother but that was about it. In my New International Version (NIV) Life Application Bible I read Aaron’s profile. I learned that he was a good team member but not a good leader. The attributes that made Aaron a great team member made him a terrible leader. Aaron was too pliable to lead but if you gave him the words, he could deliver them with great aplomb.

As I was silently reading where to find out more about Aaron in the bible Ruth and Clarke returned from their outing. Normally when Clarke comes in, she will search each room in the house until she finds me – today was no different. She usually just wants to seek me out to make sure that everything is “ok”. Clarke has an extremely strong sense of family for a five year old. Everything is not “ok” unless and until everyone who is supposed to be in the house is actually in the house. Once she is assured of that fact, she feels comfortable enough to go on and do whatever it is five year olds do.

Clarke bounded up the steps and stopped at the threshold of the Master bedroom to find me sitting in the chair, 10 feet away, reading silently about Aaron.

“Hey Daddy, we’re back”, she said. Ignoring the obvious, she asked a quick question almost without pause, “Whatcha doin’?”

With my chin still resting in the palm of my hand, I glanced up to see my five year old ball of energy with her hands gripping either side of the doorframe, kicking her right leg back and forth creating a rhythmic “squeak” each time her sneaker touched the hardwood floor on which she stood.

“Reading”, I answered. I was in the process of flipping to the beginning of Exodus to start reading more about Aaron as most of his story is told in that book of the bible.

Almost as soon as I got to that page, having laid reassuring eyes on me, Clarke, still 8 to 10 feet away from me, turns to leave the room singing in a low, melodic voice, “Let my people goooo!”

“What did you say?!” I barked out the question in disbelief, startling her.

“Let my people go”, Clarke turned around to reply, “Like Moses said in the Prince of Egypt.”

“What made you sing that song?” I calmly asked, accepting what this moment revealed but still pleasantly astonished by the whole event that took all of about 7 seconds. But there was more to come.

“There’s a little fairy saying it in my ear and she told me to say it out loud. She said you needed to hear that song and she told me to sing it to you. They come to me all the time” Clarke said, “now she’s making bird sounds.”


And you still say there is no God?

(Written March 25, 2005)

For Those Who Say There is No God: Exhibit (A) © 2005 by Wendell F. Phillips

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! That’s What POTUS Means To Me

 

In life we will experience things that for some reason make us uncomfortable. Maybe we are unable to put a finger on it, perhaps it rubs us the wrong way but there have been events that leave us feeling unsettled.  I experienced one such instance recently. Actually, I should say that I experienced another such instance recently. Over time there have been many examples but the “last straw” incident which was the impetus for the inquiry of my friends occurred on a national morning news show. The slight – I will allege it so – was made by a reporter; a supposed media professional.

As I recall, the story was about the coming hurricane season and the effect it would have on the efforts to quell BP’s oil volcano (I refuse to call something that massive and out of control a “spill”). I remember the strange feeling I got upon hearing the reporter then refer to the President of the United States of America (POTUS) as … just … “Obama”. I do not remember any introductory phrasing or prior mention of the president that could have excused the reporter’s last name only reference.  Granted, I was merely listening to the newscast while tending to other things so it is entirely possible that I could have missed something. Not wanting to assume the worst I put some “feelers” out to see if anyone had heard what I thought I had just heard. My intent was to ask them  1) what morning news show they watched and 2) if they happened to be watching the same news show I watched, did they witness anything  strange but I didn’t even have to ask! As soon as I referenced the event and they said, “Yeah, I saw that, too … and I cringed. I’m tired of it!”

I am far from a media professional but I am familiar enough with politics, news and reporting to know what is usual and customary with regard to respectful references to the “highest office in the land”. Even if we feel that the person occupying that office doesn’t deserve said respect, because they are sitting in that office, it’s theirs by default.  Now we may “talk junk” about the person in the office amongst our friends in private but, for the most part, in public we are respectful. Media professionals most certainly should be, at the very least, respectful.

After having my suspicions substantiated I began to rummage through my mental Rolodex to recall the major slights that this particular occupant of the White House has had to endure in just 20 months:

1)Day 1 – Oath of office snafu. There was so much made of this that President Obama felt he needed to have a “do over”. So he did. And from what I saw it appeared the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court actually made the blunder.

2)New York Post Editorial cartoon appears to depict President Obama as a dead chimpanzee.

3)Birthers – Questioned President Obama’s American citizenship and nationality.

4)Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina essentially calls President Obama a liar when he shouts, “You Lie!” while the President addressed the nation.

Clearly these examples are evidentiary of a fundamental lack of respect for something or someone. So which is it? Is there no respect for the office or the individual who occupies the office of President of the United States of America?

I am sure there will be those who read this and dismiss them as twaddle from an overly sensitive writer who must be Black. And, with the exception of “twaddle” and the “overly sensitive” part, you would be correct. But your being right doesn’t necessarily make me wrong. Any sensitivity that one may detect is born from the insensitivity that has run rampant since this President’s election. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t quite a year ago that a member of Congress called the President of the United States of America a liar. This wasn’t the British Parliament. Joe Wilson wasn’t sitting in the balcony of a B–movie theater hollering at the screen. This was on Capitol Hill! So, was he calling Mr. Obama a liar or the President of the United States a liar? And which – if any – is excusable?

There will be those who think my objection is all about race … that my “sensitivity” is rooted in the fact that this President is Black and since I happen to be Black I am now paying attention where I paid none before. But it is precisely because I paid attention to the “ghost of President’s Past” that the last name only reference disturbed me so.

People will throw President George W. Bush into the mix. They will make mention of all the terrible things people said about him but excluding fanatics, in George Bush’s worst hour (and there were many from which to choose) even his worst media critics (and again, there were many from which to choose) referred to him as “George Bush” or “President Bush” but never last name only! That being said, if so called “professionals” can disrespect this President of the United States, who happens to be Black, what message does that send to young Black men (and I include myself in that number) nationwide?

It should be a “respect of office” issue – as it traditionally has been – not a “race” issue. But given the circumstances is that possible? So we get to choose. Either it has something to do with race – consciously or unconsciously – or the media professionals have suddenly lost respect for the office of the President. And if you choose the latter the question will be “why?” What’s different about this President? Is he a man? Check. Did he have enough charisma and political savvy to get elected? Check. Did he at some point make a majority of the people feel good about their country? Check. Did he make campaign promises? Check. Has he made promises that he is having difficulty fulfilling? Check. Has he had to deal with unforeseen circumstances? Check. Hmmm … sounds just like the other 43 Presidents that preceded him.  So what’s different about our 44th President … President Barack Hussein Obama?

Do I think the slights are always conscious? Not at all. Do I think that there are things woven into the fabric of this country that make unconscious slights commonplace and palpable? Indeed. Do I think there is a better country? Not by a long shot. Do I think this country can do better? Yes! … In fact, it must.

 

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! That’s What POTUS Means to Me © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips

Standing In The Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography)

1.
Not My Mother …

My mother first met the idea of her spirituality in Rochester, New York at an Episcopalian church and she is a woman of strong faith. While there may be those who consider that statement oxymoronic I would dare you to meet my mother. Her mother, Cecile, worked as a domestic and was a faithful member of a Baptist church in Rochester. My mother’s father, John, worked during the week as a lumberjack in Canada and came home to Rochester at the week’s end. From what I can gather, he did not have much time for church or the spiritual life. That is not to say that he did not believe in “spirits.” In fact, he devoted much of his life to spirits – distilled – but spirits nonetheless. It soon became apparent that a spirit-filled life and a spiritual life do not always equal a match made in heaven and so in the early 1940’s my grandparents parted ways. John went his way and Cecile, with her two daughters, June and my mother, Dorothy, went another.

Some time later Cecile met and married Earl, a God-fearing, fun-loving, hard-working Red Cap (the railroad’s equivalent of an airport’s Sky Cap) who came to Rochester, New York from Atlanta, Georgia. It was Earl who was the member of the Episcopalian church. It was Earl who attended church with his stepdaughter, Dorothy, and as fate would have it my mother became responsible for taking her little sister, Yolanda, the child from Cecile and Earl’s union, to church with her. It was in this church that my mother began to tone her spiritual muscle.

Married life became rocky. Children are seldom concerned with the “whys” for they are not as important as trying to cope with everyday life and getting through each day. John, June and Dorothy’s biological father, was not around and had not been in the picture for quite some time. June, the older sister, began to act out. There was constant tension between June and their mother Cecile. Once again the “whys” held no import. Yolanda, the youngest of the trio, seemed to fair a little better. Unlike June and Dorothy, her father was in the home and while she and Cecile had their difficulties there was only so much that could be done to her for “Daddy” was ever present. Cecile and June however, was another story entirely.

Dorothy was the classic “middle child;” quiet, introverted and with the exception of her height and pleasant look, easy to miss. If life was a movie, then she would more likely be cast as an extra as opposed to the star. She loved both her sisters equally but lived life as a spectator observing the different ways similar outbursts between here two sisters were handled. More often than not it was Dorothy who cared for Yolanda as she was more than a decade older. She held Yolanda’s hand as they crossed the streets to go the church.

The sanctuary never held truer meaning than for Dorothy. It was in this safe place that Dorothy began to beseech God. It was in this place where her personal “whys” were pondered but refuge for all was requested. While in her home, Dorothy’s faith was constantly tested but in her church with her God she found a mighty sustenance that made the daily discomforts of life seem almost bearable.

Dorothy seemed to go through life without a great amount of risk or chance taking. To her, God was, is and forever will be a sure thing. There was no sense in seeking something or someone greater because there was no such thing or being. Pressing one’s luck did not make much sense to her. If I am painting the picture that my mother was boring, then I have done her a huge injustice. She was then and remains resolute, resilient and consistent – qualities not found in great abundance today. Mom has a self determination that to me, as her son, is at times maddening and refreshing at once. I have come to believe that those qualities are not only gifts from God. Each time she relies on those gifts she feels that she is honoring a God who loved her enough to give those gifts; she knows God is watching and it is her desire to please her God.

To this day Dorothy does not wear her faith on her sleeve. Her faith is not something that she has to show you or me anyway. Her faith is reserved for her God. It is not a faith that you see with your eye but rather a faith that you feel when you are in her presence. I can remember hearing her faith in an answer to a question that some theologian may have expounded upon for hours. I asked her, “How and/or why do people who seem to never get a break in life keep coming to church and why is their faith so strong?” In what appeared to be no time at all, she exposed my lack of faith and demonstrated the strength of the convictions she had learned as a child. Her reply was unassuming, simple and quick, “God said our reward is in Heaven. So we really shouldn’t be expecting too much here on earth. That is why anything that we do get while here is considered a blessing and we should be thankful for it.”

As a child, Dorothy learned there was a loving, forgiving, providing God. She believed it wholeheartedly and would come to lean on the strength that the phrase held repeatedly throughout her life.

2.
…Not My Father…

My father’s introduction to spirituality was more of an immersion. He was the next to the last child of Porter, Sr. and Dorothy’s (coincidently the same name as my mother) six (6) children. Porter, Sr. was the pastor of a Baptist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dorothy kept the household going and also printed the bulletins for Sunday service, typed Porter Sr.’s sermons, taught Sunday school and as if all that was not enough, she was the organist for Sunday service. Of the six (6) children, there were five (5) boys, four (4) of whom were ordained Baptist ministers. The only girl married an ordained minister.

My father, Wendell, grew up under the teachings of Porter, Sr., a devout Christian and probably the holiest man I will ever have the pleasure of meeting. He was a preacher whose trajectory suggested that he was on his way to becoming a member of the Academy. He was an educated man who, in 1941, was already in possession of two graduate degrees, was working on his doctorate and had published a book entitled, W.W. Brown, Host. From the time I met him, Grandpa’s life was completely given over to “his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He had never been to a movie theater, believed in hard work and providing for his family, and above all, serving God always in all ways. He was not overly involved with the day to day workings of maintaining the family, which was my grandmother, Dorothy’s job and she handled it quite well seemly loving every minute of it. Porter, Sr. seemed to always be focused on the next sermon. As soon as Grandpa came home from church he immediately retreated upstairs to his study to begin researching and writing his sermon for the next Sunday. He did that for close to fifty (50) years.

There was never any question of whether or not you were going to church. It was understood and expected. If there was the infrequent occasion where one of the children found themselves too sick to go to church (or school for that matter), then the remedy was always Castor Oil. To listen to my father tell the story, it would appear that Castor Oil was quite a drug. The mere mention of its prescription seemed to miraculously cure all who even thought they were ailing.

Young Wendell grew up witnessing the works of his father firsthand. Dad would often remark that his father was “the best sermon he had ever seen”. To Porter, Sr. the way to “God’s Kingdom” was through service and sacrifice. On those terms there was no wiggle room.

Though my father was ordained a Baptist minister, he was called by the newly formed Northwest Congregational Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1964 – I was seven months old. That church later became Heritage United Church of Christ. The UCC appealed to my father because it gave the congregation a voice. Directives were not merely handed down from a larger, governing body or dictated by some demagoging pastor. The UCC invited people from all denominations to participate. It allowed a pastor’s creativity to flourish. The pastor could work with the congregation and vice versa. The people had a say in what they would do as a “body of Christ.” My father believed in God and religion, but he had grown weary of denominations and their doctrines. He was felt that the denominations did more to divide churches as opposed to providing cohesion.

My father strongly believed that God was either God of all or he was not God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not welcomed, including the political arena. He learned this lesson from watching his older brother, Channing, who was the pastor of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Dad consistently put his faith into action. As an entrepreneur, he opened a religious bookstore and card shop in the neighborhood. When I questioned the logic, he would just reply with, “The community needs this.” I did not understand. I thought the purpose of going into business was to make money and “the community” could certainly use a record shop. He ran for public office and was the first minister to be elected twice to terms in the Maryland General Assembly amid cries from some that the political arena was “no place for a pastor.” He went on to become the first Black to chair Baltimore City’s Legislative Delegation and in the mid 1980’s helped to deliver more money to Baltimore City than had ever been delivered before. He did these things and many more based solely on the beliefs imparted to him by his father and mother. Without question, my father was the greatest sermon that I ever saw.

3.
…But It’s Me, Oh Lord …

As you have probably been able to discern, my story is not the story of someone who has constantly toiled through life. It is not the story of one who did without the “finer things”. It is not the story of one whose parents were scattered about by lofty ideals or haunted by the lack thereof. Not to in any way belittle the situation or the powerful witness that these stories contain but mine is not the story of a “black boy from the tough, inner city, raised by a single-mother” or grandmother because his father was not there or both parents were strung out on drugs, incarcerated or some seemingly insurmountable combination of the two. And though “some of my best friends” have come from those realities, I thank the Lord that I did not. My parents provided everything I needed. I did not have to “do without.” Nevertheless, my life has not been without struggle… beautiful struggle.

It may come as a surprise that though I grew up around so many ministers I really do not know much about the Bible. My lessons usually came from watching great people who I have encountered attempt to live out lessons from the Bible. From those observations I have tried – for the most part – to live my life adhering to what I feel are the two most important lessons in the Bible: 1) place no one and no thing above God; for there is no one greater and, 2) “Whatsoever you do to the least of these you do so unto me.”

While my parents grew up in different types of homes I benefited from the main thing they held in common – their sense of spirituality. My parents seemed to recognize that it takes a certain amount of introspection to unravel the questions related to one’s spirituality. No matter how one grows up there must be something on the inside that helps determine one’s path. Unlike me, my parents both had siblings. In my mother’s instance, she chose a different path then her sisters. In my father’s situation he chose the same (or very similar) paths of his siblings. My mother and father found each other and I was able to benefit from both of their strengths regarding spirituality. My mother’s quiet, reserved dutiful but unshakable faith coupled with my father’s “faith in action” afforded me the best of both worlds with regards to spiritual teachings.

4.
… Standing In The Need Of Prayer.

On January 29, 1993 my father died suddenly. Needless to say my world was rocked; shaken to the core. My mother and I were devastated. Dad was everything to both of us and a whole church and surrounding community grieved with us. Had you asked me prior to his death how I would live without him, I would have told you that I could not. Almost seventeen (17) years later I am still here. I have two daughters to whom I am teaching the spiritual lessons taught to me by my parents and in that way he lives on through me and now to them. Though I did not think that I was ready for him to be gone it seems that Dad had helped fortify me with most of the tools needed to survive. My mother has lent to me some of her remarkable strength to help balance out the equation.

I struggle sometimes with the inevitability of death and, at times, when my faith is low, the finality of death. But then I am reminded that when a caterpillar “dies” a butterfly is born. Through my spirituality I have come to accept that once a person has learned all they need to learn or taught all they need to teach their work on this earth is done and whether we know it or not we will be ready.

As I stated earlier, my journey to this point has not been without struggle. When you are born with the same name as your father society immediately relegates you to forever stand cold in his shadow and I am sure the same holds true for women and their mothers. It matters not if people speak well or ill of him your place remains unchanged. You inherit all of his enemies and half of his friends and the struggle to define yourself – at times for the sake of others and at other times in spite of others – begins.

I never felt that my parents forced religion or spirituality on me. Yes I had to go to church but I never felt that I “had to” attend church. I went along with what people expected the PK (Preacher’s Kid) to do with regard to griping about “having to” go to church but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoyed “living” in church. I learned some of the best lessons that could have ever been taught, met some of the greatest people God’s ever created, laid down some of the heaviest burdens, cried some of the most cleansing tears and experienced some of the most outrageous joy. I remain in the process of becoming. My spiritual growth is a work in progress and I may never get it right, but I thank God for each opportunity that I have to do so, for without God, I am nothing.

Standing in the Need … (A Spiritual Autobiography) © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips