On Maryland’s Question 6

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

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

Question 6: Civil Marriage Protection Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Memoriam: Marion Curtis Bascom, Sr.

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

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

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

“If you want to go…”

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

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

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

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

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

(W.F. Phillips)

 

 

 

Marion Curtis Bascom, My Friend and Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the journey, dear Friend.

Homer E. Favor

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)

How’s Your Vertical?

As a child growing up in Baltimore City, Maryland, my friends and I used to engage in something that many kids today wouldn’t even think of doing … we actually played OUTSIDE! I loved to play pretty much everything but if I’m honest, most of the time my game of choice was basketball. The older I got the more organized my game became. I, like most of my friends through high school who could dribble a ball, began to focus on the same things.

There were two factors that for the most part were outside of our control: 1) height – standing 6’3 ½ “, I was blessed to be beyond average by that measure and 2) speed – which I had as well. Today some will argue that you can “make” someone fast but I contend that you can only teach folk how to remove barriers to coordination thus allowing them to run faster which is a completely different issue. Then there were the things we could work on –things to help level the playing field for those who weren’t recipients of the God given gifts of height and speed: 1) “handles” – the dribbling and handling the basketball – not a strong suit of mine 2) shooting – I was average and 3) one’s “vertical” – ability to jump and how high – here again, I was beyond average.

It was a fact that one of the most important factors along with height, weight, shooting and free throw percentage was the strength of your leap … your vertical. “What’s your vertical?” was the question asked among ballplayers on all courts throughout the city. “How’s his vertical?” was one of the most important questions running through the mind of college recruiters and NBA scouts alike -looking to bring the next “Moses” to lead their team to the “Promised Land”.

One of the most recognizable symbols of Christianity is and has been the cross. The cross, with its two intersecting beams, one horizontal and the other vertical when analyzed further can represent two different relationships. The horizontal beam, the shorter of the two, represents our earthly relationship with all things human: our families, friends, organizational affiliations, co-workers and I would argue even our religious affiliations. The vertical beam, running through the horizontal beam and much longer, symbolizes that which is not of this world or more poignantly our individual relationship with our God. It is this symbol that is synonymous with matters of faith and the church – especially the Black church.

Through the institution of slavery and all other machinations of separation that followed (Jim Crow, desegregation) Black Christians have maintained a strong love for the church and an unyielding devotion to a God that can “make a way out of no way”. During slavery the only white-collar profession open to Blacks was the ministry as it was against the law in the Southern states to teach then “Negroes” to read. For much the same reason, places where Blacks could gather were just as limited as the professions from which they could choose. The church became the logical place to assemble for reasons including but not limited to a service on Sunday morning.

Over the course of their history, Black churches have served as stations on the Underground Railroad during slavery, prep-rooms for sit-ins and other demonstrations during the Civil Rights Era, polling places for elections and meeting venues for various community organizations still today. In fact, as I write these words some community group is meeting in some church, somewhere. People have learned everything from reading, writing and arithmetic to computer literacy and the proper way to approach or prepare for the SAT in the hallowed halls of the Black church. Some churches even have basketball leauges and bowling teams – bringing a whole new meaning to the term “holy rollers”.

Taking care of the spiritual needs was the obvious but addressing the social needs of many who would be considered “the least of these” was just as common for the Black church. The pastor made sure these services were offered to “all God’s children” – not just its members but also to people who were so downtrodden that they didn’t know what “up” looked like.

These pastors were and – in many cases – still are treated like royalty. Pastors were God’s earthly emissaries. Their word was believed to be more than just their word but rather, God’s Word. In times past the pastor was accessible; he lived in the community and lived like the residents of the community. Member and pastor not only saw each other in church but also at the grocery store, school PTA meetings, the bank and in my father’s case, it was usually on Monday depositing the offering from Sunday’s service. Every human encounter was an opportunity to minister to and quite possibly be ministered to, as well. The lives of the two were not that different. They worked hand in hand on problems within the community because the member’s community was the also the pastor’s community. The pastor was a visible, vigorous and viable part of the community and if he was in good enough shape, he may even join in a quick game of basketball with the rest of the folk in the neighborhood.

No matter the myriad shattered dream stories we’ve all heard and they have most certainly seen, basketball and the unlikely dream of making it to the NBA never seems to be enough to deter the next generation of ballers. Sports and its limited number of rags- to- riches recipients are all they need to see to continue to keep hope alive. In the minds of our young ballers, the dream of pro basketball being “the way from around da way” continues to trump the Church, God and His “way out of no way” truth. Basketball has not lost its luster but I am sorry to say that for many, the Black church has. And we are left to wonder, “Why?”

Have Black churches become so self-centered and insular that they have neglected their role as a major care taker of the community in which they sit? And if so, does that weaken or strengthen an individual’s relationship with God? Over the years I have become keenly aware of how intensely personal one’s spiritual life can be. I have come to the conclusion that it is my spiritual relationship with my God, my vertical relationship, if you will, that grows more important and essential with each passing day.

So … How’s your vertical?

How’s Your Vertical? © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips

A Call For Leadership


As a Political Science major and recovering state legislator I have been constantly reminded of the separation of church and state. Whether it was the subject of study at Morgan State University or couched in a heated debate over prayer-in-public-schools during my time in the Maryland General Assembly, the merit of the separation of church and state reared its head over and over again. Yet as the son of an activist preacher that separation always seemed to be a direct contradiction to what was my everyday experience. While I thought I knew the intent of the phrase it hadn’t been my reality. In fact, I would go as far to say that it wasn’t the reality for most Black folks who either lived or were students of post slavery Civil Rights movements. For Black folk in America – whether they acknowledge it or not – there has never been a separation of church and state.

With that in mind it should come as no surprise that my father, the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland and the first Black chairman of Baltimore City’s state legislative delegation, certainly believed that God was God of all or He wasn’t God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not always welcome. As a matter of fact, Dad often remarked that he learned all of his politics from dealing with church folk in the first place. He needed only to model his older brother, Channing E. Phillips, who was the pastor of Lincoln 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. For as long as I can remember Black Clergy has helped lead and advocate for “the least of these”.

Members of the faith community used to have a lock on leadership. They came with their own army of workers and if the choir was good, they even had their own soundtrack! The soldiers in this army suffered similar if not identical inequities and the inhibitors of their progress were easily identifiable. None of that is the case today. “Faith leaders” are likely to be as trifling as the proverbial Snake Oil salesman of yesteryear. This is not a new phenomenon. Without getting too preachy, the Bible is rife with references to false prophets and those who are called to comfort His people but do not. That’s right, I said it! Shysters were abundant even in biblical times. Nevertheless, the fact remains that problems persist regardless of the era. And on some level there will always be need for leaders. And on some level they will need to be selfless. And that is hard to do for long. Human nature and history have taught this lesson well; America’s political history especially!

During the 1950s & 1960s our political gains were social imperatives. Whether or not Black folk deserved to be treated as equals and other “quality of life” issues should not have been matters for the Supreme Court of the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the land to settle. But they were. And those causes … those “campaigns for justice” were waged by men and women of God. His Word was carried from the church house, through the streets to the White House. There was no separation.

Concerning the state of Black/White race relations in 1966, the late Dr. Nathan Wright, Jr., an Episcopalian minister, scholar, and a member of the Republican Party, in his book Black Power, pointed out that “we are now faced with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundation of our nation”. Some 44 years later it can be argued that a portion of those who now hold conscienceless power are Black. Following that same logic, it stands to reason that those now with powerless conscience not only include Blacks, but poor Whites and Latinos can be added to the ranks.

This seemingly cyclical dynamic paves the way for a Superhero; a vibrant leader or chain of leaders who will champion all causes for those who experience grave injustice.

Yet, today a “Black Agenda” is not only impossible to define but there are Black folk who have reached a certain degree of comfort who would opt out even if such an agenda existed for fear of losing their seat at the table of sameness and validation.

“We live in a system”, says Derrick Bell in Ethical Ambition, “that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained”. Bell further asserts that though there are huge disparities in opportunity and income between the “haves” and the “have nots” those who should challenge the system do not. In fact, those disadvantaged by the system are “culturally programmed” to accept things as they are. Yet, with the advent of technology and easily accessible public information the “have-nots” now know what the “haves” have and they aren’t happy about the disparities. Undoubtedly there will be those who step in to fill that huge gap between anger and action with the hope of making a difference and perhaps even [insert suspense music] becoming “leaders”.

We have all heard stories of leaders with “modest” or “humble” beginnings … those Horatio Alger, quixotic stories of victory being snatched from defeat, “rags to riches”, “poor-kid-from-the-hood-makes-good” type of stories. But sadly those stories, while inspiring, are still the exception. The truth is, at the risk of sounding like a new-age Black Panther, “all power” truly belongs “to the people”. The sad fact is that “we, the people” have relinquished ours far too often. Election after election we hear of abysmal voter turnout and lament over the pending doom of this country. It should be noted that favor will never find those who employ apathy. And it should come as no surprise that apathy’s employers are all too often the same who can least afford the consequence of inaction.

I can tell you from personal experience that choosing to serve the public is a difficult choice and should not be made on a whim. Parenting aside, there is no occupation that brings with it more heartache and opportunities for misunderstanding then serving the public yet there is nothing nobler or more rewarding. That being said one may feel a fair measure of reluctance but should not be paralyzed by the same for true leaders – those who seek to educate and empower – are called by something much greater than any reason for trepidation. I would say that a leader has no more (and usually markedly less) than a 15 year run from the time most people begin to refer to him or her as such. After that time either “things” begin to “happen” or conversely, nothing happens anymore.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look … how far back would you like to go? Jesus? Okay, let’s take a look. Theologians will agree that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine. Most followers of Christ will concede that event marks the beginning of His ministry … His leadership. Three years later? He was crucified. Now if you are a believer then you know the story did not end there. But even if you don’t believe but follow History, you must concede that Jesus was killed less than five years after He gained some notoriety as a leader … as He began to help change the way people thought which ultimately challenged those who thought they were in power. Too far back? Okay, how about President Kennedy, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (post Mecca Malcom X), Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy, Sr.? All killed within 15 years of being leaders whose words helped galvanize people and began to challenge the powers that be.

Now, here lately, it hasn’t been so drastic or final, thank God, but severe damage has been done. I fear there aren’t enough people who actually see beyond their own lives to help anyone else much less speak with an authority that only truth affords; because history has taught us that telling the truth can get you killed. Leaders are neutralized or somehow rendered inconsequential at a much quicker rate than we create them. Political leaders can quickly render themselves insignificant with just one scandal. No one goes into office looking to part of a scandal but the longer one stays in office, the greater the opportunity for them to be caught up in one. While said politicos are physically alive they are, for all intent and purposes, politically dead. Other politicians may languish and wither away in seats (held sometimes across generations) with but a mere fraction of the power they once wielded. So we are left with a void that widens as years go where the hour went.

The challenge is obvious … step into the void … with our imperfect selves and help lead this world. As Arthur Ashe so poignantly stated, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Our focus must include more than ourselves or our children but generations yet unborn. However, our children are a good place to start. The older I get the more confident I become that the void is created for those who recognize it to fill it or at the very least help point it out to those who not only miss the forest for the proverbial trees but also those who can’t see the trees for the bark.

Those who are called to lead will never be perfect but the cause will be. Those who try and perhaps do not reach their goal can revel in the fact that their efforts have elevated the cause for the next wave of leaders to move the needle a little closer toward the goal. Perhaps I am guilty of oversimplifying at times but I liken leaders to cars; they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There will be some with more features than others and some with a little more polish but the fact remains that if it’s made with the right stuff at its core, even a raggedy one can move us forward.

I happen to still be foolish enough to believe that we are all placed here to fill some specific, unique function that only we can do the way we would do it. I also believe that many of us stagger through life without ever putting our unique quality to work. So as we move through our lives let us be mindful of the voids that we see and let us then begin to fill them.

Witness. Testify. Act!

A Call For Leadership © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips

Faith in the Face of Reality

Bishop Eddie Long is in trouble and I’m not sure why people are shocked and amazed. In fact, through time immemorial men (and women) have never proven to be anything more than human when all is said and done. In all fairness to brother Long this really isn’t about him, his situation or whether I feel he is guilty or innocent. This isn’t solely about the Black Church; it’s not about sexual misconduct. There is far too much happening (or not happening) in the world to let the actions of one individual devour this small bit of time that we share. Much more poignantly, this is about the rest of us … all of us, how we feed these insatiable beasts – cynicism, envy, guilt, shame and judgment – and how our individual hang-ups and insecurities collectively manifest in some of our spiritual and political leaders.

Eddie Long, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Winnie Mandela, Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim Jones, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Sr. (and now Jr.), Ted Haggard, Bill McCartney, Norbert Maday and Eugene Lewis – are just some of the people that have run across the headlines over the years. They represent a few well known and some not so well known folk who large numbers of people love/d, trust/ed, had/have faith in and depend/ed upon. I suppose you could spend the better part of a work week googling stories about each name listed – some founded, some unfounded. Some proven, some proven to be false but all have helped to erode our belief in altruism and basic morality while simultaneously giving birth to some of the greatest hurt and cynicism this world has ever known.

In his book, Seeing Through Cynicism, Dick Keyes states that some of us “embrace cynicism with pride and defiance. Others suffer from a cynicism they do not want to feel but are forced to adopt by honesty” and still some fight against it but drift into it without knowing how they got there. I stand firmly in the second category by way of the third: I feel forced to adopt cynicism by honesty but I don’t remember when or how I got there. Keyes goes on to state:

“The church … is an institution that stands solidly astride the paradox of the human condition – simultaneously glory and ruin. It is made up of people who have acknowledged their ruin but who have found forgiveness, purpose and hope of glory in the mercy of God. This means that by its very identity and definition the church is people who come together in a common acknowledgement of failure but also a common hope for something better.”

One of our greatest public servants, Shirley Chisholm, summed it up best when she said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth”. Is the ego involved? Certainly. But is it the primary motivation? Not necessarily. Sure, it takes a certain amount of ego for anyone to believe that he or she can “fix” it. But it takes an equal measure of humility to even want to. The choice to be a Pastor, Priest, Nun, Imam or Rabbi – to choose to surrender one’s life to God and thus serve His people – albeit weightier to those of us who believe – is similar. Staunch believers in the separation of church and state will no doubt take offense to my commingling pastors and politicians but I contend their roles are much more alike than different.

The pastor has a congregation and the politician has a constituency. The pastor has a diaconate board to advise and carry out tasks and politicians have campaign committees to do the same. The pastor follows the rules and laws of God in the Bible and the politician follows the rules and laws of man in the Constitution (which is, to a large degree, based on biblical principles). The pastor needs money to keep the missions of the church running so God’s message can be manifest in the larger community while the politician asks for money to enable him/her to get their message out to the electorate in an effort to carry “your” voice to the nation’s capitol. Pastors are trying to prepare us for the next life and politicians are trying to prepare us for the next election. But in all seriousness, public service and pastoring are difficult occupations. Why? Because the general public is, at best, fickle. And guess who lives in the general public? The electorate, church folk, our political and spiritual leaders! (see how that cynicism just crept in there on me?)

Gone should be the day of just giving money to the church without understanding its mission and our place in it; your time and talent are as valuable as your treasure. Get and stay involved. To echo the sentiment of my good sister, Candice Benbow, in her blog, Selah and Amen, there will be hard conversations that need to be had – have them! Hard questions that need to be asked – ask them! When you know better you can do better. You could be the next public office holder or church leader. In all the stories of the Bible you will note that God didn’t make any extraordinary people. He made ordinary people – like you and I – and equipped them to do extraordinary things.

So while the actions of men and women can help dismantle “a” church, no human act or actor, no one’s past or pastor can dismantle “the” church. Though all the names I mentioned consider themselves Christians, Christianity is not on trial here. Though many of those named are political, politics is not on trial here. Men and women are. And that includes you and me. If when you heard the allegations levied against Bishop Long or any of the others mentioned, you were hurt and saddened, I would commiserate with you. If, on the other hand, you tell me your faith was rocked then I would argue that your faith was misplaced.

Faith in the Face of Reality © 2010 by Wendell F. Phillips

Hello World

No one has ever told me to write a disclaimer but being a student of the world I am sure that there may be something I “say” that will offend some and whether it be intentional or unintentional I ask that you wait a second before judging. If you can’t say “Amen!” then just say “ouch” but by all means … say something!   My reference to the word “world” means everybody who inhabits this planet. So while I may not be included in your world, you are all included … in fact, welcome, in mine.

I am the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of pastors so you will pardon my religious references … or not.  I also find some degree of humor where there should be none. I can find some humor in almost anything. I have come to find that to be a blessing as well as a curse but most often a blessing.

I know the audience is broad – I hope it remains that way. That being said, I know not everyone believes the same thing and there will even be those who find it hard to believe at all. But it is my desire to use this blog to help us come to our similarities through our differences … leaving us all a little more tolerant and much, much stronger.

These are my lenses … welcome to my world!

P.S. For those of you who need to know a little more … keep readin’.

Wendell F. Phillips is the only child of Dorothy A. and the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips. He came to NC A&T State University and Greensboro in July of 2007. As the Director of State and Community Relations, his primary responsibility is to help develop and maintain positive relationships between the university and various State and local elected officials as well as community organizations throughout the greater Greensboro area.

Politics, community and service are the consistent threads that have run through the fabric of Wendell’s family. His father, the late Rev. Wendell H. Phillips was not only an ordained Baptist minister and the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ but he also served as a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 – 1987. His uncle, the late Rev. Channing E. Phillips was not only a pastor at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ but he was also the first African-American to be nominated by a major party for President of the United States of America from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Wendell’s passion has always been helping anyone and especially “the least of these”. He channeled his passion through a well fueled campaign that won him the same seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. As a member from 1999-2003, Wendell served on the Ways and Means Committee and chaired its Business Tax Credits Workgroup. He was also a member of the Tax & Revenue subcommittee and the Education subcommittee.

Other committees on which Wendell has served are: the Governor’s Task Force to Study Educational Programs for Chronically Disruptive Students, as well as the Task Force for African-American Entrepreneurship. Mr. Phillips also chaired the Legislative Black Caucus’ committees for Judicial Appointments and its Civil Rights committee.

Mr. Phillips was named a 2001-2002 Flemming Fellow by the Center for Policy Alternatives as well as a 2001 Toll Fellow by the Council of State Governments where Wendell was one of forty (40) individuals from across the country designated as an up and coming “young leader of tomorrow” recognized for his outstanding achievement and service to state government. Wendell is also a 2008 graduate of Leadership Greensboro and a member of the Greensboro Partnership’s Governmental Affairs Committee.

He was a member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Committee on Elementary & Secondary Education and in 2001 the organization released its first white paper, Closing the Achievement Gap: Improving Educational Outcomes for African American Children.

Wendell’s creative tribute to Michael Jackson was published on BET.COM and after the tragic earthquake in Haiti, his article entitled “The Audacity to Adopt” was featured on Blackpressusa.com and as a result carried by various media outlets across the country. He is a co-author of Atonement: The Million Man March and landed a featured extra role as one of the Golden Lords in Robert Townsend’s 1993 motion picture, Meteor Man. With the ability to find humor in just about any situation, Wendell tried his hand at amateur stand-up comedy and hosted Open-Mic nights throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.

He is a graduate of Baltimore City College High School and Morgan State University (B.A., Political Science). He is married with two lovely daughters.

Hello World © 2009 by Wendell F. Phillips