Because she had grown up in a predominately white community during the turbulent Civil Rights years, when Mama Edie’s new friend, Renee, went to college she learned the pain of being treated as an outsider by some of the other African American students. But Mama Edie and Renee both learned that a strong sense of identity can combat bullying, provide a sense of direction and belonging and create meaningful bonds that can last a lifetime. (more…)
When Mama Edie and Mother Mary Carter Smith, Co-Founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. enter the dark dungeons of Ghana, West Africa, where people were imprisoned for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, unexpected things begin to occur. This story speaks to how one can perceive and be guided by just a small beam of light, finding strength, hope and direction despite barbaric and seemingly hopeless situations. (more…)
Kucha’s Grandfather had a marketable skill and a spiritual home in the South after the Civil War. With a large family and plenty of hard work, life was good in Mississippi. But, one incident changed everything. Suddenly the whole family became immigrants – packing up and moving out of Mississippi.
Would you pack up and move in hopes of a better life?
Would you move quickly if you thought that you might be in danger?
What would it take for your family to suddenly move out of state with no job offer or place to live already secured?
Is there a bully in this story? If so, who? Is it the wealthy land owner? The renter? The ‘white sheets’? Someone else?
Why do you think the whole family moved and not just Paw and Mama Ella?
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells and Alfreda M. Duster
My name is Kucha Brownlee.
When I was younger, we spent our summers in the South. When we were there, my father’s brother and sister-in-law, uncle Phil and Aunt Viola Brownlee, they would pick us up and they would take us to visit all of the aunts and uncles on the Brownlee side. My father was from a big family. Seventeen children to be exact. Well, I knew that the Brownlee family had all been born in Senatobia, Mississippi. We lived in Chicago. But all of my father’s siblings lived in Tennessee. None of them had moved to Chicago. and I was thinking about that and I was curious, so I asked. How it happened if all of the Brownlee’s were born in Mississippi, they all live in Tennessee now? And this was answer.
My grandpa was born in 1862. That was a few years before the end of the Civil War. Now Mr. Brownlee, he thought he owned people, so he had purchased some people to work his fields. And one of them was Susie…Susie, and by default, her children. And one of those children was my grandfather, Richard, or as we affectionately called him Paw Brownlee.
This is the story. See, the Brownlee’s were renters, not sharecroppers. Now at the end of the Civil War, many, many of the workers who were now newly freed, ended up working at this, on the same plantation. I mean, they had nowhere to go, nothing to do. They needed a job. They knew farming. And so, they took the chance and worked on this plantation. In Mr. Brownlee’s case, he encouraged his children to stay, when in fact, he was not allowing them to be taken away. Now, he did teach his black children to read. But unlike his white children, they did have to work the fields. Good thing was he taught my grandfather carpentry. So, my grandfather had a marketable skill.
Once he was grown, and he moved out, he became a renter, because he had a marketable skill. Having this skill was great because he could rent. He also was the head carpenter building the black church that he went to. And because he could read, he used to teach reading in that church while the watchers from the church pretended to work in the fields. This is important to me. Because, you see, the reason, he had, they had to have watchers, even though slavery was over, the Jim Crow laws had set in. And so, it became dangerous to teach reading. So, the watchers would watch and if anyone white was coming, they would make it back to the church and that reading class would become a Bible study. So, my grandfather, (the teacher), met Ella McKinney, (the watcher), and they became husband and wife.
Anyway, they were renters. And they rented a huge, huge farm. And as the children got to be adults, they would give them a big sus… section of the farm to work. Well, there’s a difference between renters and sharecroppers. Renters own everything. They just rent. So, their livestock they bought. Their seeds they bought, their clothes, their furniture. They own everything. On the other hand, if you’re sharecropper, you have purchased everything on credit. And you don’t own any of it. The way you find out what you can own, is at the end of the harvest, there’s a reckoning. And they tally up everything you’ve made and put it against everything you owe. Now if during that season while you working that land, you have a cow that is, um, has a calf. The owner still owns that cow, so he can come and take that calf.
So, here’s what happened. Brownlees are renters. Their cow babed a calf and this white man, not a Brownlee, that they were renting from, came and tried to take that cow. Like Paw was a sharecropper.
Paw said, “Na, no! You’re not going to take that cow.”
And he said, “Watch me.”
Paw said, “Boys!” There were plenty of grown Brownlee men living on that farm. And they start appearing from everywhere. And all that man heard was chee, chee, the sound of shotguns. He froze.
And Paw said, “Now you can take calf if you want to but I don’t think you’re gonna too far.”
So, he let that calf alone, and he backed out, and left the farm empty handed. Yes. But later Paw and his sons, they had a talk about this. And they decided that before he had a chance to round up the white sheets, they better leave. You see, the KKK was still active in Mississippi. And that’s what they did. They packed up everything and they moved to Tennessee. Because in Tennessee, it was a little bit better for black families then it was in Mississippi. Then my father moved north to Chicago.
Kucha was born in the North, but her Southern family values and ties came North with her family. In this story, Kucha wonders why everyone feel the need to pigeon hole other people? She knows that a strong family defies stereotypes and grows love. (more…)
In kindergarten, Linda dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day, was told by a teacher, “My, my, I’ve never seen an Irish N-word before!” In 7th grade, Linda was told by her classmates, “You act white! You dress white! You have white people’s hair…” And then, the taunting began, “Linda is a white girl, Linda is a white girl!” It took Linda a long time to understand what it means to be Black. (more…)
This is Zahra’s personal story of reconnecting with her siblings and learning about how history is told through the voice of the “hunter”. On a journey back to their Louisiana birthplace, Zahra and her siblings uncover a story of an event that affects the lives of their family, community and the nation.
Hi, I’m Zahra Baker. And I spent the first three years of my life in Central Louisiana in a small rural area that was surrounded by pine trees and weeping willows, pecan trees and sat beside a place that was ironically called the Red River. Now my family is complex. And we had many difficulties in my early years. But… I was the youngest of seven and because of that, I got sent away to live with my Uncle Willy and Aunt Dot for a… for a year in Slidell. And then I was sent all the way to Lafayette, Indiana and was adopted by my Uncle Dave and Aunt Bessie.
Now this was far away from Colfax, Louisiana where I was born. And it wasn’t until my young adult life that I was able to reconnect with my siblings. And the day that we met each other again, I was filled with joy and sadness and sorrow and frustration and anger and gratitude and fear. What if they didn’t like me? What if we didn’t have anything in common? We had so much time separated between us that I wasn’t sure if there was anything I had to offer them. But when I met them, there was such a feeling for comfort and familiarity that all of the fear just washed away. And they liked to talk a lot so there was a lot of laughter and a lot of chatter. And I was determined that I was going to spend time with each one of them until I figured out what we had in common. But what I came to realize was the story that we had in common was the story from our hometown Colfax, Louisiana. So they had all moved West to California but every year we would decide to have a family reunion. And often times we had that reunion in Colfax so that we could reconnect with our family and friends there.
So that on one of those trips, we were walking on down memory walk, sharing stories, and we came upon the courthouse. And when we got there, we saw a sign and the sign said, “Colfax Riot. On this site, there was an event called the Colfax Riot where three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event occurred April 13, 1873.” And the sign said, “This brought an end to carpetbaggers misrule in the South.” Well, the wording on that sign was kind of odd to me. First of all, Negros was spelled with a little “n” and the word “misrule” and carpetbaggers”… All of that was strange to me, so I decided to do some research. And, I realized that 1873 was during a time called, “Reconstruction.”
Now in Louisiana, they didn’t teach us anything about that time period. It happened right after the Civil War from, say, 1865 to 1874. So I had to dig deep. I asked people questions. I went online to see what I could find and what I found was that most of the historians didn’t really like to talk about Reconstruction. They felt that it was an experiment that failed. They felt that is was a time when there was a lot of corruption and carpetbaggers from the North and scallywags, which were Southern people who sided with the new government, had ruined the whole thing. And they also said that it was the worst period in American history.
Well, black people felt like the worst period in history was slavery and that radical reconstruction, well, that was something of a revolutionary idea that was going to help America come into its promise of equality through the idea of public schools and through the idea of civil rights legislation and financial gain. In 1873, there were probably 2,000 black people that were in office. And there was some amendments. Like the Thirteenth Amendment, we know was what enabled black people to be free. And the Fourteenth Amendment brought about civil rights for those enslaved people that were now free. But the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote.
Well, that right to vote was a thorn in the side of the white league, which was a coalition of white men who were determined to maintain white supremacy. They actually called themselves “The Redeemers” because they were going to redeem the South back to itself. Well, in 1873, in Colfax, the black majority voted in a government that was going to support them and their needs. But… the day that the new sheriff was supposed to take office, the ousted sheriff decided that he wasn’t going to give up his power. So he called all of his friends and told them to back him up. Well, the new sheriff called all of the black men and deputized them and told them to hold the courthouse so that he could go in and do his job. Well, they held that courthouse because they had visions of a life of equality. A vision for a future that their children could flourish.
For seven whole days, they tirelessly held that courthouse but on April 13th, Easter Sunday, the white league was not gonna have it anymore. So three hundred armed white men marched into Colfax and started shooting. And they shot off a cannon that set the courthouse on fire. Soon after, there was a white flag that was held in a window as surrender. And just as the black men started coming out the door, there was a shot and one of the white men was killed and in retaliation, The Redeemers started shooting. And down came the ideas of a better world, as one by one, those men fell to the ground as they were running out of that burning building. Over two hundred men were killed that day. About fifty were captured, then walked to the Red River where they were shot and drowned. And then another fifty were hanged on an oak tree. Clearly, this was not a riot. Those men laid down their lives so that we could have a better life. And that was a massacre.
Now in my research, I found over a hundred names listed of the wounded and the killed that day. And in that list there was some names that might have been part of my family line. But regardless, all of the men that day were fighting for the rights of all black people. And not just for black people, but for humanity. For the nation to rise to its fullest potential. I hope that we all will remember them and hold them up. Because it was their work that established the work of those who are moving us forward now.
And history books can ignore Colfax and Reconstruction if they want or write it from the perspective of the oppressor. But by us digging deep into that history, we were able to discover the amazing well of those freed men and fighting for our liberation. And as the Igbo people from Nigeria say, “The lions must create the historians of the tale of the hunter. The hunted will always be glorified by the hunter.” My siblings and I will continue to tell the Colfax story from our point of view. And more than that, we will take that legacy and live our lives in a way that we uplift humanity and make the world better for the next generation.
Take the journey with 14-year old Mama Edie as she relives her 1966 experience of marching through the violent streets of Marquette Park in Chicago, Illinois with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ride the back of the train “up north” in the “Negro section” during the Great Migration from the slave south in search of a better life to only find the practices of “redlining” and Jim Crow blocking your way to a better life for your family. NOW take a serious look at someone who would tell you to “just get over it.” How do you heal?
50 years later, Mama Edie was in Marquette Park again to commemorate the original march!
What was the “Great Migration”? What were its benefits and its dangers?
Discuss the differences between people who immigrate to another country in relative comfort with their own names, belongings, family members, languages, religions and freedom to practice their own cultural ways and those who immigrate by force in deplorable conditions, stripped of clothing, dignity, names, respect, family, land, religion, language and where the practice of one’s cultural ways may even be punishable by death. How might people’s lives evolve over many generations depending upon their first step away from home?
Why was the march held in Marquette Park in 1966 with Dr. King significant and did it only benefit African Americans? Was its impact felt only in Chicago?
Imagine how you think you might feel if you had been a Black person who was not allowed to buy housing in many parts of Chicago? What impact would it have had to be told where you and your family could and couldn’t live?
Imagine how you think you might have felt as a White person on those streets of Marquette Park. Write a short essay about it. What were whites fighting for or against? What kind of information did they have or not have? Describe what happened while you were there, what you saw, what you heard and how it made you feel. Address how it makes you feel now about yourself, your own culture and about African Americans and their lives today, whether you are African American or not.
How does a person become open and sensitive enough to understand someone else’s feelings or situation? What makes a person care enough to let go of ego, judgment and fear and want to listen and learn?
When you see injustice, when is it time to stand up? Consider one scenario of injustice and describe how you might go about addressing it. How can you safely affect a positive change?
IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Network), a collaboration of intercultural and interfaith groups who have worked together to improve the quality of life for people in the Marquette Park Community. This organization spearheaded the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Marquette Park march: http://www.mlkmemorialchicago.org/
My name is Edie McLoud Armstrong. It was August 5th, 1966 that I was 15 years old. I remember waking up feeling so excited. I was joyful, a little bit scared, and brave, all at the same time. I’d never felt quite that way before. I remember, as I was eating my breakfast, I was deep in my own thoughts. And my father had made me this wonderful breakfast of bacon and eggs, and toast, and fresh, squeezed orange juice. But as I was eating, I kept replaying in my mind the newscasts that my parents and I had been watching over the previous days and weeks, that were leading up to this very special time. You see, there was going to be a march in Marquette Park, one of the neighborhoods on the southwest side of Chicago. And this was one of the areas where they used the practice of redlining, which was intended to keep African-Americans and other, so-called minorities from the housing market.
Well, this was going to be a bit of a problem because this was also right in through with the time of the Great Migration. And the Great Migration took place roughly between 1914 and the 1970s. And this was a time when waves of African-Americans were coming from the slave south. They were trying to escape situations like the lynchings. Those Sunday afternoon, after church, kind of lynchings, where men, women, and even children sometimes were hung from trees. They were trying to escape church and home bombings. They were trying to escape the Jim Crow laws that barred them from restaurants, restrooms, from playgrounds, and swimming pools, and churches, and in movie theaters, and play theaters, where even they performed but they weren’t allowed to go and enjoy them. They were coming to northern cities and western cities, both big and small, in search for a better life. But it was difficult.
For one thing, they needed to find someplace to live. So, when they came to a city, for example, like Chicago, and many of them actually managed to get enough money to ride the train in the colored section, or the negro section, which was actually right behind the engine. Now, that might sound kind of exciting but in that section, that’s where the soot and the ash came. So, you got these people dressed in their Sunday finest. And they had to sit in an area where they knew that they would probably just have their wonderful clothes all dirtied up but they didn’t care about that. And they had their lunches packed in shoe boxes and brown paper sacks, sometimes even including a loving piece of homemade pound cake. They were on their way to find a better life.
But, again, they needed somewhere to live. Now, in cities like Chicago, there were many neighborhoods where people only wanted as neighbors, people who looked like them. So, when the African-Americans were coming in droves, I mean they were really coming, there was so many that they ended up crowding into areas that were getting quickly overcrowded. And the services, the landowners, were no longer providing the services to maintain the hygiene and the safety that they once did. Even the trash, the trash wasn’t getting picked up on a regular basis. And so, the communities ended up turning into what we now call slums.
Now, it was an easy thing to try to blame the residents for the conditions that were allowed to take place. But churches, like Quinn Chapel, were very, very instrumental in helping the African-Americans find someplace to live. They found them little tenement places and sometimes they were able to rent a room or they got little kitchenettes, until they could find a place of their own and send for their families to join them. So, there was a lot of support there. And that was a good thing because in other communities, for example, in Marquette Park where that march was going to take place, that was a neighborhood where African-Americans only went through in order to get to Midway Airport. Because it was very clear that we were not local there.
Hmm. So, the day came. The day of the march. And Dr. Martin Luther King had been invited to Chicago to lead that march. Now, some of the nuns from my elementary school in Inglewood, St. Carthage, had asked some of our parents if they could escort us to that march. That was kind of a risky thing for a parent, especially my father, who was from Georgia, who knew about what life could be like. But they prayed on it and they decided to let me go. And I’m really, really glad they did because I felt like it was my turn to stand up for justice. And I wanted so much to do that and to do a good job.
Well, what happened was that, that morning after I finished eating, I went to my mother’s room to say goodbye and she started asking me all the practical things. She looked at me and she said, “Now, now, did you, did you pack your lunch?”
“Did you get your jacket because you know it’s going to be a little bit chilly out there later on?”
“Now, did your father give you a little piece change?”
And she was just asking me all these questions. But then she said, “Now, Edith, stay alert and make sure you stay right close to the nuns and to your other friends. And make sure that you don’t look in their faces. Don’t look in their eyes. They don’t like that because they’ll think that you’re challenging them.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I had never heard that before. And so, my father even though St. Carthage was only like two blocks away, he insisted on driving me to school that day. He talked quietly with the nuns off to the side for a while and then when it was time for him to go to the car, he turned and he looked at me. And he came and gave me a big hug.
And he just gave me a quiet smile that said, ‘I’m proud of you, girl.” It didn’t even need any words. And so, he got in his car and he was gone.
And within minutes, we were on this specially chartered bus. They were maybe about 20 of us. And while we were going along, we were kind of chatting and, and, and joking even a little bit, trying to break the tension because we were nervous. We didn’t really know what to expect. None of us had ever had an experience like this before. But then, as we got closer to where the march was taking place, we started hearing the crowd. The noise of the crowd, the voices were getting louder and louder. And we heard these angry shouts and these chats. And we looked out the windows and we saw people throwing their fists up into the air. And we could just imagine what was coming out of their mouths. And suddenly, we weren’t real sure if we actually wanted to get off that bus.
But then we knew we did because it was our turn. Our ancestors had marched. They had died. They had struggled for hundreds of years. It was just our turn. So finally, it was time to get off the bus. And as we were moving towards the street where the marchers were, I suddenly felt like I was in an old movie where we were being led to the Lion’s Den, with these throngs of angry people on both sides of us surrounding us. I searched the crowds on both sides and there were no kind faces there.
And as we continued to walk down the street, I remember there was one particular woman who came up to me. A mother. She was shorter than I was and she began to curse me right up in my face. And then her young son who looked to be maybe about nine years old, he came up and started cursing me too. I had never even heard a little boy curse like that before.
I’d never looked into the face of hate. I saw it that day and it was ugly and it hurt. But I was frozen stiff. I was so shocked with the way I was being accosted. I just stood there and so finally, one of the nuns came to get me. She got my hand and she guided me. I don’t even remember which nun it was but it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let go of that hand. And as we made our way to the rest of our friends and to the other nuns, we continued to move forward. And, and I still heard the jeering crowds but all of a sudden, the intensity of that jeering, of their sounds, began to become a little bit muted. Because suddenly, I started hearing the san… song of the marchers up in the front. And the sound was getting louder and louder. And they were singing the song, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome. Someday.”
And I feel that somehow, through the music, we did overcome. There was a lot that we’ve overcome. There’s a lot that we have yet to overcome but we on our way. I cannot give up hope on this country. I will not accept that this country is hopelessly adolescent, and le… and bigoted. That there is no chance for us to heal. That healing is already taking place. And in fact, there was a celebration on August 5th, 2016 that honored the 50th celebration, the 50th anniversary of that march in 1966, again, in Marquette Park and I was there.
I had been invited as a special guest along with other people who had also been there 50 years ago. And when I went over there, I can still feel some of that hate floating in the air. Wasn’t as intense this time but I could feel it. It was, it was like a ghost that didn’t want to go away. A spirit that didn’t want to rest. It’s still there but is starting to dissipate.
And I’m grateful for that. And this time, a very special treat was that I was able to march this time with my sister storyteller, and friend, Susan O’Halloran, who is the producer of these videos. Now 50 years ago, Susan was 15 too. (Sue, I hope you don’t mind me telling your age, girl.) But anyway, she wouldn’t have been able to march with me at that time because she lived in one of those red lining neighborhoods. So, her parents wouldn’t have allowed it. But now here we were.
I called her up and said, “Girl, you would not believe what’s happening. You got to be there.” And so, the organizers of the march, they contacted her, and we were able to march side by side. There were poets and songs and speeches by people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Jackie Collins, who I went to St. Carthage with. There was Rabbi Capers Funny. There was Brother Rami Nashashibi, who’s the executive director of the IMAN, which is the Inner-city Muslim Action Network that spearheaded this great celebration. This was an intercultural, interfaith collaboration of people who knew, that we had it in us, to make this country live up to what it purports to be, what it promises to be. That we’re here to require that it fulfill the commitment of truly being the land of the free and the home of the brave. And I’m just grateful I was there.
This family story describes Shanta’s father and grandparents’ escape from the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Massacre. Shanta’s grandfather, a tailor, was forced to flee with his family to Chicago where he was able to re-establish his business.
What attitudes and choices led to the burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma?
Why do people move away from home, leaving everyone and everything behind?
Does your family share any migration stories?
Had you heard of times and places where Black people were the wealthiest? Why or why not do you think?
What are the keys to people being able to live peacefully in the same town or community?
Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth and John Hope Franklin The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes & Discrimination
Taking a Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Shanta. I’d like to tell you a family story. This story involves my father, Simeon Neal, Jr. who was born August 31, 1920. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma where his father, Simeon, Sr. had a tailor shop. The shop was on Greenwood Avenue, which in Tulsa was called Black Wall Street because there were so many thriving and successful businesses along that street and in the area around that street. There were also hundreds of homes in which most of the black people in Tulsa lived. Now, the year after my father was born, in 1921, on May 3rd, the first and incident occurred that changed the lives of everyone in Tulsa basically forever.
There was a young black man who worked downtown shining shoes in front of the Drexel building. And because segregation was very much in force in Tulsa, at that time, any black person who worked downtown or in that area had limited options when it came to just doing something like going to the bathroom. So, this young man, his name was Dick Rowland, when away from his shoeshine station to use the washroom and he was allowed to go only on the top of the, the top floor of the Drexel Building. In order to use the bathroom, and in order to get there, he had to take an elevator. And the elevators in 1921 were not like the elevators that we’re used to where you just go in and press, press the button for your floor and you’d you taken to your destination. At that time there was always an elevator operator, who either controlled the elevator with, with a lever, like you might have seen in the cable cars of San Francisco, or with a wheel that would actually propel the elevator up or bring it back down. So the elevator operator on this day, May 31st, in the Drexel Building, was a young white woman whose name was Sarah Page. Now, the story doesn’t say exactly what happened. We don’t know for sure. But when Dick Rowland went into that elevator, he either stumbled and fell into Sarah, or accidentally or maybe even on purpose, touched her. But by the time he made it back down to his shoeshine station, a rumor had started that he had assaulted Sarah and that was just not allowed. It was not allowed for a black man to touch a white woman even if he was a young boy. The penalty for doing such a thing was usually death. Sometimes ya get arrested before you die but usually you would be strung up and lynched, which was a practice that was very prevalent in the south for a long time. And we weren’t even exactly in the south but it was Oklahoma. It was segregation. A black man cannot touch a white woman.
So white folks started gathering for the lynching that was going to take place because Dick Rowland had so-called assaulted Sarah Page. And it got to be such a big deal, as lynchings often were. Sometimes whole families would come out. People would have picnics. There was even a town where lynchings occurred on every Friday. But in Tulsa, on that day, the word spread so far that it reached the Greenwood Avenue District and the black people came to try to save him from what was surely going to be his fate.
Now, this was shortly after World War I and lots of the men who lived in the Greenwood Avenue District had been soldiers, had been fighters, and they still had that warrior spirit. So they went downtown to rescue Dick Roland and make sure that he was not killed for what might have just been an accident. The people who were intent on lynching Dick Rowland were armed and the black men were armed. Some with guns or rifles, others with sticks, bats, bricks, whatever they could get their hands on, and a big battle actually ensued between the white men and the black men. As the battle spread, the black men started retreating toward the Greenwood Avenue District and the white men followed. And when they got close to the area where black people lived, they started setting fires. And one burning building led to another burning building, to another one.
And the white men who had set those fires would not even let the fire department in to put the fires out. So Greenwood Avenue went up in flames. Burning not only the businesses, but the homes around it and the fire was getting close to Grandpa Neal’s tailor shop. He had one customer, a white man, who had a horse and wagon and he offered to save my grandfather and his family by hiding them under the hay in that wagon. So if you could imagine, not having any time to gather up your belongings or your precious photographs or mementos or even clothes. If you could imagine, Grandpa Neal and his wife Susan, their, their daughter of three or four year old, four years old Marjorie and my father who was less than a year old, gathering them up, hiding them under the hay in this wagon, and leaving town just to survive. And it was a good thing that they did that because hundreds of people were killed on that two day spree of fires and gunshots and death and destruction. Between May 31st and June 1st hundreds of people, hundreds of businesses destroyed.
Now Grandpa and his family made it to St. Louis, initially, but really couldn’t get a hold on establishing themselves there. So they went to Chicago next. And Grandpa Neal was able to establish another tailor shop. This time on 47th Street, which was a prosperous business district in Chicago at that time. And I remember visiting that shop and Grandpa Neal was still making suits. But he would also sell men’s accessories, shirts, ties, socks. And I remember playing with, with the socks of the sock drawer. That was one of the things I would do while the adults were talking.
But more than that I remember how vibrant and exciting 47th Street was with, you know, music clubs and places to eat, all types of businesses. And it’s those memories that become really in stark contrast to the 47th Street of today, although there is an effort to bring things back. There are so many vacant lots where, where businesses used to be. There are so many boarded up buildings where families used to live. And that poses the question of why? Why…Why does one community thrive when another one goes down? I don’t have all of those answers but I have a, a night…What is this year? 2016…Example that could, could in a way, shed some light on that.
There’s this grocery chain called Mariano’s. I’m calling out names now. But when a few years ago, when the Dominick’s chain went out, it went into bankruptcy, and went out of business, their stores were, the court order was, that they couldn’t sell all of their stores to just one of the grocery, grocer. They had to divide that between at least two or three different concerns. So Jewel got some of the buildings and Mariano’s, which was just an up and coming chain at that time, got the other buildings. So there was this strip on 71st Street and Jeffrey, still on the South Side of Chicago, where there was a Dominick’s. And years later now, three or four years later, no grocery chain has, has moved into that building. But Mariano’s finally opened on King’s Drive and Oakwood Boulevard. While this one Mariano’s was being built, on the north side Mariano’s stores were popping up literally everywhere. I mean, any time you would drive any distance on the north side of Chicago, you see yet another Mariano’s. Now why is it that the North Side can have, at this point, probably 10 or 15 of these grocery stores and it took years for the South Side to get only one. Happenstance… or intentional? You tell me.
Diggsy Twain, an African American man, tells a friend about an encounter he had on a train and what he did to stop the stereotype that all black men are angry. Then after telling his story he realizes anyone can stereotype the “other.” (more…)
As a teen E.B. liked being unique but his coaches wanted him to fit in. Then years later as an attorney he wants to hire someone who reminds him of himself. He decides to hire her and let her find out if she wants to fit in or standout. (more…)
This story speaks to the cruelty of the imposed mental conditioning that inspires people to come to despise their own natural attributes. Mama Edie refers to her father who was considered “too dark” to marry her mother by Mama Edie’s great aunt. Mama Edie also reflects on her Mexican American cousin, who thought she looked “too light” or “too Mexican” to feel like a truly loved member of the family. The story explores how this toxic conditioning has often led to people seeing themselves as being “less than,” not as “beautiful” or well-loved. It further explores the impact this can have on family and other relationships, such that Mama Edie’s cousin felt that she didn’t quite belong anywhere. It ends with a song segment sung in Spanish by Mama Edie that celebrates the beauty and strength of so-called “people of color.” (more…)
Gene travelled by van across the country to see the land of his people. Along his journey, he had the experience of meeting a southern white couple on a backcountry dirt road and an old black man in Sparta, Georgia who fought with First Nation men during the Korean War.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sparta-GA
How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
First Nations/Native Americans
Living and Traveling Abroad
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban.
My name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Salmon clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m the child of a Wooshketann, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska.
I am Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. I’m a Cherotlingipino. I’d like to tell the story about an adventure of mine when I was a young man. I bought a van and I was going to drive across the country. And see what that land where I came from, my Indian people, was like.
Many people were exploring Europe and going over there but there’s so much richness here just in our backyard. So I was driving through Louisiana, me and my girlfriend. And so we stopped one night on a side road, dirt road and it was dark out. We were gonna camp there for the night. As we are just gettin’ ready to camp, a truck pulls up. Pulls in front of us. Turned around. And the headlights are shining right into our van. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh! What the heck’s going on here?”
And the only thing that could run through my mind was just these things I hear that’s going on in the south in the back country in Deliverance. We were kind of freaked out and they pulled up right next to us. I rolled down my window. And they said, “How y’all doin’?”
“Oh, we’re doin’ good.”
“Now where are y’all from?”
I told ’em, “I’m originally from Alaska.”
“Who are you people?”
And I said,” Guy Yaaw (then speaks about his people in his native language).
And they looked at me and said, “Now what kind of foreign language is that?”
“Oh, that’s my Tlingit language. I’m a Native American from this country. That language I just spoke to you was from Alaska.
“Alaska! You guys from Alaska?”
I said, “Yes, I am!”
“Now what y’all doin’ way down here. Did you guys get lost?”
I said, “No, we’re just driving around seeing this country.” And we started to strike up a conversation.
And he asked me, “How do y’all say… fire?”
He said, “Now did you hear that… fire. Now right here you say… fire to say… fire. You know, you’re some interesting folks! Now we don’t get many people like you around here much often. You know what? We’re having a… a gathering here that’s coming up here in a couple of days. You sure are welcome to come if you’d like to come. You can meet my kin, my folks that’s back there in the swamps a little bit. You’ll be more than welcome!”
I said, “Ah, thank you for the invitation but I think we’re gonna move on and keep traveling. I think we’re gonna make our way up… around Georgia. See, I’m part Cherokee and my people come from that area.”
“Well, all I want to tell you is that stay away from Sparta, Georgia there. I’ve been to Sparta. A lot of black folk there, you know. You good people. I don’t want you to get in trouble now. Ah, it’s good to meet you.”
“It sounds good to me too. I’ll tell you what! A couple of days later, we are in Sparta, Georgia and we were hungry. So we went to go get a couple of sandwiches and across the street was a basketball court and playin’ basketball there – a bunch of youngsters playing ball and they’re all black. And we sat there to go watch them play basketball. So we’re sitting there eatin’ our sandwiches and they’re arguing back and forth because they need an extra player.
And so they looked at me. They came up to me and said, “Heh! You right there! You play ball?”
I go, “Who? Me?’
“Yeah, we’re talking to you. You play ball?”
I said, “Do I play ball?” Now, I tell you what! Indians love basketball! So I said, “Yeah, I play ball!”
And so we went out there. They brought me out there. We started playing hoops back and forth. And we were playing basketball all afternoon and then they asked me, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”
I said, “From Alaska.”
And they asked me, “Are you an Indian?”
I said, “Yeah, I am!”
“Can we touch you?”
“You want to touch me?” I said, “Sure.”
So they felt my skin and they felt my hair and they told me… they said, “Hey, wait here, wait here!” And so they ran off but they brought back all their family, their relatives – aunties, uncles, cousins. They wanted to meet us Native American people because they’ve only heard about us in movies, books, magazines, museums. They never met a real live native person before. They said, “We gotta take you…we got Uncle Leroy who’d love to meet you.”
And so we went to Uncle’s Leroy’s house and Uncle Leroy, when we walked in, he was like this skinny black man. I mean he was so black, he was like purple. Long white hair, long white beard and he had square glasses tinted blue. Yes, and he was skinny, about as skinny as a broom pole when he came shuffling up to us, looked at me, “My Indian brothers!” You see, Uncle Leroy was in the Korean War and in the Korean War, Uncle Leroy was this young black man and he was scared and there were bombs and guns goin’ off. And so he was runnin’ around. But at the same time he was runnin’ around, there are a couple of Indians in a foxhole and they’re smokin’ their tobacco, saying their prayer. “Oh, Creator, take care of us. I swear here on this here foreign land, watch over us and we promise we’ll live a good life. Send us a sign that you hear what we’re talkin’ about. You hear our prayers!” And they’re smoking their tobacco! And just as they’re praying, suddenly Uncle Leroy jumps into their foxhole and those two Indians look at this black man and they go, “Ah, the creator! Thank you for sending us this good luck charm of a black man. We promise we’ll take care of this young man here in a good way.” And so they did.
They kept that promise and they took care of Uncle Leroy. And they taught Uncle Leroy about spirit, honor, culture, tradition, prayer, brotherhood. And they took care of Uncle Leroy and Uncle Leroy felt that. He owed those Indian brothers of his. So I went to his house. He told us the stories of brotherhood, took care of us while we were in his home. So the next morning we jumped in the van and we headed off. And as we were driving off, I heard Uncle Leroy, “My Indian brothers!”
Laura befriends and, then, adopts a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. Years later, Ishmael Beah goes on to become a best-selling author. One day, while speaking on a panel together, she and her grown son hear of the genocide in Rwanda. A woman from Rwanda tells of a child who makes a difficult choice when he finds himself in the same room with the man who murdered his parents. Laura’s son, Ishmael, understands and applauds the child’s choice. He is glad the child will not have to define himself as a murderer and can keep in touch with the place within that Ishmael has once again found – the place within that is untouched by war, murderous alternatives and biases of any sort.
What surprised you the most about the story Laura and Ishmael heard about Rwanda?
Do you think it is fair to have children fighting in wars?
Most people want to know what are causes of war. What do you think are the causes of Peace?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Making Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron
The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein MD
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Laura Simms. In 1996, I was a facilitator at a UNICEF conference at the United Nations called Young Voices. There were 57 young people from 23 third world countries. They were there, actually, to create what later became a Children’s Bill of Rights. My very first day, I met two young boys; thin, wearing cotton shorts and T-shirts, who came from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I literally went home because it was mid-November, was snowing, they had never been in cold weather, and gave them my winter coats. The interesting thing is, of course, that years passed and I got these two boys out of the war in Africa. One of them became my son and reminded me often that first year that he would never wear a women’s winter coat again.
It was an amazing 10 days. And a lot of what happened during those 10 days was, these kids listening to each other’s stories. And these boys were so gentle, so sweet that I had met outside of UNICEF that day, who wore my coats, wrapped up, they told horrendous stories of having been child soldiers. Learning to be murderers. Believing that these murderers would take revenge on the death of their parents, who they had both seen killed, including family members and friends. A terrible civil war occurred in Sierra Leone.
So many things about Ishmael. One is that Ishmael wrote an amazing memoir. The publishers thought, well, a few people will like this but actually it became a bestseller A Long Way Gone. Twenty million copies sold. Everybody wanted to read this book. About a child’s experience in war. And Ishmael and I were invited to give a talk together (which in those years we did a lot) at a journalism school and university. And then, we were on a panel and one of the other panelists was a woman from Rwanda. Let me back up a minute, because people were always asking me how could you do this? How could you have a child who has murdered be your child, live in your house? But I’m a storyteller and I’ve been meditating for over 25 years. And I really understood, something I believed, that inside each of us there is a place that is untarnished by violence, untarnished by circumstances. And if we come back to that place, that’s the place at which we can transform. And that, basically, everybody is good. And I knew from Ishmael, at least, that he’d had enough violence to last ten lifetimes. The last thing he wanted to do was to be engaged with any conflict at all. And he was peaceful. He grew up in a traditional storytelling culture.
The woman from Rwanda. After Ishmael and I spoke, she spoke and, of course, she spoke about stories. It was her job in Rwanda, after the terrible genocide, to listen to young people’s stories. And she told a tale, true tale, that was harrowing but haunting. It was a story about a Tutsi boy who was caught in a horrible massacre. And his body along with the bodies of his family and all his neighbors were thrown into a ravine, assumed dead. And that night, he awoke under the bodies. Shocked. And made his way up out this sea…of misery and blood. He was a kid, so, what did he do? He wandered back to his house. He washed himself and he got under the sheets on his parents’ bed and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, a man came in, set his machete down next to the bed. He washed. Also seeking comfort, he climbed into the bed. He hadn’t seen the boy. But they both slept deeply and in the middle of the night seeking comfort, they rolled into each other’s arms and slept in the safety of embrace.
She described how early in the morning, the boy told her, he woke up and he was face to face with the man who had killed his family. And at first he thought, “I should kill him.” But he had enough violence and he had slept in that man’s arms as if that man was his parent. So, he got up out of the bed and wandered out into the bush, where he was eventually found and saved.
Ishmael and I listened to the story. And seated in the lobby of our hotel that night, we talked about. How it had moved us both. And Ishmael said, “That’s the place isn’t it? That, that’s that place. That untarnished place.”
And I said, “Yes, it was really remarkable to hear the story. Most people would probably say that boy should have killed that man.”
And Ishmael said, “No. If he had killed the man. He would have been a murderer as well.”
Those years, every so often, Ishmael and I would talk about that story. And then one morning, he got up, and knocked on my bedroom door. And he said, “It’s still there. It’s still there.”
And I said, “What? What is still there?”
And he said, “I know we heard that story. I know we were talking about this but I thought that place inside of me was gone. That the war had taken it away. So, but I woke up, I felt it. I felt the joy. It’s still there. That place is still there.”
I understood. He would more than survive. Which he did, going on to write the book To Marry As A Child. And for me it changed everything. I understood the goal of my story telling. That place where, regardless of race, of violence, of learned habits, of bias. That place exists in all of us. And sometimes, I weep for the world. But knowing that I can do something about it completely cheers me up.
A wannabe comedian in the suburbs of Pittsburgh finally meets a professional comic who is willing to take him under his wing. However, stunned silence over the discovery of a small town’s nasty racial secret destroys a brand new friendship before it can even begin.
When was a time when you remained silent when you should have spoken up about discrimination? What caused you to stay silent?
How could this situation have turned out differently? What effect could calling out the racism around us have on the people practicing it or on the people experiencing it?
Have you ever observed the silence of others while you yourself were being treated poorly? How would you have wanted others to react or behave?
Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide by Barbara Trepagnier
Film – Dear White People (2014), Directed By Justin Simien
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Scott Whitehair. Oddly enough, it all started in a place called the Freedom Inn. The Freedom Inn was a bar in my hometown, where my college improv troupe got to do a monthly show. nd we were excited because we were ambitious and we thought we were hilarious. Um, so this was a great opportunity for us, not only because we got to go on stage, but we get to open for traveling comedians, who would come from around the country and do a show every month. Ah, now, the shows were OK. We, ah, we got paid in onion rings and bar food. And although the audience was surly, we got some laughs. And we felt that we were right on the right path. Now the… one the most exciting parts was we would approach these road comedians after they were done and we would ask them questions. Ah, we felt like we had access to the pros. We would say, you know, “Can we get you a sandwich? Can we get you something a drink?”
And then we felt that was the permission we needed then to pepper them with questions like, “What is this life like? How did you get into it? How did you get an agent? How do we all become rich and famous through this improv that we’re doing in bars?” And the comedians would mostly accept our drinks and food and they would speak to us.
But they weren’t into it and most of them, the advice they give us, would be things like, “Oh, do you want a happy healthy life? Don’t, don’t get into this.” Ah, they were pretty bitter. They were jaded. Um, they ate up the food, drink a lot of the drinks we get them and, basically, discourage us from following it any further.
But one month, there was a comedian named James. He was a younger African-American man who, immediately, when he got on stage just brought a different energy than had been in this bar in the times we’d been there before. And he, he just lit it up. He was getting laughs from a crowd that was often pretty surly. He shut down a heckler just with a disapproving glance and kind of, a, a kind nod of his head. nd he didn’t play down to this crowd like a lot of these comedians, he, he elevated them. And we were excited. So as soon as the show was over, we walked over and we said, “James, if it’s OK, we’d, we’d like to buy you a drink and some food.” And James took a look at us and said, “No…I know you guys get paid an onion rings. I’m, I’m buying the food.”
And he talked with us and he talked to us for an hour. And he answered our questions and for the first time, we felt like somebody was supporting us. Somebody who had made it as a comedian. Who was doing this with their, their lives was taking the time to encourage us. Letting us know the ins and outs, the practical stuff. How he had gotten into it. Why he had gotten into it. Where he thought it would go. And we, we were so excited. And as my improv team started to filter out to go home, I hung out longer. And James and I got to know each other even better. And we were at the bar, regulars were still hanging out, and we started to, to throw back and forth and set each other up. You know, he would throw some up and I’d bad slam it home. It was like a two man, two man show at the bar. And it was probably better than most of the shows I had ever been in that people have asked me to do. And it was exciting and I, I felt like I was being taken seriously.
And so at the end of the night James and I were still sitting there having a great time. So as the bar began to, to close, he said, “This is a great time; what else is going on in town. Is there anything else for us to do? I’m still, still ready to make a night of it.”
I thought about it and I said, “Oh, yes, actually. Down the hill near the river, there’s, there’s a club. And it’s a private club so they are allowed to stay open past the 2 a.m. closing time in the Pittsburgh area. And they sell you a membership for the night. But that just means it’s kind of a, a cover charge and you get to hang out. And James said “That sounds good. Let’s do that. I’m into it.”
And Bill, the bartender, had been standing there. Just quietly washing a glass said, “Scott, They’re not open tonight.”
I was like, “What, what are you talking about Bill? They’re open on Christmas Day. This place, I don’t think, they ever close. Of course they’re open.”
Bill said, “I’m telling you guys they’re closed.”
And I said, “Bill it’s Saturday night. There’s no way that place is closed.
He said, “Trust me, they’re closed.”
So James kind of shrugged and said, “I’m going to the bathroom; maybe we can figured something else out to do. I’m still, I, I get that energy from a show and I’m ready to do it.”
So he hits the restroom. I kind of look at Bill. And Bill says, “Scott, they don’t let black people in that club.”
And I started to protest and say, “Well, of course…” But then it kind of washed over me. I had never seen a person of color there. Even though it was located in a predominantly black neighborhood, I’d never seen a person of color in this club. And maybe it didn’t register because I had had a few drinks or it just didn’t hit me, but it hit me right in that moment.
Before I could say anything back to Bill, James came back and he said, “It’s a shame about that place, man. Sounded like fun.” And I, I just didn’t say anything.
The bar closed and we decided to go down the hill. The other part of town to a diner that was open all night is get some food instead and James was into it. So we go and we continue the conversation. If I got to know him before as a comedian and a pro, I got to know him more as a person. He got to know me. We had conversations about what our childhoods were like, why comedy was so important to us, the way we had been raised, and that proceeded through life. Talked about deeper ambitions and goals and where we wanted this to go, not just as a career but what it would mean to our lives. And I, I again, I felt just so taken seriously and so engaged as a person. I felt like I was making a friend. So we’re sitting there we’re finishing our waffles and somebody comes in who had been at the show earlier. And they sit down in a booth next to us and they noticed us. And they say, “Hey, it’s the comedians. Hey, how come you guys didn’t go to the late night club?”
And James says, “Well, oh, they’re close tonight.”
A guy goes, “That place never closes. It’s Saturday night.” And then I think James understood that something was off. That he hadn’t been told the full truth.
And so we sat there and we finished our food. We finished our coffees and we didn’t say much else. Turned back into small talk. When the bill came, James grabbed it and paid. And we went outside to the parking lot. Still I said nothing. And so we stood there…in silence. And instead of the hugs we’d shared all night, and the familiar language, James just stuck out his hand and said, “Good luck with everything.” And as I watched him drive out of the parking lot of the diner, and up the road and out of my life forever, I was ashamed. I was ashamed of my town. I was ashamed of the people in it that would let something like this exist. But, most of all, I was ashamed of my silence.
Donna’s father is quite a trickster, and one afternoon in the 1980’s, while her large family was traveling through the south, they ran into a potentially dangerous situation. Donna’s trickster father literally saved our lives. (more…)
The night Obama was elected to the presidency, Donna was a lone black woman in a very conservative part of the country. She discovered that it is possible be in a foreign land in her own country. She also found out that the world is full of people with good hearts. (more…)
Bill gathers a group of musicians together to record an album of Civil Rights freedom songs. However, they learn that they can’t assume they are all on the same page or that underlying emotions and biases aren’t in play. (more…)
Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina during Jim Crow, Cynthia is baffled by why Black people get to ride in the “best part” of the bus, the back of the bus with the great view out the rear window. She plays with a young boy named Sammy when his mother comes to help Cynthia’s mother with the ironing. Cynthia doesn’t understand when her mother tells her that Sammy is dead and that he died because he couldn’t get to a “colored hospital” in time. When she was 12, Cynthia’s mother takes her to an integrated church service in Winston Salem. Cynthia is able to sense the danger but her heart feels full and happy to be in this circle of women. (more…)
While getting a passport to prepare for a trip abroad, Onawumi Jean discovered that her name is not on her birth certificate. Her aunt is able to clear up the mystery by disclosing a concession Onawumi’s mother made to get along and keep her job in the Jim Crow South. As an adult, Onawumi arranges a naming ceremony where she is able to honor her past and celebrate her creative present and future.
Why are names important? What do they say about our identity and the people who name us?
How did Onawumi Jean’s mother’s concession help her “get along” in the Jim Crow South?
If you were going to choose another name for yourself, what would it be and why?
American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard
The Name Book: Over 10,000 Names – Their Meanings Origins and Spiritual Significance by Dorothy Astoria
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Onawumi Jean Moss and I’m going to be doing a reading from a one woman play that I’m doing that’s actually inspired by my own life. It is inspired by the fact, well, let me just get started. This is a reading from, “Seriously, what did you call me?”
The year is 1998 and I have been invited to the Dunya Storytelling Festival in Rotterdam. Hello. You see, I’ve been dreaming of travelling abroad for years but the truth to be told, I’ve only travelled in the United States of America. I’m just saying. I decided I’d call my friend B.J. She has been trying to get me to go abroad for years. She wanted me to go to Africa one year. She just wanted me to go somewhere. So I give her a call.
“Hallelujah!” I knew she’d love it. “So you going abroad. My goodness.” She’s got a gravelly voice but that woman is known on three continents for helping poor people get over the forces that have held them down. She’s quite remarkable. B.J. stands for bold justice. “So you’re going abroad. Well, hurry up and don’t stop. I know you. Get your passport. It’s pretty straight forward. Just go get it and keep me posted cause I do think I just felt the earth tremble. Could be coming to an end.”
I move quickly to do what B.J. has asked me to do. So, I go to the post office and I get all the forms that verify I say who I say I am. And then I start to completing them. I find out I need my birth certificate. I haven’t seen that in…ever. So I sent for it. It came and surprise, surprise… the name Jean, the name I have been called all my life, is not on my birth certificate. Whaaaat? Seriously? I think about calling my cousin Eloise. She is our family historian and she is very tight lipped. I know that as soon as I call her, here’s what I’m gonna hear. “Lord, Lord, child. Some words, if spoken, will make the wheels fall off the wagon.” But I still plead with her. And you know what she does? She says, “You know, you haven’t flown home in a long time.” And then she starts bringing me up to date on who gave birth. Who got sick. Who recovered. And who died. That, I don’t know these folks is not here nor there. She is my cousin Eloise and she is my favorite, favorite elder.
So after she stops being the town crier I say, “Cousin Eloise, how come Jean is not on my birth certificate?”
And she says, “Lord, Lord, Jeanie cat, that’s water under the bridge. Now why are you worried about this now?”
“Because I’ve been sitting here with my birth certificate and it says, ‘Carolyn Durham.’ It does not say Jean and I want to know why. If Mama was still with us, I would ask her why Jean is not on my birth certificate.” It was quiet in my office and quiet on the phone. And then we both just burst out laughing. (Laughing) Because we both knew that Mama would not tolerate being interrogated by anybody, let alone her children. But something in that moment caused my cousin Eloise, whom we learned to call cousin Weez, cause when we were children we couldn’t say Eloise. So she still calls me Jeannie cat. And I still call her cousin Weez.
Cousin Weez said, “Well, when Hon,” that’s what you call Mama. “When Hon went back to work for the Taylors a few weeks after you were born, the oldest daughter wanted to know why you were named Carolyn and not after her. Everybody thought the child was just being cute and they weren’t taking her seriously. But every time Hon went to work, the child just would fret something awful. So to keep the peace, Hon told her she’d call you Jean. Well, what your mama meant was she’d just call you Jean when she was at their house. But we all started calling you Jean not realizing that that would be the only name that you would come to know yourself by. We just weren’t thinking about the long run.”
Well, I was outdone. I felt my legs buckle. This is madness. I thought to myself, “I’m on the threshold of becoming a nationally, internationally known storyteller. Can you imagine it? And because my mother felt it was necessary to do because she wanted to keep her job. I am having to go through hoops because I, a little girl, a little white girl who felt entitled, had a “do what I say’ tantrum and when she got her way, I was given no more thought. I used to babysit for her. And she called my name with detachment only to tell me, “Fetch this, fetch that.” My family’s attempt to mark what happened backfired.
And so they didn’t realize that I wouldn’t know my real name. But still they helped me get to where I am today, at one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet and with the tools I would need to be successful. The wisdom of knowing how to survive, is to know how to overcome Jim Crow rule. And that wisdom is hard earned. That scene in Roots, when Kunta Kinte was being beaten because he refused to be called by the name Toby, just stayed in my mind. But when he had the help he needed, he not only survived, he thrived. I want my name to reflect my African and American heritage.
Since miscegenation has erased my physical connection to Africa I thought. I need someone who really knows me, to name me. And I decided that that person is, Dr. Rowland Abiodun, professor of art history and black studies at Amherst College. When I ask Dr. Abiodun to name me, he got very quiet on the phone. And I thought, “Oh my! He’s not interested in doing this.” Well, it turns out I was wrong.
When he spoke, he said these words, “I will have to pray about it.” And he hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought anybody would have to pray about naming you. Three days passed. I was a wreck but he called me back and he said that he would name me. And then he told me several foods that I had to come collect for the naming ceremony. My heart was racing. I collected all the foods. I invited my friends and my collaborators. Those of us who work for justice for a long time together and everybody came.
And when we gathered, Professor Abiodun stood and told us a story about naming that I will take with me for the rest of my days. He said when he was telling about the meaning of the foods I had collected. He said these words, “Omi. Omi means water. The water, which you are supposed to drink. The water that destiny has set for you to drink will never flow past you. Iyo. Salt. Maggots are never found in salt. May your body never harbor decay or disease. Oyin. Honey. No one refuses honey. That taste of honey will be in your mouth. Your presence will bring joy and happiness to all you meet.” I felt my spirit soar in a way that I never felt it before. On hearing all he told me, about the way the foods related to my name. And then he calmly guided us through the ancient and untitled ritual.
I remember singing to myself. Amazing, amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!
Then he said, “In Yoruba culture, one is a stranger until one is given a name. Your name gives you presence and beauty and power. With this name, you will no longer be a stranger. Onawumi, one who is creative and loves to create. Oshunokami, one whose deity is the great river goddess, Oshun. She is the one, who holds the mirror of truth. She is the one, who sits by the doors of the temple. She is the one who braids hair and speaks wisdom. Olyin, whose words are healing and sweet as honey.
Amazing. Amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!
In keeping with Yoruba tradition those gathered were invited to speak my name several times so that my presence, my beauty, and my power would be undeniable. Looking back, using the rearview mirror that my cousin Eliose, Cousin Weez, was always famous for saying. When someone said, “I don’t look back.” She would say to me and to the children around her, “Just remember children, there’s a reason that a car has a rear, rearview mirror. When you going forward, don’t forget to look in the rearview mirror because what’s back there might help you get along further.”
And so, I have looked back on my own life. Because I found my name Jean was not on my birth certificate but now it is on everything. And it is my legal name but it is also my spiritual name. My name is Onawumi, one who creates and loves to create. Jean, the one, the name my mother gave me to keep the peace. It means gift of God and my mother said it means gifted by God. Moss, the name that I share with my two sons and my daughter. My name is Onawumi Jean Moss. Amazing, amazing! I am amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing! And so are you.
April 4, 1968 may have been the end of one dream with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, on that day, another began in a young woman who pushed past despair, journeying from Mississippi to New York City, to discover that the “dream” lived on in her.
Dr. King is associated with bringing together people of various ethnic backgrounds. While the message of equality was a theme of the Civil Rights Movement, a critical part of the movement centered around employment – compensation, fairness, availability, and equity. How are there still struggles around employment issues in the U.S. and the world?
Each person has been given a talent – teaching, preaching, engineering, drawing, you name it! What are the talents you have been given and how have they helped someone else or you in an unexpected way?
Travel can reveal a new perspective about one’s self, others, and places. Where have your travels brought you? How has something you experienced or seen changed your perspective?
The Great Migration refers to the exodus of African Americans from the American South, seeking a variety of opportunities, new beginnings, and work during the 20th century. This departure from “home” enabled families to unite and offered a different future to the next generation. What sacrifice did those who left the South make for the next generation? What opportunities did future generations have? In your family, how did one generation make a sacrifice that benefitted the next generation(s)?
America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories edited by Anne Mazer
Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
Voice of Freedom – Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford
28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Diane Macklin. There are moments in history that are like a rock thrown into the lake of time. The ripples reach all the way to the shore even if you cannot see them.
It was May 1968. Barbara Jean stood at a Greyhound bus station staring across the street. The bus wasn’t there yet but her siblings were, her two sisters and her youngest brother. They were holding hands, watching her, hoping that maybe she would walk to them. Maybe she would head back home to the shotgun shack. She wasn’t going to. She looked down at her freshly polished shoes, saw the little bit of dust on them where she could wipe it off. She had her suitcase. She was determined. She was going to go. Nothing could keep her in Mississippi. Barbara Jean pulled out of her purse the clipping from the newspaper. “Hard working young women needed, live-in maid, New York City.” She folded it up again and put it back in her purse. She was going to go. This was May.
A month earlier, April 4th, 1968 a shot rang out in Memphis Tennessee. A hundred miles north of where she lived, and it came shatterin’ all the way down to where she lived. And she knew the dream was gone. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The dream that work would come to the South, that work would return to Mississippi. People that knew the life of sharecropping, people that knew how to work the land, would have work again. But without Dr. Martin Luther King, who was trying to help people to get work, she would never find work, and nor would her children, even though she had no children. She had to go. She had to go to New York. There was work in New York. The bus came. She looked down at the ground. She might stay, if she looked at them again. She got on that bus. She got on the far side away from where her siblings were standing there. The bus pulled off, and she could not look at them. But they stood there until the bus was out of sight. She rode that bus all the way to New York City with that $24 ticket that she gave to that bus driver. She got off and was met with people she’d never seen before.
Women with hair, women with no hair. Women with short hair, women with long hair. There were all sorts of people from all sorts of places from the world. It was a lot of movement, a lot of sound. And she made her way all the way to her employer who brought her to the house that she was going to work. Now as a live-in maid, she knew hard work and this was nothing compared to the work that she did on a farm. At four years old, she learned how to pick cotton. And then at 12 years old, she could pick 300 pounds of cotton. And by the time she was 15, she could pick 600 pounds of cotton, take care of her brothers and sisters, help them to pick because she was determined to make sure that their family picked more cotton than anybody else.
She knew hard work, but there was another work that she did that was harder than dusting and mopping floors. At night, she would sit in a backroom quiet, listening to her employers. They’re from the North. And then she would go back to her own bedroom, sit on the bed, and start to train her tongue not to speak like she was from the South. She felt that people would not think that she was intelligent. They would think she was unintelligent if she sounds like she was a Southerner.
But one day she met this man. He was charming, he was a taxi cab driver. And in his charm, he convinced her to give her… give him, her phone number and she did. She didn’t want to lie.
So, she gave him her phone number but she gave him all the wrong numbers in all the wrong places. But they were the right numbers but all the wrong places.
But he spent two months trying every single combination of those numbers until he reached her. And he courted her and she fell in love. And this man worked for General Motors, hmm, General Motors. There weren’t many women that worked for General Motors. So, she asked him, well, should she apply and he didn’t think it was a good idea. It was a man’s place. It was a man’s job. Required someone who was strong, who could work hard.
He didn’t know her very well. Her father was a blacksmith. She would shoe horses with him. She would make fence posts and put up fences. They would go out and glean for metal. She knew metal and she knew hard work. So, she applied. They continued to court.
She got a job on the assembly line in 1974. And a lot of folks came up to her and told her, “You know, this isn’t your kind of work, so you can stay on the assembly line but that’s about it.”
But she took classes and she did well. She excelled more than any other student. Some folks thought that they didn’t like this so much. Some folks thought that they needed to turn her locker upside down to discourage her. Some folks thought they needed to put glue in her lock to discourage her. Some folks thought they needed to meld all of her tools together to discourage her.
But she knew something! A skilled trade was one of the highest paid positions at General Motors, at that plant in New… Tarrytown, New York. She was going to shoot for that. She took course after course, credit after credit, certification… certificate after certificate. And eventually she became the first woman and the second person of color to work at the skilled trades at Tarrytown General Motors plant. And, eventually, she did have two lovely children, and they had an opportunity to live in New York, with opportunities that she felt she did not have. And one of those children have told you the story of their mother, Barbara Jean Macklin.
There are many forms of laughter: discomfort, joy, fear, amusement, sarcastic, etc. What type of laughter would you attribute to the students in the library? What dynamic did it set up between them and Diane? What are a few responses you would have had to the situation?
Invisibility is a much-desired attribute among superheroes. However, there are times when we, too, search for the cloak of concealment. When have you ever wanted to be “invisible”? In what situation and for what purpose?
The themes of belonging, identity, shame, and protecting one’s self can be found in the story of each human being. What other themes did you connect to in this story? Did the story help you to remember something that is or has happened to you?
Every Tongue Got to Confess by Zora Neale Hurston
African American Folk Tales for Young Readers by Richard Young and Judy Dockrey Young
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Diane Macklin and this is a story, Just Hair.
If you’re driving down Route 82 in Hopewell Junction, New York in 199… in 1986, you would go past this ranch white house with green shutters, and you would think it was just a house. No indeed. This was the place where anyone with African roots could get their hair done by my mother. And that was me because we were the second black family to move into our neighborhood. My mother was the oldest of 12 children, and she did everyone’s hair. So, my hair was always done perfectly. There was no need in town for a Jet magazine or even anyone who could do anything with my hair. But it didn’t matter.
And as I grew up, well, things started to change a little bit. In high school, I no longer wanted the perfect parts, the braids, the ponytails. I watched this show on TV called The Facts of Life. My favorite show and there was this character Tootie. Now she would roll around on her rollerblades. She had these cute little pigtails and she had a brown complexion like me but she looked young. But then there was Blair and she had this flowing blond hair. And she was sophisticated; she was so much older. I wanted to be like Blair. So, one morning when my mom was doing my hair I said, “Mom, can you do my hair so it’s out. This is my ninth-grade year, Mom. I really want to wear my hair out.”
Now, my mom is from Mississippi. She’s from the South. She never says, “No.”
She goes on about her back. She goes on about this, that and the other until you’re saying, “No, Mom, that’s ok, that’s ok. Don’t, don’t worry about it.”
But she looked at me. “No.” I thought maybe she had a bad night at work. Maybe she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. That was okay because I could wait her out. I did wait a couple of weeks.
“Mom, I was thinking that maybe you could do my hair so it’s out today.”
But, again, she looked. “No.”
Now, I’m in high school, ninth grade and I ride a bus. It takes a while to get to school. I knew that if I took my hair out on the bus, and remembered where she had parted it, how she had braided it (whether it was over or under), I could take out my hair on the bus and put it back. She’ll never know.
So, one morning I got on the bus and I scooted down in the seat and started to take out my hair. Now, my friend across from me saw what I was doing and she just watched, and watched. And then we pulled up at our high school. Now always in high school, you did not go inside until the bell rang. Whether it was snow, sleet, hail, rain, everyone stood outside the building until the bell rang. But as soon as the bus pulled up and stopped, I stood up. And I heard, “Aah!” ’Cause back then no one had seen hair like mine, this rich hair, out because you didn’t even see it on TV. You didn’t even see it on commercials, and I felt like a million dollars.
I even had my own music playing, my own soundtrack, ’cause as I walked on the bus everyone just followed me. “Uuh!”
And I was going, “Oom, aah, and, Oom, aah!” I just felt… I had never felt like that before actually. And I struck a pose before I got off the bus, and they just sat there staring. They couldn’t believe it. I walked off the bus and then, who0om, everyone parted like the Red Sea and my friends came over.
“Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair?”
“Are your hands clean?”
And all day, I rode this cloud nine. And then, towards the end of the day, though, I had to go to the library to get a book out for research purposes, and I saw that there were some lower-class rooms from the middle school. They were visiting. They hadn’t seen my hair. So, I walked in, I struck a pose, and they no longer stared at their teacher. They stared at me.
“Yeah! They never saw hair like this.”
I walked in and then I heard, “Ah, whoo, whoo, whoo, ha!”
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Then the whole class broke out in laughter. Then I started to hear the words. “Afro Puff. Brillo Pad.”
They were talking about my hair. And there were other names, that, even now, I don’t want to repeat.
I couldn’t remember what I went in that library for but I wasn’t going to care. I went to the shelf, picked up a book, checked it out, walked out, had my head up high, looked at them, so they knew they didn’t get me.
But as soon as I left that library, my head dropped. On that bus, I remembered how she parted it. I turned my head a little to the window because, you know, how you do sittin’ down, it’s easier. A few tears fallin’ down. I went inside. It was as if I never took my hair out.
And I decided, I was going to wear an invisible armor and from that day on, I did. I pr… constructed an armor that you could not see me. Worked so well that, one day I was at the grocery store, and I was juggling more groceries than I needed to in my arms and there was a woman and her daughter. Her daughter looked, and young people can see past the invisible armor. They have a special vision. She saw that if she moved her groceries up, on the conveyor belt, I could put mine down. That’s what that young lady did. But the mother turned around and, well, I had my invisible armor on and she couldn’t see me, because she took her arm and she moved those groceries back in place, so I could not put my groceries down. The young lady, she turned beet red. She looked embarrassed. I tried to let her know it was okay because she didn’t know, I was wearing my armor. I wore it for many years and then one day, I was in that store and I heard someone comin’ up behind me. And this time I was smart; I did have a cart.
“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in the store.
“Young lady, young lady.” But no one talked to me in store.
I turned around. There was a woman with a rich, mahogany complexion like mine.
“Do you know where you’re from?”
“No! Where you’re from in Africa?”
My school didn’t teach us anything about Africa. And even during Black History Month, there was maybe a book in the library, on a shelf, but that was about it.
“You need to find out where you’re from ’cause when I saw you, I said, ‘She looks like a Mandingo warrior woman.’ Do you know that the Mandingo have warrior women?”
I didn’t know anything about Mandingo. I didn’t even know what to say. I was speechless.
“You need to find out where you’re from?”
And she turned the corner. And I stood there for a moment absorbing what she told me and then I went to find her ’cause, clearly, she knew more than I did. And she was gone. I couldn’t find her anywhere.
And to this day, I feel like she was a little angel, came to send me a message because now I could take off that invisible armor. And I now have as my defense, as my weapon of choice, to love, to love through story, as a storyteller.
Growing up, Steven was involved in Boy Scouts and his church and as a teen he advocated for community development in his New Jersey neighborhood. But could he get involved in the rising black militancy of the late 1960s?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Martin-and-Me
Why was Steven called “too white” by some of his friends? What is “acting white” and how has racism perpetuated these no-win choices of how white or black someone is?
Steven’s neighborhood didn’t have comparable city services such as garbage pickup and water and sewer service. How did the city justify this uneven treatment and what was Steven’s Youth group able to do in the face of this discrimination?
If you were African American in the 1960s would you have become involved with the Black Power movement? In what ways might you show your pride in your African American heritage? For what reasons might you become involved in peaceful protests such as school walkouts or be tempted to participate in more militant actions?
Do you think Steven made the right decision to go to school after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968? How did Steven’s family influence his decisions?
In what ways are we still reaching for Dr. King’s “beloved community”? Do you think it’s an attainable ideal?
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley and David Ritz
A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard
African American/Black History
Civil Rights Movement
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Stephen Hobbs. I’d like to share a part of a story about growing up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Right down the highway from Newark. In the 1960s, at a time when there was great political, cultural racial and social changes.
I blame it on James Brown. In 1967, he came out with a song, “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” That could have been the theme song for the black consciousness movement of the 60s. When we black people were really in love with the color of our skin. We grew our hair out afro style and we wore dashikis from the motherland. But was I really ready to jump fully into the black consciousness movement? I mean, they were talking about revolution. Already people were frustrated with the slow progress. Even with Dr. King’s great movement of nonviolent resistance. Cities like New York and Cleveland and Detroit erupted in flames of riots during the 1967 summer.
But, as a young teenager, I was involved in community development work. I was a member of a civic organization called The Somerville Manor Youth Association. Somerville Manor was the black neighborhood that I grew up in. It was the only black community in Bridgewater. We advocated for sewer lines and water lines in our community. Most of us, most of the families, had outhouses and some even had wells outside and they used to have to work with hand-pump. We also tried to get trash collection and a place for us to play. But was I really ready for that liberation stuff? I mean, how could I be a radical? My grandmother didn’t like that term. She thought, she thought, one summer when I grew out a beard, she wouldn’t let me into her house because I looked too much like those militants in her, in her our community. And I always wanted to please my grandmother and be a good boy.
Still some of my black friends thought I was trying to act white. Like I was not black enough. Whatever that means. I mean, was it mean, I was an Oreo or because I had too many friends like my buddy, Lougoo Gueotto, who was Italian kid who lived up the street from me? It probably didn’t help my cause, the fact that I was I had a white girlfriend named Elizabeth, with her beautiful blue eyes. In the fall of 1967, I entered high school. And I was elected freshman class president, which is a pretty good thing, considering of the twelve hundred students in my high school, only 26 were black. And I got good grades and made the honor roll.
But still that militancy stuff really got me worried. And then, on April 4th , 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Oh, President Lyndon Johnson asked for calm throughout the country. But the voices of anger, rippled across the land. “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” And cities all across America erupted in riots and flames. We kids and some of old men are still around street corners wondering what we should do. Somebody suggested we should go to the nearby mall and trash some of those stores. But at a meeting of the Somerville Manor Youth Association, it was decided that we would boycott school the day after Dr. King’s funeral. Well, I was at the meeting but I really wasn’t feeling it. Skip school? What would my grandmother say?
Well, the day of the boycott I went to school, in part, because as freshman class president, I was invited to participate in an in-school memorial service for Dr. King. Speaking to the entire student body over the intercom, I read a poem that I had composed in memory of Dr. King the night before. The poem went like this:
It’s not how long you live, it’s how well.
Did you give forth your best effort every day?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you travel along the honest way?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you lend a hand to another?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
Did you love all of your brothers?
It’s not how long you live but how well.
After that, Somerville Manor Youth Association met quite a bit. We talked about our dreams and what our positive response would be. We decided that we would build a youth center where we would have recreational activities and afterschool programs. And a place where we can get mentoring for college and career planning. And, most importantly, we would build it ourselves. We would raise the money. And we, we had car washes and fish fries and barbecues. Someone came up with the idea of having a musical review. We called it The Soul Show. In which everyone would participate if they could, playing Motown music. People who can sing or dance or play instruments, auditioned. I couldn’t sing and I didn’t have any rhythm, so I didn’t get a part in the show. I had to watch from the sidelines. But the show was successful nonetheless. It raised a number, a bit of money, and more importantly, we raised some friends. Our minister Reverend Hodge, he started inviting white clergy to our meetings. And soon we were telling our story at some of those, those pastors’ churches, getting more support.
Then we, we figured we could organize a nonprofit corporation to build the center. At the first official meeting of the nonprofit, I didn’t want to go because it was at the Plukemin Presbyterian Church and I guess my tail feathers were still a little ruffled about not being in the Soul Show. But my girlfriend, Elizabeth, encouraged me to go. And I was elected youth representative for the Executive Board. Oh, we had dozens and dozens of meetings. And I worked closely with the president of the organization, Mr. Richard Theale, a white lawyer who inspired me and showed me how lawyers could use their skills to work for social justice.
By the time I left to go to college in the fall of 1971, the plans had already been made. The architectural drawings rendered and the construction schedule set for the spring of 1972. By the fall of ’72, the doors of the youth center opened with volunteer programs for the kids in the area. On April 8th, 1973, we have the official dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King Youth Center. I was asked to speak and I read the poem I had written five years earlier. Someone read a letter from Mrs. Coretta Scott King. We had a crowd there of people from 23 churches and synagogues in the area. It truly was the embodiment of the vision Dr. King had in his dream of blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Christians, holding hands, singing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Now that was revolutionary.
Hello. My name is Sheila Arnold. And when I was in third grade, in 1972, I integrated my elementary school, Masonville Elementary, over in Annandale, Virginia. It wasn’t a difficult integration. We didn’t have protest outside of our doors. And even the teachers that didn’t like me, well they soon were got rid of. One of my teachers didn’t want me to be in the spelling bee because I was black but she didn’t last longer than the year. And my parents also covered so much for me. Actually, the classmates that I had and I got along very well. We were really good friends. And we all liked each other…except Lea.
Now, Lea, well Lea, was not liked by any of us as classmates because she was different. And we didn’t really like different. Lea… Lea didn’t have the, the right clothes because they would be a little bit too small on her and sometimes she would wear things that that didn’t fit or she didn’t, didn’t always look the best. And sometimes, I just have to be honest, she didn’t even have a real lunch box like the rest of us had. So, she was different and that was just Lea. You know, it wasn’t really kind of us at all. And we treated her different and we joked on her and teased her. But all of us did it, including me.
By the time we got to my fourth grade year, we had become such good friends, that we made nicknames for each other. I loved the nicknames. One day, we all gathered outside at recess and Jimmy, one of my friends, said he had a new nickname for me. I was thrilled. So we gathered everybody together and then he told me my new nickname. He said, Shelia, your new nickname is…” the “n” word. You know, the one that rappers say sometimes. I was delighted. It was a great name because I didn’t know what it meant. And so I was excited about it. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my mom about this new nickname. I got on with it, “Mom, I have a new nickname. It is…” the “n” word. (You know, the one that rapper say.) And my mom went, “Oh, baby.” And then she told me what it meant. She told me it meant that you were lower than the dirt underneath someone’s feet. I, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand why Jimmy, my friend, why would he call me that name!
The next day I went back to school. Recess came and Jimmy gathered everybody around again to call me my nickname. This time I knew what it meant. And I also realized Jimmy knew what it meant as well. So when he called me that nickname, I ran away from the group, ran into the side door of the building and into the bathroom and closed myself in the stall. And I just cried, “No one will ever be my friend. No one will ever be my friend. No one ever will like me.”
And then I heard something. Someone said, “I’ll be your friend, Sheila.” It was Lea, the very Lea I had teased and joked. She said, “I’ll be your friend.” And I came out of that bathroom stall.
Well, it was four years later that I was at Poe Middle School and I was with some of the same classmates I had before. I’d been gone for a while with my father to Germany and Rhode Island (my father was in the military) and I was finally back home. I was really excited to be back with some of my classmates, back in the middle school. And, though, I did really learn, truthfully, I learned really quickly that, although I was back in school with the same people, some of them were not the same way and we weren’t necessarily friends anymore. I learned in middle school that most of us were just trying to impress each other. And others us, and others of us, we were just trying to survive.
I didn’t really know where I fit, having been gone for a little while, so I decided to become everybody’s friend. That’s kind of how I was referred to. I wasn’t real popular but at least I knew everybody. Jimmy… Jimmy on the other hand, he was one of those just trying to survive life.
Jimmy had made some unwise decisions and those unwise decisions came because of what his life at home was like. You see, Jimmy’s family was going through a divorce. And in a, in the community I lived in, the suburbs I lived in… with two parent families and always together. The kid going through a divorce, they weren’t really appreciated. And they were looked at as, “Don’t get close to that one there.” Plus Jimmy was starting to smoke and “No one like them,” quote, unquote. And then he was even seen drinking beer. Those wise, unwise decisions made him one of those kids that people stopped hanging around. He went into that “other group” of kids. The ones, kind of, going down, “Going down,” as they would say. But Jim was trying to, trying to make some decisions.
In the beginning of our eighth grade year, we decided, well, we ran for student council. And some of you may have done that. So, we ran for student council and I decided I would run for treasurer. Jimmy decided he would run for president. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a popularity contest. And I was not a popular one but I hung in there. On that day that we gave our speeches… the presidents went first. Jimmy was the last to stand up to go. You should have seen him. He was dressed with his slacks on, his nice button-down shirt, his hair slicked back. He looked nice. He started to walk up, head up, going to give his speech. But the moment he started walking, all the kids booed him. His head, immediately went down. I knew, I knew what that felt like and I knew the look that went on his face. I remembered it from elementary school. And I stood up and I said, “Leave him alone! Give him a chance to talk!” Everybody was quiet for a minute but it was only a minute and then all that laughter and all their teasing turned right back to me.
I stood there and I said, “Everyone has a cha… everyone should have a chance to be heard. Everyone! Let him talk!” Well, the students gave him a look and they quieted a bit. But Jimmy gave me a look. I remembered that look. It was the same look I gave Lea so long ago. Well, Jimmy and I did not win in the student council. But we did win our friendship through forgiveness.
One day an angry black teenage girl – Sheila – stormed into her History Class and demanded to know why she had never heard about black inventors. Her favorite teacher, who happened to be white, was faced with a decision, but in making that decision an entire classroom of students was changed and history was given more relevance.
Was Sheila right in demanding to be taught more about people in her heritage? Why or why not? Should her teacher have changed her curriculum? Why or why not?
What is an activist? How do you think you can be an activist in your community?
Have you ever read a book that made you want to learn more about its subject, or moved you to make a difference? What was that book and what did it encourage you to do?
What is your heritage? Make a list of the people from your heritage that you have learned about in school. Compare your list with other students. Who do you know on their list? Choose someone from another student’s list who you do not recognize and research them.
Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin ‘HurricaneCarter by Sam Chalton and Terry Swinton. About a young man who finds a book that “calls” out to him, and through a series of letters and visits helps to free a wrongly jailed man.
The Black Book by Middleton A. Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, Ernest Smith and Bill Cosby. This is the actual book that Sheila read and is available in bookstores.
50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet by Dennis Denenberg
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family & Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Sheila Arnold. I have to give you two names: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Those were the only two people, the only two black people I ever learned about in my elementary and middle school years in the 1970s and 1980s. How was it! But somewhere around the beginning of my high school years, in 1979 or so, I began to look for my people. I don’t really, know truthfully, why that, was the trigger for that but I think it’s because I started paying attention to the news.
I can remember sometime early in my 10th grade year, I think about 1980 or so, I went over to the March on Washington to ask for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be a national holiday. I remember that myself and some of my classmates we skipped school, got on some buses, and some subways, (I lived in Annandale, Virginia, which is a suburb of Washington D.C.) and we got over to Washington D.C. I remember that, that the mall, the Washington National Mall, was just filled with all these black people. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I, I heard every word, every speech; I felt it does come all into me. It was wonderful. And then Stevie Wonder got up and started singing. We all sing with them. “Happy Birthday to ‘im. Happy Birthday to ‘im. Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to ’im. Happy Birthday.” We loved it.
Well, I started learning more and more around that time of my life. I remember, that there were times that I started looking at other parts of African-American history. One of the things that was happening is my mom was introducing me to other arts and plays and things like that. That was when I found “For Colored Girls That Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” into Ntozake Shange, the play that was in Washington D.C.. Oh! She got me a copy of that script. And then we went to go see “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” And we went to go see “Bubblin’ Brown Sugar,” about the Harlem Renaissance artist and the musicians. And I was in love with learning more. I had been working as a library school assistant since I started high school and I worked in one of my classes at study hall and then whenever I had a free moment, I was in that library. And while I was working in the library, I began to come across other African-American writers I never knew anything about. I already knew about poet, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and, of course, I knew about God’s Trombones writer, James Weldon Johnson, because we presented their pieces at the church that I went to. But when I came across The Anthology by Arnold Adolph, I was introduced to Gwendolyn Brooks. And I met, I, I met Nikki Giovanni, Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day. Ah, that was one of my favorites. And James Baldwin…that one even got banned from my high school and my mom went and bought it for me. It was great.
So I started learning all of these things but it was like a, a quiet learning. And although a fire begun, it was a quiet fire. One that, one that had to do with just reading and maybe sharing with people at the black church that I attended. And sometimes doing some pieces for my forensics team at school but very quiet. Well, one day I was bored and I was looking for something to read because that’s what I do, when I’m bored. I was looking for something to read and I usually do. I started looking to my parents’ things. Went through my mom’s stash, ya, nothing. Went to my dad’s always cluttered, never clean, room but always filled with books. And I started looking. And I came across a book. I came across a book that shocked me. The Black Book. I started looking at it and I could put it down. First, I was disgusted and just appalled at some of the images that were there. They were, they were pictures of, of black bodies hanging from trees, of men smiling as they saw what was being, a person that was beaten on the back, the welts on their back. A group of white gentlemen posing for the picture proudly as they surrounded the smoldering body of a black man that had been burnt. As visceral as those pictures were and as disgusting, in the book I also found great amusement and delight. Colorful ads for skin lightening. Cures, using voodoo charms and Hexis. That was kind of cool, some of the things they used to do. I was amazed by this book and I couldn’t put it down.
Then, I got to the middle of the book and I found patents. P-A-T-E-N-T-S. Patents. Yes, patents. And patents, I knew, I knew what patents were. Patents were what you did if you made something. If you were an inventor. And I looked at them. Patents. You mean, black people have been inventors? Oh, I was hot now. Mm, hmm. All that fire that was a small little campfire, it rose up with me and it was a bonfire, wildfire. I was angry and I went back to the beginning of the black book and I started looking through it again. But I had new eyes this time. My eyes were feeding. What information I had not learned?!
Well, the next day that fire had not gone away at all. I arrived at school with the book in my hand. I couldn’t wait to get to my favorite class, history class. And I couldn’t wait to be able to talk to my teacher, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Elliott, she was my history class teacher. She also happened to be a white teacher. I walked into the classroom. I was the epitome of mad, black, teenage girl. Most people hadn’t even seen nothing like that in my school. There were 13 blacks at my school out of 2,000 students. I walked in that classroom. Other classmates would just walk in along with me. But I walked in. I had that book clasped around my chest. I walked in, walked right up to her desk, slammed the book down on her desk, and said “Why aren’t you teaching us this?”
All the air went out of the room. My classmates were completely quiet. They had never seen anything like this. I was angry and I demanded an answer. I had no idea what to say but I knew somebody better tell me something. Well, unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Elliott had been taking black history classes every summer for the last few summers. She was fascinated with black history. And she had a deep desire to teach it at the school but she had no clue how she, a white teacher, was going to teach black history at a predominantly white school when she would only see black students every once in a while. And so, she looked at me and she said, “Do you really want to learn this?”
“Yes I do.”
“OK then.” And right then, right then, at that very moment, Miss Elliott changed everything in her classroom and she began to teach black history. She brought in videos and images. And she had us look through all kinds of books and hear different things. This was completely different. Everybody in my class was excited because they had never heard it either. I was the only black student in that class but we all were learning. Miss Elliott even brought my mother in, and my mom talked about segregation. She talked about how she had to drink from a colored fountain. The kids looked at my mom, my mom who most of them knew, they couldn’t believe that she’d had to do that. That she’d had to go all the way into Washington D.C. just to go to an all black school. That she had had to go to the bathrooms, colored only bathrooms.
It changed all of us. But Miss Elliott didn’t just stop there. She started teaching all kinds of cross-cultural things. We learned more about other cultures than we had ever learned before. And we were a group that was eager. And as classmates, we couldn’t wait to learn more about diversity. It was amazing. Well, one of the girls came in and she had found out that they were killing chimpanzees in one of the countries in Africa. Immediately, we all got on board. We contacted the World, World…I can’t remember it…WWF and World Wide Wildlife Federation…I think it was World Wildlife Federation. We contacted them immediately and we said, “Can we do something?” Well, right then we started a fundraiser, we went and visited with the head offices in, in Washington D.C. It was exciting and we became burgeoning activists. Wow! It as an incredible year but Miss Elliott didn’t stop with our year. She kept right on teaching for as long as I knew her. Teaching all that she could about all cultures.
I have to tell you, I was a raging fire when I walked into that room. I had been a campfire and I turned into wild wildfire and I was ready to burn everything in my path and hurt as many people as I could along with it. But Miss Elliot, she was a great teacher and she tended that fire. And she, she helped that fire to grow in the right places. And she made sure that the fire could live but that it wouldn’t burn wildly. Most of all, she ensured the fire would never go out.
A frantic call from Sheila Arnold’s son during his freshmen year in college turns into a moment to remember all that she had to teach him about growing up black, and, in turn, all he had also learned about crossing bridges in spite of people’s perceptions. (more…)
When Laura fell in love with Kevin, she was certain her liberal family would love him, too. After all, he was smart, handsome, educated and kind; that his skin was a different color didn’t matter, right? Imagine her surprise when Laura and her father needed to negotiate his discomfort with her sweetheart’s differences. (more…)
Transracial adoption, while becoming more common, remains controversial. What issues can you imagine experiencing (or have you experienced) if you were adopted into a family that doesn’t look like you? How might it be different in an urban area vs. a rural area? How might it be different if the adoption is in infancy or as an older child? What are potential problems? What are potential benefits?
How would you want your differences acknowledged and handled by your adoptive family? How could they support you, make you feel welcome, and find the balance of becoming part of the family while honoring the culture(s) of your birth? How can you imagine asking for what you need and want? What can you imagine a supportive, productive family meeting looking like?
How would you want your friends/classmates to support you if you are (or were to be) part of a transracial, biracial or multiracial family? What are things they might say or do that would be helpful? What are things they might say or do that would be hurtful? How would you want them to ask you what you need/want in way that feel supportive? How could you bring it up to them?
In Their Own Voices, Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda
Inside Transracial Adoption, by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name’s Nancy Donoval and I want to tell you a story about the best present my sister ever got from me.
I was looking into her eyes and she was looking straight into my mine, clinging to them like I was her life raft. And if I looked away, she would drown. Splinters are painful at any age. I knew that personally. But when you’re 8 years old and one’s been festering in your foot for two days, it’s excruciating. And the fear of the pain getting worse when you take it out is even more so. It was Christmas and my sister said, “This is coming out.” And then she came up to me and said, “I can’t get her to let me take it out. Help me.” And I went, and took Taylor, eight years old, sat her on the couch, and said, “Honey ,when I was your age I got so many splinters and it was so hard. And this is going to hurt but it’s going to be better after. When I was a kid, the only way they could get me to sit still to take the splinter out was, it took three people to do it. My dad would take the needle and he would do the digging. My mom would hold my hand and my brother, your uncle Jack, he would sing to me.
That’s what family does. And that’s what we’re going to do right now. We’ve got three people. Your mom’s going to get the needle. Roy’s going to hold your hand and I’m going to sing to you.” And I did what my brother had sung to me. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s going to buy you a mocking bird.” Ah, she was so brave. And it took forever but the splinter came out. And in that moment of the echo from this memory of my childhood, I knew she was fully, completely my niece.
And I remembered that day my sister had called me the year before, (Taylor’s 15 now so, this is about eight years ago), my sister called me, the day Taylor moved in with her. They’d been having visits but this was the day Taylor moved in. And she said, “Oh my, I’m adopting you!” Well, my sister is nine years older than I am. She’s the oldest. I’m the youngest. She has a Masters in Business Administration. I have a Masters in Fine Arts. We are different people. And she had adopted me and she really had. Taylor and I are so much alike. It’s amazing to me. We both are theater nerds and she loves the arts. And all her emotions are right on the surface. And my sister is pretty much driven by logic, probably not as much as she thinks she is, but still pretty much driven by logic. And Taylor and I are both driven by emotion. And, oh, we just chatter away to each other. Sometimes I feel like her aunt and sometimes, because her mom was a little bit like a second mom to me, I kind of feel like we’re the two sisters goofing off in front of our mom.
Taylor said to me one day, “Aunt Nancy, I feel so lucky. I don’t think a lot of adopted kids end up in a family where there’s somebody who’s so much like them. Somebody who actually gets them.”
And I said, “Taylor, sweetie, I know for you that’s about being adopted, but I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty rare for somebody who was born into the family to have somebody who really gets them. Who really sees them. I’m just as lucky to have you.” I was really lucky to have her. My mom was always the one who really saw me, understood me, loved my storytelling, was emotional like I was. But my mom had Alzheimer’s and she was disappearing in tiny degrees. And life is so funny, the day I moved our mom, in an emergency move to a nursing home from assisted living, was the day Taylor’s adoption was final. As one who had gotten me came out of the family, one who got me – the one I got – who was like me, came in.
Now, of course, Taylor and I are not the same person and we’re different from each other. She has moved a little bit away from performing. She loves story like I do but she writes and writes and writes and writes. She told me that she feels like “writer” is the key to her identity and it has been the thing that has formed her since she was in sixth grade. She’s about to start sophomore year of high school. She has seven books she’s written. And she writes them and rewrites them in composition books. And then she types them and then she edits them. I would never have that. I tell stories out loud. I don’t write them down. Oh, we both love story.
She is taller than I am. She makes friends in grade school easier than I did. And we don’t really look alike. She’s tall and thin like the boys in our family are. The girls in our family are a little bit more, um, round. And also, we do not have the same skin color. I have to tell you, I make my sister, well…Let’s put it this way, my sister makes me look deeply tan. And Taylor is a rich, rich brown. And again, she makes friends so easily. She is in a grade school where there are kids of every color in the world. My grade school, oh sure, we had people who were German and Italian but the big difference between us and the rest of the world was we were Catholic. And there were other people who were public. I didn’t really think about black and white. Probably because there weren’t really any black people in my family. And here’s Taylor. Not in my family, in my neighborhood, in my school, in my life, they just weren’t. And here’s Taylor, who’s in this school with all these different colors. And I’m seeing pictures with her with all her friends. And, oh, she’s dating this boy and she’s dating that boy. Well, I’m not quite sure what that means in sixth grade, but she’s dating this one and dating that one. And they’re white, they’re black, they’re Asian, their everything. And I asked her if she ever got any flack from the kids in school about, you know, being with somebody of a different race.
Because when I was in high school, I ended up having this guy I met at Junior Achievement camp and he was black. And we weren’t really dating, but we enjoyed each other. And he asked me to his homecoming dance and I was excited to go. I liked Cal. And his parents said, “No, you can’t go! You can’t go to the dance with her.” Because they were afraid for him that if he brought a white girl, now this was the 70s, but still if he brought a white girl, they thought he would be in danger.
And here’s Taylor with all these different people mixing around colors and I asked her if she ever got any flack. And she said, “Well, not like that.” She said, “But every now and then, people will be like, ‘No, no, no, no, you two don’t look good together. You would look better with him and she would look better with him,’ and that seems to be about what color people are.”
We have most of our really good talks in the car. I live in Minnesota now, she lives in Chicago, we talk on the phone, we do Facebook, we do messaging, we text. But our deep talks are in the car or at slumber parties at my friend’s house in Chicago. Taylor comes over and we have a big party. But in the car, somehow facing outward, we talk about hard stuff. And I told her once that I was thinking about doing a story about her because I tell stories. And I tell stories from my life and she’s so important to it. And I asked her what it was like to have been adopted into our family? And what it was like to be the one black person in a really white family?
I remember her first Christmas with us, just looking around the room, our a little clump of people, maybe only 8, 10 people in the room. And she just looked up and said, “All right, we need more black people in this family.” And, ah, she wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t like we could mail order someone for her. I was already dating someone, the other ones were already married, we didn’t have an opening. But most of the time, we don’t talk about race. But I asked her and we had, just had this big Christmas party at my cousins’. And my cousins, there’s thousands of them, and that seems like an exaggeration but when I’m in the room with them it feels true. My first cousins, four them, had 22 kids. There’s all these grandkids. I can’t keep track of them. They all live in the same neighborhood. They all go to the same school. They all know each other so well. I go to that party, I feel out of place and I’m related all of them. I’ve known them since I was a kid, since they were kids. But they have such a family dynamic. And I remember when Taylor was little and first going to those parties. She just ran around playing with all the other kids. But as she’s gotten older, she’s ended up being a little more separate. She doesn’t feel comfortable at the parties anymore. And I asked her about it and she said, “Well, I think as you get older, your heart gets smaller. I think you get more judgmental. Not everybody but some people do. And you see the differences more, nobody really says anything. But I just feel really different there all the time.” And I asked her if she felt that way with us and just our small family. She said, “No. No, not with you guys. But there I always know I’m different.”
And we talked about how much of that was her color being different, and how much of that was her being adopted, and how much of that was just simply the family dynamic of all these kids who go to school together and know each other really well and they don’t know her. But it turned out people do say things sometimes. She had one person at the party she really liked. She’s great with the kids, and she has one second cousin something or other removed, Claire, who she loves playing with and watches at the party. And they were going to play princess. And Claire said, “OK. I’m going to be the princess and you’ll be my servant.”
And Taylor said, “Ummm. I would like us both to be princesses.”
And Claire said, “Umm hmm, not how it works. I’m the princess because I’m white and you’re the servant because your black.” Claire didn’t mean anything by it. She was going from what she’d absorbed from TV, from movies; you look at the casting. She loves Taylor. But Taylor went in the bathroom and cried.
And then she came back out and said, “Claire, we are living in a castle with no servants at all. We are in a castle where the princesses take care of themselves.” But it’s harder for her to go to those parties because, though she still loves Claire, Claire was her safe zone, and her zone doesn’t feel safe anymore.
My sister tries so hard. It’s trans-racial adoption, how do I make her feel like she can fit in? Taylor told me my sister was asking her, “Do you want to celebrate Kwanzaa? We could celebrate Kwanzaa. I could look up how to do it.” And Taylor’s like, “None of my black friends in school celebrate Kwanzaa. No, I don’t care about celebrating Kwanzaa.”
You know, “Do you want to go to a traditionally black African-American school? Do you want to, we can go to all the museums?”
And Taylor’s like, “Thank you. I appreciate it.” And she does appreciate it. But she’s like, “You know, mom doesn’t force it on me, which is great. It’s not like, ‘No, you must be African-American.’” Taylor said, “I don’t really think about color that much, unless somebody brings it up. I mean, I know, I know I’m black. But I don’t think about it. I don’t really see color very much. I just…I’m just me.” She’s so good at being just her and it’s how I am. I know I’m white but I don’t think about it very much. Except, I really worry that there’s going to come a time in her life, because she’s black, she is going to have to think about it. And I want to protect her from that. And I want a world where we really cannot be color blind because her color is beautiful. But where we can be like Taylor and I try to be. People who see the inside. People who just enjoy people and make friends easy.
I asked Taylor if she had any advice that she would give to someone who was going to be adopted into a family of a different race. And she said, “Hmm. I don’t know. I guess I would tell ‘em, keep an open mind because no matter what color they are, they’re gonna be your family.” And Taylor…Taylor has connected me to my family so much more deeply. She really is the best present my sister ever gave me.
The Chicago Public Schools were almost totally segregated in the 1950’s when Gwen’s participated in an accelerated English program and first integrated a South Side High School. She succeeded in getting an “A” in the class but had an encounter with the police that threatened to overshadow her academic accomplishments. (more…)
During the 1950s, Gwen’s mother, like many African American parents, ritually sent their children down south for the summer. Gwen remembers the rich experiences with her grandparents on the farm but also many painful and dangerous racist encounters which greatly impacted her. (more…)
After fishermen in the Okefenokee Swamp give Elliott two fierce looking mudfish, he finds himself on a hilarious cross cultural journey learning how to cook the fish, and later meets a number of challenges learning how to tell the tale.
What does food and traditional cuisine mean to people in different cultures?
What is soul food? What is a favorite food from your ethnic background?
Everybody’s Fishin’- A Cross-Cultural Fishing Extravaganza CD by Doug Elliott
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Hi, my name’s Doug Elliott and I’m a freelance naturalist and herbalist and storyteller and I’m interested in cultural diversity. I’m interested in how different people relate to the natural world and different cultures. But, you know, sometimes it’s a challenge to tell a story that celebrates cultural diversity without being culturally insensitive even though that’s not what I want to do.
Well, I want to tell you a kind of a fishing story. And, uh, and then, I’ll tell ya how I came to tell it the way I did.
Well, I was down in the Okefenokee Swamp. And I’m, I’m a kind of naturalist. I love to get out in the swamp and I’m always kind of sc… foraging and scavenging and trying to, and trying to keep my budget low. And, and, you know, I’m not always that good at fishing.
But, but, um, but I love to talk to the fishermen and, inadvertently, over the years, I’ve learned, uh, that I can often get a fish dinner if I just kind of lay a few hints out there, and just sort of say, say, “You know, if you get too many fish, let me know.” And a lot of times fishermen are glad to share a little of their catch with them, eh.
And so, one day, we were out there. We were, we were paddling out in the Okefenokee swamp. And it’s this mysterious watery wilderness, you know, swamps and cypress trees and water and wading birds. And a lot of people fish there; you know, we were paddling out. We’d paddled out all day and I was coming back. And I see these two, these two, two white guys sittin’ in a boat. And they’re, uh… they looked like they were local boys. And they looked like they knew what they were doin’. They were dropping their fishin’ lines in among the bonnet waterlilies there.
And I said, “You fellers catchin’ any fish?”
And they, “Wo, we gittin’ a few.
“Well, now, if you git too many now, lemme know.”
And these, one of these fellers says, “Well, we got these old mud fish. Now, you know, you don’t want dem, do ya?”
“Mud fish? Are they any good to eat?”
He said, “Well, a black folks eat them but we don’t.”
I thought to myself, “Soul food? You know, we’re talking about cornbread, collard greens, fish, chicken. I, I eat soul food all the time. I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll, I’ll take those fish!”
And so, I pulled the canoe up there and let me tell you. He flopped these two fish in there. One… the biggest one was about a foot and a half long.
And, let me tell you, this was a beast to be reckoned with. It looked like the, it looked like the essence of swamp, congealed and personified, right there. I mean, this fish had a big fan shaped tail. It had, it had this, this, this shaped like a, like a wood splitting wedge. And it had, had thick armor-like scales and a huge mouth – big, wide mouth like a catfish ’cept this, uh, this mouth had just jaggly, snaggly teeth in it. Had these two little tentacles sticking out, from out of his nose. I mean, this was a creature to be reckoned with.
I said, “Oh, it is quite a fish here.” I said, I said, “You guys don’t know how to cook them?”
“No, black folks eat them but, but, but now we, we, we don’t, we don’t.” And then the guy out in the back of the boat says, “Well, actually, you know, Daddy had a recipe for mudfish.”
And the guy looked around, he says, “He did?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
I said, “Can you tell me?”
He said, “Yeah, but it’s kind of complicated. C… You got a good memory?”
I said, “Here, I’ll write it down.” I reached in my, in my backpack there and I pulled out my sched… my, my notebook and I started, I started writin’.
And he said, “Well, now what ya do is you get ya a nice, soft pine board. And ya just cover it with barbecue sauce and ya lay a bunch of onion rings all over the top of it. Sprinkle it with some garlic and some herbs. And take that fish, you split that fish open. You lay ’im out there on the board, and you put some, put some more barbecue sauce on top of that. More onions, more garlic, pick some herbs. Oregano is really a good herb to put on there, and then, and then some… and a little mustard, a little ketchup. And you put ’im right there against the fire and then you just cook it. And, and you just let it cook ’im ’til he’s really crisp. Then you scrape that fish off and eat the board.”
“Oh, ha, you guys!”
They started laughing.
I said, “Ha, well, thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate that recipe. I’m a go hunt me a board. I’ll go see if I can cook these fish, you know.”
And I’m paddling off, down in a canoe, down there, kinda embarrassed, you know.
I hear them guys. They’re just still laughing. “Ha, ha, did ya see that? He’s writin’ it down, ah, ha, ha!”
So. So, finally, finally, I get down, I get down. and I’m thinking, “Well, man, I’ve got these fish. I want to cook these fish but th… I gotta figure, I gotta find someone who will know how to cook these fish. And I’m going into the dock there and there’s boats going in and out. And there’s people in the concession there selling tickets and things.
And I’m thinking, thinking, “Wha…who is going to know how to cook these fish? Who would tell me, you know?”
And then, all of a sudden, I look. An over on this little, this little spot of land there, there, she is, that wise woman we’ve all been wanting to talk to – a large African-American woman. She’s sittin’ there in a folding chair. She had her fish bucket on one side and her cooler on the other side. She had three fishing poles, I think. Oh, there she is, that wise woman! She has been way… been sitting there in solid, focused contemplation all day. Been contemplatin’ this vast, watery wilderness before her. Those fishing poles, like sensitive antennas, reaching down, probing the depths, bringing home food and sustenance for her family. Oh, she is that wise woman! She would know how to cook a f… a mudfish but can I get her to tell me?
Well, only thing I do is just go over and ask, you know. And she’s a fair distance away there, you know. I start walkin’ over and this… I just go over and talk to her and see what, see what she will tell me, you know.
I see her lookin’ over at me, ya know, kinda lookin’ like, I can almost hear her thinking, “Uh, what’s this white boy want with me?”
Ha…and, ha…and I just kept walkin’ over there and then I see her look back.
“Oh, Lord, he’s still coming.”
She’s adjustin’ her fishing poles, you know, adjustin’ her fish… I came up to her respectfully as I could and I said, “’Scuse me, ma’am. Can you tell me how to cook a mudfish?”
She looked up from under that broad-brimmed straw hat of hers, ah, ha, ha, kinda suspiciously, and she says, “How? Ha, ha, huh, huh, huh, huh, ah, huh! huh, huh, huh!”
I can just see her thinkin’, “This white boy wants a tell ya how to cook a, cook a mudfish.”
You just laugh. Let him tell ya, ya know.”
I said, “No, ma’am. Uh, these fellers gave me mud fish and I don’t know how to cook them. I thought you might tell me.”
And she warmed right up. She said, “Well, honey lamb, they aren’t hard to cook. Now you can’t scale ’em. You have to skin ’em like a catfish. And you take ’em, you put ‘em in a pot and you steam ’em for a while and that meat’ll come off the bones. You take yo fork and you take de meat off de bones. She said, “And then you take and git you some, git you some corn meal and some aig, a little bit a pepper, a little bit a onion. Ya chop ’em up. You make fish balls, fish patties outa ’em and you fry ’em.” She says, “They good!” She said, “They good as a mullet.”
And I thanked her so much. And, you know, we went back to camp. We did that, you know; we made these fish cakes. They were better than any sa… salmon croquettes, better than any crab, fancy crab cakes, I ever had. It was some of the best fish I ever had.
And I was so glad that I had just been brave enough to just go talk and… to this wise woman. And she gave me that good advice. And, you know, I got ta… and I’m thinkin’ about tellin’ this story. And I’m thinking about how some people, you know, these, these white guys, they were, they was, they really kinda thought that this food was, like, beneath them, you know. And of course, of course, that’s, uh, interesting because different cultures have different relationships on that.
And, um, we… later on, that same trip, you know, I was down on the, down on the coast. And I see these two guys fishin’ and they, they had the big, the big surf castin’ rods. Two young black guys. And, and I see ’em castin’ out there and, and these guys knew what they were doin’. Now, I…well, I gotta go talk to the fishermen. So, I went over and talked to ’em and, ha, one a ’em catches a fish.
Oh! I love to be there when someone catches the fish. And he starts, he starts winding this fish in and in comes a big ole catfish, big ocean catfish. Big elegant, long, long fins and, and, uh, long whiskers. And he takes it, takes it off there. Just tosses it down there in the surf like… it, it starts swimmin’ back.
I said, “Don’t you want your catfish?”
He says, “No, we’re fishin’ for sea trout.”
And, uh, and then next he’ll catch another fish. “
“Yes, see that! That’s what we’re looking for.”
And he took that up, put it in his cooler. And he catches another one, another catfish.
“Ah, can I have your catfish?”
You know, and I took those catfish back and I was cooking them. And as we ate those catfish, I kept thinking what if someone asked those, asked those black guys, “You know, are those, those catfish any good ta eat?”
And he goin’ say, “Oh, them ole, white hippies, they eat ’em but they ain’t no good. Ha, ha”
So, okay, so, I’ve been trying to tell that story and I’m been trying to just figure out, figure out how to tell it in the most culturally sensitive way, you know. And I remember one time asking an African-American buddy of mine (he was, he was a storyteller) and asked him what… I was just trying the story out.
And I just said there’s these two guys sitting in a boat when I describe the first two guys. And later on, he said, he said, “Well, you know, you white folks seem to think of yourselves as normal, you know. And that anybody you describe, unless you describe them with an adjective, we just assume is normal, you know, and as white.” “And, uh, and,” he said, “You know, you know, that’s really, you know you just have, to have to think about that. You didn’t give those first guys accents.”
Well, you know, when I tell the story now I give ’em an accent because they were southern. They were southern, southern Georgia good ole boys.
And, and, and um, and, and, um. And so. So, I thought, “Well, how… you know, I don’t want to describe them just southern rural white guys sittin’ in a boat. Uh, you know, it just, it just doesn’t seem like a natural way to talk, you know.”
So, so, I was thinking, “I was just remembering talkin’ to one, one ole b… one ye…one ole fa… ole Georgia, Georgia guy and he was saying, ‘Well, you know, I bone ’n raised ‘round here.’ He says, ‘My granddaddy came down here with a mule and a ba… and a wagon. Law, he’s crackin’ a whip the whole way. You know, I’m jus’ a ole Georgia cracker.’ And lot of people from so… north Georgia, and south Georgia, and north Florida, they call themselves “crackers” because that’s how their… that’s with their ancestry.
And so, the next time I told the story, I said, “Well, there’s these two Georgia crackers; they’re sittin’ in their boats there, you know.”
And, and I always kind of check out the audience and, particularly, if I’m going to tell racially based stories. I want to just make sure I’m not offending anybody. I see. I see this, uh, this one, one black woman in the crowd and I sought her out later on.
And I said, I said, “Did anything, put… anything bothering you about that story? Is that all right?”
And she said, “We need to talk.”
And I said, “Oh, yeah?”
And she said, “Yeah. Yeah.” She said, you call those white guys “crackers.”
“Um, uh, uh.”
She, she said, “Well, you know when I realized it, in the north “crackers” kind of like a, like an, like a racial epithet used by blacks against whites.”
And she didn’t like me callin’, callin’ anyone by a racial epithet.
And, uh, I thought, “Well, uh.”
So, we talked about it a little bit and she said… I said, “What can I call ’em? I just don’t want to say white guys, and, you know.”
And she… I… She… well…
I said, “Well, how about good ole boys.”
She said, “Yeah, I think good old boys would work.
So, next time I told it, I told it, you know… “These two good ole boys sitting there, uh, and in the boat and, uh…”
And then some people say, “Well, good ole boys sort of, sort of implies that these are southerners, sort of a stereotype that applies to certain southerners that has kind of racist overtones.”
Now I don’t know if I agree with that but you know it’s one of those processes that we’re just trying to work on, you know. And so, so, um, so, so, you know, and, and, one of the, one of the things that kinda, kinda gets me sorta realizin’, realizin’ in the course of following this thing, how much privilege I have because I’m white.
And I realized, I realized, sp… especially the kind of livin’… the way I make my, make my livin’ and, you know, I’m always kinda sneakin’ around somewhere, you know. And I look for some fruit trees or, or going someplace I’m not exactly sure.
“Oh, sorry, Officer! I didn’t realize that the fruit orchard there was posted. I didn’t realize there’s no trespassing there. You know, I’m sorry, uh, you know, uh.”
And I realize I can get away with that. What if I was black or what if I was Hispanic and I was caught somewhere like that? It would be a whole different experience. And so, you know, and I realize even, even, like, like when my son, my teenaged son, he’s going, “I’m going to go out,” with one of his black buddies and goin’ out at night, you know.
I said, “Well, just be careful. It’s a whole ‘nother level of prejudice you’ve got to deal with.”
And, uh, and so, so, um, so I’ve been trying to work on this all the time and sometimes I’ll mess the story up.
And, and, uh, and, and, you know, it…but what I realize is that, is that, is that…one, one, one of my, one of my, my African-American coaches says to me, he says, “Look, the main things, man, is that you care.”
And, you know, that’s where everybody’s at. Just the main thing is that we care. So that’s what I’d like to leave you with. So, thanks.
Many Africans and First Nations People bonded together during and after slavery in the Americas and in the Caribbean for protection, acceptance, friendship and love. As a result, many African descendants in these countries also share Native American ancestries. Mama Edie learns while watching old Westerns on TV with her grandmother, Nonnie Dear, a new perception of who the “good guys” or “bad guys” were. (more…)
Mama Edie’s Black Theater Ensemble is invited to perform her original composition called “Metamorphosis” at a university in Iowa in 1970. After what had been a peaceful and joyful journey along the way, the ensemble members come to realize that Civil Rights had not yet fully taken root, not even in the north. (more…)
How could the new workplace environment been more welcoming to Shannon?
What could Shannon have done to mesh better in the environment?
Should workplaces be more diverse and reflect the surrounding community? Why?
Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Black Men Ski – Stew at TED –https://www.ted.com/playlists/250/talks_to_help_you_understand_r
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Shannon Cason. I worked at a plumbin’ wholesale company in Flint, Michigan. Flint, Michigan is a predominately black city and ah, I was the only black man working in a region. I don’t even know how that happens. But I, I was working there. And many times I used that kind of opportunity to stand out and give a different perspective. And I remember we went out for a drink one day, and we were talkin’ about demanding customers and, and how, ah, warehouse issues and after that the conversation turned to like NASCAR, deer huntin’ and cabins up north. And I didn’t really have a breadth of knowledge about any of those conversations topics. I’m just a city kid from Detroit so I really didn’t really know about those topics. And I just, I love learning and listening to new things. So I just listened in. And after a time frame, I felt like I could chime in or somethin’. So, I say, “You know, I remember when my grandmother took me up north to Mackinac Island to the Lilac Festival.” And no one seemed to really care about that conversation. Everybody just ordered another drink. And it kind of just drifted off into, into space. So I felt like, you know, it’s an uncomfortable place to feel isolated at work and not have certain connections. And, ah, at the job, it kind of went the same way. I wasn’t connecting. Ah, my mistakes seem like they were magnified because where other people, we would take these long orders, very long orders, and you’d miss some things, you know, and the mistakes that I made, seemed like they were larger than life. You know, other people can kind of gloss over a mistake or just kind of like laugh about it or crack a joke because of familiarity or, or connection and I didn’t have that.
So, it got to the point where I was put on a 90-day probation. I never really hadn’t any bad reviews or anything like that. And, ah, I, I remember I moved with my new wife, closer to this job. So I didn’t tell her about the probation. And I was, I was nervous about it. So I started looking for new jobs. Then a new job came and it wasn’t my job. My wife had got a promotion and the promotion was in Chicago, Illinois. And I had to go in to my boss, who had put me on probation, and ask him for this transfer. And it was challenging to get the transfer. He said, ah, um, that there was really no positions for me available in Chicago. And that if I was to move to Chicago, I would have to take a demotion from inside sales to counter sales. And I was looking for new jobs anyway, so I took the job in counter sales because it’s better to have a job than no job. And I moved to Chicago.
And I remember when I started up, it was totally different in Chicago. I went into the building and it was a really diverse situation. You had men, women, Latino, black, white, ah, seniors, younger people. Um, forklifts whizzing by, order pickers high up in the air, racks up to the ceiling, 15 trucks out front, just right in front of the building. And I remember my manager, he was a black man. He shook my hand, showed me to the counter, and said, “Do a good job.” And I did. And I was making good connections with the people in the warehouse, customers; cracking jokes with them, having fun and making good sales.
And after time on the counter, I remember my boss came back out to me, and we walked in front of the building. And we were talking right in front of that rows of trucks, and he was saying that he had he was skeptical about initially hiring me because of the bad report I had from my, my former boss. But he was happy to see the improvement in my, in my performance. And he was telling me that there was a position openin’ up for shippin’ manager and he wanted me to take that position. I had never had any experience with managing 15 union drivers. But he said he’d think I’d do a good job.
And I think I did. I went into the shippin’ management position. And as a shipping manager, that’s like one of the most important positions because you, you, you, everyone in the company knows you, all the sales people know you, all the top management knows you, every part that has to get to customers in all of Chicagoland comes through me. I mean, it’s a big deal. We shipped all the Kohler parts to the Trump Tower. So it’s really big deal.
And I remember, ah, one more challenge. So after the shippin’ position, I asked for another position. And they put me back into sales. And I worked in sales for six months. Then I got my own facility. So I have my own building, with my own shippin’ and trucks and everything. And, ah, and I would sit in my manager meetin’s, with my old boss who believed in me. And he would mentor me on leadership but we would also talk about the Bulls winnin’ a game or we would talk about, ah, places downtown that plays the best blues music. So those types of things where we have a relationship. And, ah, they had this corporate-wide meetin’… was in another state. All the, all the facility managers from all over the country were there: Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, even Flint, Michigan. And I ran into my, my old boss, the guy who I didn’t connect with and, ah, we’d never really, he gave me a bad review, and put me on probation, and gave me a bad recommendation, and I ran into him. And I had my own facility at this time, ‘n mine was a lot bigger than he is, about three times the sales of his facility. And I remember, we talked and we talked about the challenges of running our own plumbing wholesale company and we were related, finally. And it was, it was a cool experience.
So, I just want to say, like if you, if, if it’s times when, when you’re in a com, uncomfortable situation sometimes you have to take the risk, to jump out into a more comfortable situation for your personality.
This story is a piece of history from the 1950’s. It tells of affordable housing and living in a particular neighborhood and gives some insight into the different ethnic groups that make up some of our communities. (more…)
After dreading spending the summer with her strong willed grandmother, a young Earliana learns the true strength in “black beauty”. She finds that no matter how different we may look, we all have the capacity to feel and, more importantly, be kind to one another.
Within a family, how do the (significant) adults teach a child to ‘look at’ or ‘see’ the world? In this family how did the grandmother teach the child? How did Miss Mattie teach the child? Might the understanding have a different outcome?
In the story there was emphasis on the color of the child’s face and neck, and on the contrasting colors of Miss Mattie’s skin. Is this a story about perceptions of skin color and race or is this a story about family?
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Hi, my name is Earliana McLaurin. And this is an excerpt from a st… uh, a larger story entitled Miss Mattie’s Story: From Darkness into the Light.
Uh, the story takes place in Lockport, Illinois circa 1995, so that would make me 11 at the time. Uh, I was staying with my grandmother during the day because my mom, she worked. She worked during the day. My grandmother, at the time, was knocking about, I dunno, 65, strong as an ox and mean as a bull if you got on her bad side.
I remember that day was a hot June morning. I know… I remember it was hot because we’d been outside all morning.
First, we put the laundry “on the line” complete with old school wooden clothes pins. Then we cleaned off the lot next to her house that she owned. And then we were weeding the garden behind hers house… her house when I just, I had to stop.
“I, I’m getting thirsty, I said, then I handed her the shovel.
She had on this big, uh, sunhat and I remember she looked up and she said, “Well, I suppose it is getting’ hot. And it is about lunchtime,” and she walked in the house.
“Thank you,” I whispered and I followed behind her.
Now at my granny’s house, you couldn’t sit down for a meal until you “washed up” and this wasn’t just like washing your hands. You had to wash your hands, you had to wash your face and you had to wash your neck, which was a big bone of contention with both my mother and my grandmother, like, my entire life.
If you can’t tell, my, uh, skin on my neck is a little darker than the rest of my body. My grandmother, however, interpreted this as dirt and has been —- bent on lightening the skin around my neck. So much so that every time we would get into it, I’d just say, “Maybe it’s just that way.”
You know, ha, as a kid, I never thought about, oh, this is darker. It must be bad. I gotta get rid of it, you know. You know, I’d always considered my skin to be brown – beautiful shades of light and dark brown. Yet that day, before my butt even hit the chair, my granny checked the back of my neck.
“Oh, after we eat, I think we’re gonna walk on down at Thelma’s to see how her tulips are doing.” My grandmother said, making her famous tuna salad sandwiches.
Now this was good news. Miss Thelma was my… one of my grandmother’s friends. She lived down the street and she had converted her garage into a candy store. So, naturally, I was excited to go.
“Well, you know, we got to swing on past Mattie’s first.”
Uh, Miss Mattie. Miss Mattie’s house, I was not excited to visit. Miss Mattie was my grandmother’s best friend, who lived, uh, directly across the street. Earlier that year, Miss Mattie had suffered a stroke. And so, one side of her face was kinda, kinda droopy. And so much so, that when she smiled, only one side of her face moved. And, uh, to an 11-year-old, I’m sorry, that was just kinda creepy, like Halloween mask creepy. So, I did my best and I tried not to stare. — forbid, I get caught by my grandmother, starin’. So that day, uh, we, you know, finished up lunch, and my grandmother grabbed Miss Mattie’s plate, which she always did. I never understood it. Miss Mattie could walk; she could use her hands so I didn’t understand why we had to always take her a plate.
But, you know, like we did almost every day, we make a short trip across the street to her house. My granny calls for her, she comes to the door, and I remember looking up and looking at the left side of her face and thinking, “Man, she’s dark but kinda pretty.”
Because, see, on the left side, Miss Mattie’s face was this smooth unblemished dark chocolate color. And it was always a little shiny, not like greasy, but like, like the chocolate swirls you see in candy bar ads on TV. But I also remember that day, looking up at the right side of Miss Mattie’s face and all I could see was the droopy Halloween mask. So, of course, I immediately put my face down. You know, we were almost to Miss Thelma’s. You know, it’s just right down the street.
And I hear my grandmother say, “Oh, we got tuna today with some tomatoes from my garden.”
I’m thinking, “Why is she’s so happy?”
And I look up, I chance a look, and she has this great, big smile on her face. Now this was sayin’ sumpin’ for my grandma. She only reserved this big smile for, like, Christmas and birthdays. So, I was confused. But, you know, I just kept my head down. She, you know, bid her goodbye and off we went down the street.
We walked about ten steps before my grandmother said, “Earliana LaTish McLaurin. You were starin’ again.
“I’m sorry!” I said, trying to keep up with her. “She just looks so weird.”
“Weird? Earliana, Mattie’s sick. She can’t help the way she look. It’s part of her sickness. Mattie’s, wha… still same old Mattie, uh, laughin’ and smilin’. As I recall, changed quite a few of your diapers when you were a baby.”
“But will she always look like that, I said.
“Well, it’s affecting her whole body now and her medicine is so expensive.”
“Oh, but her family helps her, right,” I said, because, you know, back then that’s what you did. Even if you weren’t related. Black families helped other black families.
And my grandmother, at this time… by this time, we had gotten to Miss Thelma’s and we were right in front of her gate. And she looked at me and she said, “Mattie ain’t got no family, baby. You know her. What little money she gets has to cover her medicine and all her bills. Don’t you worry about old Mattie. She got plenty of family. Me, you, de folks at church. Mattie goin’ be just fine.”
She handed me a dollar and went on around back to Miss Thelma’s flower garden. I went over to candy store and I remember just standing there, you know. Normally, I’d be poring over each candy. But that day, I remember just standing there, and thinkin’ about Miss Mattie because, see, you know, as an 11-year-old, huh, I couldn’t imagine being so sick and alone all the time. Every day. Every night. I remember going back and handin’ my, my grandmother the dollar and just tellin’ her I didn’t feel much like any candy.
Later that night, we were eatin’ dinner and Miss Mattie was still on my mind. My grandmother could tell because I was just pushing around my mashed potatoes.
And she said, “You, you okay, baby?”
And I said, “Yeah, I’m just thinking.”
And she said, “Well, when you done thinking, uh, you want to watch some Wheel of Fortune?”
And she started clearing up the dishes and the food. And I remember sitting up and droppin’ to the floor. I was like, “We, we’re not going to take Miss Mattie a plate?”
And she said, “Well, you know, I try to give Miss Mattie her space.”
“But, Granny! What if she’s hungry right now!”
You know, in my mind, how did I knew this information. It was like, if Miss Mattie didn’t have any family, then we were her people and, and we had to help. We had to.
“Well, you know, if Mattie was hungry, she’d call and.”
“What if she’s too sick to call, Granny? Why, she’s all by herself. I can take it over there. Let’s just take her plate.”
And I get up and I start to get a plate down from the cabinet. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t too happy about walkin’ in the dark in Lockport, Illinois in the mid-90s but I felt like Miss Mattie needed us more. So, you know, we get the plate and off we go. Mis…she called for her. Miss Mattie comes to the door. And this time, I remember looking her right in her face, right in her other worldly, chocolate, slightly droopy, chocolate face.
And I said, “Here you go, Miss Mattie. It’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. I made sure Granny put some meat… some gravy on the meatloaf and the mashed potatoes because that’s the best. Ha, ha.”
Miss Mattie, not used to me sp… actually speaking, heh, sorta chuckled. And, you know, she said, “Why thank you, baby,” and turned to my grandmother.
You know, up until that moment, I had never even thought about it but I realized that beauty, beauty had to be more than just the color of my skin, you know. That as crazy as it sounds, Miss Mattie’s face was kind of like my neck. A little dark, maybe weird to some but it certainly didn’t need to be scrubbed away or hidden. Miss Mattie had always been perfectly nice to me. And after knowing how she struggled, and what she was going through, I could no more deny her beauty than I could her dignity as a human being.
The last thing I remember was handing her the plate, and puttin’ my head down, kinda looking at my granny ’cause I was just waitin’ for her to chastise me because, you know, you supposed to let the adults talk first. And I remember looking up, and all I saw was this great, big smile on her face. That same, big birthday smile. Except this time, it was just for me.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Patricia’s family moved to the Auburn Gresham community on the south side of Chicago. Hers was one of the first African- American families to integrate the parish school. Over time, Patricia witnessed white friends quietly moving out of the neighborhood as they transferred to new schools. Before long, Patricia understands the meaning of “white-flight” and its effects. Fortunately, because of a few good angels, she was not severely hurt by the negative behavior surrounding her. (more…)
Amber, Misty, and Autumn – three multi-ethnic sisters – offer a sneak peek into their thoughts about self-identification. These storytellers also share a medley of emotional experiences about how they have sometimes been viewed by others. From skin color to hair texture, from humor to poignant reflection, these dynamic young women personify Dr. Maria P. P. Root’s, Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.
Hi! My name is Amber Saskill and these are my sisters.
This is Misty (Hi!) and this is Autumn Joy (Hi!) and we are affectionately called the Sass Lasses and we’re a multi-ethnic background. So our story today is called “Special Blends.” It’s a youthful perspective of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic heritage.
Now we’re a blend of Jewish, African-American and Native American heritage. And the interesting thing about our three blends is that at one point in time, they were all persecuted or oppressed. For example, there was the Jewish Holocaust. There was the captivity enslavement and enslavement of our African ancestors and then, too, our Native American people. They were massacred and their land was taken away from them. But the interesting thing about people who have been enslaved, persecuted and oppressed is that they become stronger, more resilient people and we’re products of that. And even though, personally, I’ve been able to relate always to my different… my different cultures, piece by piece, it was interesting how by watching two films that really helped me to see the plight of mixed people in other areas of the world.
For instance, in South Africa there was a film during apartheid. And apartheid was racial segregation that took place from 1948 to 1994 and that’s during my lifetime. It wasn’t my mom’s generation or my grandmother’s generation; that happened in my lifetime. And to know that people of mixture were persecuted and oppressed because of the way they looked, that really touched me. And in this one film in South Africa, it talked about a girl who looked mixed and she associated herself with that even though that her parents looked visibly white. And even though she associated herself as being mixed, she was outcast from society and disowned by her very own family. And that really touched me on a deep personal level! And, in addition to that, I watched a film that took place in Australia. And it was the true life story of… in the mid 1900’s how the Aborigines and Australians, how they mixed together and had children that, later on, were actually discriminately called half caste. And these half caste were corralled and put into re-education camps where they were tried to be bred out of existence by being sort of diluted so that there was never any evidence that they ever existed before. And that’s called, actually, “the stolen generation.” And to think about these people that were actually sought after because they were mixed, that touched me so deeply!
That is so scary! In an attempt to eliminate a visual reminder of such a union, you know. And on a different level, that’s kind of what happened to my mom and me. We were getting ready to perform for this great storytelling festival. And before we could even get started, the festival coordinators, they slapped this big old sensor bar right across two of our stories. My mom was going to perform a story; it was a really funny fiasco of what happened when she and my dad first got married. (OK, I love that story!) And I was going to perform a story called “My Two Grandmas,” which is really close to my heart. And it’s a story where I bring to life memories of my Grandmama Rose and her Afro-Choctaw background and my Gram Blossom with her Russian-Ukrainian-Polish-Moroccan-Jewish background. And it’s one that tells of how they are from two different worlds but at the end of the story, you see that they’re really dynamic women. And they taught us, their granddaughters, to be dynamic women ourselves. But they did ask us remove the story and those two stories. And so we did; we’re professionals. But we did write a formal letter of complaint and we received a written apology back. But at the end of the day when the sun had set, we had been asked to compromise. And that’s pretty much my life. I’m mixed. I am asked to compromise.
And, really, as surprising as it may seem, as mixed people, we have to compromise all the time. It actually makes me think of something that happened to me not too long ago. A couple of years ago, I went to the DMV to apply for my learner’s permit and I filled out all the paperwork and I turned it in. And the woman behind the desk curtly informed me that I had forgotten to choose a race. And I politely told her that there was no box that says multi-racial so there was no box that I thought was appropriate for me to check. And she impatiently told me that I should just pick one of my races. And it’s funny this… this question comes up so often as… as people with mixed heritages. The infamous question, “What are you?” ((Right!)
And my first inclination is to say, “Well, I’m a human. I’m a woman. I’m a teenager. I’m a musician. I’m a student. I’m a sister, a daughter and a friend.”
Now I know if I ever really responded like that, their response would probably be, “No, really! What are you?” But, really, this is a really difficult question to answer because what I am or rather who I am involves so much more. Who I am is not… cannot be defined by checking black or white or any other box. Who I am is a complex amalgamation of my cultural influences, my experiences, my family, my friends, my beliefs and my interests. Some of these things change all the time. So for me to choose one of those boxes would be not only labeling myself but forcing me to identify with only one of my ethnicities. And that’s something I refuse to do because I identify with all my ethnicities. (And really it’s so true! Why would you forsake mother or father?) (Exactly!)
Yeah, and on a different note, in any typical family, siblings might look different and have different likes and dislikes. And I think in our family, we’re the same way. My sisters and I, we have differences; we have similarities. And I think that my two sisters, actually, they kind of favor each other a little more and I feel like I look a little bit different. So I think that our experiences as mixed children are different as well, especially my experience. I think, depending on where I go, I’m described as different ways. Like in some cultures, I’m described as the red-toned one. In other cultures or countries I’ve been to, they describe me as la morena or the darker one. But still in other cultures or societies I go to, I’m described as the light-skinned one. So there you go! I’m red, I’m dark, I’m light but still depending on where I’m at, my experiences are different than those of my sister… my sisters. And too, I really feel that because I look a little different than them, I would shudder to think that if that caste system, that racial segregation still existed to this day, what would happen with us? Would we be segregated from one another?
That’s something to think about. You know and if we’re not being judged by our skin or eye color, then we’re being judged by our hair. (Yeah!) And as you can plainly see, we’re curly girls and we’re very proud of it. And what do they say? “You don’t talk politics, you don’t talk religion and you don’t talk hair texture. (Right?) And titles like good hair versus bad hair is just unfair. We believe that all hair types and textures are beautiful and to be celebrated. In fact, a singer India Arie… she sings a song.
Oh yeah! Is that the one that goes something like this? “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.”
(Very true words.) Yeah! I couldn’t agree more. And a friend of mine got married to a man of another race and so they had a bi-racial daughter. And she inspired me to write this kind of lighthearted book geared towards tween… tween girls. You don’t even have to be mixed, just have curly hair to appreciate it. And this is an excerpt from that book,
I got into a fight one day, a rough and tumble with my hair.
I hadn’t combed it in two weeks so all would stop and stare.
My comb jumped in and tried to help but the fight just wasn’t fair.
It wrestled, it teased, it lost some teeth, got lost up in that hair.
The more I pried, the more I cried, the bigger it would grow.
I could not deny, from each side, it had turned into a fro.
And then I passed the mirror and I sucked my lip back in.
An idea began to gather and I grabbed some bobby pins.
My hands twirled and tucked those curls and, much to my surprise,
They calmly let me shift them, shape them into a design.
No longer were they rebellious. No nothing of the kind.
It was I who needed to see; it was I who had been blind
To the great beauty these curls so majestically possess.
Yes, with African-Cherokee-Choctaw-Iroquois-Jewish, I’ve been blessed.
So from that day forward, I pledged a pledge that with our hair or eyes or skin,
Never again would I define my heritage to fit in
With other girls
Who have no curls.
No, I’ll never feel chagrined.
They say the eyes, color aside, are the window to the soul.
So, too, this hair, curled everywhere, is gorgeous, free and bold!
(Woo! Love that bold) (Me, too!)
Well, I’m sure that my sisters agree with me that although as people with mixed heritages, we face so many difficulties but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. We’ve been called names like Oreos, mutts. We’ve been even called mulatto, which is actually a Spanish term for a mixture between a donkey and a horse. So we’ve been called many names but thanks to our parents Rick and Sadarri Saskill and our grandparents, we truly have been able to see that each of us are a deliciously concocted, “special blend!”
Sadarri retells a story of heroism that her mother, Rose, remembered as a child. The story takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the late 1920’s when Sadarri’s Uncle Carl was set to be lynched for “speaking out of turn”. This story is about the unlikely hero who saved the life of Carl Esko Lucas who was truly a Black man dead and resurrected from the dust. (more…)
In A Crack in the Wall a white man has an experience at a copy shop that causes him to examine the negative impact racial conditioning has had on him. He is disturbed when he realizes that he has been indifferent to the historical suffering of African Americans, and he becomes painfully aware of his subconscious denial and patronizing attitude towards them. (more…)
Images is a white man’s reflection about the powerful and debilitating impact of the disparaging imagery that has been historically used to shape the perception of African Americans as dangerous. While he realizes that his mistrust of African Americans was formed by racial conditioning since childhood, as an adult his conscience is burdened by the knowledge that he caused others pain when he displayed that conditioning in cross-racial interactions. He vows to make a change. (more…)
Why do you think Kathryn and Georgia chose to tell Phyllis about the things they had to teach their sons?
What might have caused Randa, the waitress in the story, to withdraw so suddenly after Phyllis promised that things would “get better”?
What does Phyllis mean when she asks, “Is this one of the elements of white privilege – having the option to know the truth and then forget it because it doesn’t apply to my life?” What are some other elements of white privilege?
What do you think happened in Randa’s mind or heart that allowed her to respond as she did to Phyllis’s apology?
Hi, my name is Phyllis Unterschuetz. And this is adapted from a story in my book, Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.
I can’t think of a finer way to spend my time than sitting around a cozy kitchen table, with my girlfriends. Drinking good coffee, and sharing bits of ourselves together, in that wonderfully intimate way that women have when we’re feeling safe with each other. And it was in just such a setting that I found myself late one October afternoon 1997 in New London, Connecticut. Sitting with me at the table were Catherine and Georgia. Funny, intense, passionate women, whose company I just couldn’t seem to get enough of. We were fairly new friends but we were having this sisterly feeling kind of wash over us, in great waves of laughter and companionship.
We’d been talking about our children and, kind of, sharing stories of parenting. And at one point, I noticed a definite shift in the energy of the conversation. And all of a sudden, one of the women, and then the other, also, started talking about these, these anguished decisions that they had to make as the mothers of black teenage boys. As they talked their sentences sped up and pretty soon they were, kind of, talking over one another and everything was, kind of, jumbled together. It was it was as if two different voices were coming out of two different mouths but they were really the same voice. They were saying the same things.
And I heard snatches. I remember, I remember hearing them say, “You know, they were just driving along. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They’re stopped just because they’re black. Really they weren’t doing anything wrong and all of a sudden somebody’s screaming at him through the window of their car. ‘Show me your license. Show me your registration.’ And they’re flustered. They don’t know what to do. And I have to teach my son how to move his hands so slowly so that they won’t think he’s reaching for a weapon. And I had to teach my son exactly what to do, what to say, how to look, which words he should use, and which words he should never, ever say. Otherwise he might be shot.”
And one of them said to me, “Can you imagine what that feels like. Having to teach your son those things?” You know, their faces had gotten kind of rigid and tough, as they spoke. As if any softness in such matters, even speaking them to me, could be deadly for their sons.
And me, I just sat there and tried to empathize. I tried to swallow my horror. I tried to stand in solidarity with them, you know, and say something like, “Yes, yes. I can see what you’re saying. I can relate to what you’re telling me.” But no, instead, this horror just rose up in my throat, acidic. And I wanted to purge it by screaming out my shock and my disbelief. I wanted to say, “Here? Seriously that happens here in New England?” What did I think, did I think? That it happens only in the south? Or did I truly, on some level think, it happens only on TV and in the movies?
I wanted to say, “Those sweet boys. How could that possibly happen to them?” But, you see, if I’d said anything like that, that would have just diminished their gift to me. And so I gave them back the only thing I had of equal value, which was my honesty. And I had to say, “No…No, I can’t imagine what that feels like.” And what I didn’t say was not only can’t I imagine it but I don’t have to imagine it, you see, because I’ll never have to teach my son those things.
Not quite three years later, in the summer of 2000, my husband and I were having dinner in a restaurant with our son, Eric. We were in Wilmette, Illinois and Eric was about 21 years old at the time, if I remember correctly. And we were having the greatest time with our waitress. Her name was Randa. Randa was African-American. She was probably in her mid-30s, I’m guessing, and she was just one of these people makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever, you know, just vibrant and connective. So, towards the end of our meal, Randa came over to our table and she was carrying the pot of coffee to pour us some more. And we started talking about our kids. I think she told me a story about her young daughter. And, you know, as she was talking and we’re sharing about parenting in these chaotic times, the tone of her conversation shifted.
I should have recognized that shift but I didn’t. And she got real serious and quiet and all of a sudden, she said, “You know, it’s not actually my daughter I’m worried about.” She said, “I have a teenage son and I am so worried about him. There’s so much he has to deal with out there,” and her face had just become, lost its animation, and its joy, and its brightness, and just become burdened and weighed down, and fearful looking.
And I thought, oh, I wanted to say something just to, just to reassure her, just to make her feel better. And I thought, I know what she’s feeling because I’ve raised a teenage son. I know how hard that is, watching them struggle into maturity. And I was thinkin’, my 21 year old, and I thinkin’ things got so much better as he got older. And so instead of taking her hand, which was what I initially wanted to do, I just gestured over to my son Eric, as evidence that I knew what I was talking about. And I looked at her earnestly and I said, “You know what? I just want to tell you that it gets better. It gets better the closer your son comes to adulthood, the better it’s going to get. The older he is, the easier it will be, I promise.”
And then everything changed. The light just went out of Randa’s eyes. Before there’d been something flowing, now this heavy veil fell between us. The light was gone. The warmth, the trust, all of that connection gone. She was gone. And in her place was this woman, standing rigidly with a pot of coffee and these blank eyes that just looked straight ahead And she just dropped our check on the table.
She said, “Yeah, whatever. If you say so,” and then she turned and walked away. And it was like I’d been slapped in the face. What happened? I just went over every word in my mind. I couldn’t imagine. Had I said something to upset her?
I started thinking through memories of conversations with other black women. Thinking maybe there I would find some clue as to what I’d said. And, you know, as soon as I did that, didn’t take but a minute and I was back in Connecticut sitting at the table with Catherine and Georgia and listening to them express, what, not their excitement for their sons to get older? But, but no. Their wish that their sons could stay young forever. Knowing that the older they got, the more danger they’d be in. Hearing their anguish as they talked about sending these precious young men out each day into a society that perceives black males as criminals. And then hearing again my own admission. “No. I don’t know what that feels like.”
So now, I knew what it was that had shattered the trust. I knew what I’d said because my promise, you see, was a fraud. Things were not necessarily going to get better for her son as he got older. And in fact, it was likely that they would get worse. It was likely that the closer he came to adulthood, the more frequently he would be perceived as dangerous and therefore the more danger he would be in.
And the thing is, the thing is, I knew this and I forgot. How is that possible to forget a truth like that? I ask myself, “Is this one of the elements of sneaky white privilege? Having the option to know something, to know the truth and then forget it because I think that it doesn’t apply to my life?” And because of my forgetting, any hopefulness that woman had felt, had been replaced by the inescapable reality that I was just one more ignorant white woman, who actually thought I knew what she faced in her life.
So, I was in there and I’m thinking what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And as soon as I said that, Catherine in Georgia came to my rescue once again. I could see and hear them, I tell you, as clearly as if they were sitting right at the table with me, finishing up their coffee. And they just looked at me, they just looked into my face, and they said, “Get up off your butt, girl, and do something.”
And I’m talking to them, these invisible women, like, and I’m saying, “I know. I know. I will. I will. Honest, I will but I don’t know what to do.”
And their voices came in a chorus, “Yes, you do. You do know.” And they were right. I did. I excuse myself from the table and I went to look for Randa. And I looked for her in the lobby, I looked for her all around the restaurant, I even looked in the smoking section in the back, which they had back in those days. I even went in the restroom and looked under the doors of the stalls trying, to find her and I couldn’t. And I was ready to go into the kitchen if I had to. And fortunately, I didn’t have to go that far because I looked up and Randa was coming out through the heavy kitchen doors and she was carrying a big tray covered with plates of food. And she just stopped when she saw me still and I, I stood in front of her just still myself waiting for some kind of inspiration.
And finally, I just opened my mouth and I just let the words fall out ineloquent and awkward. And I said to her, “I’m sorry. I just want to tell you that I’m sorry. I know things are not the same for your son as they are for mine. I know that things will only get harder for him as he gets older. And I knew that. I knew it already but I forgot. And I know how much I hurt you and I’m sorry.” And I couldn’t see any clue on her face about how she felt and she just looked at me for a really long time. And then she turned and, you know, I thought she was just going to walk away, which wouldn’t have surprised me, really, but she didn’t walk away.
She set her tray down on a table and she turned back to me. And then she reached out her arms and she took me in her arms. She took me and she held me. And we hugged each other really tightly for several minutes. And then all of a sudden, in that hug, she put her head down on my shoulder and she started to weep. And I tell you, I don’t know how long we stood in that embrace but we were there. We were consoling, rocking, weeping, together. Each of us giving and taking comfort at the same time. And all the activities of the restaurant bustled unheeded around us. And when her tears were finally spent, she stepped back and looked at me. And she managed a small smile and she said, “You know it is going to be OK.” She said, “With you and me, people like us, working together with the help of God. It’ll be OK. We’ll do it with His help.”
Now, I just dumbly nodded my agreement. I couldn’t speak. I don’t remember who looked away first. I don’t remember how we parted. I don’t remember how I got out the door and into the car. I just remember, the rocking, and the weeping, and the consoling, and feeling that that web of connection being rewoven as we stood there together. And the only thought in my mind, the only clear thought I had at that moment, was there’s a different promise I need to make. And this is the promise. That for the rest of my life I will work for unity. I will work for healing. I will work for justice. That is a promise I can make and that is a promise that with the help of God I can keep.
In the early 1960s, at a time when the hierarchy of race was evident in much of the country, a Black student feels relief to encounter a White teacher who operates without apparent bias. However, as the school year progresses, the student discovers that, in spite of her kind heart, his teacher unknowingly perpetuates White superiority by unselfconsciously promoting cultural and social standards that are rooted in “White” cultural and social norms; norms that might have worked for her, but not for everyone. It’s a lesson that is even more valuable for today’s “colorblind”, “post-racial” society.
One of the major points of this story is that in the United States “Whiteness” acts as an invisible, unspoken, socially unacknowledged set of cultural, political, educational, etc. standards by which we all are forced to live. Since those standards aren’t talked about, they are perceived to constitute a neutral, normal, and (if you are White) benign quality of life. As the story relates, that doesn’t work for everyone.
Try this: If you self-identify or are sociallyidentified as “White” – Over the next day, without forcing the issue, try to make a mental note of how many “White” images you see versus images of everyone else. Look for things like “White” mannequins in stores, “White” people on product labels, images of “White” people in books and magazines, on medical charts and TV shows, in ads on billboards and buses. Before hearing the author’s story, were you ever self-conscious of those things?
To read and do: Roger Bannister is credited with being the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Matthew Henson is purported to be the first man to reach the summit of the North Pole. Read a book or a few of the numerous online accounts of each of these men’s lives. Why do you suppose absolutelynone of the literature on Bannister ever calls him the first “White” man to run a sub four-minute mile? In contrast, why do you suppose all of the literature on Henson calls him the first “Black” (or African-American) man to reach the North Pole?
Did you know? . . . The first woman in space (1963) was Russian Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. Twenty years later, the first American woman in space was Sally Ride. Consult a variety of sources and read their stories . . . Notice that there is absolutely no mention in any of their histories about them being “White”. The first Black woman in space was Mae Jemison in 1992. The first Latina in space, in 1993, was Ellen Ochoa. The first Japanese woman in space was Chiaki Mukai in 1994. Consult a variety of sources and read about them. Notice that every single account of their stories mentions their “race”. To what do you ascribe these different treatments?
The Right Hand of Privilege by Steven Jones, PHD. jonesandassociatesconsulting.com. Jones & Associates Consulting, Inc.
Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America by Stephanie M. Wildman (Introduction, Chapter 1 “Making Systems of Privilege Visible”, and Chapter 7 “The Quest for Justice: The Rule of Law and Invisible systems of Privilege”
Understanding White Privilege from the Teaching/Learning Social Justice series (Chapter 2 “What’s In It For Us: Why We Would Explore What it Means to be White”)
Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by Louise Derman Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force
Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K – 12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development by Lee, Mankart, and Okazawa-Rey
Eight Habits of the Heart by Taulbert Clifton
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is La’Ron Williams and I want to share with you just a tiny, little piece of a much larger story that I wrote about 12 years ago. It was a story examining the role that race played in shaping the structure of the community in which I lived. The original story is about 55 minutes long but this is, like I said, just a tiny, little piece so I hope you’ll stay with me through the whole thing.
A long, long time ago, way back when I was growing up, there was a story that I used to hear over and over and over again about the way that America thought of itself. Now, it didn’t come as a straight-out narrative. It came to me in tiny, little snippets and you’ll probably recognize some of these. Things like, “land of the free and home of the brave,” or “with liberty and justice for all,” or “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” That kind of thing. And taken in the aggregate, taken together, they constitute a kind of a narrative that says that this country is free and very equal and equitable place. And so, I grew up with the notion that that it should be like that.
But when I was a boy, way back when I was born in 1951. Jim Crow segregation was still the law. It was very, very obvious and very, very thorough in some places like Georgia where my father was from. And in some places like Flint where I was from, Flint, Michigan, it was not so obvious. Not so brutal, not so open but it was there, because it was everywhere. It was all over the country. So, I’m one of those people who remembers drinking from the segregated drinking fountain, for example, or having to sit in the balcony of the segregated movie theater, or having to swim on one side of the segregated swimming pool. And I, especially, remember, one time when my family took a trip to Washington D.C. and we weren’t allowed to eat in a restaurant. We were greeted at the door by a man who simply, very matter of factly, told us that we couldn’t eat there because they didn’t “serve Negroes.” And I remember my brother, as we walked away, said, “That’s okay, because we don’t eat them.”
I didn’t read about those things in books. I remember those things. They constitute a part of my upbringing, a part of my lived experience. And you may notice that my lived experience didn’t match the stories that I was told about the way this country was. And so, what that meant was, that, that I was kind of like I was two people. There was the person who really, really wanted to be free and equal and to believe the stories I was being told. And there was the person who knew that it was a lie. And these guys didn’t always trade places. I mean, sometimes I would be both of those guys at the same time.
Well, the fall of 1959 was when I went into third grade and my teacher that year was a woman named Mrs. Paris. Now that’s not her real name but for story purposes, Mrs. Paris was my third-grade teacher. And at the school that I went to, most of the teachers were black. Most of the students were black. It was, it was a largely African-American school and Mrs. Paris was the first white teacher that I had ever had. So, when I walked in the door, I felt a sense of trepidation. I mean, ’cause, because I didn’t know what she might be like. She might be like that guy who told us we couldn’t eat in the restaurant. So, I was ready for anything but my heart was also open because I was two people and one of them wanted to believe that things could be fair.
Well, as the year went on, I learned that Mrs. Paris really was a pretty good teacher. She taught us a lot of things and she always had a smile on her face and I like that piece of it. And I love the fact that she, she loved to sing. She was always singing songs in class. She taught us long division. She taught us how to say the Pledge of Allegiance, every, single day. She was a very loving and kind teacher who never, ever, ever gave up on any of her students, even those students that were considered slow. She would take special time with them to make sure they caught on with all the lessons.
Well, now, there was one time when the entire class was working on painting, a huge banner mural. And Mrs. Paris had taped this kind of really thick butcher paper up all around, all the walls of the room. And each student was assigned a part of the butcher paper to draw on. And so, we had to draw our part of the painting before we started painting. Now, I was a pretty good artist and so I finished my part of the banner before anybody else. So, Mrs. Paris came over and she gave me a number of different cups of paint that she had mixed up beforehand. And she’d labeled all of these cups.
So, I picked up one of the cups of paint and I started to paint one of the people in my portion of the mural but I didn’t get very far because one of my few white classmates standing right next to me, suddenly became, like, super exasperated. She put her hands on her hips, (disapproving breathing), and she’s going like this, (exasperated look), and only in a way that only a 8 year old kid can do. And I thought she was out of her mind. What’s going on with you? What are you doing? And, and she looked at me and she says, “You’re not supposed to use brown to color history people.”
I had no idea what she meant. I just looked at her and I started to say something. But before I could say anything. She called the teacher over. She said, “Mrs. Paris, he’s using the wrong color.”
I can almost hear all the heads turn of all my fellow students as they looked to watch Mrs. Paris walk over. Mrs. Paris walked over, she reached down, and she took the cup of paint that I’ve been using. She picked up another cup of paint and just handed it to me. And then she walked away without saying a word. So, I took a cup of pain and I turned it around and I looked at it and the label said, “flesh.” Now, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know what flesh colored paint was. I had used flesh colored paints and flesh colored crayons hundreds of times before that. I mean, I didn’t mind using them. I knew it wasn’t the color of my flesh but it was the color of a lot of people. It was the color of Mrs. Paris, basically, and my classmates, and people that I admired on TV, like the whole cast of “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” and I didn’t mind using it. It’s, it’s just that this time, with this teacher, for the first time, I became aware of how bad I felt not to use that color.
Well, as the year progressed, there were a lot of incidents like that. I mean, times when Mrs. Paris would be talking about something and my white classmates seemed to know what she meant even in advance. Times when we would sing songs from our school songbook and all the white students seemed to know all the words in advance. I mean, at home I sang songs by The Drifters and the Shirelles and pop tunes like that. And sometimes spiritual songs and gospel tunes. And I knew all those words by heart and half of them I still know. But somehow, none of those stories or songs ever seemed to appear in my school books. I mean, it’s not that I was upset that I didn’t know the school stuff sometimes. It’s just that for the first time, with this teacher, I became aware of how bad I felt that they did know it.
I didn’t have the words to describe it back then but I know now that, without meaning to, without even trying to, Mrs. Paris was teaching her black students to feel ashamed of the way that they did things. I mean, she was a good teacher and there was no malice in her heart. But she was teaching us to be ashamed. Just by using the school books and the school curriculum in the way that it was intended, she was teaching her black students shame. But there was something else that was going on too. Because at the same time that we were learning shame, she was teaching a lesson to the white students. She was teaching them superiority. Only none of us thought of it that way. I didn’t. Mrs. Paris didn’t. My classmates didn’t. It had been going on all our lives. But to them, to me, to her, to all of us, it was just normal, just standard, just the way it was, kind of like TV, a kind of an official story.
It was because of TV, it was because of shows like, “Father Knows Best,” that I knew what the suburbs looked like. It was because of programs like, “The Lone Ranger” that I knew what Indians, “How!” talked like. TV and Mrs. Paris and the movies and all kinds of things, the school books, gave me a kind of standard that was rooted in white culture, rooted in a white European way of thinking about things. But without naming it, without even talking about it, it was just considered standard. But in a way, I was lucky because when it came to what Mrs. Paris and the movies and the books and things had to say about being African-American, I knew that it didn’t even come close to matching the reality that I was living.
But what if I had been one of my white classmates? What if that paint that Mrs. Paris mixed up, at least came close to matching the color that I was? What if a Johnson’s Band-Aid didn’t stand out like a glaring beacon of mis-coloration whenever I stuck it, whenever I stuck it on my arm? What if everything around me told me that I was the standard, that I was just normal, just the way things should be? And what if everything around me reinforced that notion? What if I lived in a community where practically everybody looked like me and I never even heard a different point of view?
You know, crayon manufacturers no longer make a crayon that they call flesh but there are pantyhose that are called “nude.” And the color of the nude pantyhose is the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be. I wonder whose nude are they talking about?
There, there’s also a color of makeup that’s called blush. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit redder. And there’s a color of makeup that’s called suntan. It’s the same color that the flesh colored crayon used to be only it’s a little bit brown there. So, I’m left to think, in what ways is the flesh colored crayon is still with us? In what ways do you notice that we still live surrounded by flesh colored crayons?
A short story told by
Reflecting on her family, storyteller Linda Gorham raises powerful images in celebration of her ancestors in “I Am Somebody.” Told in a relatable and interesting manner, Linda easily engages the listener with her words.
From a proud and determined father to a strong and devoted mother to a dedicated and intelligent grandfather, Linda shares bits of her life and family with listeners. As the story continues, it is clear that family has made her who she is. It is clear that family is most important to her.
As we celebrate Black History this month, Linda Gorham reminds us that the gifts of our own family and family tree evoke gratitude, whatever our ethnicity or identity.
Take time to reflect upon your own family and values. As Linda states in her telling, “We are all a product of those who came before us, and we are the preparation for the future.”
Linda Gorham is an engaging storyteller who regales listeners with poignant stories of her life. She believes that there are no limits to what people can achieve. Storytelling to adults and children alike, Linda is drawn to the power of story. She enjoys the creativity involved in her work, and thrives on the challenge of storytelling.
Take a moment to be touched by this beautiful tribute to family: .
. I Am Somebody
For a print friendly version of the transcript, clickhere: I-Am-Somebody
I believe we all have a story to tell. We are all a product of those who came before us and we are the preparation for the future. I am somebody. And so is everyone else I know. As you listen to my story, I hope you are inspired to tell your own.
I am somebody.
I am the daughter of a man who believed that dinner was to be served at 6 p.m. sharp and every place setting was to have a fork, a knife, and a spoon, whether they were needed or not. My father would wake us up every morning on Saturdays and Sundays, by playing referrer, revelry. “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” Try listening to that at 6:00 a.m. on the weekends. But my father believed that children should be productive and should get up early, have a good breakfast, and get on with their day.
He also believed that children were probably only one reason to be on the face of this earth and that was to get a good education, to go to college, and then to have a good career.
My father also believed that fried chicken and pizza should be properly eaten with a knife and a fork. Now, I can understand a deep-dish pizza but have you ever tried eating a chicken wing with a knife and a fork? In my house, there was something called the 1969 fried chicken rebellion. But that’s another story that I’ll tell you at another time.
My father told me his proudest moment was after I turned 18, and he took me to the polls to vote in my first national election. We had to get up early. We had to be there at 7:00 a.m. My father was always first in line. And that day we were too. And I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he stepped aside to let me, his oldest daughter, vote first. I will tell you I have never missed an election since.
I am somebody.
I’m the product of a woman who was a light skinned African-American who married a dark skinned African-American man, back in 1949. Now, black people have always known that we come in all shades and all colors but not quite then. And especially not with white people who thought that my parents’ union was an interracial marriage; something quite taboo and very rare back then. Well, I will tell you, it was a long time before I understood how hard this was on my parents, especially my light skinned mother when she would walk down the street holding the hands of her three brown skinned daughters. And it was even longer before I understood my mother’s disdain for people who judged her without ever getting to know anything about her.
I and somebody.
I’m the daughter of a career Army officer who graduated from officer’s candidate school in 1946. It was a proud day. He and five other African-Americans were among the graduating class. Well, that pride turned to utter disappointment when they learned that they would not be able to attend the graduation party because it was going to be held in an all-white officer’s club.
I am somebody.
I am the daughter of a woman who believed there were two keys to a successful marriage. Soft feet and long hair. OK, I’ve never had long hair but I’ve had soft feet for all 28 years of my marriage but it doesn’t matter. I have a wonderful husband. And we have two fine, young men as sons. And they’re full of intelligence, and creativity, and wit. And I can’t wait to see how our sons take on the world.
I am somebody.
I’m the niece of a woman who was a tireless, well-loved educator. And when she retired, an entire new wing was built on to her high school. And that wing was named after her.
I am somebody.
I’m the niece of a man who in 1952 won two gold medals in the Olympics in track: the 200 meter dash and the 400 meter relay. It was a proud moment when he came home to Jersey City, New Jersey and had a ticker tape parade. The first African-American man to ever have such an honor. And four years later, he went back to the Olympics and won a silver medal.
I am somebody.
I am the granddaughter of a matriarchal woman who was strong and proud and held her family together with good values. And during the one year that my sisters and I had to live with her, she made us take a teaspoon of cod liver oil, three times a week, in the wintertime. She said it would keep us healthy. Have you ever tasted cod liver oil? Swallowing it is horrific. I would rather chew on the head of a dead fish. But the worst part about it is, all during the day it keeps coming up as burps. You try to be in seventh grade, trying to make new friends, and burping cod liver oil. This was not pleasant.
But I am somebody.
I am the granddaughter of a Georgia man who had a white father and an African American mother. The mother was only 14 years old. Her family was forced to live on the father’s land as sharecroppers. It was not a consensual relationship. The mother died in childbirth and my grandfather’s father, well, he never acknowledged his responsibility as a father. And my grandfather was raised by, as they say, a village. And he only went to school until third grade. And he only went to school when there was no work to be done in the fields. But that man left Georgia. He went to New Jersey. He told us, he walked all the way to New Jersey. My grandmother said he took the train. And I believe the train because a train saved his life. Because my grandfather became a Pullman Porter on that train. And my grandfather, he learned by cleaning the, the that the train cars and by carrying the luggage and by listening to the conversation he learned about what it meant to be a family man.
And he turned out to be a fantastic father and an even better grandfather. And he taught himself to read as an adult. But this very proud, intelligent man, like so many other Pullman Porters was forced to endure being called, “George,” instead of his first name because the travelers refused to call him, “Sir.”
I am somebody.
I’m the granddaughter of another man, whom I don’t know much about, but I know he had a large family. I know he saved up to take his family to the circus and as they stood in line of the circus, he held his tickets up high and someone snatched the tickets and they never went to the circus. But I have a story to tell about him.
I am somebody.
I am the great, granddaughter of a full-blooded Mohawk Indian, whom I’m told, wore a red feather in her long, straight, jet black hair.
I am a product of a family who was intelligent and smart and witty and clever and creative. But a family who was limited in so many ways, will never know all of the potential they could have had, because they were not judged by their potential. They were judged by the color of their skin. But in spite of that, they did amazing things. And they and I are all related to and descended from people called many things African-American, Afro-American, Negro, black, colored, slave…and much, much worse.
Now, I don’t know all their stories but I know some. And I tell their stories when I can because that’s my past and I am creating my future. And I feel their pain. And I feel their angst and I feel their determination to survive. And I want to pass that on to my children.
And ironically enough, I am also the multi-generational granddaughter of Richard Stockton, proud signer of the Declaration of Independence, the very document that should have forbid slavery.
I am somebody.
Be moved by some of the other storytellers in our free line-up on our Showcase Page.
Charlotte Blake Alston and colleague, Steve Tunick, chaperone 12 African and Jewish American teenagers who seek common ground through a cultural immersion abroad in Senegal in Africa. An unanticipated diversion led the group to an encampment of recently expelled or escaped indigenous Mauritanians. Were Charlotte and Steve making a big mistake allowing the students to witness and be among poor, desperate people at such a low and vulnerable moment of their lives? Would the presence of Americans in the refugee camp contribute to increasing tensions between Senegal and its slave-holding northern neighbor, Mauritania? Adults and students alike receive a profound lesson about our common humanity from a group of children whom they had perceived to be the least likely to offer insight. (more…)
Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.
Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?
What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.
The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.
In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.
Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.
I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.
The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead
And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!
And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me. And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life. And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.
Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.
Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.
Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”
Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.
Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.
And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip. Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.
Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.
I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”
Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.
The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back. And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.
I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.
We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust. Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.
It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.
“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading, the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.
A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.
When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.” I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace. For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.
When Charlotte Blake Alston accepts a teaching position at a private Quaker school, she expects she’ll finally become part of an educational institution committed to respect and equality for all members of the school community. But true equity comes with awareness, sensitivity and diligence. The School of Invisibility illustrates how cultural conditioning can creep into even the most “inclusive” school environment.
What do Quakers believe and what is their history in the United States?
We can have good intentions yet have a very different impact on others. When have you unconsciously discriminated against others? When have you felt left out or treated as if you weren’t as good as someone else?
How do you show respect and create a sense of equality with others?
Hi, I’m Charlotte Blake Alston. I’m wondering if you might be one of the many people who often have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to gender or ethnic experiences in America. And you get to that place where, mmm, you’re going to have to make a decision, finally, to take a stand and make a challenge. This is one such experience.
It was the spring of 1980 when I first walked through the doors of the prestigious K-12 Philadelphia Friends School where I would spend the final years of my teaching career. The Religious Society of Friends, a community, an organization, as I had learned it, with a commitment to human equity. One that had acknowledged and fought for the humanity of my American ancestors.
This could be a place, I thought, where I might be seen as I saw myself: a person… a teacher… not a black teacher. As I entered the school and walked into the foyer, I was met by the receptionist, a light-complexioned African-American woman. I sighed! Relief! As I walked down the long corridor towards the lower school, I looked about, as we often do, to see if there was anyone else in the building who looked like me. There was. She had on a blue uniform; she was pushing a cleaning cart. “Good morning!” I said.
“Oh, good morning!” Her entire face lit up into a smile.
Over the two days of interviews, going from department to department, I considered, not only my own comfort level in this environment, but that of my son, who, if I accepted the position, would enter second grade. The last day, I headed towards the door and then stopped, turned around and decided I would go back and see if I could find the cleaning woman I had spoken to the day before. I decided that I would base my decision on what she had to say about working in that environment.
“Oh, I just love it!” she said. “The people here are just so nice.”
So, when the formal offer came, I accepted. I settled really easily into the rhythm of school life, uh, attending my first meeting for worship with five to 10-year-olds, uh, being addressed as teacher and my first name, bus duty, lunch duty, parent conferences and then came the faculty trustees’ dinner, a formal annual event to which every faculty member was required to attend.
This was a formal sit-down dinner in the school cafeteria and members of the faculty and members of the board of trustees were assigned tables together, where we would share a meal and awkward conversation. Well, I scanned the room and it hit me. All of the people sitting down, being served, except three, were white. All of the people doing the serving, except for two work study students, were members of the maintenance and the cafeteria staff, all of whom were black. There was something wrong with this picture.
Here I was, at a Quaker school, a community under the auspices of the Religious Society of Friends, an organization committed to human equity, an organization that prided itself on creating what they considered to be a microcosm of the ideal society. So, here in this microcosm of the ideal society, my place in it was articulated with crystal clarity. Nearly all of the people of color in this environment, at this event, were here to serve. I could not, would not participate in making that statement. The following morning. I went to the headmaster and expressed my concerns. “Does it have to be a formal sit-down dinner?” I asked.
His response was that removing that would take the job away from the two work study students and I would have to come up with a replacement job for the work study students.
“Well,” I said. “Couldn’t it be buffet where people might, oh, I don’t know, serve themselves? Uh, you would still need someone to prepare the food, place it in the trays, keep it hot, replenish it if it was empty and clean up afterwards.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” he said.
“Okay,” I thought. “I stated it as clearly as I think I can. And we have a year for you to make some decision about a different option.” I did let him know that I did understand that this was mandatory for faculty and I would not buck that rule. But if the following year, the format had not changed, I would attend but I would take my place as I saw it dictated in that circumstance. I would put on an apron and I would serve.
Well, a year went by and the day of the faculty trustee dinner, I popped into the headmaster’s office and said, “Hey, just checking to see about the dinner tonight. Just to see if the format has changed.”
“No, it hasn’t.” he said. But he added, “You can choose whether to come or not.”
Well, for the remainder of the day I would pass faculty members in the hall, or people would pop into my classroom and say, “See ya tonight.”
I’d say, “No, you won’t! I’m not going to be coming.”
“What! How did you get out of this?” people wanted to know. And when I told them, “I never thought of that. I never noticed it.” was the most oft-repeated reply.
Well, the buzz from the faculty continued into the next day. And at the end of the day, two lower school faculty members came to me and said, “We’re very upset. We’re upset that a member of our community is upset and is offended and we want to do something about it.”
An ad hoc committee was formed by my lower school colleagues and they wanted to look at our community like, “What else are we missing?” They wanted to know, “What else are we not seeing?”
Oh, one thing stuck out to me in my mind, immediately, and that was the way that African-American adults in the community were addressed by children. White children in the school were addressing them as kindergarten or fourth grade peers. All faculty members had a title of respect. Teacher and your first name. But the people who were in uniform, who drove the buses, who served lunch in the cafeteria, who ensure that every nook and cranny of the school’s exterior and interior was spotless, sanitary and presentable were addressed by children as Larry or Loretta. From the time we have set foot on the soil in our country, referring to African-American adults as children has been the ultimate expression of disrespect. It’s demeaning. It’s dehumanizing. It’s dismissive. In our community, you do not address an adult by their first name unless they have given you permission to do so. And even then, it’s preceded by a title. It’s Miss Susan or it’s Mr. Jeff.
Well, this committee decided that they would go to the board of trustees and talk about some of these issues. And see if they might get the board to understand the potential negative impact that this had, not only on the adults in the community, but also on the children, as well. And to see if they might be willing to at least talk about this and begin to address some of our concerns.
Well, one trustee asked me what my credentials were. He wanted to know, “How long have you been teaching. Uh, uh, you know, what is your experience in these sorts of issues? Uh, what qualifications do… you know… I bring to discussions of racial equity and parity and respect?”
Well, I recounted for him my pre-Friends school teaching experience and then pointed out, because, clearly, he hadn’t noticed, that I was, indeed, black.
“Well,” he said. “This is like one of those things that you don’t think about ‘til somebody brings it up and you really don’t think about it ‘til somebody brings it up again.”
“Well, that’s interesting.” I thought, “Well, my contract was just renewed. So, I’ll be here again to bring it up.”
Well, it’s one of those, you know, if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist kind of sensibilities. It’s like we are not credible enough witnesses for our own experience. Well, evidence of the absolute destructive impact of that sensibility was brought home to me when my second-grade son happened to come into my classroom and he asked me a question about the older white adult, my assistant, who was in my classroom. “The teacher, as he put it.”
And I said, “Oh, no! I’m the teacher in the classroom. She’s my assistant.”
Uh, uh! And then out of his little second grader mouth came the words, “You couldn’t be!”
Both of us had come to this school from the multi-ethnic Children’s Center at the University of Pennsylvania where I was Educational Director, had an office with a name plate on my door.
But somehow, in this environment, the message to him was loud and clear. Here a black person could not be in a position of authority. I needed no other supporting evidence to make my case. What a painful, wrenching contrast!
“Well, nobody really thinks about it.”
“You couldn’t be!”
Well, I continued to be the one to bring it up. But the wonderful colleagues who are members of this ad hoc committee were really persistent in what they were doing and decided they wanted to take a complete look at the kind of community that we were. They wanted to make sure that they raised the difficult questions. That we had the awkward conversation that we’re really beginning to see and remove the cloak of invisibility. And begin to acknowledge what was actually going on in our environment.
This particular school eventually began to host an annual job fair for people of color, created a multicultural committee that took a look at every aspect of our school community, created racial awareness seminars. And, really, began to focus on the importance of every person in that community being acknowledged, recognized, heard, and respected. That effort, I hope, continues.
The nine years that I spent in that environment were some of the most growth full, memorable experiences of my life: teaching, coaching, working with incredibly creative colleagues, working on getting the school to be the kind of community it really wanted to be.
And a year after I left, I went back to go to a girls’ basketball game and as I entered the school, I saw the head of maintenance. And I went to, uh, address him; I went to wave and call his name when I saw a little kid running towards him. And as that child opened her mouth to greet him, I could feel my teeth clench. And then I heard her say, “Hi, Mr. Maurice!” Huuuh!
Linda’s grandmother lived in what her sisters and she called “The Plastic Palace.” Her grandmother covered everything with plastic. Everything … chairs, tables, lampshades … and, of course, her living room couch, including the throw pillows. Plastic is fun, right? But who would suspect that it could also set off a painful memory of the Vietnam War for Linda’s father?
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Plastic-Glory
What intrigues you about the home of your grandparents or other older people? What do you smell, taste, hear, or touch when you visit their homes?
How does the description of food add to the visual image of the dining room scene?
Were you surprised at the twist near the end of the story? How did her father’s reaction to the popping sound affect you?
Do you know someone who has fought overseas in a war? Have you ever talked with them about their experiences? If you could, what would you ask?
The term ‘shell shock’ has been changed to ‘post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What do you know about it?
The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You about What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War by Kevin Sites
Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and MTBI by Charles Hoge
What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Hi, I’m Linda Gorham and I remember my grandmother’s obsession with plastic. She covered everything with it: furniture, accessories. Now, I know this was universal. I meet a lot of people tell me that their family covered things with plastic. When I was young though, back in the 60’s, actually, I thought it was a black thing. But I learned that it’s pretty universal. I loved visiting my grandparents’ house because there was no dust. There was no dirt. There was no stain in her house, at least not under the plastic, you know what I mean.
But when I would go there, well, I would go on plastic hunts to discover all the ways that she had used plastic. It was really, really cool. In the living room, there were white lamps, you know. Regular lamps with big white shades? Those white shades were covered in plastic, of course. In the hall closet there were wooden hangers, all of those wooden hangers were covered with a plastic bag from the cleaners. I remember the hallway to my grandparents’ house. It was a long hallway that started at the foyer and it went all the way back to the kitchen. And covering that hallway was a gray hallway rug but to protect the rug it was covered in plastic. You see where I’m going with this, right?
In the dining room, there were dining room chairs. They were gorgeous and they had cushions on them that were kind of paisley. But to protect the cushions, they were covered in plastic. You know something cool about plastic cover,s dining room chairs when you sit down on them? They exhale. Aah. then, when you get up they inhale. Ooh. It’s kind of cool jumping up and down on them. Aah. Ooh. Aah. Ooh.
But the thing I remember that was the most fun, was the living room couch in my grandparents’ house. Yes, it was covered in plastic but this part I will never know how this happened, the pillows, throw pillows, they were covered in plastic too. But…I figured out a way to jump on that couch and to make a loud noise like POP. And I called it the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. I loved making the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. I love saying the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. My grandmother didn’t approve. But that’s another story.
Well, when I was about 12 or so, my father, who was in the military, announced that he was being transferred. No actually, when I think about it, I was probably more like eight. And so, we moved from New Jersey, where he was stationed, up to Alaska, and then to Fort Benning, Georgia – two transfers. And then while we were in Georgia, my father said to me that he was being, well, not transferred. He used the word I had never heard before – deployed. He was being sent to Vietnam and while he was gone, he told my mother and my two sisters that I had at that point, he said, “You’re all going to go back and live with my parents,” he said. My grandparents, his parents, my grandparents. And the next thing I knew, my father was shipped off to Vietnam and I was back in the plastic palace. That’s what I called it.
Now, I was a little bit older – that’s when I was about 12. But my sisters, well, they didn’t really remember all the plastic stuff so I took them on a hunt, you know, to show them that the things; the, the chairs and the, the plastic on the hangers and all the things that my grandmother covered in plastic. The best thing was that couch because you know what I taught them. How to make the ultimate, plastic, couch fart. My youngest sister, Carol loves being able to say “fart” out loud. But I was older, and truthfully, I was the only one who really understood where my father went. And I guess, it’s also fair to say, I was the only one of the children who realized that he may not come back or he may not come back the same. So, plastic took on a different, it just it was different for me. I wasn’t interested in all the other things that Gail and Carol liked.
I remember before my father left, he gave me a plastic globe and he showed all of us where Vietnam was. And I remember sitting in my room, at night, trying to put my finger approximately on New Jersey and try to stretch my thumb to Vietnam. It was a long way away. But somehow, just touching that plastic globe made me feel closer to my father.
I can remember every night, at 6 o’clock, my mother and I would sit on the living room couch, our bodies stuck to the plastic, and our eyes glued to the television set. Because every day at 6 o’clock, on the news, we’d watch. We’d watch to see if my father’s unit had been in battle. And we watched those names of fallen soldiers scroll down the screen. More names after more names after more names; too many names.
I can remember the day that my father came home. The doorbell rang his special code, three rings. And my sisters and I screamed, “Daddy’s home!” And we went running and slipping down that long hallway runner and into his arms. I think, and I don’t really remember, but I, re, kind of think he picked all of us up at the same time. And there was so much laughter and joy and tears in that foyer. It must’ve lasted forever. But I remember when he finally put us down, and did all the kissing and hugging, he, he walked down the hallway runner hung, his coat up in the closet. And then he walked over to the dining room table ’cause there was lots of food on that table. macaroni and cheese. My grandmother made the best macaroni and cheese in the world! I didn’t know back then, the most fattening macaroni and cheese in the world. But hey, who cared. And a whole stack of steaks. My father sat down on those plastic cover dining room chair cushions. And cushions, exhaled. Aah. Daddy’s home.
We had so much fun that day! At the dining room table, we ate, we talked, we laughed. And when Gail and Carol were finished eating, I remember, they excused themselves, which is a good thing to do, you know, and went into the living room. Now I wasn’t going to go over there where that couch was… you know, what I’m saying? And it wasn’t long before we heard it. POP, the ultimate plastic couch fart. I started to laugh and a few other people did too. But I looked at my father. He had jumped up from his seat. His eyes had just grown in size and his head was gyrating from side to side and his whole body was shaking. And I was scared for him. And I was scared for me. I learned a new word that day, shellshock. And I learned that, well, my father had come home from the war, but, unexpectedly, the war had come home with my father.
Now, I don’t remember how long we had to be quiet around him. It was weeks or months. I don’t remember but he did recover. That’s the good news. But I will tell you that, that night after everybody went to sleep, I helped my grandmother take the plastic off that living room couch and those dining room chairs. Because at my grandmother’s house, even though plastic used to be cool, now, plastic took a back seat when it came all too real.
Learn what the term “Shadowball” meant if you were a person of color who played baseball in segregated America in the 1920’s and 30’s. Bobby brings to life famed baseball players such as Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, as he explores their triumphs and sacrifices.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Shadowball
Compare and contrast the career of “Cool Papa” Bell to that of a white player of the same era. What white player would be comparable to “Cool Papa” Bell?
How would Satchel Paige be treated if he were playing in major league baseball today?
Was Satchel Paige “the first” to lobby as a free agent before Cat Fish Hunter and Curt Flood?
Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns – DVD by PBS
African American/Black History
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Bobby Norfolk and I will be doing an excerpt from a piece, a one-person show called Shadow ball.
Hello, my name is Bell. James “Cool Papa” Bell. Ha, ha, ha! I get to that in a minute.
But they had this thing back in the Negro National League, back in the day called shadow ball where the players would pretend in a pantomime. They’d be throwing balls from the mound connecting with the ball, catching pop flies and running bases. They call that shadow ball because Negro baseball players had to play ball in the shadows of white segregated America back in the day. Understand this, for 60 years, major league baseball owners and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis bought Negro players in a so-called gentleman’s agreement.
But I joined the St. Louis Stars, back then a Negro baseball league. Heh, heh, heh! And I didn’t get my notoriety because of just my speed. I started off as a baseball player as a pitcher. You got that right, a pitcher.
I have knuckle ball that could tie batters up in knots. Now you gotta throw a ball softly without any spin or rotation on the ball. Get them batters all confused.
But then I got notoriety by my speed. I can run the base past in 12 seconds flat! Jesse Owens, that track star, he wouldn’t race me. He said, “Man, you one of the fastest men on the planet. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!
But one time, Oscar Charleston with the Kansas City Monarchs, on my same team, ooh, he was a no prisoner taken kinda dude. Klux Klan headed him down south and one day a Klansman took him up on his offer to confront Oscar Charleston. Oscar Charleston hit it to third. Pi-yow! Now he was runnin’ them bases and, all of a sudden, here’s the Klansman standing there, face in the sheet. “All right, boy! Whatcha gonna do?”
Oscar reached up, snatched the hood off the Klansman head. “Huh! You ain’t so big and bad now without your face being hid.”
“Ah,” people up in the bleachers, “Ah, that’s Mr. Gilmore from the city council.” He ran back behind some bleachers, boogity, boogity, boogity!
Huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh! They also call our circuit the Chitlin’ Circuit. Yeah, because we had to stay in the rat and roach infested hotels and motels. We couldn’t stay in them white places. We could rip the white stadiums but couldn’t wash up in the white showers. Had to go down to a colored YMCA down the street.
And you better not turn off them lights in them ole nasty motels because rats and roaches and bedbugs will come all out. Ooh, ooh! Turn on the lights. Could not sleep under those conditions.
But then, 1945 came. People started speculating that they were looking for a Negro player to make it into the majors and people couldn’t figure out who was gonna be. Was gonna be Satchel Paige? Judy Johnson? Was gonna be Josh Gibson? Me? And then they saw that young black cat Ollie.
UCLA, X- Army Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Jackie Robinson took no prisoners either. Oh, yeah, he had a temper. But Branch Rickey Branch, Rickey who owned the St. Louis Cardinals and then owned the Brooklyn Dodgers., he told Jackie Robinson that for three years, he could not fight back or talk back. And for three years, Jackie Robinson held all that anger in him no matter how many people dogged him out and, uh, gave all of them nasty comments to him.
And even in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was out there and people were throwing things out on the field. And then that white boy named Pee Wee Reese came up out of the dugout, put his arm around Jackie Robinson and whispered something in his ear. And all the haters stopped hating. Right there with that Kentucky-Cincinnati boy hug.
And when Jackie Robinson put on that uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that was the greatest day of my life. We finally could prove that we could hit, catch and run with anybody in the white major leagues. But by that time, after 22 years, my knees was wearing out.
You know, there was a baseball competition and some people said that the New York Giants scouts was looking. And so, Monte Irvin, another player with the Kansas City Monarchs, young boy, about half my age. You know what, I held back and let Monte Irvin win that title. That’s how he got chosen for the New York Giants.
But I tell you what. After I retired from the Negro Leagues, August 12th, 1974, I got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Worked as a custodian, worked as a night watchman in St. Louis City Hall. When I retired, I got a stipend from the baseball commissioner’s office and from city hall, St. Louis. But some people say that I was born too early. Huh, huh! That’s not true. They opened them doors too late. But I was a good father, good husband, good baseball player with the Negro National Leagues. And I am the one who all these other guys making thirty million dollars a year, they stand on my shoulders and that’s all I can tell you.
Linda’s father had a little black book. He said it was written just for her and he said it was full of all the values she needed for a successful life. Linda loved it. She believed in it. But it took time to understand just what a gift it was.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Book
Do your parents or caregivers have ‘words of wisdom’ they repeat all the time? What are they? What do they mean?
Do you have favorite sayings? What makes them important?
Linda’s father told her he had plans and dreams for her. What are your plans? Your dreams?
Why is it important for adults to encourage young people?
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
The Arms That Are Needed: Daughters Reflect on Fatherly Love by Landra Glover
If: A Father’s Advice to His Son by Rudyard Kipling
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Hi, I’m Linda Gorham. I want to tell you about my father. He had a little black book. Now, my father told me that the little black book was written just for me. And he said it had all the rules and the values and the morals that I needed to grow up to be a responsible adult. And I believed in the book. And whenever I did something wonderful something that, you know, made my father proud, my father would smile the sweetest smile. His right index finger would rise up in the air and my father would say, “It’s in The Book.” And I believed in the book. I believed in the notes and the morals and all the sayings in that book. To me, they were like notes to beautiful songs. And I was determined to sing those songs for the rest of my life. Now, I didn’t have to remember those words and values and morals in the book. My father repeated them over and over and over again.
I’m going to tell you three of them. He would say, “Education is paramount to success.” He would say, “Go to church every Sunday.” Now you know something interesting. My father only went to church on three times a year Mother’s Day, Christmas, and Easter. But he insisted that my sisters, my mother, and I go every single Sunday. That’s something else my father used to say, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” Right? And then there was a thing my father said all the time. He said it all the time. “Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.”
My mother got so sick and tired of hearing him say that, that one day she whispered in my ear, “Pretentiously pompous planning, ticks me off.” The list went on and on and on. And I did everything I could to see my father smile and to hear my father’s famous four words of praise, “It’s in the book.”
But you know something? It wasn’t until I was an adult, married, and about to have my first child that I actually sat down with my father at the kitchen table. That’s where things happened, you know, the kitchen table. And I said, “Daddy tell me about The Book.” Oh, man, I’ll never forget it.
That smile came back on his face, his right index finger rose up. But this time he used it to adjust his glasses and he bit down hard on his pipe and he said, “Well, The Book. Did you know it came from my father?” He said, “Your grandfather?” And then my father said, “You know your grandfather was born in 1898 and died in Georgia.” And then my father went on to tell me a lot of other stuff.
Now, I knew everything he was telling me. I remember as a child when my parents would tell me stories, maybe this has happened to other people, you just sit and be quiet. You listen to them telling the story over and over and you hope that they one day add something new. And then he dropped it on me. He said, “Did you know your grandfather’s father was white?” Oh, boy! Now I was really listening. He said, “His mother was 14 years old, a black teenager. She and her family were sharecroppers. His father was the white landowner. It was not a consensual relationship.” And then my father said, “You know, his mother died in childbirth and your grandfather was raised, as they say, by a village of family members, assortment of family members.” He said, “You know, he only went to school until third grade and only when there was no work to be done in the fields picking cotton. Did you know your grandfather never learned to read until he was an adult? He taught himself.”
Now, I have to tell you, my brain was racing at this point. All these details coming into my head. Fourteen years old, died in childbirth. Father never acknowledge his responsibility. Raised by assorted family members. Third grade. Taught himself to read, only after he was old.
But I remembered something. Because you see, when my grandfather would leave the kitchen table after eating breakfast, he would go into the dining room. And he would spread out two newspapers, “The Jersey Journal” and “The New York Times.” And he would read them every morning cover to cover. And also, in the corner of the dining room, there was a great, big stack of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines, you know, black people do not throw out “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines. Oh, no they don’t! And I can remember my grandfather turning to me on more than one occasion saying, “Education is paramount to success.” Reading the newspaper every morning.
And then my father went on with his story. He said, “You know how your grandfather told you that he left Guyton, Georgia, about age 15, and walked all the way to New Jersey? It’s not true. He took the train. And it’s a good thing,” my father said. “He got a job as a Pullman Porter. It was hard work. He had to carry the luggage of all those travelers. He had clean cars, railroad cars and sometimes he even worked in the kitchen and he didn’t get much respect. But he managed to eke out a good life for all of us.”
And then I remembered something else about my grandfather. You know, I remember him sitting on the front steps of 4075 Oak Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, his long legs crossed. And my grandfather would sit there in his rocking chair on the front porch. And anyone who walked past that house, he would smile and he would tip his hat, “How do?” he would say. “How do?” And I remember my grandfather turning to me on more than one occasion saying, “Treat everyone with respect even if they don’t treat you that way.”
Well, my father went on with his story. He said, “You know, your grandfather had no one to teach him. He learned by watching the men on the train, and the men in his neighborhood. He watched how they interacted with their children and their wives. He watched how they talked about investments and life and living and learning. And he wrote it all down in a little black book. Your grandfather passed that little black book on to me,” my father said. “And now, I have passed it on to you.” Now I never held that book in my hand. The way I looked at it, my father passed that book directly to my heart.
Now, I have to tell you something, I didn’t always live too close to my father because of where, you know transfers and things, so I would talk to him all the, all the time while our sons were growing up. And now our sons are 27 and 28. They’re, they’re great! They’re warm, they’re witty, they’re friendly, they’re smart and, yeah, they’re handsome too. But I will tell you, every time I talk to my father and I tell him about his grandsons and all the wonderful things they’re doing. Now, I can’t see that smile because we’re usually on the phone, and I can’t see that index finger because I know it’s a little shaky from Parkinson’s, but I can…I can know it’s there. Because I, I can sense that finger going up and I can sense that smile in his voice and he says, “Of course, my grandsons are doing well. It’s in The Book.”
In 1804, Lewis & Clark crossed The Great Plains and dangerous Rocky Mountains to finally see the Pacific Ocean for the first time! One person who was part of this Corps of Discovery was an African American man named York. While York was not always credited with his part in the Western exploration, his contributions were a large part of Lewis and Clark’s success. (more…)
Storyteller, Connie Regan-Blake, was invited to come to Uganda by “Bead For Life”(www.beadforlife.org), an NGO helping women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Many of them are displaced people from the horrors and atrocities of civil war in northern Uganda and are dealing with the ravages of AIDS. Connie was welcomed into their homes and hearts as if she was family and she listened to their profound and transformative stories. This is Namakasa Rose’s story. (more…)
This is the true story of storyteller, Laura Simms, telling a deeply traumatized boy – an ex- child soldier from Sierra Leone, West Africa – a story in a taxicab in New York City. The story within this story relieves his misery and, in the process, Laura discovers the power of the tale and the boy’s innate and potent resilience.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sudden-Story
Would you have tried to keep the young man from Sierra Leone with you?
Why was a story and this particular story helpful to the young man who was about to get on a plane to go back to his war-torn country?
Did you expect the ending to the story? Why was this young man able to go on to have a family, an education and career success? How do you think he was able to rise above his experience as a child soldier?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen
Website – The Children Bill of Rights, 1996 http://www.newciv.org/ncn/cbor.html
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
name is Laura Simms. I’m from New York and this story takes place in New York, in 1996.
I was hired by UNICEF and Norwegian Peoples Aid to be a facilitator for a conference called Young Voices. And there were 53 kids from 23 third world countries there to create a Children’s Bill of Rights. So, my job, of course, as a storyteller was to listen to stories and help kids tell stories. And I heard stories that, literally, changed my life.
So, I became really close to two boys from Sierra Leone, West Africa, who, on meeting them, their voices were gentle and sweet. They were skinny. It was snowing out and they’re wearing summer clothes. When I heard their stories, it was something else. They were ex-child soldiers. They had committed atrocities. It was an amazing experience. And one boy, Aluzin Bah, fantastically, beautiful boy asked me to keep him in New York. And I was up every night, “Could I keep him in New York? How could I send a child back to war?”
I thought about if it was 50 years ago and I was in the Holocaust and somebody brought me out and then sent me back. At any rate, UNICEF heard about this. The boy told me, “Don’t tell anybody,” but he was 15, so, he told everybody. And ha ha. So, I, um, was told, “No conditions could I keep him in New York.” Actually, both boys, I’m still very close to. And the other boy Ishmael is now my adopted son.
We were in the last day of the conference. In the morning, the kids were getting ready to get on the bus to go to JFK. And Aluzin was furious with me for not letting him stay, suddenly began to sob. But it wasn’t just sobbing, it was a kind of, almost like, an earthquake in his heart. And I begged someone at UNICEF to just let me take him to JFK on my own, in a taxicab. And, of course, he didn’t trust me. So, I was side by side with a tall, Norwegian, sort of Viking, humanitarian. So, the three of us were in the taxi. And Aluzin was crying. And I thought to myself, “If he can’t get on the plane, he can’t go back to war in this way because it would make him in danger.” So finally, when he was heaving and heaving, I just said, “Aluzin, I’ll do everything I can. Everything. To stay in touch with you, to see if I could get you out of Sierra Leone. But I have to take you back. Tell me what can I do for you now? I can’t keep you here. What can I? You can’t go on a plane, traumatized.”
And he stopped crying. And he looked at me and he said, “Tell me a story.”
It was as if every story that I knew just sort of flooded out of my body. And I was…”What do you, what do you do?”
You have like five minutes. It has to be a story that means something. And then a story just arrived up the back of my legs and I had no idea if this was appropriate or not but I thought, just go for it. And I tell this story.
It’s about a boy, a poor boy who had no money. It’s a story from Morocco. And he went to market place he saw everything in the market. He wanted everything. He couldn’t have anything. But in the middle of the market, there was a magician performing a magic act. The magician had a magic finger. Anything he touched, turned to gold. Everybody came, applauded, left. But the boy was like, Wha! The magician said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. You like my magic.”
And the boy said, “Yeah.”
Magician said, “Do you want some gold?”
The boy said, “Yeah.”
A little mouse came by, the magician touched it, turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “No, I want more.”
The magician looked. There was a huge table with, with plates and brass objects he turned to gold. He said, “Here.”
The boy said, “I want more.”
“Oh.” The magician said, “Come with me.” He took him. There was a field filled with cows. He turned all the cows to gold. “Here.”
The boy said, “No! I want more.”
The magician said, “What do you want?”
The boy said, “I want a magic finger.”
Shuli, my Viking guard, said, “Why did you tell that story?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure I knew. But Aluzin said, “I know. Because that’s what I want.” And I knew, that if this boy survived, he would more than survive. He would live because he wanted his own life force.
We got to JFK. He got on the plane. He went back to Sierra Leone. I called him every Friday morning, as I could, until the rebels attacked and it was hard to reach him. And then I called him again.
And I’ll tell you one tiny incident more, which is so beautiful about these kids. It was one Tuesday, I called him, was actually my birthday, and, selfishly, what I really wanted to do was have a cappuccino and get back into bed. So I, with my cappuccino, did get into bed and did make the call and I wasn’t going to tell him it was my birthday. I thought how lucky I am.
And when I called and, you know, there were two phones in Freetown through Sierratel, and I would say, “Aluzin Bah.” And everybody would call out Aluzin!”
And then I would hear people calling, “Hello, hello.” Hundreds of people waiting just in case somebody might call them. And he got on the phone. He said, “Laura, how are you?”
And I blurted out, “It’s my birthday!” And Aluzin, crying and laughing, called out to hundreds of people and said, “It’s Laura’s birthday!” And in the middle of the war, all these people sang “Happy Birthday.” And I realized that it would have been the most selfish thing if I hadn’t told him and given them the opportunity for joy.
Then the story… I’ll just tell you the great thing. That Aluzin graduated from college this year. He’s working in a bank so he could bring his childhood sweetheart to Montreal, where he lives. And he’s working for the benefit of children. And to me that’s a great story.
RaceBridges highlights a short video for
your viewing and inspiration. .
Negotiating the Narrows
A short video story by Storyteller Susan Klein
Themes : Religious Differences. Recognizing the various kinds of “isms”. Hope for societal change that embraces diversity.
(Please be patient as the video may take a few moments to load.)
……. As a young child Klein was intrigued by the mysterious practices of her Roman Catholic friends and neighbors. In the 1950s the Roman Catholic Church was still seen as somewhat foreign and was largely unknown or misunderstood by Protestant America. Although she was raised in the Methodist church, Klein was dazzled by Rosary beads, statues of saints, and the very mysterious Sunday Mass she attended with her best friend Debbie. (more…)
Emily Hooper Lansana’s story tells us about her educational journey growing up in a house where her parents always wanted her to have access to the best. Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she learned a lot about the ways that kids of different races were separated, and separated themselves, at school. (more…)
When Lyn was young, “Finding Josephus” was a “legend” told by her father. But curiosity and research brought forth its reality, and a connection both to the lesser-known history of the Underground Railroad and the heart of her father’s story. (more…)
Empathy grows from sharing stories; this story was shared to encourage others to know, to understand, and to remember. This is a personal journey tale from Lyn’s childhood living next door to a Holocaust survivor and, then, her adolescent small but mature steps into the greater Civil Rights Movement. (more…)
As a child, each summer Diane’s family drove from California to Louisiana to visit family. Diane remembers her father responding with increasing frustration whenever her brother asked if they could stop to get something to eat, each time promising “next town.”
Finally, the family stopped at a restaurant. Just as she is about to open the restaurant door, her father stops her. There is a “whites only” sign above the door. Diane’s family must go around back to eat in the kitchen. Diane learned about prejudice that day but also about how her family kept their spirits high no matter what they faced.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Next-Town
What did you think the title “Next Town” referred to when you first read it? How do you react to the title now that you know how it was used?
Diane’s parents left Louisiana to escape the segregated south, which oppressed African Americans with Jim Crow laws and threats of violence. Why do you think they returned every summer? Why do you think some African Americans stayed in the south?
Diane learns significant lessons on the day she describes in this story. She learns that people can hate her without even knowing her and that there are people such as her parents who maintain their integrity even in the face of such hate. When have you faced irrational prejudice in yourself or others? How did you deal with it?
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Guide for Using The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 in the Classroom by Debra Housel
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Diane Ferlatte, and I am a storyteller. I’m gonna tell you an excerpt from a longer story of my life, a true story. In the 1940’s and 50’s, many black people just left the south because of Jim Crow laws. They were just sick and tired of Jim Crow laws and the segregation in the south, and my family was no different. My daddy put us on a train and we left Louisiana, going all the way to California, where I live now. And things were different in California.
I liked living in California. But, guess what? Every summer, my only summer vacation, my whole family would get in the car and drive all the way back to Louisiana to visit family, you know, grandma and grandpa. But can you imagine that? Driving thousands of mile across that desert, in all that heat, in a car, with no air conditioning. And we couldn’t stop, you know at hotels, get a nice rest, take a quick shower. No, the only time we stopped is to get some gas or to use the bathroom, you know, to get rid of some gas! We couldn’t stop at restaurants either to get something to eat because we didn’t have a lot of money. But before we left, my mother would fry chicken; we had sandwiches, we had cookies, we had grapes, we had apples—I mean, the car was stacked up with food and pillows. We were on our way, to Louisiana! It was me in the back seat, next to the cookies, my two knuckle-head brothers, my mama and my daddy, and off we went.
But before we left California of course the food was gone. As soon as the food was gone, my brother started hollering, “Daddy, I’m hungry. Can we stop and get something to eat?” My father said, “Next town.” But the next town, “Hey, Daddy, there’s a place! Can we stop, can we stop?” He said “Next town,” and pretty soon there we are at the next town. He said, “Daddy, Daddy, I’m hungry! Can we stop, daddy?” He said “Next town, boy!” I don’t know what happened, my daddy, he must have got hungry himself because he finally stopped and when he stopped, my brother was Mr. Happy, “Oh man, I’m gonna have me a hamburger, I’m gonna have me some French fries!” And I said, “I am having some biscuits!”
I jumped out of the car, I ran to the front door of that restaurant. I opened the screen door, I was just about to go in and get my biscuits, and my daddy said, “Get away from that door, girl, can’t you read that sign?” And I looked up, and there was a sign above the restaurant door that said: “Whites only.” Black people couldn’t go in. I was ten years old when that happened. Ten. And I got so angry, I picked up a rock and I was gonna chunk it at that sign and my daddy said, “Put that rock down. Don’t you pay any attention to that sign. Don’t you worry, we’re going to get something to eat. Put that rock down. Put it down!” My daddy took me by the hand and he led us around the side of the building all the way to the back of the restaurant. It was so hot outside, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.
My daddy was talking fast, like he does when he is upset and he made me a little nervous. When he walked through the back door of the restaurant, he had a big smile on his face. He walked in and he said, “Morning, how’s everybody doing this morning?” But I looked around: we had to eat in the kitchen. We thought it was hot outside, try eating in that hot kitchen! Because, see, all the fans were up front in the restaurant, for the white customers. We sat down at two old, wooden tables in the kitchen, and I will never forget what happened next. It was a tall, brown-skinned woman, my color skin, standing behind the stove. She was the cook, you know, apron tied high, scarf tied around the hair so that the hair wouldn’t fall in the food she was cooking, and there was a window behind her that went to the restaurant, and the waitress would call all these orders to her through that window. She would say, “Eggs over easy! Bacon crisp! Biscuits!”
But the cook looked over at me, and she saw my lip was poked out, and my daddy was trying to calm me down. And she said, “Biscuits not ready yet!” Then she looked back at me and said, “Don’t you worry, baby, I’m gonna feed you all first.” So who got the first biscuits that day? We did. But as a little girl, I learned a lot about prejudice. As a little girl, I learned a lot about how people can hate you, they don’t even know you! But I also learned how some people handle it, because even though my daddy was just as angry as me inside, he didn’t let prejudice spoil his day or his meal. And we did get something to eat. My daddy was just like he liked his eggs—sunny-side up. Everybody liked my daddy, who took time to get to know you. He was always able to keep on the sunny side of life—because there is the other side! But that’s the story, a true story from my life.
While sitting alone in a restaurant having lunch, Ferlatte notices an older white man also eating alone and looking sad and worried. When she tries to be friendly, the man responds with a grunt. Ferlatte starts labeling him in her mind as a “mean old white man.” Later, she corrects her own thinking by reminding herself that she doesn’t know anything about the man. Later, as he leaves the restaurant, the man pours out his story, sharing that his wife of 61 one years has recently died. The two end up having a brief conversation, and Ferlatte realizes the importance of reaching across barriers of race, culture, and generations in order focus on the person right in front of you.
What do you think inspired Ferlatte to speak to the old man? How would you have felt if you had been Ferlatte, and the old man had grunted at you? What would you have thought about him?
Have you ever tried to reach across a barrier (race, age, language, class, etc.) with someone you didn’t know? How did it go? Did you learn from that experience?
Ferlatte manages her own initial reaction against the man. How does she do that? Have you ever had to talk to yourself to get yourself to think differently? When? Did it work?
The Nature of Prejudice: 25th Anniversary Edition by Gordon W. Allport and Kenneth Clark
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Diane Ferlatte. I’m a storyteller. I’m gonna tell you a small excerpt from… a longer story but it’s a true story.
I was going to a school to tell stories. In the morning, I had two assemblies, had a quick lunch break, two assemblies in the afternoon. Well, I finished my two assemblies, rushed to a restaurant nearby and I told them I was in a hurry.
“Oh, don’t worry. We’ll seat you right away, ma’am.”
She brought me in, set me at a booth, gave me my menu. I made my order and I sat there to wait. While I’m waiting, I get a little warm. Whoo! So, I get up, I go to put my coat down on the seat opposite my booth. And when I do that, uh, I looked up and I see an older white man sitting in his booth, facing me and his eyes look blank. You ever see folks like that. He looked very worried and very sad.
So, I say to him, “Penny for your thoughts!”
And he kinda comes out of it and he said, “What did you say to me?”
I said, “Penny for your thoughts.”
He said, “Aah!”
And when he did that, I sat down with an attitude! All the little prejudices we all have, begin to bubble up. And I said to myself, “Mean old white man, why does he have to be so rude and so grumpy. I’m just trying to be friendly. Uh huh, mean old white man.”
But the more I sat there, I thought, “What are you doing? Why did you have to say, ‘mean old white man?’ Why even think that. You don’t even know what’s going on in that man’s mind. Why he might be looking so sad or worried. Chill out!”
So, I did. And I always bring a book to read looking for another story. His food comes first and then my food comes. So, I’m sitting there, you know, reading and eating, and reading and eating, reading and eating.
He finishes first and he gets up to go pay. But to go up front to pay, he has to pass my booth and when he gets to my booth, he stops. And I think, “Oh, oh!”
And then he leans over and he said, “What did you say to me?”
And I said, “Penny for your thoughts.”
He said, “Young lady, if you only knew. My wife died three weeks ago and I don’t know what to do.
I said, “I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe I should say something.”
He said, “Well, you sure got that right. You believe, we were married 61 years!”
I said, “What! You were married 61 years… to the same woman!”
And that made him smile. Then he came really close to my face and he said, “You believe, I’m 90 years old?
I said, “What? You’re 90 years old? Let me touch you. I want to live to be that old.” I said, “You’re 90 years old, married to the same woman 61 years.” I said, “You are blessed; you are blessed. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything’s going to be all right.”
That old man tapped me on my left shoulder like this and he said, “Thank you, young lady. Thank you.” And he left.
But, you know, that old man didn’t have to stop and say anything to me. But he did. I didn’t have to say anything to him. But I did. Two cultures coming together in that one little moment of life. Two generations really, coming together in that one little moment of life. But you know what they say, “The most important person in this world is the one you’re with right now.” It’s a true story from my life. We all got ’em, ha!
Bartholomew, an African American man who is the church custodian is a familiar figure to the congregation at Mary Gay’s church. However, when it’s rumored that African Americans are coming to their church and will be asked to be seated, suddenly the pleasant veneer of acceptance is exposed. (more…)
Loren who is white goes to a BBQ place in an all black neighborhood and comes to understand prejudice in a direct and personal way.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Milwaukee-B-B-Q
How does prejudice play out in the day to day in this story?
What role do the police play in this story and what role do the police play n your cultural experience?
When have you found yourself to be the wrong person by virtue of color, religion, ethnic origin or sexual identity in an uncomfortable circumstance?
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Civil Rights Activism in Milwaukee: South Side Struggles in the 60’s and ’70’s by Paul Geenen
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
I’m Loren Niemi.
In the summer of 1968, I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was working with a bunch of Catholic Worker folks, at a place called Casa Maria. Anti-war, war on poverty, you know. It was all the same black, white, Latino, Irish immigrants, interestingly enough, Jesuits, we were all in it together.
So, this one day, ah, this big, black, teddy bear of a guy, Tommy, comes up to me and he says, “Hey are you interested in some barbecue?”
And I said, “Yeah, I love barbecue. So, so, we get in the car and we drive to this place, a little bit west of 28th Street. It’s not a good neighborhood. It was, ah, after Martin Luther King’s assassination and you could see the effects. Vacant lots of burned out buildings. There was a rundown house just across from where we parked. Ah, kids sitting on the steps, nothing to do, idle, as if the house was collapsing around them. The barbecue joint itself was done in post-Wright architectural style. I mean, you know, bricked up front, little tiny window space up on the top, covered with chain link fence. There was um, ah, this steel plate door with “Barbecue,” kind of like graffiti on it.
We walk inside. Inside in the back, there’s a pool table, five, six guys shooting pool, drinking beer. Couple of tables back there. Up front there’s a counter. There’s a menu on a piece of cardboard, “Barbecue, rib tips, chicken, collard greens.” A guy standing behind the counter.
I go up. I, I say, “Can I have a half slab of ribs?”
He turns around and looks at me. Looks at me, long and hard he says, “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
I look at him. I look around, “I think so. Ah. I want some BBQ. This is a barbecue place. I think I’m in the right place.”
All of a sudden, he, he reaches out with a pair of tongs and he snaps them at me and he says, “Are you sure you are in the right place? Look around. What do you see?”
“Barbecue sign. Beer sign. Some guys in the back, shooting pool.”
“Those guys in the back. What color are they?”
There’s a moment of hesitation. I’m thinking. OK, so let’s say negro. No, definitely not negro. African-American. Well, maybe. But the problem is, is that’s really not a color. Black. I guess that’s where we’re at. So, I go, ‘Black.”
And he says, “Ya. And what color are you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, tan, pink, white.” And he looks at me. And I go, “I’m with him,” pointing to Tommy.
And he says, “Oh, he may be in the right place but that doesn’t mean you in the right place.”
About this time, all the guys in the back had stopped shooting pool. They stopped drinking beer. They’re all looking our way.
And Tommy says to me, “Go wait in the car.” So, I do. I go outside. I get in the car. I roll down the window. I light up a cigarette. I’m sitting there, I’m smoking. I’m looking and I’m thinking, for the first time in my life, I was the wrong color. For the first time in my life, I was the guy who was in the wrong place. The, you know, the one who didn’t belong. Who didn’t know what the rules were. Who didn’t know who I was or what was expected.
About this time, a, a bus comes by. The driver’s white but every face behind him, that, all the windows are black. A car goes by, white guy behind the wheel. I can even, even from where I’m sitting I can see his white knuckles. I can see him staring straight ahead. I know his doors are locked. I know his windows are up. He’s riding on fear through the neighborhood. He doesn’t know if he’s lost or just trying to get out.
And I think to myself, “You know, this is a one-time thing. I mean, I can just walk out of the neighborhood and this will go away. But for those kids, those kids sitting on the stoop across the way this is every day. Every time they walk into a room and the white faces turn to them, you know, and go, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
About this, about this time, Tommy comes to the car and he gets in and he laugh and he says, “You almost got me in a lot of trouble in there.”
“How did I get you in trouble? I’m the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there.”
“They all wanted to know, what I was doing with a dumb, white honky like you. And I told them I was going to rob you and they all approved.”
“Tommy, are you going to rob me?”
“Well, you’re paying for the Q.” And so, we start the engine. We start to drive away.
We don’t get more than a block, when, when a squad car comes the other direction. A squad car comes and he slows down as we pass. He looks at us. A black guy and a white guy in the car together. And he just circles right around and drops in right behind us. And I expect to get lit up at any moment. And Tommy says, “You got any outstanding warrants?”
And I go, “Not that I’m aware of.”
And he says, “He’s running our plates. You know, you got any trouble, he’s stopping us.”
I keep looking in the rearview mirror. I keep looking in the rearview mirror. After a couple of blocks, the cop turns off and we drive a little further. We pull into a city park. We’re just getting out of the car when another squad car pulls in. The cop in that squad car, he looks at us getting out of the car with our bag of barbecue and he motions, “Move on, move on.” So, we get back in the car.
And we start to drive. One mile, two miles, we have to go out into a county park on the edge of the city before, you know, before we can sit down and eat. We don’t even get out of the car. We just roll down the windows and let the sound of nature, kind of, filter in, and we have barbecue and collard greens. And we think to ourselves, how long will it be before this is taken for granted?
This is a true story set in rural McHenry County, Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s about John Henry Higler, a man who claimed to be former slave who assimilated into an all white farm community.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: John-Henry
Can you imagine living and working in a community where there was no one who shared your background and “race”?
Do you think this account of John Henry being a beloved member of a white farming community in the early part of the 20th century is hopeful or simply a story that whites told to assuage their guilt about white privilege?
Have you ever gone to a graveyard and imagined the stories behind the people buried there?
The Farm on Nippersink Creek by Jim May (pp.145-149)
Running With The Horsemen by Ferrell Sams. A novel about farm work in the south and relationships between the races.
African American/Black History
I grew up in Spring Grove, IL, a little German Catholic farming community about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. And my family has been there for about five generations; they came probably in the 1840’s.
Growing up, I had heard off and on the story of, it seemed to me perhaps like a legend at that time, of a black man buried somewhere in Spring Grove in one of the cemeteries. And there was talk that he had been held in slavery in some time in his life in Tennessee. I probably forgot about that story for years and years. But when I got interested in family history and storytelling, I started digging around a little bit and came across the very person to come across, an 80-year-old man, Tommy Madden, who had been one of my father’s best friends. And Tommy and another acquaintance of his, Jim Holderman, had known this gentleman from Tennessee.
They all referred to him as John Henry, which of course is ironic: John Henry is the mythical hero of black American folklore who won the race with the steam hammer and maybe that’s why John Henry took his name. I’m not sure, but he had come out to Spring Grove, a little side-tracked town, come off of Chicago apparently.
In fact, the story was that he had left Tennessee, either been emancipated at the end of the Civil War perhaps or had escaped, no one knew for sure. But he had come out to Chicago, which makes some sense. But he had told everybody that he met in Spring Grove that he found things too “sportin’” in Chicago.
So he was looking for a quieter place, and he found the right place: in Spring Grove there wasn’t much sporting going on. Nearly 200 people and four taverns and two churches, that was about it. But he worked for farmers there; he was a hired hand, a live-in hired hand. And he found one family, the Stevens family, that particularly took an interest in him, and he lived with that family and worked with that family for years and years.
In fact, he worked often in the farm house helping Mrs. Stevens, and the story was Mrs. Stevens said she just couldn’t part with John Henry, that she would send her husband down the road before she let go of John Henry. He was so helpful to her, he loved children. There was a story that he would sit around the big dining room table, big farm family, and he always liked sitting next to the baby. He liked feeding the baby. And he would read the newspaper; he couldn’t read, but he would hold the newspaper and make up the story. One of the boys, the youngest, I was told by his brother, just wouldn’t go to sleep, wouldn’t go to bed, until John Henry helped him take his boots and shoes off and got him ready for bed.
But there was more of the story, of course. Things couldn’t have been easy for John living out there, the only black man for miles around. I remember this one story where they had a threshing and there were some day laborers hired from out of community to work. There was extra work to do when the grains had to be threshed, and a couple of these fellows were up high on a straw stack and they saw John below, maybe working on the machine, maybe oiling the machine, doing some kind of work beneath them, and they got the oil can and they squirted some oil on him as a joke.
I remember Tommy Madden saying, “John didn’t complain, he never wanted to bother anybody.” Of course, that was the internalized reality of being a slave: if you bothered someone, that might mean your life, your family might be sold down the river. But when the boss, the man who owned the farm found out about it, as they gathered around this big, incredible spread of food for the threshing crews, when the boss Mr. Stevens found out, he fired the two day laborers on the spot after what they had done because they humiliated John.
And old Tommy, who was 88-years-old, told me that story. I remember he was sitting on his couch there on a February afternoon and he had bib overalls on, and he was telling me that story about these two fellows that humiliated John being fired and he kind of raised his fist. I remember that he had a kind of gun metal blue nail on his fist and I remember him punctuating his word and saying, “That was the end of those fellows for what they did to John.”
“He felt a sense of justice there. I think perhaps the uniqueness of having someone who had been once held in slavery, the uniqueness of having a black man in the community, there was a certain deference paid to John. But I remember also hearing my relatives say that he would dance with the girls at church functions, and some of them wouldn’t like that.
He, even with the Stevens family whom he loved and they loved him, they would ask him to come into the front room after dinner in the kitchen, and, no, he would always sit alone in his rocking chair in the kitchen, not in the front room. Things must have been lonely for him, but the story of course was fascinating, and when I heard Tommy that day, that February day when I got this story from Tommy, he said, “I know where he is buried.”
This was new information to me. I heard he was buried somewhere in the county line, but I never met anyone who knew where he was buried. Tommy said he’s in the old cemetery on Wilmot Road. Down along the fence line, over in the north east corner, you’ll find John’s grave.
On that February day I said goodbye to Tommy and left Wilmot, Wisconsin and drove along Wilmot Road looking for the cemetery and found it of course. I knew where the cemetery was. But I walked back and forth, back and forth amongst those grave stones that late February afternoon and did not find the John Henry grave.
And thinking about his life and even so far away from anything that would have been a familiar experience for him of being a helping hand in slavery in Tennessee, far away from family, there was no family that anyone knew of, and I thought, finally, now, his grave is gone too. Even the memory was gone, kind of punctuating the loneliness of his life or that aspect of that life.
And I literally had given up looking for the tombstone and was heading back to my car, I almost stumbled on it. You know, how you give up looking for something and you find it? There at my feet was a very proper granite stone. I knew he had died in the county home and, so, I had already concluded that perhaps there was no marker at all. Perhaps a wooden cross that had rotted or nothing to mark his grave, but there it was: a very proper granite stone that said John Henry Higgler, and he died in 1947, the same year that my grandpa died.
The best of my memory was 1947, there on the stone. There was no birthday, because there was often no birthdays recorded for slaves, but there was a very proper stone and in front of that stone was a bright red, fairly new plastic flower.
And it occurred to me that those people who lived up there in that prairie, the English prairie, north of Spring Grove, had found a way to transcend race and culture and geography, and the monument to that connection that was made across all those challenges was that red rose, that red plastic rose that was there on that cold February day.
And perhaps that’s kind of a metaphor for our country, our culture. Racism is solid still, frozen like the ground was that February day. But here and there we see these patches of red, these signs of life and flowering. Thinking about it, now with the last presidential election, we have kind of a garland in a snow bank, you know we got Obama in the white house. That’s why they call it the White House, I guess. I don’t know. So, it’s still there in the old cemetery, John Henry, if you want to go, if you want to go check out the grave.
Sue grew up hearing about “them” – the people who would come and take her and her neighbors’ homes in their all-white neighborhood. When her family watched the Friday night fights, it was made clear who was “the other” and who was “us.” (more…)
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Rosa Parks is best known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her action galvanized the growing Civil Rights Movement and led to the successful Montgomery bus boycott. But even before her defiant act and the resulting boycott, Ms. Parks was dedicated to racial justice and equality. Linda Gorham tells the story of those times through the eyes of three people: Claudette Colvin (a 15-year-old who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks), James Blake (the bus driver), and Rosa Parks herself.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Rosa-Parks
Given the climate of violence Rosa Parks faced, would you have had the courage to do what she and the other people of the Civil Rights Movement did? Have you ever stood up for something you believe in? What happened?
Would you have been one of the people involved in the Civil Rights movement? How would you have helped?
Many Whites thought things were unfair in this country and supported the Civil Rights Movement yet were afraid to say so to their own spouses, families or neighbors. When have you felt afraid to share your beliefs?
Film – Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks by Hudson & Houston produced by
Teaching Tolerance and Tell the Truth Pictures.
Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it.
Rosa Parks: A Life by Douglas Brinkley. Historian Douglas Brinkley follows this thoughtful and devout woman from her childhood in Jim Crow Alabama through her early involvement in the NAACP to her epochal moment of courage and her afterlife as a beloved (and resented) icon of the civil rights movement.
African American/Black History
Civil Rights Movement
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
“If you miss me at the back of the bus and you can’t find me no where, Come on up to the front of the bus ’cause I’ll be riding up there.” Those words come from a song written by James Neblett. And he said, in that song, that he was celebrating all the accomplishments that African-Americans had made during the 1950’s and the 1960’s in the civil rights movement. And one of the very basic accomplishments, which is unbelievable that it was not possible to do, was for African-Americans to be able to sit anywhere on a public bus. You know, for 68 years in this country, there were laws called Jim Crow laws. And those laws, well, they were mandated to separate the races. Now, they did a good job of keeping the races separate but they sure didn’t do a good job of keeping things equal. Separate but equal, they called it. No way. Not at all.
Well, all that changed in 1955, especially on the buses. The buses, you know, they used to have the front rows for the white people and African-Americans had to sit in the back and if the white section filled up and a white person was standing, well, don’t you know, an entire row of African-Americans would have to get up and move to the back. It was totally unfair.
But in 1955 that’s when Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old woman, from Montgomery, Alabama, she was ordered to stand up on the bus and give up her seat. And Rosa Parks refused. Now I will tell you, her dignity stood up. Her commitment to ending bus segregation stood up. Her inner spirit and, I’m sure, her soul stood up. So, Rosa Parks could make the difficult decision to remain sitting down. Now, there have been many books written about that day and the ensuing year. But I think Rosa Parks said it best herself. So, from excerpts from her autobiography and the many interviews that she had, I’m going to tell you Rosa Parks’ story in mostly her words.
When that bus driver came back at me, waving his arms, yelling at me saying, “Make it light on yourself. Give up your seat.” I was ready. I was not going to give up my seat. I had prepared for that moment for a long time.
You see, it was December 1st, 1955. Ha! The newspaper reporter said that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired. Ha. I’ll tell you what I was tired of! I was tired of seeing men, women, and children disrespected because of the color of their skin. I was tired of Jim Crow segregation laws. I was tired of being oppressed. You see, my feet were not tired, my soul was. The United States of America was supposed to be the land of the free; the land of equality. But it seems to me, the only people who are equal, well, are people with white skin. And I too am an American and I too deserve respect.
Hmm. Those newspaper reporters… well, they said that I was just a seamstress. No, I am a tailor. I work downtown for the Montgomery Ward Department store. I tailor men’s clothes so they fit nice. I do a great job! But that’s not all I do. You see, I’m also a volunteer secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We call it the NAACP. I’m also the head of their youth group. I will tell you, many times I’ve sat in those meetings taking the minutes and I hear about all the horrible crimes against Negro people. White hate crimes we call them. Where Negroes are cheated, and abused, and harassed, and murdered, and lynched, and much, much more.
You know that young girl, Claudette Colvin? She was 15 years old when she didn’t give up her seat on the bus. Oh, I was very proud of her. What she did was hard and brave. She could have gotten killed for that small act of defiance. I invited her to talk to my youth group and we talked about her case many times at the NAACP meetings. And you know, after hearing what she did and after thinking of all that I’ve been through, well, I’ve made up my mind I was never again going to give up my seat on any bus.
Now I will tell you, I rode that bus to work, five mornings a week, five evenings a week, four weeks out of every month. And each time I try to sit as high up as I could in the Negro section and each time I said to myself, “If I’m asked to give up my seat, I will NOT.”
Hmm. When that day came, and that bus driver came running after me waving his arms, I rapped my determination around me like a quilt on a cold winter’s night. And when the police came on that bus, I looked up at one of them and I said, “Why do you push us around?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me.
He said, “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.”
Now I will tell you, they didn’t push me around like they did with Claudette. They were very polite. One took my purse, one took my shopping bag, and they escorted me off the bus. And once off the bus, we got to the squad car, and they opened the door, and I got inside. And actually, once inside, they gave me back my purse and my personal belongings.
On the way to City Hall, one of those policemen turned around and he looked at me and he said, “Why didn’t you give up your seat when the bus driver asked you to?” I didn’t tell him a thing. I was silent all the way to City Hall.
Now let me tell you, after my arrest, the NAACP called for a boycott of the buses. And all the Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama who had been silent or who had been afraid or who had been fearful or who had been angry, we all came together. And we said, “We’re going to boycott the buses until the laws change. We’re just not going to ride.”
Hmm. You know, there were 17,000 Negroes that rode those buses every day and they made up more than three-quarters of the ridership. And when we stopped riding those buses, the bus company lost money. It was hard on them. But let me tell you that, was nothing compared to how hard it was on us.
We walked. We walked everywhere. We walked to church. We walked to school. We walked to work. We walked to visit friends. We walked to buy food. Now, the NAACP did set up carpools – 300 of them. And they did run on a regular basis and that was helpful, especially for those who were older or infirmed. Most of us, we just walked. No matter what the weather. No matter how we felt. No matter how many bundles we had to carry. No matter how many children we had in tow. We walked and not for a day, and not for a week, and not for a month. We walked for 381 days. Three hundred and eighty-one days.
Well, finally after all that walking, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional. Look, I have to tell you, what took them so long. Well, in any case, the Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama walked for 381 days so that Negroes throughout the United States of America could sit anywhere they wanted on any trolley, any train, and any bus. It wasn’t easy.
Looking at high school yearbooks, Shanta reflects on the “change” in her neighborhood from mostly white to all black. As a child, Shanta could not understand when the adults told her “the white people are running away from us”. Even as an adult with a larger understanding of the times – blockbusting and other societal and economic pressures – the sting of being “the other” remains.
What stories can photo albums or school yearbooks tell you about the people in your family or neighborhood?
How do you feel when you realize that someone doesn’t like you?
What keeps you strong when you’re in uncomfortable situations?
How does your family influence your ideas and feelings about people from different backgrounds or cultures?
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison
Seed Folks by Paul Fleischman
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
As a child, I was fascinated with high school yearbooks. I would study my mother’s yearbooks from the 1940s, the Inglewood High School books. I really enjoyed seeing how she and her friends looked when they were teenagers. And I would also become real familiar with the most popular, best dressed, the cheerleaders, the guys on the TV. I mean, you would have thought they were personal friends of mine. So when we moved in our new house and Frank, next door, was going to high school and he brought his yearbook home, I couldn’t wait to see it. Now, his sister, Marcia was my friend and she would have to sneak the book out of the house and then we would spend hours looking at it noticing that Frank was one of the few black students at Hirsche. But we also took time to learn the cheerleaders, the guys on the team, the captain of the debate team.
Now, race consciousness was not so unusual for eight-year-olds at that time. I mean, we moved into this new neighborhood. There were lots of white people on the block. But the very next year, they were all gone. And the adult conversations, I mean we couldn’t help but hear, the tones when people would talk about how when they moved into the new house, so many things were broken or destroyed. And that had been done by the previous owners who just had some kind of resentment or something about these people who were moving in. And then there were the warnings to not let yourself get caught at night or by whites, passed Ashland and then passed Damen and then passed Western. They would talk about how white people kept running away from us. Why would they run away from us? We were good people. We went to church. We mowed our grass. Why would they run away?
Two years after we moved, my brother went to Hirsch. And when I saw his yearbooks, there were, lots more white…, lots more black kids in the books and fewer whites. That meant that there were fewer white kids who were studying with and playing alongside my brother. And by the time I got to Hirsch, there were only three white faces that peered out of those pages. And those three kids were all from the same family. My child mind wondered what was wrong with us? Why were people running away from us?
I now know that it was fear. People were scared, not necessarily just because we were who we were, but they were getting phone calls late at night by realtors and insurance agents warning them that they had to get out of the neighborhood. I now know that there was nothing wrong with us. That there is nothing wrong with us. But…that little girl, she felt the sting. She felt the hurt of people running away. And even now when I travel around the country to places near and far, tell these stories… if I mention that I’m from the South Side of Chicago, invariably some well-meaning person will come up to me and say I’m from the south side too. And as I ask why and where, while they’re telling me how they lived in and moved away from the South Shore, Roselyn, or Chadham, in my mind, I can’t help but think. Yeah, yours was one of those families that ran away from us. And the child who still lives inside of me, she’s still hurt.
Gospel is a blend of spirituals, blues and African rhythm. How do musical forms morph into their next evolution?
What was happening in the U.S. and for African Americans as Gospel music evolved? How did Gospel music provide comfort and artistic expression for African Americans?
People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music by Robert Darden
Thomas A. Dorsey Father of Black Gospel an Interview by Robert L. Taylor
Mahalia Jackson: Born to Sing Gospel Music by Evelyn Witter
African American/Black History
You talk about the development of American roots music and how much wonderful music came out of the blues. But probably one of the most… least, understood styles to come out of blues would be gospel. That you had piano players like Georgia Tom Dorsey who played these little ditties like… (Singing)
I got a gal who’s crazy about me.
She’s just as crazy as a gal can be.
Well, she ain’t crazy. She’s just funny that way.
And this was in the 1920s – a kind of music called hokum. It had a lot of really suggestive lyrics and double entrendres and stuff like that. But he went back to church in the midst of the Great Depression. He went back to Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and started playing for his father off doing the revival. He had settled down, he had married the girl of his dreams, and they were waiting the birth of the first child when he got a telegram that told him to come home. Your wife has died. And he comes home. And, already devastated by the fact that his wife was gone, he found out that the baby, who they had managed to save in childbirth, had died as well.
And he talked about putting them both into the same casket and being devastated. Not being able to play anything. Blues, nothing. Spirituals, nothing. And then one day, he’s sitting diddling around on the piano, and following those same old chord changes that he played for blues. But he slowed them down and sort of gave birth to another style of music we call gospel.
Those chord changes weren’t enough. Thomas Dorsey had a kind of a light, high voice. He needed a powerful voice in order to sell his music. So he found a woman by the name of Mahalia Jackson. And Mahalia and Georgia Tom Dorsey, now known as Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, made gospel music what it is with songs like this.
(Guitar playing and singing)
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m so tired, I am weak, I am worn
Lord, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m so tired, I am weak, (I am weak) I am worn (Lord, I am worn)
Lord, I am worn
Through the storm, (Through the storm) through the night (through the night)
Rev. Jones describes how American Roots Music tells a story. He plays a harmonica piece by Sonny Terry called Lost John. Lost John tells the story of a man who escapes a chain gang trying to get home to see his family. In the song, you hear the hounds chasing and the train a’ coming. (more…)
John Price escapes from the Kentucky plantation where he had been enslaved. He plans to go to Canada but when he arrives in Oberlin, Ohio and sees Black shopkeepers and Black students going to college, he decides to stay. However, he doesn’t know that a slave catcher under the protection of the Fugitive Slave Act is coming for him. (more…)
Dr. Martin Luther King marches through Sue’s southwest side neighborhood in Chicago in 1966. Her family’s and neighbor’s reaction plus her own conflicted feelings rise just as the KKK makes its appearance. (more…)
Would you hide a family fleeing the violence during a riot?
What led up to the riots? How were people turned against each other? Who benefitted from the separation of black and white?
What choices confronted the city leaders after the 1919 race riot? What choices did they make? What were the consequences?
What does it mean that segregation was “forced”?
Race Riot: Chicago in Red Summer of 1919 by William M. Tuttle
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
In the summer, between my freshman and sophomore year of high school, I took a special summer course with a focus on housing. I had an internship where I was assigned to a community organizer named Lee whose specialty was Chicago housing. Now, I guess today we would describe my mentor, Lee, as an aging hippie. He was in his 40s and his long hair in a ponytail went all the way down his back, only the top of this head was shiny clear skin. It’s as if the ponytail was pulling the hair right off the top of his head. I’d never seen a man with so much hair, going bald.
Now from Lee, I learned one of the most startling facts I’ve ever heard up to that point in my life. That the city of Chicago had not always been segregated. Lee mentioned this fact, oh, just casually, one day as if it were common knowledge. We were on our way to go get a pop. Now this shows you I’m from Chicago. Not soda pop or soda but a pop. We are going to Max’s Barbershop. Because at the front of Max’s shop, he had a vending machine where he sold soft drinks. And Lee opened the door for me and the little bell, to give a little ding-a-ling, announcing our arrival. Lee mentioned again, just kind of casually, you know about Chicago before it was segregated. I liked flipped out. I said, “Chicago was integrated once? When?”
Well, we got our pops. We settled onto the torn leather couch at the front of Max’s shop and Lee lowered his voice so as not to start a racial diatribe in the barbershop. And he told me at the turn of the century that blacks were less segregated in Chicago than Italians and other European groups. He said, oh, maybe by 1910 or so there were a dozen or so all black blocks in the whole city. You know, because families would want to move in near each other. Near somebody they know. But it wasn’t like those blocks were adjacent to each other. There wasn’t what we would call black and white part of town. “Well, what changed things?” I asked.
He said, “More and more African-Americans coming up from the south. They were trying to escape the injustice of the migrant farmer system or crops would fail so there was no work. And it was perfect for the factory owners, the business owners, ’cause they could set one group against the other and the competition would keep those prices low.” And I realized I knew something about this because my grandfather told me over and over again while I was growing up, all the times he’d lost jobs to black men. My grandpa had worked construction, worked at the stockyards. And I told Lee about this. And he said that, oh yeah, it was true that my grandpa could have lost jobs. But the real reason was because all kinds of black workers were shipped up north, I mean, by the train load. Unsuspecting. Because the business owners could use them to bust up the unions. The white workers, they’re working conditions were deplorable too. They were trying to form unions. And sometimes we’d bring those trains right into the stockyards. They didn’t know, the black workers didn’t know, they were busting unions. But he told me the biggest thing that started the segregation in Chicago was the Chicago race riot of 1919.
One summer day in 1919 a young boy was floating on a raft in Lake Michigan. His name was Eugene Williams. Now, Eugene liked school well enough, he did well enough. But, awe, how he loved his summers! And he loved to hang out at the beach even though he wasn’t a very good swimmer. Now, some of you know Lake Michigan. It can get pretty wavy, almost like an ocean sometimes. It was one of those kind of rough sea days and it was wavy. And Eugene, some of his friends had made this makeshift raft. And the waves pushed Eugene across this imaginary line that some people thought of as the white part of the beach. And some white men and boys saw Eugene. They got mad. They started throwing stones and rocks, boulders, planks of wood, anything. And they knocked Eugene off and, as I said, he wasn’t the best swimmers, it was a wavy day. And Eugene drown.
Now some black people spotted some of the white men and boys who had thrown the stones and planks at Eugene. They ran up to a white police officer, the only kind of officer there was back then. And said, “There, those guys! Those are the guys that killed Eugene! They murdered Eugene!” But the police officer refused to make an arrest and a fist fight broke out.
That fight spread up and down the beach. It spilled out onto the streets on the South Side of Chicago and then to the middle Chicago to the North Side of Chicago. It’s like all that, that tension that was simmering there because of the competition over housing and jobs, it just exploded. It took four days and the National Guard to finally stop the violence. At the end, hundreds were injured. Scores of men and boys, mostly black were killed. Many right in their own homes, at the hands of their very own neighbors.
I sat on that torn leather couch looking out the door. I had heard absolutely nothing about the Chicago 1919 race riots. And all through my high school years, there had been race riots in Chicago. Just the year before, in my senior year, when Dr. King had been killed, there was unrest all over the city. Why hadn’t I heard these stories before?
I was so stunned by what Lee told me that I actually talked to my Grandmother McHugh that night about race. It was a subject I usually avoided with her at all cost. It was my turn to make dinner that night at our girls apartment for this special summer program. So, I called my grandmother get her spaghetti and meatballs recipe. That’s that famous Irish spaghetti and meatballs. And she was giving me her instructions, I guess it couldn’t get out of my head would Lee had said, and I just blurted out to my grandmother, “Ma did you ever hear of the Chicago race riots of 1919?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. Then there was this long pause and then she added, “I remember a family that hid by us.”
“What do you mean, hid by us?”
“Oh, they were a Negro family,” she said. “They had children. I think they lived a couple blocks away. And well, the city had come through and rounded up all the colored people and taken them to one area like a safety zone, you know. But they must’ve missed this family. And they were hiding in the gangway, next door to us. They were just too scared to move.”
I said, “Ma, how, how long this go on?”
“I don’t know, maybe three, four days. But, but my mom had me feed them. She would make sandwiches and she’d wrap it up in newspapers. She’d have me go out by the garbage cans like I was going to throw the newspaper away, but I tossed the sandwiches to them.”
“So you fed them? How long?
“Well, like three, four days,” she said again. “They were too scared to move through the neighborhood.”
“So now, why didn’t you ever tell me any of this before?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “It happened a long time ago. Besides what good does it do to talk about it?”
Well, Lee and I were talking about it and I wanted to know everything. I said, “And what, what happened after the 1919 race riots?”
And he said, “It was like after that the race riots. You just couldn’t run a city like that with wholesale violence, people punching each other and killing each other in the streets. So the leaders their… their focus became on keeping the peace.”
Now, this is where Lee said the city could have gone one way or the other. Keeping the peace could have meant standing up to everybody and saying, “Hey, we are going to learn to live together.” But instead the politicians, the business owners, they came up with a strategy to separate whites and blacks in more civilized ways. Lee told me, he said, “For instance, in the city council, they invented what we call restrictive covenants. It said that certain areas of the city, and this is a quote, ‘could only be occupied by people of white or Caucasian race.’” And then Lee said, “In certain areas they were trying to make all white, they’d go knock on the doors, they’d invite the black people to leave. They’d offer money or they’d make threats. And then they go to the store owners in that area and they threatened them that they’d better not sell anything to black families. I’m talking even a loaf of bread,” Lee said. “Or even stamps at the postage office, at the post office.”
Now Lee was some kind of working class scholar. Every quote, everything I heard that summer, he would make me look up, you know. Do research, get primary quotes, get my statistics straight, even if the quote came from him. So I looked and I looked and I found all kinds of tidbits. Like a 1920 Hyde Park neighborhood association newspaper and it put a big ad in there. And said, “Every black man who moves into Hyde Park knows he is damaging his white man’s property. Therefore he’s declaring war on the white man. If store owners and businesses should refuse to give a job to any black man that stays and resides in Hyde Park, well, that would show very good results.”
I’d always been told that blacks live with blacks and whites with whites, browns with browns, because everybody preferred their own kind. But that day I learned that segregation had been forced. I sat on that leather couch, sipping my orange Nehi pop, staring through the door and out at the barbershop pole. It’s red and white stripes twirling around each other but never, ever touching.
Michael’s mother models the importance and love of reading, but, mostly importantly, the value of kindness. When Michael tours in Brazil, he discovers that his mother was teaching the students there as well.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:Mama-Said
What is the power of positive reinforcement?
What was learned from the “Tea & Pound Cake” encounter?
How is reading the key to making your dreams become reality?
Live Your Dreams by Les Brown
African American/Black History
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My mother thought she had gas but she didn’t. Her stomach was bloated because I was in there. Now this was quite a surprise because my mother was in her 40s. My father was about 50 years old. They weren’t expecting any more chillun. There was 14, 20, 25 years between me and my siblings. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Now, as long as I can remember, and I can remember ’til I was about two years old, my mother always read me and told me stories. She read me folk tales and fairy tales, and told me stories about growing up in Barbados. One of the favorite stories that she would tell me again and again was how much she loved reading.
Every night she would sit in her room and read and read and read until her mother would come in and say, “Close that book and go to sleep and turn out the light!” And then, my mother would go to the window and read by the gas streetlight. And she imparted that love of reading to me.
My mother would buy me books, any kind of book I wanted. Wouldn’t buy me Playboy but any other kind of book I wanted. She’d get me books. Marvel comic books. She turned me on to Marvel comic book, inadvertently. She got, I wanted a Green Lantern. She came back with, with Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But anything that got me reading, she was for it.
My mother explained that during slavery times, blacks were not allowed to read because the slave masters feared that if blacks could read, that knowledge was power, and they would be able to use that knowledge to escape. So, she imparted to me the belief that, if you could read, you could do anything now.
Now, my mother read the newspaper, every day. In fact, at one point we got four newspapers. So, we would have discussions about what was going on; the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and she would share these things with me. My mother used to go to Evanston and she would clean homes in Evanston, white folks homes, and she loved this because it was her chance to get her own money. And that was something that was exciting to her. And she imparted that too to me; the idea of being independent. The idea of being able to take care of yourselves. Now, my mother, I grew up Catholic, and my mother was the best Catholic Christian I ever knew. You talk about do unto others.
Let me tell you the story about my mom. Now, one day me and my mom were home alone. I was about somewhere eight, nine, ten years old. Doorber… doorbell rang. I answered the door. There was a woman at the door. She says, “Young man, is your mother home?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll go get her.” I got my mom.
The woman said to my mother, “Miss, you don’t know me. I’m passing through the neighborhood on my way to catch a bus but I really have to use the bathroom. May I use your bathroom?”
My mother said, “Of course.” She showed the woman the bathroom and while the woman was in the bathroom, my mother went to the kitchen. She prepared pound cake and cookies, milk and tea. And when the woman came out, she served that woman like she was a long, lost friend.
Now, my mother instilled in me this belief, that I could do or be anything I wanted to be. She said that to me constantly to the point where I believed her. My mother never got to know about my career as a professional storyteller. But I know that if she had been aware of it, she would have said, “You go, boy!” Oh, yeah. My mom said, “You go, boy.” Long before Martin Lawrence was saying it, OK.
Earlier this year I was in South America telling stories in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. This French high school in Buenos Aires wanted to do something different. The director of the edg… of the English department, finding out that I had been in the Black Panther Party and been involved in the civil rights movement, in the black power movement, created a curriculum around my life, for her students to study these things. To study the Civil Rights Movement and race relations in the United States. They designed the curriculum around my life. They had to take tests about me. They had to write papers. One of the test questions was, “What role did Michael’s mother play in influencing his life?” My mama was a test question now. Oh, I feel so good about that. My mother told me that anything was possible. I believed her because that was the sho’ nuff truth.
When I was a boy my mama told me,
I could be anything I wanted to be.
Reading to her, the mind was the key
To make my dreams a reality.
She said as long as I kept my head in a book,
It didn’t matter what direction life took.
More than beauty, wealth, and fame,
Knowledge is the key to the power game.
My mama, gave me the knowledge I would need
And in my mind, she planted the seed.
She nurtured that seed with a mother’s love
And prayers for guidance from powers above.
As I grew to be a man, there were times of my life
Full of hardship, I’m talking buku strife.
But in those times of difficulty,
I never forgot the things that my mama told me.
There was a time a few years ago,
I was confused about where my life would go.
Around this time I just found out,
What storytelling was all about.
I’d heard stories from Peninnah Schram, Joel ben Izzy,
Sybil Desta, Elle Erato, and Leslie Perry.
Listening to these folks inspired me,
I said, “A storyteller! That’s what I’m gonna be.”
Was I committed telling tales, took off like a rocket,
Now I’m living by my mama, have mouth will run it.
While in high school, Michael and some classmates make demands of his school to include more Black History in the curricula. The students hold a walkout and Michael is expelled. Decades later as an adult, Michael is brought back to the school to receive his high school diploma and the school’s gratitude.
What were the motivations for the school walkout?
What inspired Greg Meyers, who hadn’t had any contact with McCarty or Tyler for decades, to create a movement to get St. Ignatius High School to apologize and give them their diplomas?
Was the walkout the best way to get the school to listen? Was making their point and getting expelled worth the victory McCarty and Tyler experienced years later?
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin