Monthly Archives: February 2017

Beyond Survival (Inspiration Series, Week 9)

Despite a childhood full of uncertainty and betrayals, Maya Angelou would go on to a life devoted to creating beauty and celebrating survival.

My first real awareness of Maya Angelou came when she read her poem, The Pulse of the Morning, at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural. As much as the words, it was her voice – deep, rumbling, confident – that struck me. I watched her on talk shows and while I gathered snippets about her life path, I never knew her story. And so, when it came time to choose a final inspiration  for February, I turned to Maya’s first (of seven!) memoirs.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is so much more than autobiography – within its pages is a tale that is at once filled with pain and hope. A young girl, tossed from state to state and family member to family member, seeks to ground herself outside of her circumstances. Through rape, loneliness, and the rampant racism in 1920s and ’30s America, Maya somehow not only endures the pains thrust upon her, she seems to use her experiences as bricks, with which she lays an utterly unbreakable foundation for her life.

Just 4 when her parents marriage ended, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. These early years, despite the conditions of the black community, were stable and fairly secure. By the time she was 8 she was educated in business (from her grandmother’s store) and in the many inequities that went along with her skin color and gender. Momma (as she and her brother, Bailey, called their father’s mother) was stern and religious, yet provided a home in which she could, at least, trust.

It was 1935 when the children were unexpectedly sent to live with their mother in St. Louis. Vivian Baxter Johnson was a gorgeous woman, according to her daughter, who seemed to have everything – including a man in her life. When Freeman reaches out to the little girl, she is at first grateful and receptive. His attention quickly turns sinister, and when Maya was just 8 he molested her, the start of abuse that would ultimately turn to rape. When the crime was revealed, he was ejected from their lives. Jailed only for a day, Freeman was murdered four days later and Maya became convinced it was her fault. She went silent and wouldn’t talk again for four years. 

It was during this period that she developed a love of books and literature. A favorite teacher introduced her to classic works and authors, including black women whose works spoke to the young girl. Maya would move back to her grandmother’s, then out West to live with each of her parents, before she was 16. There was tension in every household as she struggled to make sense of religion, friendships, and who and how to trust. Her experiences at church, in her father’s home, and in a variety of adventures revealed a young woman in constant flux as she worked to find her place while testing the boundaries of convention. 

By the end of Caged Bird, Maya Angelou had learned to drive on an ill-fated road trip to Mexico with her father, earned a job as San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor, and given birth to a son after her first post-rape sexual encounter. She was not yet 17.

No one  would have blamed her if she had given up at any point of her childhood, or allowed her pain to envelope her existence. And yet… she would go on to become almost a spokesperson for the ability of the human body, heart, and mind to survive nearly any tragedy. 

And yet.

That appears to be the common theme of my inspirers – their capacity to endure hardship, abuse, suffering, and so often turn their pain into something beautiful, something that changes the world. From scared, mistreated child to world-renowned Ph.D, author, activist, artist, and teacher, Maya Angelou’s life was proof of the spirit and strength that lies within our greatest people. Her unashamed telling of her story, her poems that describe both dignity and deepest pain, they are testaments to a species that despite its penchant for destruction, has also brought to the world things of the greatest beauty. She would go on to work with the world’s great minds – Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, James Earl Jones. She would win Tony nominations and too many awards to count and inspire others to seek and fulfill their largest potential. 

We can be a weak species, often a cruel and unjust one. I believe that we rely on survivors like Maya Angelou to provide the hope and faith that with effort, we can overcome the demons and doubts of the world’s making and those of our own.  To be like the flowers that burst through the ground each spring, like the mountains that withstand weather and time to rise tall into the sky.

In her story, I feel a call to action, a reminder that each of us brings skills, strengths, and gifts that must be shared in order to be real. And to pick up from our disappointments, big and small, so that like Maya Angelou, we survive for a purpose.


A Lesson in Love (Inspiration series, Week 8)

Nana & Granddaddy at home in 1953

Life continues to move fast. It can be hard to keep up with; sometimes it’s a challenge, when there seems to be so much uncertainty in the world. And so I chose a subject (well, two), once again different from my original plan, who symbolize something truly positive and personal to me. You might call this a comfort post.

Nana and Granddaddy. When I said their names as a kid, it was so often like one word. NanaandGranddaddy. My mother’s parents, they were one of the earliest examples to me of the kind of love that is at once obvious and unexplainable. I remember learning that they had eloped as a young couple. It had much to do with money, but the romanticism fit perfectly, anyway. 

I have the letters he wrote to her when they first married. My granddad was a judge and I always saw him as the smartest, most confident man – so to hear him confess to doubts about his chosen career as an attorney, to wonder if he deserved his Kay, was both surprising and endearing. 

They raised their family in a big, beautiful home (with its own name, Ellerslie) on the Choptank River in Denton, Maryland, and luckily for me, never left. It was, without a doubt, the most magical place of my childhood. We’d pull up to the house and Nana would quickly appear, always smiling, always thrilled to have her New Jersey grandkids for a visit. 

What a home it was – always candy in the spinning caddy, the old games in the little closet under the stairs. I usually slept on the third floor, where my mother’s old Nancy Drew’s  and Bobbsey Twin books awaited. 

They loved their family – all 8 of us grandchildren, plus our parents. 16 altogether, which seemed like a perfect number to me. Every summer when I was little, they’d rent a cottage on the beach in Delaware and the whole lot of us would converge for two weeks (Dads on the weekends, though mine got a whole week). Nana would make the meals, Granddaddy bought us kites and in the evenings would tell stories about the cowboy, the sailor, and the Indian. Those trips were, quite simply, about as perfect as a vacation can be. 

Looking  back, I’m struck by the work that went into it all. Nana probably spent half her days cooking, as we cavorted in and out, tracking sand and probably making a mess of everything. I guess there must have been arguments between us kids at times, but it’s the feeling of belonging that still can bring me to happy tears today. I may have had doubts the rest of the year, but when I was with Nana and Granddaddy, I know that I was safe and sound.

When life was at its hardest, they were there. It’s difficult to imagine the grief they went through when my mom died at 45; I remember hearing Nana say that children aren’t supposed to go first. But the biggest memory I have of that time was their presence, which was one of the few things that convinced me that life might eventually be okay. They stayed with us as school started back up, giving me a sense of stability that I’m not sure I could have gone on without. They were my saving grace. 

I guess maybe grandparents don’t need a lot of thank yous, but no one deserved more of them than mine. They inspired everyone around them through the beauty of their love and marriage, by their unspoken lessons about family and kindness, and for the example they set for goodness and integrity. I couldn’t have chosen better if I’d had the chance.

I won’t have 8 grandchildren, but I can strive to bring the lesson of their love and commitment into my life and to share it whenever possible. To cherish those in my life and to never take for granted how much they add to it.

If I could give a wish to every unhappy, lonely kid, it would be for them to have a set of grandparents just like mine. 

To end, a quote from a favorite show. 

Personally Speaking (Inspiration series, Week 7)

Every time I try to switch lanes, they pull me back over…

Fully prepared to move on to another African-American inspirer (who will return), recent events have once again turned me in a different direction. And so, this week, I’m using the space to recognize someone I’m fortunate to know and whose story has moved to the front of my awareness. 

“Illegals.” The word makes me cringe, with its unique ability to dehumanize. As I write, Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) seems to have renewed its focus on scooping up people across the country with nets that appear to be very wide and very deep.

I know an undocumented person – or they were when I met them, though I had no clue. All I knew was that their family was from South America and they had been here since the children were young. They weren’t the least bit foreign; the only accent I could hear was a New Jersey one. Their mother and only-present parent scrimped and sacrificed to give her kids the best opportunities. In so many ways, theirs was as quintessential an “American story” as could be told.

The reveal, which stunned me, came only recently. It’s been many years and they have now been citizens for more than half their life, but not when they first arrived. 

Their mother had to take precautions, protect both the actual children and their identities. And while she, like all parents, concerned herself with the regular worries of raising a family, she must have never lost the fear about what could happen. All so that her kids would have more choices and grow into productive, happy adults. And as they got older, they took on more of that burden – living a life that could be shattered with little notice.

My friend was in college when the family was able to take the steps to gain proper citizenship. After graduating with honors and getting a great job, they went on to create a new American family, with children who hold nothing of the burden their parent did.

My guess is that they may have a greater sense of patriotism, a better appreciation for the American “way of life,” than most. More, perhaps, than many who demand by-the-book “law & order” and “crackdowns” on any actions beyond it, whether or not there is an actual threat. More than those who declare certain groups outsiders and seek to cast them as “others” while often ginning up fear and resentment. 

I am inspired by the fortitude of my friend and their family to build productive lives, despite the uncertainty. To go extra miles to succeed and do this country proud when they gained citizenship. Their pursuit of, and commitment to, a better life fills me with awe. They did far more than I to earn their American wings. 

The story plays into a larger lesson I’ve been re-learning over and over again recently, about how so much in this life is dependent on factors completely out of our control. To be born white, straight, and into the ”mainstream” religion of the United States, to parents who could afford me, was a stroke of cosmic fortune that meant I would never personally face the hurdles many others do, among them people I call friends. 

I will never have to appreciate the ability to marry who I choose, nor wonder whether the service I receive is less than someone else with a different skin color or accent. I won’t have to hope that my family isn’t swept up into a raid or new immigration mandate, or worry that someone in a position of authority might treat me differently because of my name or where I am from.

In addition to those who travel the harder paths, persevere, and thrive, I take inspiration from those who fight alongside them. From civil rights attorneys and compassionate lawmakers to neighborhoods and schools that welcome refugees, I am inspired by people who remind us that human history is filled with those who put their own comfort on the line in service to those in greater need. Their sacrifices have been enourmous, their courage without limit.

I end with an obvious quote, from a source I have taken for granted my entire life:

The Will to Resist (Inspiration series, Week 6) 

Frederick Douglas – born a slave (1818?), died a free man and hero, 1895

I didn’t plan this.

Frederick Douglass was not on my original slate of Inspirers. I’d planned on finding some feel-good people to highlight over the course of the year to keep me writing. Simple.

So I was somewhat surprised, over the past two weeks, to have a subject tossed into my awareness. But here came Mr. Douglass, a man I must have learned about in school, but whose story had floated to the back of my brain somewhere with the periodic table and geometry. I knew he was an escaped slave, but it pretty much  ended there. Thankfully, his journey included an autobiography.  

“I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”

– “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

The memoir opens with recollections of a childhood spent as witness to beatings by slave masters – even the one who was likely Douglass’ own father – who reveled in their power and cruelty. His early life was  spent in relatively “easy” conditions in St. Michael’s, Maryland. When he was returned to a cruel master, he was not spared again:

“I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Somehow, this transition to an ever-increasingly brutal existence did not kill him. In fact, it served as a challenge somehow, to the spirit of a young man who had defied odds to learn to read, to understand there was something more, and to want it for himself. 

After a series of punishing encounters with the slavemaster Covey, Douglass somewhere found the strength to resist his torturer when the man came at him while he was at work. Douglass grabbed Covey by the throat and engaged in a fight that would change his life:

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”

In 1834, Douglass went to work for a Mr. Freeland and came to serve as a teacher to the slaves and workers under him. He took great pride in the role and marveled at their courage:

“Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”

An escape attempt in 1835 led to capture: after a stay in jail, Douglass was collected by his previous master and hired out to a shipbuilder, where he was at the mercy of 75 men. A fight led to yet another place of work, where he made a pittance. His life continued on, and his determination to be free grew stronger. He began to make plans, and:

“on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind.”

Douglass explained that the lack of detail about his escape was intentional, to spare those who had helped him. Though his new surroundings were frightening, he found aid and a place to stay, and soon married Anna, a free woman he’d met in Baltimore. The pair left New York for New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass took work and became active in the cause of anti-slavery reform. 

In 1841 he was asked to speak at a convention in Nantucket; though nervous, he took on the challenge and was a huge success. Thereafter Douglass became a beacon for equality, for blacks, for women, and later for voting rights, emancipation. and desegregated schools. He served as editor of a liberal paper and became a renowned orator. By the time he died in 1895, Frederick Douglass had served as president of the Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank, and a presidential elector. At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote. 

It is difficult to fathom this journey, from bondage to revered symbol of both man’s worst inhumanities and of his ability to survive and overcome them. I am struck by Douglass’ commitment to not only his own personal freedom, but his commitment to helping others in their fights as well. 

How many of us hesitate before resisting, ponder the option to stay still, stay comfortable? How often do we rise up, take a stand for our own worth and, once our personal battle is won, take new fights onward? 

Today’s world, full of causes and injustices, can overwhelm even the most passionate. It can be tempting to leave things to the strong, the young, the energetic. But while we may not all have the skills or sheer bravery of men like Frederick Douglass, we must declare our stances nonetheless. We must draw lines across which we will not step  and be willing to defend the principles for which we will sacrifice. 

Whether we write, speak, march, or serve, we must be willing to act as the resistance to that which is unacceptable. By doing so, we help to ensure that the spirits of Douglass and his fellow fighters never truly disappear. 


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