STORIES FROM THE HEART
THESIS for the
Master of Arts in Media Studies
The New School 2009
Peter Lucas, Advisor
Heartfelt Thanks To Professors Peter Lucas, Peter Haratonik, Robert Berkman, William Crow, Royal Brown, and Deidre Boyle
An Audio Oriented Approach To Healing The Wounds Caused By Slavery:
Moving Forward In Self Awareness And Self Respect With Stories And Music.
Beliefs come from what we digest and when one digests heaping doses of stories that offer an opportunity to explore the ways in which marginalized people have escaped the oppressive dominate narrative and have emerged as role models, these role models help to forge positive identities and new hope for those who still seek self realization and self development. These role models, the Heroes and Heroines who have found the secrets to navigating through "the societal specific readings of race, class, gender," who have directed their energies to using their emotions productively despite environing opinion and have gone on to make great contributions are a testament to the human spirit - to that notion that what we put into our hearts and minds has a powerful impact on our ability to be our best, to even do something heroic.
President Barack Obama went to the South side of Chicago to work when he got out of Harvard so that he could help impact people´s lives positively within the larger historical, social, and political context in which they lived. These Hero and Heroine Stories and the resulting inspiration and mentoring that can come from them will counteract the negative perceptions that still persist about Black people. Instead of hearing that 40% of all young Black men in America are or will end up in prison at some point in their lives, we will have a number of sites and resources that clearly show how mindsets and directions are changing
Original Creative Find Children Kayon, Ashina, Brittany, and Daryl showing off their handmade window boxes, acrylic treasure box, sculptures, and meditation chair.
I founded a Not For Profit Arts Organization to help foster hope for underserved children in the State of New York and none of the children who attended my Creative Find Art Workshops in Harlem suffered the same fate as their parents - parents that were addicted to bad habits, crack addiction, and a host of negative things. And why is that? The answer is simply positive intervention on the part of real life role models who provided guidance and dedicated mentoring skills.
We need an avalanche of oral histories, important music, and worthwhile films to show to the world who these people are. My belief is that the best way reaching a clearer understanding of phenomena is through the simple human story approach - produced in all forms.
By engaging the words and works of others, by having ready access to their practices and philosophies, we are able to examine the social constructions of identities and use these valuable observations to provide inspiration and direction to all those needing and desiring a change in their lives. Our ideology is transmitted through information and imagery and these images are imbedded in the psyche of our culture and I am simply suggesting Stories From The Heart as a means of helping people to focus on the Life Story that they will choose to inherit. I believe that a determined effort at self-realization and self development can be achieved with exposure, courage, and tenacity.
In thinking about why I chose to do Stories From The Heart I realized that I wanted to appreciate and pay homage to those individuals that made posistive things happen in their lives and in so doing have helped to light the way and provide inspiration and guidance to so many others who allowed the things that happened to them to crush their ambitions or to lead them down the wrong path.
By looking closer at the lives of Heroes and Heroines who, through strength and discipline and will, were able to carve out noble identities for themselves we can embrace the knowledge learned and turn that knowledge into concrete steps that will lead to our own "excelsior efforts" of personal achievement and leadership.
This thesis strives to demystify the roles that mentors and people with yearnings play in interacting with one another. I identify mentors as heroes and heroines and people with yearnings as those from difficult and challenging backgrounds (often those scarred from the wounds of slavery) some of whom are just beginning to form their interests and directions in life though they cannot surely be classified as youngsters. I propose how individuals can interact with one another by connecting with Stories From The Heart, a WebSite devoted to enlightening others in ways that can be life changing; ways that can help shape the paths that people will choose to take in their lives.
There are milestones in each person´s life where something happens that forever changes the way things are or will be again. I was acutely aware that something life changing was happening when my grandfather died suddenly. I was propelled from a rock solid base into a world where there would be no sturdy lap to climb upon, no voice of assurance to say, "Now, don´t worry youngun,´ we will puzzle this out and get through this together."
I had many siblings and parents who loved me but my mother and father were ensnarled most of my young life in bitter marital conflicts that left little time for one on one tete a tetes and when Poppa died I had a premonition of what it would be like to travel on life´s many journeys without that steady force that always helped me find my balance, my Poppa.
I gathered all of my recollections about him and planted them firmly into my head and into my diaries, knowing that Poppa was my Hero and that his teachings and his mentoring would always have a place in my heart and in my life´s work.
I would recognize many milestones in my life, and these milestones where sometimes journeys of joy, of love, of learning. And often, these milestones were great journeys through hardship and much sorrow - but always these journeys found understanding and faith through my going back into my journals and diaries and finding something I could hang onto; wise words that Poppa or Granny had spoken, "Now hang on there youngun,´you can´t go a runnin´ without filling up your engine and gathering your directions of how to get there." By revisiting my Poppa and Granny´s wise words and remembering their calm and direct manner I would take a break and gather my wits and proceed to think logically about where I had to go and what I had to do.
|Duke Ellington taking time out with Edie´s parents, Delores and B.T. Brooks|
I used other Heroes and Heroines, too, in my quest to stay on course when I had to navigate through troubled times. I held on to the feelings of inspiration I felt when revisiting the great hymns I heard in church with Poppa and Granny or in listening to the beautiful music I first heard in my father´s Ohio nightclub, "The Cosmopolitan" where for many years he brought in the big bands and noted singers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Lena Horne, to name a few.
I had strong mentors, though I may not have recognized at the time the important role that they played in my life. This Thesis strives to demystify the roles that our Heroes and Heroines, our mentors, play in our lives. By recognizing who these people are, living and dead, and embracing their wise teachings - and reaching out to those who can assist us - we can all play a role in helping those desiring of mentoring hook up with compassionate and gifted mentors. Those people with purposeful yearnings, from difficult and and challenging backgrounds can find new directions in life by embracing the values that they have learned from others.
* My grandfather, who I called Poppa, was a wonderful storyteller and a great mentor. I knew that he was very special because he always took that extra moment to consider my needs before he gave his heartfelt response. Poppa always seemed to put his thoughts on a "balancing scale," weighing them carefully to measure what the outcome would be if he tipped the scale in favor of my urgent "please, Poppa, please can we go to the park now" or should he let that scale measure out the weight of giving in to his grandchild´s tôo many indulgent whims and thereby affect the rest of my life adversely.
In the instance of my wanting to go to the park "now" - Poppa took me to the park as it was one of the rare times that I had Poppa to myself without my seven siblings. Poppa packed a quick lunch of fried chicken and two containers of my Granny´s peach cobbler which he put in the wicker basket with the rounded wicker handles that he had brought from his restaurant in the South, the first integrated one in Troy, Alabama.
Poppa was oak colored with a shock of wavy white hair. He was very tall and distinguished looking . He was a man who always wore gold rimmed eye spectacles, a three piece suit, bow tié and a long gold watch chain on his vest. I cannot remember ever seeing him when he was not formally dressed, even this day as we walked up the street past all of the little frame and brick homes, their trimmings painted in varying soft colors of blue, beige, or pale celery green.- Poppa, even on this casual day, was in his smart, pin striped suit.
In my grandfather´s neighborhood, there was only one bannister wrap around porch and that belonged to Poppa. It was a spanking clean porch that had Poppa´s big old metal swing couch in the corner and pots and pots of my Granny´s pansies and morning glories all over the scrubbed surfaces of the ledges securing the bannisters into place. All of the homes had manicured lawns with plump white and lavender lilac bushes on either sides of the porch steps and Poppa´s lawn boasted not only the beautiful lilac bushes but a giant apple tree as well.
As we made our way up the winding hill and found ourselves in the park near that ancient oak tree where a weathered leather strap swing hung on rough chains under it, I suddenly bolted ahead and ran to the top of the sliding board, barely giving Poppa a chance to catch me as I slid to the bottom. With a chuckle, Poppa gathered me in his arms and we began to swing.
Poppa squinted his eyes and smiled and said, "youngun, before you get all tuckered out we will have a taste of this lunch. It is just the kind of lunch that folks was crazy about in my restaurant in Troy. And Poppa took a bite of the crusty chicken, smiled wryly, and I knew the storytelling would begin."
"O Youngun,' Poppa said, I kept aplenty, kept a big old barrel of fresh chickens to fry and a woman standing by the stove all day doing all the frying. Fried a piece brown and she´d put it up on the warmer shelf along with the mullet and steak - so when they had an order, all you had to do was reach up on the warmer, take down that big ol´piece of meat, put gravy over it and folks was ready to enjoy my cookin."
"One day, the day of the big circus show, the overflow crowd growed so thick that I took down the rope that separated the white tables from the colored tables and the whites spilled over to the colored side. It wasn´t long for the old sheriff stopped in for his usual meal, and he was taken back seein' the whites and blackers eating side by side.
"That sherrif was coughing and choking and he brung a hush to that room with his booming, raspy voice - "What the hell do you think you are doing, boy? I reached upon the warmer and took down a big ol' piece of steak, poured gravy over it youngun,' and put it on a plate with the other fixins. We always served greens and skillet bread, and put it on the table in front of that puffin ol' red faced sheriff. I pulled out his chair, and said n'er a word to him, just motioned for him to SIT DOWN. Well, he purpled all up but he sat down after a bit and I paid him no more mind." Imagine, that´s how Poppa integrated his restaurant.
Everything was going great in Poppa´s fine Southern Eatery. His four boys and four girls worked like clock work together but one sunny afternoon everything fell apart. Poppa and Josie were preparing supper for their family in their cottage that Josie tendered so lovingly. The boys were in the driveway playing ball - and suddenly Poppa heard a commotion in the driveway. The neighbor was screaming and carrying on something awful.
"I don´t want no niggers playin' in the driveway." Poppa stormed out of the cottage and confronted the old white woman. He argued, "my boys was in the driveway playin' ball. They wasn´t keepin' no noise, not a bit." That poor white woman was adamant. She kept shouting, "I don´t want no niggers' playin' in the driveway." Poppa got mad, real mad. He had always been respectful to the neighbors, even giving them food during their hard times. But Poppa knew right then and there that he would not stay in a place where his children would be called "niggers."
Poppa closed up his restaurant and packed up all of the family´s belongings. On the morning that Poppa and Josie left their home, Poppa said Josie was cryin' her heart out standing in the yard under that big Apple tree she planted in memory of Gus, the little youngun' she lost to pneumonia.
"My Angel boy´s spirit is here. How can I leave my boy under this tree, Poppa? Little Gus helped us grow the sweetest apples in the South, you know that Poppa." Poppa took Josie in his arms and held her and said, "Little Gus Will help you grow the sweetest apples in the North."
And, so it was - against the backdrop of the red clay hills of Alabama, and the mighty cornfields that Josie ran barefoot through when she was a child - and with the hurt of things left behind that are stuck in his mind - Poppa boards the restless train with Josie and her numerous bags and bunches, her pansies and her pots, her morning glories and cartons, her tulips and rolled carpets, and her children
Eight children running, eight children rushing and scrambling to stack bags, find seats. Beloved children, each one of them. All were aboard and Poppa had not left behind a single member of his family to suffer being called a "nigger" again.
"Our ideas of who we are come from the stories we digest." I reheard this old philosophy from my Media and Ethics Professor, Robert Berkman at The New School and it served to remind me of why my Poppa knew in his gut that he had to remove his children from an environment ripe with prejudice and put them into one that would help foster positive thoughts and noble goals.
There is a wonderfully inspiring story that people young and old can profit from. It is the life story of Dr. Ben Carson who went from the inner city streets of Detroit to the halls of Yale to becoming one of the most famous and respected neurosurgeons in the world for his dramatic and ground breaking work in separarting conjoined twins. Dr. Carson is Director of the Pediatric Neurosurgery Department at John Hopkins Medical Centers.
Dr. Carson in his book, "Think Big"1 said he was headed for jail, reform school or the grave before he realized he had to take a different course. Carson´s father abandoned him and his brother and his mother and by sheer will Carson´s mother found the strength to institute procedures into the daily routine of Carson´s life that enabled him to turn his life around. Carson´s mother insisted that he go to Detroit´s Public Library and read two books each and every week. He could only watch two TV programs per week and with the time that he woud have spent watching mindless TV he was encouraged to listen to music, engage in his imagination and visit museums.
Just imagine going from dire poverty, poor grades, a horrible temper, and low self esteem, to becoming Director of Neurosurgery at a major hospital. Ben Carson´s mother was one of twenty four children, raised in rural Tennessee, who got married at just thirteen to try to escape her environment only to discover that she had married a bigamist. Determined to do good, she raised her two sons by herself with only a third grade education. Carson´s mother told him "If anybody can do something, you can do it too, except that you can do it better."
Carson encourages one and all to "Think Big," the title of one of his books. "If your life is a series of shattered dreams, if you have no dreams at all, or if you bought the lie that you´ll never amount to anything, don´t believe it," Carson says. Carson believes that each individual can choose another pathway by developing another mindset that will lead them to success "It doesn´t matter where you are; you can make something out of any situation. You must develop that mindset."
1 Dr. Ben Carson, Think Big
It is difficult for many people in this modern world to find a niche for themselves, and particularly for the many thousands of children in the inner cities. Wynton Marsalis says "our culture hás experienced a decline of intellectual rigor along with an unchecked decadence. When there´s a greater degree of decadence, a higher level of heroism is required to combat it because there´s much less reward."
More stress lies on the people who want to be serious, and if your´re serious, you run the risk of falling apart and crumbling because of the stress. In this "New America" Marsalis says "the absurd reigns" and we cling to commercial integrity: the right to put whatever we want into the marketplace and charge as much as possible for as little as possible. He points to the omission of plots in films, the killing of each other, left and right, and getting naked for no reason at all as proof of the absurdity that abounds. The degree of conformity to the absurd is what shocks him the most he says as he travels the world. He says African Americans, White folk. Liberal, Conservative are all holding a script like a machine stamped them on the forehead right off the conveyor belt.
To have integrity in a time when you are in a time with no standard of integrity - demands hard choices - and one has to be able to understand that only he or she can make those choices. Marsalis asks us to consider how do you sift integrity from corruption and absurdity if no one takes the responsibility to tell you, to show you?
Teachers. mentors, leaders, just plain good people have a responsiblility to step up to these dire challenges that those who are temporarily misguided or lost are facing and I earnestly believe that "Stories From The Heart" can help guide the way, not only for schoolchildren but for all in society who feel a weariness of heart.
Marsalis said in one of his appearances at a school a little boy "grabbed his johnson" 2while singing and Marsalis asked the teacher if indeed he had seen what he thought he saw and the teacher assured him "that´s what they do nowadays." Marsalis replied, "Well, who´s teaching them?"
Marsalis cautions us to remember that excellence reigns when one gives their best effort to their work. He believes that people study all great disciplines and art forms with such intensity because the individual "channels the spirit of the nation. It not only reflects the values, it embodies them, it enobles them, it emboldens them." The arts survive, Marsalis says, when whole civilizations perish and they remain useful because they point to the excellence that reigned when one gave their best effort to their work. In art, there is only one generation, the generation of man," Marsalis affirms.
Students must be warned about the depression that can come when they can feel successful only if his or her work rivals the best work of the greatest artist ever. Those goals will kill you, Marsalis says. " Instead of feeling bad because you can´t rival one of the six great innovators, instead of being consumed with matching the legacy and likes of the Louis Armstrongs of the world, why not redirect your priorities and strive to be your personal best by becoming one of the best trained musicians."
Marsalis tells the musicians to "Invest in your discipline, your practice, and your personal growth. Develop your soul by participaing in the lives of other people in a positive way, through giving." Like Barack Obama, Marsalis believes that "activities must also have an objective of the soul." Your work must have something in it that will benefit the world. "We need soul objectives on a high level, a level higher than the pursuit of money, and one-upmanship over another person."
Wynton Marsalis reminds us that Art Blakey said, "you never see an armored car following a hearse." This is exactly the sort of thing the inner city kids across America need to hear and hold close to their hearts.
2Letters To A Jazz Musician, Wynton Marsalis
The thing that resonated with me was Marsalis talking about what keeps a musician playing is "what´s right." Well, doesn´t this just resonate in every discipline, in every language, for every man and woman, for every boy and girl - Practice and Improvement? The improvement that you notice in your new found ability to express your feelings through your work, your ability to enter that wonderful place where you know that what you are doing is "freedom" - each time that you wake up you will feel good and free to express yourself even further. For a musician this happens through sound, for a golfer through strokes, for a dancer, through steps, for a writer through words. "What an unbelievable feeling, an uplifting feeling of joy to be able to express the range of what you feel and see,"
Marsalis says, people are thirsting for guidance. In the groups that Marsalis talks to around the country he says young brothers are just dying for a man to look at them with some love in his eyes and say "This is what you need to be doing and let me help."
If ever one doubted the power of language to persuade and put one´beliefs to another into a perspective that can be life changing, just read for yourself Wynton Marsalis' insightful book, "To a Young Jazz Musician, Letters From The Road." Marsalis has won numerous Grammy Awards and his oratório on slavery and freedom "Blood on the Fields" became the first and only jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize in music.
Professor Kim L. Purnell wrote a powerful dissertation about a new way to look at the life of Billie Holiday - asking us to move away from the environing opinions of Holiday´s biographers always recounting her pain and suffering and attraction to abusive men and durgs - and to engage in what was of value to Holiday herself 3. Holiday was a communicator who demonstreated courage in speaking out against racial inequities when taking such a stance was a bad move for her own career advancement. She communicated through her lyrics the many complexities of human emotions (from vulnerability to taking the initiative to shape one´s own destiny) and she had the courage to admit "If it´s square to settle down, raise a family and live cleanly, honestly, and decently - then count me among the squares because that´s what I want." How many of us knew that Billie Holiday wanted that simple little American Dream?
It is helpful to those striving to find their own true identities to know about the very real struggles others went through. Though the great scientist Dr. Meredith Gourdine did not know what he wanted to do or to become he knew he did not want to haul garbage and mop floors as his father had to do in order to provide for his family. Dr. Ben Carson knew he did not want to go to reform school and Reuben Cannon knew that he did not want to end up in prison as his father had. And, Billie Holiday knew that her "social understanding and world view" extended far beyond her fifth grade education so she learned to speak out about the things that had meaning and value to her. In Lady Sings The Blues she said, "I ain´t gonna just sit around and cry, and now I won´t die because I love him" - and though the reviewers wrote that Holiday always sang the blues, Billile Holiday´s blues were also about inner strength, the strength it takes to reexamine one´s life and to refocus. The great jazz singer, Abbey Lincoln, was inspired by Holiday and like Holiday she wrote about her observations about life and this world we live in. Through Ms. Lincoln´s lyrics in a particularly poignant song called "Down Here Below,"4 we learn that Lincoln believes "we all have the scars and wounds to show" of what it is to live down here below (meaning on this troubled planet that we call Earth). My own son RB Lynch, a composer who cherishes the artistry of both Holiday and Lincoln called Ms. Lincoln one day many years ago and told her he thought she had the most beautiful sound in the whole universe and asked her to listen to one of his compositions. His spirit was bolstered when he learned that Ms. Lincoln loved his tune and wanted to write lyrics with him and record it. That collaboration led to other recordings that Ms. Lincoln did of RB´s music and it is important to note that though he was several generations removed from Ms. Lincoln´s era, she was open to his sensitivity in sharing his feelings about life - proving that mentoring and working together can work on many levels and that it is important for providing venues where kindred spirits can meet and work together.
Yes, the world can profit handsomely with "Stories From The Heart." We must create new venues to allow young people to hear and prosper from the messages that these modern day heroes, Obama, Carson, Marsalis, Lincoln bring to the table in this troubled and frenzied time we are living through. Order and meaning can be achieved for all persons desirous of
|3 Listening To Lady Day, An Exploration of the Creative Negotiation of Identity Revealed in the Life of Billie Holiday - Kim L. Purnell, P.h.D.|
4 Abbey Lincoln, Verve Records, Down Here Below
working to put that important ingredient "Excelsior Effort" back into their lives. If we can get the stories out there to help connect the willing mentors with the desiring receivers, much good can come from this effort. This is what I hope "Stories From The Heart" will do - help people look and see, reexamine, and refocus.
I have concentrated on heroes and heroines that can affect the huge Black population of youth who at an impasse in the inner cities or who sit rotting in prison - but that inot to say that there are not plenty of White and other ethnic groups who have heroes and heroines who are every day helping to transform lives, helping people of all colors and persuasions.
In the entertainment industry alone, Paul Newman, Robert Redford,Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and his daughter Marlo, have worked tirelesslyfor many long years to reach out to the public with their philathropic endeavors. There are good people in every City, In every State, in every Country and I concentrate on the Black popluation only because 40% of all young Black men in America are reported to be incarcerated in American prisons. Certainly these men and much of the inner city population are in desperate need of positive role models.
There are thousand of blogs and online wikis, podcasts, journals, radio shows, web sites and such. Surely there are good intentioned wizards out there that can help bring about a cohesive way of connecting the dots so "Stories From The Heart" will become an integral part of our lives, as easy to access as reading the newspaper, or going to the movies, or going on the Internet. It is a fast changing world. Let us put forth into this world those positive ingredients that will help make it a just and deserving place to be for all who give it their best effort.
My love of storytelling came from sitting on an old swing couch as a five year old child on my Granny´s shingled porch in Ohio, the thick white banisters lined with her pots of pansies and daffodils, daisies and morning glories, listening to her tell me the heart wrenching stories of her childhood as a slave.
It wasn´t until I was nearly thirty, that I asked my Granny about her father. Now, she had never mentioned him and this puzzled me. "Oh youngun,' what you gonna stir up that for," she said. "The only thing I remember about my Daddy is that he gave me one little pair of little red shoes. He was a white man. Dr. Graves was his name. I was in the cotton fields playing with Missy, my mama, and he rode up on his big black horse; a horse that was thumpin' his hooves like crazy, and he said, Missy, bring your youngun' over here."
"And Missy, she stuck her plow into the ground and she picked me up and brung me over to him. Now, that horse kept thumpin' his hooves in our faces, swelling up all of that dust, and he leaned down with his big white ruffled shirt, and underneath that shirt he took out a little pair of red shoes and he thrust them into my arms and he said, those shoes are from your Pa. I told him I didn´t hardly have a Pa. Well, you do now, he said."
"I saw him from afar after that but he never paid me no more mind. I could show you youngun,' his marker. He had a right smart marker." Marker, I thought. Marker? And he only gave my Granny one little pair of red shoes in his life. Marker! If I go back to any Alabama, I won´t be looking up his marker.
Well, as I said, I did not want to go back to any hills to see the marker of a man that only gave his child one little pair of little red shoes in her entire life - but I was "hooked" on Granny´s stories and her unbelievable magnanimous, beautiful spirit. I began there, on that shingled porch, listening intently to my Granny´s stories and writing them down to tell others one day. I am relieved that I have gathered the courage to finally tell these stories. Yes, the day is here, and I have organized a few compelling stories of mine and others who can trace their struggles all the way back to slavery. These stories impacted and changed the direction of our lives. People, young and old, have a real need to hear about real heroes and heroines in this "knock em down, get what you want" chaotic, greedy nuclear world.
I have always hated the word, nigger, but when Granny used it, she used it to illustrate an experience in her life that she remembered with fondness and love - and when that word was used in a bitter way, Granny did not burden us with those negative remembrances. My Granny remembered two different worlds, the world during slavery and the world afterwards, and she always managed to hold on to the things that helped her spirit to feel joy and the other stuff she simply left behind.
I was always storing Granny´s stories in my head, and when I wasn´t doing that, I was rummaging through her old Southern wicker basket filled with scraps of paper, photographs and memories from her life. One day, I brought that basket out to the porch and I was immersed in studying the births and deaths of family members dating far back. They were written on a piece of paper which was clearly fading away but it was carefully tucked into the family bible. I noticed a curious envelope near the bible marked "private" but the envelope was unsealed so I looked inside. I was surprised to find the diary of my older sister, Jacqueline, who I called Annie Babe.
She was a bigger than life character - beautiful like a Hollywood Star, bold like an adventuresome cowgirl; she favored western boots, sweeping skirts, and colorful, bold language. Oddly, she was childlike, too, and could be easily hurt. In an instant her feelings could be wounded and she´d turn into a limp "Ragged Ann Doll." Hence, the name of Annie Babe was given to her, depicting her innocence and her brashness. It was impossible not to curl up on that old swing couch and memorize every word of that diary. Jacqueline took her yearnings and her pain all the way back to the cotton fields of Troy, Alabama.
From Annie Babe´s Diary: 5 "Certainly, everybody at the school wasn´t happy that she was chosen. Maybe some were even a little jealous. Perhaps even one of the parents had put the person up to the heinous call. Still, she wasn´t going to stay away from the game. She had won her place fairly in a schoolwide vote, and she was going to walk onto that field tomorrow night and take her place right alongside the girls whose parents were in the social register´s Blue Book. She would stand proud along with these young women who lived up "on the hill" in their stately mansions with tennis courts and swimming pools.
Her granny who had worked in the cotton fields and who had ironed barrels of pretty frocks for her mistress in The Great House would finallly see one of her own in one of those grand party dresses. Layers of white tulle were already fastened to a glorious hoop her granny had brought with her from that beautiful big old plantation house she had worked in all of her young life in Troy, Alabama.
For a half a century Granny had saved that hoop and her collection of hand molded black flat irons on one of the chilsed shelves her husband, Poppa, had fashioned out of dirt walls, deep down in the cellar of the little frame shingled home that would be the repository of not only Granny´s canned peaches and pickled beets, her mighty bunches of pansies and morning glories, but her fervent prayers that the future would be bright for all of her children and grand youngun´s.
For two weeks now, she had tried the dress on. Each and every day she would practice walking in it with her new high heels. The books she had placed on her head to help her keep her balance were finally gathering dust on the attic floor. At last, she could walk naturally in its long sweeping skirt. No nigger calling mean spirited person was going to ruin the best night of her life. When the school marching band stood still on that big field and played the beautiful refrain she was prepared to walk to when her name was called - she would walk proud. . And she would walk tall. Down that long football field she would go, as graceful and perfect as anyone could ever hope to be.
All of the rotten eggs in the world could not spoil the honor that was beating in her heart. If she was a "nigger," then she was a blessed one, because one little colored girl was going to make her granny proud.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, West High School is proud to present its 1953 Homecoming Court." It was hard to believe, but here she was, listening to that big booming voice and waiting to walk on the arm of the football captain, right out to the middle of the field. The frantic day and missed lunch and dinner, even the fraught moments of the run for the bus that would take her and the homecoming members to the stadium was a blur of sketches now. The royal black night sky and the little iced puffs of air she made with her breath seemed to validate that indeed she must be on schedule.
5 Original Diary By Jacqueline Sonia Brooks - Can be seen in "Stories From The Heart , Our Heroines and Heroines Web Site"
It was all happening so fast. "Oh God, please walk with me," she thought. "Look for the North Star, take a deep breath, say your prayers again," the wise little voice in her head said. Finally, she focused. She wanted to take it all in. She wanted to remember everything.
"Jacqueline Sonja Brooks." That was her. Her name had been called. Slowly, on the arm of her handsome football Captain, she walked. Walked tall and perfectly. There was no head spinning like a top or legs moving like limp spaghetti. "All of these people are applauding and cheering me," she thought., "and they will never forget how tall I walked."
She reached the center of the field and took her place with the other homecoming girls. At last, all of the names had been called and the perfumed line of starch and crinoline bowed and sang their Alma Mater. The commentator began calling names again. The girl whose name he called would step out in front and stand to the left or the right, leaving a space in the middle for the Homecoming Queen. Only two names were left to be called, and she realized that hers was one of them. "Oh, good," she thought, "I get to put the crown on the Queen´s head."
There was a thunderous roar, and then blue eyed Sue, very much a member of the titled Blue Book, stepped out. She tripped, regained her footing and walked timidly to join the line of waiting attendants. Jacqueline stood alone. There was no one waiting with her. She was completely alone, waiting.
"Our Homecoming Queen is Miss Jacqueline Brooks," the voice said. She looked about. She smiled. But, she just stood there. She couldn´t move. She couldn´t believe it. They had called her name, "Jacqueline. Jacqueline Sonja Brooks. Or had they said Sonja?" She couldn´t remember. But they had said Jacqueline. She knew that. They definitely had said that she, Jacqueline, was the Queen.
They began to place a red velvet robe around her shoulders, and a jeweled crown on her head. They pulled her out front, and the stadium went wild. Sixty thousand people stood and cheered. Cheered a fifteen year old little colored girl. She just couldn´t beleive it. The football Captain placed a dozen red roses in her arms and the football team lifted her high up as she fixed her gaze on her North Star. They brought her down gently and placed her atop the seat back seat of a shiny open white Cadillac convertible. She was the Queen, the first Negro Homecoming Queen in the history of the City. Akron Ohio with its fabled "No Negroes or Jews Firestone Country Club" now had a Negro Homecoming Queen.
She rode around that big stadium and waved to one and all as the school band played, Hail The Queen. "I am so happy," she thought, but her mind kept wandering and coming back to the words her grandmother had burned into her heart, "Youngun, there ain´t n'er a pretty dress in the world worth losing your dignity over." Though she imagined she must indeed look beautiful with her white tulle and red roses and crown, she knew only too well that someone out there, a very hateful, perhaps even dangerous someone was not smiling about her crowning. To that person, she was just a "nigger" and not a lovely young Queen, not yet sixteen.
She looked up again at her North Star. "Thank you, my shining light," she said, "for keeping me composed tonight, and, for protecting me from harm´s way so another colored child will wear my dress one day."
She made a little cross on her heart with the little "white poofs of magic air" she had captured from her own breath - and with more than a little heave and sigh from deep within her bare and frigid shoulders - she stood and waved triumphantly for her Granny
and all who had come before. She knew her ancestors had paid a heavy price of enslavement and servitude to make one little colored girl´s dream come true."
- Written by Edie Lynch in memory of her beloved sister, Jacqueline (Annie Babe) -
People from all walks of life hear these stories and are touched, nurtured even, and able to let go of the sadness that mankind inflicted on them and their fellow members. Individuals are able to feel that they rightfully belong and have a place in society. There are so many remarkable heroes and heroines, young and old, from all sorts of varied backgrounds that can guide those that are still having trouble finding the right paths to take.
"Stories from the Heart," came from my remembrances of my Granny and my Poppa. My Granny always wore a calico printed silk dress with a single row of pearls peeking out from the starched lace collar at her neck. My Granny chewed tobacco and spit out the juice into a little blue and white enameled pot that she covered with a handerchief crocheted with her own neat borders of little roses. Roses that Granny grew in her garden in every color; roses that surrounded the sweeping wrap around porch of The Great House where Missy, Granny´s mother worked.
Yes, Missy worked hard all of her life in The Great House cooking and serving meals when she was not toiling in the cotton and tobacco fields of the plantation she worked on. Missy and my Granny lived in a little log cabin at the back of that big old "sawed off cornfield" on Captain Knowles´ plantation. The cabin had only one little window in its tiny one room and that room looked out onto a cornfield, a cornfield that my Granny remembered so vividly and fondly because she was barely able to see across the tall stalks of corn before harvest time, and after the harvest, those many acres of bare land looked like a "sawed off" field.
Elijah Henderson, an old woman would fill up my Granny´s apron with honey biscuits and my Granny and her two brothers would go racing, barefoot, across that cornfield to their little cabin to share the biscuits with Missy and their Aunt Mary. I would ask my Granny over and over to tell me the story about Elizah Henderson, again. "Elizah Henderson, she would say - well she was just an old white woman who was good to nigger kids. She would call a hungry child over and fill our aprons full of biscuits." Did you ever know an old woman who gave you biscuits when you were hungry as a child? Well, neither did I. But I never went hungry as a child and I never understood why my Granny had so many fond memories of the South that forced her family members into slavery but I collected Granny´s stories like her mother Missy collected little scraps of lace all of her life, hoping one day to have enough scraps to make a beautiful dress for herself.
|I was the first Black model in the history of the Philadelphia Models Guild and I was shown the back door when the owners realized that I was not the suntanned, pampered wife of a doctor but a Black person. Never mind that I had won my spot legitimately, going through the arduous elimination of three thousand hopeful models who were cast out, one by one, leaving five winners that included myself. There were Black models in New York, but not in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia wanted it to stay that way.|
Edie´s Original Drawings of her
Thereafter, whenever I walked the famous designer runways of the world wearing the creations of Oscar de la Renta, Emilio Pucci, Princess Galitzine or some other noteable designer, I always remembered that the real princesses in my life were my Granny and her mother Missy.
I shall always love telling their stories because they are the ones that endured slavery, that made the sacrifices that enabled my many walks and changes of hats possible. There are millions of persons across the globe that can benefit from hearing "Stories FromThe Heart."
Well, Missy never got enough scraps of lace to make that dress for herself but her scraps of lace were the threads that got me to the famous "Designer Runways Of The World."
I understood that from "Day One"of my modeling career.
No, I did not walk out the back door but went instead to the town´s big newspapers. Not wanting a big Civil Rights Suit the Guild relented and sent me on my first assignment, to model for Saks Fifth Avenue.
I valued their opinions. When I was twenty and a model, I was taken by a well respected literary agent up to Harlem to visit one of his clients.
We walked into the apartment of Louise E. Jefferson. I could not believe the meticulous manner in which her dozens of beautifully illustrated books were displayed amongst her hand carved statues, all done by herself - and on the walls hung the portraits of the imminent artists, celebrities, educators, and intellectuals that she had personally photographed. Her hand painted and detailed maps of the world were everywhere and a testament to her knowledge and travels. I remember becoming very quiet and thinking, "now here is a life that has been lived with discipline, integrity, and passion." I was never the same afterwards. I had found a role model and we would remain friends for the rest of her life.
|Painter, Illustrator, Cartographer, Calligrapher, Photographer, Sculptor|
|Jefferson sitting at her "neatly cluttered desk"|
Jefferson´s Famous Photo of "The Alabama Boy" crying in his tattered shoes
because he desperately needed a nickel
"Imagine a dynamo of human energy so quick, so bright, that it electrifies the space that it is in. That was Louise E. Jefferson. I called her Lou and though she was a petite woman with calm but mischievous eyes, her powerfully gay laughter and sharp tongue would grab and hold your attention for the full time you were in her presence.
Lou lived in an impeccable little house that she called "The Cottage," framed by a picket fence. But, I want you to get a good clear picture - so just imagine that you are following the map from New York City to Litchfield, Connecticut - turning off of the Interstate Highway and moving through little sleepy, lush towns dripping with the greens, golds, and reds, of the fall foliage..
As you approach Litchfield, you roll down your windows and breathe in the fragrances of the wild flowers that grow thick by the roadside and you drive past all of the neat and proper white frame homes as you glide by what the locals call the Green on historic West Street. Now, you go just two houses west of the Town Office Building and you see a courtyard which looks like an inverted U Shaped Compound. Drive slowly and proceed to the center of the courtyard and stop in front of the little frame house. That is "The Cottage."
Oops, slow down, because here she comes, bounding out of her tiny doorway with the combustion of a big Mack Truck. "Hang on, I´ll call the Fire Department and the Police and tell them to call off their search. Did you stop at some lover´s hideaway?"
There was Lou, right in my face, practically bowling me over with her energy. She was very sharp witted and with her one did not talk about the mundane unless it was of her own choosing. In this instance, I had not seen her in a couple of years and what mattered to her the most was that our connection should be spontaneous, interesting, and real. So, I simply climbed out of the car and pretended to coax the invisible lover out of the back seat and immediately we broke into gales of laughter.
She took my breath away with her rapid fire retort. "Spit it out or I will have to come over there and resuscitate you." I laughed and thanked her for giving me detailed instructions of how to bypass the hurriedness of the highway traffic and bask instead in the loveliness of the many small towns I would pass through. I indeed had followed the advice of the "master of minute observances," Jefferson herself.
Lou was famous for her world maps, all detailed by hand and many bearing her gorgeous pen and ink drawings, so I knew that no map offered by another would be as clear, logical, and outstanding as the instructions given by Jefferson. Lou was a world renown cartographer, and had traveled numerous times to Africa under Ford Foundation Grants to lay out - with her fine eye for detail and her brilliant hand for illustrating, painting, and calligraphy - The Decorative Arts Of Africa.6
In a book by the same title, "The Decorative Arts Of Africa," she offered scholars and artisans a brilliant visual sampling of African works of Art; showing the costumes, metal works, wood carvings, weavings, hair designs, tribal markings - things from Ethiopia,
Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Zaire, Rodesia, and Morrocco, all very important in the documentation of Africa´s Art History. Lou´s book became the "Bible" for any serious student wishing to learn about the history of art and artifacts in Africa. Lou´s genius resonated around the Art World as countless Museums and Universities across the globe reached out to her and benefited from the meticulous research she had done. Jefferson had lived her life with passion, strict discipline, and patience. She often remarked that photography takes a lot of patience because "you sometimes have to wait for hours to get the clouds you want, or a particular movement from an animal."
What Lou loved was the joy of discovery, of finding new ways to look at things and how to incorporate them into her ever growing body of work. She often joked that she had photographed every stone in Litchfield. Lou did not go anywhere without a camera, not even to her own backyard. She would spend long hours getting the photograph that she wanted and then spend more tedious hours after the prints were developed choosing and cutting her own mats out of delicate color hues. Often she would make the frame herself.
Lou was a perfectionist. She could muster up a great deal of emotion if someone used the word "snapshot" in her presence. She hated that word - and what she hated most was the "snap part." Oh, but Lou had such an irreverent sense of humor. When I mentioned that I had traveled to her house under a "lemony sun," she was delighted and sent me a marvelously detailed painting of a lemon with flowers on it…and guess who was sitting on top of the actual sized "lemon," - no other than Lou herself. There she was in the tiniest drawing you can imagine - having a grand laugh. She was an original. No project, however small, warranted anything other than Lou´s best effort.
Lou´s wisdom came from her belief, her awareness that sight and sound and thought and movement were interconnected. They were all part of a complex rhythm that had to be in motion for that rhythm to be perfectly clear. If something was working well, the rhythm was good. If something wasn´t working it was time to put back in shape the part that was out of order.
As a child, Jefferson was prompted to take off her leg brace that she wore as a result of contracting Polio while traveling with her mother who sometimes sang on the Potomac cruise ships. One day, after school, she got an axe. She took off her leg brace, and hacked that brace into pieces. Lou didn´t like the teasing she got from the noise it made. That brace had destroyed her rhythm. Jefferson had climbed a tree after destroying the brace, expecting a swift reprimand from her father, but that never came and Jefferson never regretted her decision.
Jefferson´s keen eye, talent, and discipline were encouraged by her parents. Her father was a gifted engraver who did fine engravings on bank charters for the United States Treasury Department. Her mother was an accomplished pianist, and even her grandmother sang in concerts given in their own home. Lou became truly animated when talking about her family, "Our family home was 'alive' with music. We had comfort, we were close, there was always laughter in the house…Grandfather, Grandmother, Aunt."
Lou, too, had a fine ear for music but she taught herself to play the piano and the drums. "Anything I do, I train myself to do," Lou often quipped but she did study Fine Arts at Hunter College and Graphic Arts at Columbia University. Her artistic impulses led to her mastery of the skills of bookbinding, cartography, drawing, and photography - and as Art Director of Friendship Press for over a quarter of a century, she did maps of virtually every area of the world, published by major publishers.
Lou´s originality of rhythm was sometimes controversial. In 1936 she illustrated a songbook depicting black and white children playing and singing together. This simple work incurred the wrath of Georgia´s governor Eugene Talmadge and he order the book banned and burned. Lou went on with her work of promoting goodwill by designing the Holiday Seals for the N.A.A.C.P. She continued to work for them for another forty years.
While living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, Jefferson kept her cameras busy photographing many famous people, including poets Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, Pauli Murray, her closest friend who was also a lawyer and ordained Episcopal priest; civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; tennis great Althea Gibson; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; and music legendaries Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne, to name just a few.
I asked Lou once if she would tell me about the process by which she created her detailed drawings. "Doll, Jefferson said, have you been plotting all that time to dream up more work for me." A feeling of warmth bathed my heart because I knew she only used affectionate terms to the closest of her friends. She took down one of the drawings from her wall and quickly and quietly loosened it from its entrapment. She began to carefully peel off its three layers, loosely glued on the edges. The bottom drawing was done in larger strokes and shadowed areas of pencil. The second drawing was done in colored pencils and acrylic paint. And the final layer was a polished milky looking non glossy plastic sheet with even a finer detailed drawing on it.
Lou´s eyes gleamed with devilment and I fell speechless. "Ah, the cat´s finally got your tongue, has it, she said." "Lou, I said, I had no idea there was so much work involved."
The fondest memory I have with Lou was an autumn day when daylight was slipping away. We had jumped into the car and had proceeded up a winding hill to a little country roadside bar. I felt foolish because I hadn´t realized that Lou was hungry as she had, for many hours, good naturedly brought out folder after folder of her meticulously catalogued work - but now she commenting on the changing light, the shadows falling across the slat wooden floor as we found our way to our booth.
The first thing Lou did as I was seating myself was head for The Juke Box, which literally startled me. She took a long time pondering over her selection. Finally, the music burst forth and Lou began to dance to Michael Jackson´s "Thriller." I laughed until I cried and watched her joyously dance with complete abandon. Lou was then perhaps eighty, on the plus side, and seeing her working off her restless energy, I could well imagine that her childhood home was indeed "alive" with music. Louise E. Jefferson. A true Renaissance Woman. Spirited. Talented. Rare."
I am interested in how people have risen to be role models, how they can (and should) be mobilized to help others. And, I am interested in those that have been on the receiving end of help from their heroes and heroines who changed the course of their lives, who helped them to dream another existence, to looks through another lens.
How does one bear witness to the legacy of slavery? Enslaved Blacks endured the most humiliating and humbling of circumstances. They were forced to labor more hours than their bodies could bear and those that did not endure were found murdered or hanging from The Lynching Trees. My great grandmother Missy´s own mother was put up on the auction block and "sold for fifty cents." Missy lived to the end of her life with her sister who my Granny called Aunt Mary, and Missy was never able to buy the humble little log cabin (shack) that she lived in with my Granny at the back of that big old "sawed off cornfield."
While Missy, my great grandmother, was living in a little shack at the back of the cornfield on Captain Knowles´ plantation in Troy - Charlotte Forten, a Black woman born to the prominent and free abolistionists Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Woods Forten of Philadelphia, was busy organizing herself to become the first Black school teacher in the Sea Islands in Beaufort, South Carolina during the actual fighting of the Civil War.
Charlotte Forten took a steamboat to Beaufort where she promptly went to the Commissary´s office to await the boat that would take her to St. Helena´s Island where she would begin her teaching assignment, just six miles away. There in the office, a Colonel talked roughly about rebel attacks and yellow fever with another army officer, frequently using the word "nigger" in Ms Forten´s presence. Forten wrote in her diary that she was not alarmed. She "saw through them at once," (their efforts to discourage her.)
Later, as she reflected on traveling along the lonely roads in the dark of night on the way to her final lodging - "how easy it would have been for a band of guerillas, had any chanced that way, to seize and hang us." Charlotte Forten was a brave spirit, who chose to focus her attention on the poetic aspects of her journeys rather than the trying and dismal dark sides. Even when in danger she spoke of the loveliness of the pines and the palmettos, of the large noble trees whose great beauty was the long bearded moss with which every branch is heavily draped." She wrote about "the grand Southern sunsets, the gorgeous clouds of crimson and gold reflected in the waters below which were smooth and calm as a mirror."
And yes, Forten herself was grand; a grand inspiration to me when I chanced upon her diaries when I was fourteen. Forten was a woman who gave up the safety and privilege of being a free Negro to come to the Sea Islands to teach slaves, some who were still being recaptured by their Masters. Certainly, Forten could so easily have been harmed as she put herself in harm´s way in the fight for the "Liberty of Others." In her entries, I could imagine that I was there, with her. I could easily see the "black soldiers in their blue coats and scarlet pants, the crowds of on lookers grouped in various attitudes wearing happy, eager, expectant looks. I envisioned the noble trees with their shiny small green leaves and deep, curving drapes of funeral moss. Yes, I could imagine "the one hundred and fifty people being baptized in the creek near the church." I could see them "looking picturesque in their white aprons, and bright dresses and hankerchiefs." I walked with them "down to the water, and sang "Down In The Lonesome Valley" with them. Yes, I closed my eyes and imagined my Granny and Poppa singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." I imagined that sweet, sorrowful refrain coming from Missy in her little one room shack at the back of that old sawed off cornfied in Troy and I had no trouble imagining Forten singing with the slaves, gently swaying as their music touched the chords in her heart. I had no trouble in imagining Charlotte Forten teaching the slaves and their children in that one room cabin deep into those hauntingly beautiful and dangerous woods. I can fully understand how she became attached to the childrens´earnest faces, all eager to learn to read and write.
In one of her entries in her diary, she wrote, 7'Another day, one of the black soldiers came in and gave up his account of the expedition of the First South Carolina Volunteers sent up the St. Mary´s River to capture Confederate supplies and cripple a vessel….I asked him what he would do if his Master and others should come back and try to reenslave him.' "I´d fight um Miss, I´d fight um till I turned to dust."
Yes, I am grateful for Charlottte Forten´s teaching and mentoring and her many beautiful stories and poetry. Despite her ongoing battle with tuberculosis, she found a way to bring much beauty and hope into the world. Others can continue to benefit from her wise and beautiful stance of moving beyond one´s own little world to reach out to be of service to others through mentoring.
There are many great heroes and heroines, big and small. Forten was inspired by two children who were successful in escaping and she made certain others would learn about them as she carefully recorded their journey in her diary. "Two young girls, one ten and one fifteen were taken away by their Master. The girls bravely stole away one night, traveling through woods and swamps and though their strength would sometimes fail and they would sink down in the swamps and think they could go no further, they had brave little hearts and struggled on until at last they reached the Ferry. The Ferry could not take them because it was too full but the passengers promised to carry word to their father. The father managed to come and fetch the girls and when they were brought to their mother she fell down 'just as if she was dead' - she was so overpowered with joy." Charlotte Forten wrote, "I want to see the heroic little creatures,"and through her remembrances of them in her diary, I felt that I had known them, too.
7 Excerpts of Charlotte Forten´s Diaries Found in The Atlantic Monthly´s account of her journies to The Sea Islands
Arthur Schomburg who founded the Schomburg Center for Black Arts and Culture in Harlem collected thousands of these stories of the slaves that were forced from family and home. We can all read some of these haunting stories in the many books on "The Under Ground Rail Road" found at The Schomburg Center,8along with many other books about individual, breathtaking journeys of runaway slaves as they made their way from point to point, traveling in the dark of night by every conceivable method. There are few Black families in The United States that were not personally touched by someone that was a slave in their family. The lack of education, the trauma, the deprivations the slaves endured is all part and parcel to the Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome that Dr. Na´ Akbar writes about in his book 'Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery.9 The consequence of racism and its negation of African people and things - ideas, philosophy, history, traditions - have resulted in more everlasting damage than the whip or the physical chains of bondage.
In my efforts to gain knowledge about the many areas of concern that I had about the existing effects of racism in The United States, I attended what I hoped would be an enlightening conference sponsored by The New School on Nov. 30, 2006 about "Contemporary American Punishment." I learned that though the black man represents only 6% of the population in America, they represent 40% of the incarcerated prison population according to research made by James Q. Whitman, Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law, Yale Law School. Professor Whitman said, "Contemporary American punishment is dramatically different than any other punishment in the world. American punishment is particularly harsh and America is particularly racist." I asked the panelists why the media rarely covers stories about the Drug Lords who live at prestigious addresses who bring drugs into the country - but choose to focus on the many petty drug pushers who are crowding the U. S. prisons. My question went unanswered.
9 Dr. N´Akbar, Breaking the Chairns of Psychological Slavery
The very first film that I did as a filmmaker, as producer and director of "Lost Control, a documentary about the problems of drug addiction, was nominated for an Academy Award at The American Film Festival, but it was not the Academy Nomination that stayed uppermost in my mind but my visit and filming in a maximum security prison where a beautiful young black man said, "This criminal thing, this I can handle but when I get out in that so-called straight world, this is where I find myself constantly hitting walls - that is the hard part for me, dealing with that straight world. If a person in the straight world was straight, you know, they didn´t do the lying, the cheating, the conniving, and the cut throating that´s happening in this criminal world, I could accept why I am in prison, but that lying and cheating is out there on a grand scale in the straight world - and here in prison a guy can do twenty five years for stealing a loaf of bread or smoking a little marijuana but in the so-called straight world a guy can bring in a boat load of marijuana and cocaine and sell it to kids and the officials look the other way because that guy is somebody important in the straight world." Randall Robinson in his book, "The Debt,"10 reminds us that slavery was the one of the most grievous of human rights violations because so many long years after the crimes are over, there is still the ongoing production of victims, "ad infinitum."
In thinking of the ten young girls and boys, teens from Harlem who I taught art to for seven years through the Non Profit Arts Foundation and Gallery I founded, Creative Find, Inc. to help At Risk Youth - in all of the families of these young people, though they personally escaped the ravages of the worst of the wounds - there is evidence of raw wounds carried since slavery. One young teen´s mother is the only member of her family to make it to high school in five generations and the only sibling of nine children who did not die of a drug overdose. Three of the childrens´fathers remain in prison still (and have been in prison all of their young lives) and with the exception of one of the teens, the others will always have the memory of having had a parent addicted to crack or drugs. It is a vicious cycle passed down from one generation to the next in an uncaring society addicted to the "pursuit of money."
As Gourdine grew to love physics more than math, he also pursued swimming but he settled on becoming a track star, earning the nickname"Flash" for being one of the fastest quarter milers in New York City. This focus of Flash Gourdine´s on science and athletics, two very different pursuits, would lead him to win an Olympic Silver Medal for America in the broad jump track competition at the Helsinki Olympics in Finland in 1952 and later would garner him a permanent place in The Science Hall of Fame for inventing the trash conveyor belt and the paint spray gun.
When Alan Field, a writer for the Houston Cronicle,11 asked Dr. Gourdine how he managed to stay on his rigorous course, he said, "my father had me and my three brothers hauling garbage and mopping floors and that was motivation enough for me to stay in school." Gourdine won the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to study at Cal Tech, married, began his family, and received his Doctorate in Engineering Science.
Dr. Gourdine liked to have fun and with a burst of outrageous laughter he would tell the story of the many engineers who have two left hands, who don´t know what a screwdriver is, of the many mathematicians who don´t need to know about screwdrivers - but that he, being in engineering science, needed to understand the physics behind "all" disciplines. He would stretch out the "all" as a prelude to dramatically taking out his imaginary wrench, telling you about the various solders he might use for this or that, and then with his eyes twinkling he would say, "I have a fascination with gadgetry."
Dr. Gourdine launched Gourdine Systems, a company which at its peak had sixty full time employees studying the interaction between magnetic fields and gases that are hot enough to make electrons split from the atoms. He had over six dozen patents and worked hard to develop his products - some of which were used by NASA. He had an exhaust gas device to recover and recycle the lead so as not to harm the environment and an important airport defogging system that needed further testing - but a combination of things, including unleaded gasoline coming into the market, stopped Gourdine in his tracks.
Struggling with turbulent passions, he would leave his 26 room English Tudor home with swimming pool on his three acre estate, close down his multi million dollar Company, manage the difficult task of divorcing a wife he adored, and fall hopelessly in love with a red head who had captured her State and was a finalist in the Miss America Pageant. The romance would not lead the beauty winner to the altar as he had expected - but believe it because it is true - he would remarry his wife, not once but twice more. Gourdine was doggedly doing the impossible feat of saving his eyesight from the throes of diabetes. The deterioration of his vision was a shock for this fit and dynamic man. Laser beam treatments on two continents failed to stem the rapidly encroaching disease and darkness passed into one eye and then the other. Gourdine lost feeling in his feet and it became impossible for him to read Braille since he lacked sufficient sensation at the tips of his fingers.
We are nearly a century and a half past the Civil War and "we have witnessed the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board that sounded the death knell for Jim Crow segregation and led the way for history making developments to come - Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to leadership, the sit-ins, the marches; the Freedom Riders; the Voter Registration drives, and the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 granting long over-due basic human rights of voting, equal access to public accommodations - and the protection from discrimination in education and employment." 12 These wereall breathtaking events that were enabled by courageous and valiant Americans, some who paid with their lives in the struggle to bring equality to all people in America.
And yet, as time marches on, half of our young Black men languish in prisons. It is critical to explore the issues of the times we are now living through with creativity and with candor. We must continue to extend the learning beyond oneself. The memory of the awlfulness of the past must be carried forth in the illuminating creative works and contributions of our modern day heroes and heroines and we must keep safe the spirit and contributions made by so many who were dedicated to excellence and honorable deeds. The men and women we praise today had their paths paved with "precious lives" - many who did not live to see their dreams fulfilled.
We must all go deep into the soul and deal with those buried innermost feelings and pull those feelings out to tell the stories that still must be told. Yes, we have the W.E.B. Dubois, book "The Soul of Black Folks," written over a hundred years ago and still very relevant today, as Dubois talked about the world´s "lust for gold." And, we have Alex Haley´s film"Roots" produced by Reuben Cannon, who also produced, Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." Thank goodness we have those illuminating stories.
We have a treasure of wonderful books and films that light our paths and help us to never forget that we must get our voices out into the world. We have professors that are, today, committed to preserving and widening the scope of learning about the contributions that Blacks have made in the world, and in particular, the Arts - Michelle Materre at The New School with her distinguished teaching awards and her groundbreaking Film Festival, Creatively Speaking. TV. We have distinguished Professors Louis Gates at Harvard and Cornel West at Princeton, and Haile Gerima at Howard University, and many, many others - and though we must always remember these great voices that came before us that are paving our pathways with their important and relevant works - we must continue to widen those pathways with more and more stories and much more music of historical relevance.
12 Michael Blevins, Restorative Justice, The Need For Reparations - Judged by Yale to be the best Thesis ever written on Reparations
Stories From The Heart is an ode to Granny and Poppa, to my beloved grandparents - to all great grandparents, mothers, fathers, friends and allies that helped us find those steadier pathways in this journey called "Life," helped us to remember that our stories are what and who we are. Our music, that of the great Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong; the voices of Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price and all of their comrades in that legendary group are the voices that refuse, to this day, to be silenced.
At a low point in Duke Ellington´s life after the loss of his beautiful mother, he was on a train traveling to one of those one nighter tours in the South. His papers are in front of him. His manuscript is dotted with smears from the tears that have fallen on the pages. He just wants to collapse into the past, into his loss, into destruction. His ambition is dribbling away. The Duke begins to hear the voice of his mother. "I did not spend the first part of your life preparing you for this negative attitude," his mother´s voice says.
Duke was forced to look back to the life he had loved and shared with his mother, and to think about what action he would take by the hearing of his mother´s words. Duke had to look back to where he had been and he had to move forward. "Only through time is time conquered, a constant process of transformation," a quote Professor Royal Brown at The New School used time and again in my classes with him and this philosophy is what Duke Ellington used to begin to come out of his nothingness.
The Duke is all caught up in the rhythm and motion of the train dashing through the South. The music he hears in his mind is released and Ellington begins to write "Reminiscing in Tempo," a profound work that evolved out of The Duke´s grief over his mother. It is known that he mourned his mother Daisy´s death for years - but there was a bigger, greater reality to which Ellington´s stark sadness ultimately yielded - and that was "hope." That hope had its beginnings on the train and would take up four Record Sides when Ellington´s "Reminiscing In Tempo" was released.13
Barack Obama, the young Black man of African Kenya and Kansas White Heritage, who earned his law degree at Harvard, and went on to become a tireless Community Organizer in Chicago, to being a three term U.S. Illinois Senator, and then to winning the Democratic Presidential Nomination and ultimately becoming The President Of The United States in the 2008 National Elections was able to pursue the dreams that escaped his father because he realized that his stories were tied to two continents (as most Black Americans are) and that it was time for him to embrace the struggles that had defeated his father - time to realize that there was no shame in his own long struggle to find himself or shame in the fact that his father died without realizing his dreams.
13 Duke Ellington´s Personal Memoir, Music Is My Mistress
Barack Obama in his book, "Dreams from My Father,"5 wrote about the day that he dropped to the ground in Kenya, over the grave of his father. Dropped to the ground and cried, "Father, there was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father´s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren´t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you, and you the son might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets, gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways."
"You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world. That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn´t new, that wasn´t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead - a faith in other people. The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too little of the laughter in Ganny´s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. Words of encouragement. An embrace. For all your gifts - the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm - you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind."
These are the words that half of America´s young men in prison need to hear. They need to be exposed to many inspiring stories, many more audios, more and more positive films. They desperately need the "embraces" that these accounts can provide them. I shall always remain grateful that my Granny and Poppa were willing to share their stories and encouraged my efforts as a child to write them in my many diaries. I want to share with you a story that will always be close to my heart because it it the most vivid memory I have of my beloved Poppa.
Poppa and Josie and all of the family moved into a three story beige shingled house in a city known for its rubber factories - Akron, Ohio. The white bannistered home with its big wrap around porch had the distinguishing feature of boasting a tiny but plump "Apple Tree"in the front yard. Josie had wasted no time in planting Gus' magic seeds and already the neighbors were marveling at how fast the tree was sprouting up.
The house stood at the top of a gently sloping hill and from the big old metal swing couch that Poppa had placed in his favorite corner, one could see all the way down the hill. Granny had placed a dozen of her hand embroidered pillows on the couch and that was where Poppa could be found when he was not working in his restaurant. The other place that Poppa could be found was down in the basement where he was always chiseling out more shelves from the cold, dirt walls so Josie could store her canned goods; bottle upon bottle of strawberry and blueberry jams, peaches, sweet potatoes, pickled beets, rhubard, and just about every other vegetable that could be grown in Josie´s garden.
Poppa also kept neatly stacked in a corner of the basement some big old iron cooking pots, and a basket of fancy clothing irons that were tiny but really heavy and had to be heated up on coals because they did not have electric cords. My favorite corner was where Poppa kept the big wicker basket of lace parasols from the plantation he had worked on in the South. The parasols smelled musty, like moss was still clinging to them, when they were taken out of the heavy hand quilted spread they were protected in. Poppa would carefully open a parasol and let me spin around dancing with it while he chuckled. I loved to dance and Poppa would help me into some dainty leather lace up boots and a big old hoop skirt and I would stand on Poppa´s shoes and we would dance; dance very slowly so I wouldn´t fall off, and round and round that room we would go - with Poppa humming and chuckling. Afterwards, Poppa always would wrap up everything carefully and put it all back in "those wicker baskets in which he kept the things from Troy." No one ever touched those baskets from Troy without Poppa being there.
One Sunday, after supper, my Granny had gone off with all of my seven brothers and sisters and my Daddy on a long car drive. I stayed home with Poppa to give him a special ballet recital. I did my little jetes and pirouettes in my ballet shoes and pink tutu and Poppa and my dolls were the audience members. When I took my final bow, Poppa could not stop clapping. He swept me up in his arms, kissing my forehead over and over, exclaiming "You looked right smart in your pretty crinoline, what´s a Poppa to do?"
I was six years old. I put away my dolls and Poppa filled the sink with soapy water so we could tackle the supper dishes. Poppa was humming and singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." He was still dressed in his pin stripe suit with his vest, long watch chain and bow tié, but he had put his white starched halter apron on and I had tied a big bow in the back which made Poppa really chuckle. I was dressed in my ballet crinoline and Poppa tied Granny´s apron over it. Poppa washed the plates and I dried them. I kept asking, "Poppa are we finished yet," and Poppa said, "Youngun,' don´t you see all of those dishes there?" I kept drying the plates, one after the other, and Poppa stopped suddenly and looked at me and reached out and took my drying towel. Then, he fell out on the floor.
I laughed because the towel fell on Poppa´s face. I said, "Poppa get up, we have to finish the dishes before we play." But Poppa did not move. I kept poking him and trying to get him to stop acting so funny because it began to scare me. Finally, I realized that Poppa was not playing and could not speak. I ran to the neighbors house crying, "Mrs. Roseman, Mrs. Roseman, Poppa hás fallen on the kitchen floor and won´t get up to help me finish the dishes." Poppa lived for three days after he fell out on the floor but he never spoke again. When they brought his casket into the living room, I sat many long hours next to him.
I wasn´t afraid of him. He was Poppa. I asked my Granny if I could put the little book that Poppa always read to me into Poppa´s casket to keep him company. My Granny said, "Youngun,' what you goin' to stir up that trouble for; Poppa will have aplenty to do in Heaven and Lord knows Poppa spent all this time without learnin' to read, I "spect" he won´t be needin' no book in Heaven." I looked at my Granny really confused. "You mean that Poppa told all of those stories without reading from the book?" "Yes, youngun' she said,"Poppa was a slave before he got right smart and opened up his grocery and restaurant business. He never had no schoolin."
"Now, my mama, Granny said, worked up in The Great House and when the Captain of the house was off fighting in the war, his Missus taught all of their children how to count and read. When I was with my Mama, I watched and listened like a hawk. Little by little I learned to count and read a bit and I passed this learnin' on to my own - and Lord knows I couldn´t stop your Poppa long enough to bother with no learnin.' He had enough to do runnin' his three restaurants."
I walked over to Poppa and looked at him a long time. I couldn´t imagine Poppa in dungarees, working as a slave. When no one was looking, I put Poppa´s favorite book, "Big Red Fish," deep down into Poppa´s casket, in the folds of all that starched white ruffled satin, and hoped that Poppa would find the time to learn to read in Heaven.
For a quarter of a century after that my grandmother would always ask, "do you remember Poppa? He never failed comin' to take y'all to the park." Yes, Poppa was a remarkable grandfather - and for certain I will always remember Poppa.
I read Barack Obama´s book ten years ago and was not surprised when he stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for his people. Obama´s run makes one all the more aware of acting responsibly with the gifts that one has. The run that Jackie Robinson hit landed Robinson in the history books as a gifted and noble sportsman. Obama´s perseverance and accomplishments made him the first Black U. S. President. My Poppa and Granny would have been so proud of Obama. I can see Poppa in his three piece pin stripe suit, exclaiming, "That Obama is a right smart man 'youngun and this is a happy day, a happy day. I can hear our folks singin' all the way from Heaven."
Yes, my grandparents held on to an "iron clad will" to survive and prosper, and the fact that a black man would one day become President is news that would have resonated (does resonate) in all the hearts that believe in redemption. Poppa and Granny instilled the will to succeed in me and I changed career courses many times in the last half of this 21st century - provoked by some of the same injustices that my grandparents and parents endured, but always I tried to maintain steady footing on the pathways Granny and Poppa taught me to seek and trust during times of adversity. I believe that still I will be able to conquer the social, racial, and economic divides of my birthplace, America.
These accounts and reminisces are all true stories - full of the ghosts of the many gifted ones who came before, of scenarios that play out joyfully and tragically - scenarios that beg us to consider the "cultural stare," to think about both sides of that stare, the persons perpetuating and the persons receiving that ubiquitous "cultural stare," that prompts so many to give up while other use it as fuel to succeed. There needs to be a wealth of inspirational stories and music available, accessible at all times to everyone, as easy to find as the nearest movie theatre or video store - easy enough to switch on the dial and listen to on the radio, to see and hear on the internet. We cannot pretend any longer that the world will straighten itself out. We each have to do something to make our world a more humane place. Consumerism, greed, and violence must be fought with intelligence and creativity. We must get our stories out there. We must help to mend the weariness that so many feel.
We all must find a rhythm to move us forward, to celebrating the things that matter in life. There are many great minds, great stories, great music that our children may never hear unless we pull ourselves away from this "nuclear" quest to wear more expensive logos, drive faster and slicker cars, live in bigger glass skyscrapers. Soon the cities will become like huge roller coasters, all steel with hearts that are all racing downhill or fighting to get back up to the top of what can only be a giant maze, impossible to sustain. Is this what we really want?
We all could benefit from looking into the mirror and realizing what Wynton Marsalis talks about in his wise and beautiful book, To A Young Jazz Musician - Letters From The Road,14 to look at those certainties we cling to may not perhaps be all that rock solid. We need healers, to heal the culture one patient at a time, beginning with yourself." These audio stories and important musical offerings will explore the personal, inspirational stories from the lives of everyday people that have propelled themselves onward to achieve "greatness" and helped others to achieve "great small things."
And we must remember that great stories come from great people of all nationalies and color hues. One of the fondest memories I have in life is the time that the great English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn propelled herself into my pathway so that she might convince me that I had the makings of a Prima Ballerina. Though I did not heed her advice to become a dancer, I will always cherish the grace and largesse that she shared in offering to be my mentor - teaching me how precious it is to reach out to others to share your gifts.
W.E.B. DuBois, in his book, "The Souls Of Black Folks"15 talks about how "the preacher and teacher embodied once the ideals of this people - the strife for another and a more "just" world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing, but today the danger is that these ideals, with their simple beauty and weird inspiration, will suddenly sink to a question of cash and a lust for gold."
14 Wynton Marsalis, To a Young Jazz Musician, Random House
There seems to be a growing need in many a weary heart to try to reroute our brains to get back to Nostalgia and Core Values. I am planning that "Stories FromThe Heart," will be fine tuned to develop the stories into audios, short films, and CDs that can be played on TV, the Internet - on Radios, in Schools, in Universities, and in Theatres. Yes, each of us can find ways to bring new meaning into our lives by reaching out to others through Stories From The Heart. Dame Margot Fonteyn "encouraged artists of all kinds to share their ideas to find deeper meaning in their work, to know the difference between taking one´s work seriously and taking one´s self seriously."16 My own Granny had been a child chained to the boundaries of slavery but she had the courage, conviction, and vision to hold on to an old hoop, a hoop that would one day expand and broaden the course of her granddaughter Annie Babe´s life, and these two women (though from remarkably different backgrounds) would show in heartfelt ways just how precious it is to "Hold Fast To Your Dream." No, I did not get to be the prima ballerina that Margot Fonteyn envisioned that I could be but I did manage to hold on to the dreams of my Heroes and Heroines so that I could present them to you. We all have gifts we can share and it is simply a matter of doing all that we can to hook up those who have been blessed with those that can be blessed and this is precisely what I envision Stories From The Heart will do.
16 Dame Margot Fonteyn Interview, From Voice Of Dance