Finding the Words: Flowers From That Garden

I spent some time last week in Montgomery, Alabama–the “cradle of the Civil Rights Movement”–visiting archives, museums, and exhibits. Several days later, I still have few words to explain the mix of strong feelings that have taken residence in my soul. Even though I’ve heard the stories, read the books, seen (some of) the images before, and even taught the material, I need time to process other ways of thinking through the atrocities of our nation’s past.

As I was there listening, reading, watching, taking notes, and snapping photos, I realized how much the past is echoed in our present, how little we have moved away from those heinous acts; in fact, in the two short days that I was studying the horrors of our past, we were creating more devastation. And instead of sitting at the table and finding solutions, we were casting blame and wasting time on foolish distractions.

Beyond the atrocities, I found my heart breaking at the impossibility of the thing we must conquer to actually make progress. We can march for civil and human rights, but our marches cannot change the thing that makes these protests necessary–the hate and fear that dwell in people’s hearts.

Is it possible?

Is it possible to undo the social conditioning that begins at the dinner table? The disdain for others that is cultivated via television and social media? The thing in (some of us) that convinces us that murdering “those” people and separating “those” children from their parents are justifiable?

One of the meaningful experiences I had while in Montgomery was visiting the church and home of Martin Luther King, Jr. (more on that later). Outside the home there is a peaceful garden–The King-Johns Garden for Reflection, commemorating the  work of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church’s renown pastors.  In the moment I was there, I grasped the possibilities of the principles Rev. Vernon Johns and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced: Equality. Forgiveness. Hope. Peace. Understanding. Unity.

DeLinda contemplating forgiveness…

A plaque at the entrance to the garden reads [in part]:

In the serenity of this garden, you are invited to reflect upon six timeless themes about which Rev. Johns and Dr. King often preached, lectured, and wrote: Equality-Forgiveness-Hope-Peace-Understanding-Unity. We encourage you to ponder each one as it relates to you, your family, and your community. Here, in the shadow of Rev Johns’ and Dr. King’s pastoral home, may you find the personal fulfillment that is often the first step on the long journey to a better world.

Carlette contemplating equality…

The baby girl in the photograph that formed my previous post is my niece Tiffany’s daughter. I’m trying to hope that by the time she grows up, the horror story that my nation is wont to tell will have transformed into another type of tale–one of light, acceptance, respect, and freedom for all who cross its borders.

Maybe, if we can get the world to be quiet and still enough to contemplate the King-Johns principles, we can make true progress. Maybe, we can forge a better future, a brighter world for the upcoming generation and the generations that follow.

The flowers in this post are from that garden. They remind me despite all the ugly, beauty can survive.

“Montgomery on My Mind”

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in –Rosa Parks

My colleague, Dr. Ramona Hyman, always has “Montgomery” and its rich Civil Rights history “on [her] mind.” Thanks to her, I have Montgomery, Alabama on my mind too as I prepare to spend a couple of days there with her and several Huntsville educators “Revisiting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The educators are working on integrating this piece of history into their K-12 classes. I have a different research agenda–as I’m thinking through a project on women’s involvement in critical moments in history.

Today is a perfect time to share some of the Rosa Parks postcards in my collection. I’ve had them for quite some time, but now that I’m thinking about Montgomery, it’s an appropriate time to share.

Many people know about her contribution to American civil rights and history, but just in case you don’t know–Rosa Parks is considered the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 “triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States.” The boycott lasted for more than a year and ultimately catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence. The boycotts led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses.

Here are three related postcards from my collection:

The “Rosa Parks Bus” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

From the postcard back:

Montgomery City Bus 2857. Originally built in 1948 in Pontiac, Michigan, Bus 2857 was operated by the Montgomery City Bus Lines in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954-1971. Rosa Parks was riding this bus on the evening of December 1, 1955 when she was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man. This incident sparked subsequent civil rights protests, especially the boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United States. The yearlong boycott kept Montgomery’s [black population] off all buses until December 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional. Bus 2857 was retired and sold in 1971. After sitting for 30 years in a field, the bus was purchased by auction by The Henry Ford [Museum} and has been restored to appear as it did in 1955. The bus is now on display in the Henry Ford Museum.

You can find more details about the purchase and restoration of the bus here: Restoring the Rosa Parks Bus.

Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man.

The postcard, featuring the familiar image of Parks being fingerprinted, comes from the Women Who Dared collection sent to me during Women’s History Month several years ago. The sender added a Parks quote:

Each person must live life as a model for others. –Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

The art above is part of the “Celebrating Women” banners that were on display at The Lower Eastside Girls Club’s Celebrate Cafe in New York City when I visited several years ago (2010, maybe?). If I remember correctly, each banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.

You can find out a lot more about Rosa Parks by reading her biography on the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute website. You’ll find that she was much more than the woman who refused to give up her seat.

“A Hymn for Montgomery 55” by Ramona Hyman
from her collection, In the Sanctuary of the South

Holy, holy, holy: a hymn of praise
For prophets framing freedom
In Montgomery 55: Strange fruits marching–some
Walking, some crawling–some…

Holy, holy, holy–a hymn of praise
Emptying itself
Americans: black and white; hand in hand
Saintly sighing a freedom song of praise

Holy, holy, holy–the march raises
Into victory: freedom swells, the flag: separate
And unequal shreds into the face of anxious
Soldiers–black and white jumping the broom
Into a new day–the Civil Rights Movement begins

Gwendolyn Brooks: In Her Honor

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), detail of The Furious Flower Portrait Quilt, 2004. Mixed media collage on canvas. Artist: Malaika Favorite. Card from my collection.

Like the Rita Dove piece I blogged about several months ago, the Gwendolyn Brooks portrait above is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.

Brooks (1917-2000) was a prolific writer with one novel and more than 20 volumes of poetry to her credit. She was the first Black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986), and the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Annie Allen won for the best volume of verse published in 1950.

Sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I fell in love with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I gained access to these poets (and many others) through the book collections of my older brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks was my favorite. I still know by heart “To Be in Love,” the first poem I read by her:

To be in love
is to touch with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
you know you are tasting together
the winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
because your pulse must not say
what must not be said.

When he
shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
with a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
to touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
into the commonest ash.

I was “mesmerized” by the way she crafted language. I recall being moved by particular phrases–

you are the beautiful half/of a golden hurt

free/with a ghastly freedom

the Column of Gold/into the commonest ash.

And I was intrigued by how she used opposites and negatives to convey the beauty and pain of love and evoke a powerful sense of loss.

My own (early) poetry was very much influenced by Brooks.

Brooks would have been 101 on June 7, so in her honor, I invite you to read about her contributions to American literature as well as some of her poetry. To get started, see the links below:

“My Hair Is Not an Apology”

ENSEIGNE AFRICAINE. “Coiffeur de Dames,” Cotonou, Benin. Photographed by Lionel Adenis (Postcard from my collection. Purchased).

Every semester I choose a “theme” for my first year writing courses. The past semester’s focus–one word–misogynoir.

Misogynoir is an amalgam of the word “misogyny” (dislike or contempt for women) and “noir,” the French word for “black.”

Moya Bailey coined the term to “describe the racialized misogyny aimed at black women.” But many were writing and thinking about misogynoir long before there was a word for it. In fact, I recall writing an essay in junior high about intra-racism and the experiences of darker hued Black women in New Orleans. Basically, all the work of my “professional life” is a response to misogynoir.

In my classes, our goal was to find constructive strategies to cope with and combat the effects of misogynoir. Discussions covered many topics: images of black women in the media–including social media; representations of black women in music, film, art, literature; controlling images of black women; black women’s invisibility; politics; health and housing disparities; police brutality; systemic biases and treatment. The list goes on and on and on.

Obviously, there was no way we could cover all the topics, particularly since new issues emerge(d) frequently. But it was interesting  to note how often black women’s hair entered the conversation.

Of all things.

Books have been written about it. Documentaries filmed. Policy written. Memes created. Regular discussions held around the dinner table and on social media.

Black women’s hair.  

Little black girls are removed from classrooms. Nursing students are “forced” out of programs. Professional women are fired. Because of  hair. Because of hair. Because of hair.

Let that sink in.

Black women are targeted when we refuse to press or relax our hair, when we insist on loving our natural selves–including our hair–when we reject conformity in favor of self-love, when we shun the European “standard” of beauty because we know there are countless ways to be beautiful.

I’m not sure other women are advised [urged] to damage their hair to make it [read: themselves] more presentable, or told their hair is intimidating.

Does this happen to non-Black women?

When they were undergraduates, my [former] students, Lauren and Jasmin, performed a powerful piece on this very topic. Take a listen.

Nelson Mandela: Humility and Service

Statement from the dock at the Rivonia Trial, 1964

The quote above comes from Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela’s statement, “I Am Prepared to Die,” delivered from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia Trial, 1964. You can find more about the speech and read it in its entirety by clicking the title above.

My Tk sent the postcard from South Africa early this month. It arrived, all alone, earlier this week when I needed to see those words as well as the words she wrote on the back–“Thank you for your contribution to my life.”

Lately, I’ve been a little discouraged as I watch people revise agendas to serve their own, or stomp all over others as they attempt to advance themselves in one way or another. Through his life and work, Mandela proved that so much more can be accomplished through humility and service. Had Mandela and others like him served to please themselves alone, South Africa would still be in the grips of apartheid.

I’m grateful for his model. For his humility. For his service.

Paradise: Moments and Connection

I went on a brief trip to Chicago–for the College Language Association’s (CLA) annual convention–late last week. The conference is always a treat, and I can’t believe I hadn’t attended since 2012!

CLA was founded in 1937 by Black scholars and educators to strengthen teaching and scholarship in literature(s) and language(s). The organization was formed because, at that time, Black scholars were excluded from the Modern Language Association (MLA), which is considered the “flagship” organization for English and Language professors. Like today’s MLA, CLA’s membership is open to all scholars in literature and language studies.

The annual convention is a huge academic reunion, where we test theories, exchange ideas, and (re)connect with friends from our undergraduate and graduate school years, former students–now professors themselves–our own former professors and mentors, and colleagues from all over.

Today, many CLA members, like me, are members of both organizations. As much as I appreciate MLA, it is CLA that gives me a sense of purpose, affirmation, and community.

I read a quote yesterday, posted by a friend on Instagram, that perfectly expresses how I feel about the conference:

Paradise has never been about places. It exists in moments. In connection. In flashes across time.  –Victoria Erickson

Paradise.

CLA is about the moments we get to spend together as scholars and friends who support, encourage, and inspire each other.

The 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of the King of Love: “It Is Not a Day to Celebrate”

“I Have a Dream,” the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Riverside California, depicts King leading a Civil Rights march. The back of the statue reads: “Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace.I was a drum major for righteousness.” Statue designed by artist Lisa Reinerston. Photo by D. Williams on Pixabay

Be wary.
Be wise.
Stand far away from anyone who suggests
that you celebrate anything on April 4, 2018.
It is not a day to celebrate.
It is a day to remember.
Remember how thoroughly dead the King of
Love is dead.
Listen to Nina Simone.
Teach our young to remember.
Remember how thoroughly dead the King of
Love is dead.
April 4, 2018 is a day to remember.
It is not a day to celebrate.
Stand far away from anyone who suggests
that you co-opt yourself with celebration.
Be wary.
Be wise.
Listen to Nina Simone.

Poem by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Written February 25, 2018