A Moment with the Empress and the Lady

When I taught African American literature, blues artists Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s songs were key in deepening students’ understanding of the continuities of Black experience and literature and arts in America. I haven’t taught the literature since we moved to Northern Alabama, so their music is collecting dust. In fact, I think the collections are still in boxes.

A couple of days ago, I ran across a Billie Holiday postcard that I’ve had for quite some time–a familiar photo of Lady Day, with the signature gardenia in her hair.

Billie Holiday, c. 1936, Photograph by Robin Carson, from the Collection of Ole Brask

The sender’s note referenced listening to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith days before sending the postcard. Interestingly, the day after rediscovering the postcard–yesterday, in fact–I received a Bessie Smith postcard from my postcard pal Connie F. Talk about coincidence!

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), Photograph courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives, Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The music goddesses are telling me to take a moment for Bessie and Billie. They are the best medicine for the madness of the days ahead.

Perhaps, you need a moment too.

Here’s a listening guide of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, singing “Backwater Blues” with James P. Johnson on the piano:

And for your pure listening pleasure, a 30-song compilation of Lady Day’s “top songs.”

Both women’s lives were cut short, but their influence reaches far beyond their years on this earth, and they continue to make a powerful impact on music in America.

Guest Post: “The Moral Moment” by Dr. Blue

As much as I would love to use today’s blog post to write about fun and lighthearted things as we enter the weekend, my heart has been heavy all week. We began classes for the semester a few days ago, but just before my first class, I ran across a photo snapped on the first day of class a couple of years ago–a sidewalk chalk protest: Mike Brown should be on his way to class too.

“Mike Brown should be on his way to class too.”

As I tried desperately to block out Charlottesville, Virginia and a failure of leadership to provide a moral response, I felt the chilling reality that this could have been Brown’s senior year in college deep in my soul. I voted Tuesday with no hope. It was just part of the process, my right as an American citizen, my duty as an African American. All week, I listened to children who are afraid and talked to students who are now very watchful and careful about their surroundings in a southern city where sightings of the confederate flag is not uncommon.

The question that came up time and time again, “What do we do?” What can we do?

Today’s post (which begins below) was written by Dedrick Blue, D.Min, Dean of Religion and Theology at Oakwood University. In response to the events of the last week, Blue calls us to reach inside and decide what we will do. The question is not “what can we do?” The question, he points out, is “what will I do?” We must answer that question for ourselves and make the decision to act.

***      ***      ***

Each of us will come to a moment in our lives when moral decency will beg for response. These are times of great moral and spiritual crises that test our metal and our faith. These defining moments shape history and shape our personal history. We have come to that moment.

As our nation grieves over the tragic events in Charlottesville, VA which left three dead and 19 injured at the hands of violent-sanctioned white supremacy, we are obliged to pause and reflect upon the meaning of the moment.

While some may argue over whether a Confederate statue should survive, be clear that was not the issue. The issue is whether people–black, brown, yellow, red, Jew, Muslim–should survive. The statue is just a symbol of the genocide perpetrated by white supremacy upon people of color and those not conforming to white Protestant, Anglo-Saxon phenotype.  Those white supremacists are unequivocal in their assertion that the inanimate statue has a greater right to American soil than breathing persons of color. They assert that the history of white supremacy and genocide is the true history of America. In this, they are both right and wrong. Rebellion and genocide are part of our history, but they are not to be our trajectory or our destiny. And certainly, genocide is not to be memorialized as something noble.

Our great Republic has never been perfect. And yet, this nation with Her hands and conscience soiled by chattel slavery, chose to repudiate Her past and march forward toward a more perfect union. This of course was not without costs. Our nation lost nearly a million of its citizens in a Civil War. The backlash from Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow and “strange fruit on southern trees.” Churches were bombed, buses were burned, leaders were assassinated, children were incarcerated and voters were intimidated in this march toward a more perfect union. Like Abel, the blood of those sacrifices cry out for justice from America’s soil, and plead that those sacrifices be not in vain.

Now we have come to this moment in our nation’s history, when the President of these United States has chosen to ignore the sacrifices of our bloody, glorious past. My first reaction is to say that he seeks to resurrect the demons of racism and white supremacy. However, truth be told, that ghoulish specter has never ceased to stalk our heels, and continues to lurk in our bedrooms and boardrooms. That poltergeist shoots down unarmed boys in the street, snatches healthcare from senior citizens, sits in legislative councils, and rewards robber barons with tax cuts. And now in this moment, we see our President acting as a medium to call up and invite that demon to sit at his welcome table.

Let us be clear. This is a pivotal moment in American history. It is a moment when this nation will either rise once more and strive toward her credo that “all men are created equal” or will slither back into the quagmire of its racist history.

But this is not just a pivotal moment for America. It is a pivotal moment for each citizen of America. For what is America if it is not each of us? America is not just a government; it is a people bound together by constitution and geography, but even more importantly, bound together by ideal. This moment now tests not only the government but also that ideal. We as a nation and as a people are challenged in this moral moment to vociferously repudiate the demons of white supremacy. We must not be silent now. We cannot run for cover or place our proverbial head in the proverbial sand and pretend that if we ignore it, it does not exist.

Neither can we retreat into apocalyptic passivism which takes the position that all these things are just signs of the end and Jesus will fix it all when He returns. If we choose to be silent now then, we do so at the peril of our souls. For our streets are stained with blood, our children cower in fear, and evil parades with torches of terror in our parks. Real people are dying.

To call upon our God to act, but refuse to act when God calls is spiritual schizophrenia at best and downright hypocrisy at worst. The God we serve is not only moved by injustice but moves against injustice. The examples are replete in Scripture. I need not repeat the stories of God’s intervention for the slaves of Egypt; His denunciations of oppression in the Book of Micah; or His admonition in the Torah to embrace the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

God acts!

We also learn from Scripture that in the time of moral and spiritual crisis, God not only moves into action but He also moves people into action. Moses had to agree to go to the most powerful ruler in the world and demand release of the Hebrew captives. In another era, God called upon a woman named Esther to reveal to the king a wicked plot to destroy the Jews perpetrated by the racist Haman.

God moves against injustice, but He uses people as His agents. And each of person has to come to that moral moment when he/she has to decide that the call and the cause are greater than the comfort of willful ignorance.

Every generation must face its moral moment. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced the moral moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rosa Parks faced the moral moment on the back of a bus. Heather Heyer faced the moral moment on a back street in Charlottesville.

This now is our moral moment. We must choose to hear the call and choose a response. The call comes to each of us in a different way. I dare not be so bold as to declare how God speaks and how He speaks to you. But I will be so bold as to say that God does speak and He always looks for a response.

One of America’s greatest statesmen, Dr. Martin Luther King, declared:

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right. 

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Moral decency demands a response!

–Dr. Dedrick Blue, Dean of Religion and Theology, Oakwood University

Photo from Pixabay

Freedom Quilt Patterns | Farewell, Mrs. Crarey

(Log Cabin)

School ends in a few days and Mrs. Crarey, my favorite second grade teacher, is retiring.  I’m sad for all the children who will miss the opportunity of learning under such an amazing person, but I’m happy for her.  She’s earned her retirement and  she will certainly make deep impressions wherever she goes.

Mrs. Crarey is simply awesome.  Even with a classroom full of many different personalities and learning styles, she has a way of dealing with her students as individuals and stimulating their intellectual curiosity.  I love her not only because she is awesome but because she just loves my son, and even today–three years after he finished second grade–she is a friend of his heart.

I will always be grateful for the way she kept his curiosity piqued and gave him more challenging work when he surpassed benchmarks.  She used his love for reading, robots, science, animals, Star Wars, and mystery to keep him engaged.  That meant a lot to this mom who was uncomfortable in a newish environment with a kid who was pining for home (New Orleans) and still adjusting to a school day structure and approach to teaching and learning that were very different from the Montessori curriculum of his previous experience.

When I blogged about the fifth grade African masks a few months ago, I mentioned there was so much more art to see–much more than I can cover in a couple of blog posts.  But in honor of Mrs. Crarey’s retirement and the tremendous gift she has been to the school, this post focuses on her group’s art fair exhibit.

Mrs. Crarey approaches art purposefully.  She typically has her students complete art projects that connect to a lesson. When my son was in her class, the students drew and learned about owls, West African-style dwellings, jewelry, and women’s attire, geckos, dinosaurs, which I blogged about three and a half years ago, Dr. Seuss, and so much more.  I’m going to miss taking a walk down to her classroom and taking a peek at her students’ masterpieces.

In addition to other art pieces, the class created quilt blocks. After reading Bettye Stroud’s The Patchwork Quilt: A Quilt Map to Freedom, reading about the Underground Railroad, viewing and studying maps of the “slave states” and “free states,” students selected a quilt pattern to draw and color.

“Freedom Quilt”

According to some studies, the quilts played an important role in helping enslaved persons make their way to freedom.  Each quilt piece held significant meaning and provided directions and warnings. Although there have been verbal statements from descendants of enslaved persons regarding the quilt code, there has been no physical proof.

Take a look at the children’s quilt pieces [click an image for a closer look]:

Follow the link to find out what each of the patterns mean: Freedom Quilt Codes.

Farewell, Mrs. Crarey…We’re not sure how we’ll survive the coming years without running into you for our quick chats, but we wish you well on your journey.  Thank you for the fond memories, for your generous spirit, and your heart of gold.

Much love…XOXOX

Mrs. Crarey and My Little One, December 2013

A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart.

Microblog Mondays: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Redemptive Power of Love

Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), From African Americans Book of Postcards, Pomegranate.

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

–Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

microblog_mondays

One Little Boy and “Four Little Girls”

A Bible sits on the pulpit from the Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. The pulpit was in use when Fred Shuttlesworth pastored the congregation from 1953-61. The Bible is appropriately opened to Psalms 54-58.

A Bible sits on the pulpit from the Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. The pulpit was in use when Fred Shuttlesworth pastored the congregation from 1953-61. The Bible is appropriately opened to Psalms 54-58. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

One of the disturbing things about living in the American South is the painful history that is constantly in our faces–monuments to “confederate” leaders, former slave quarters, plantation homes, street names, buildings and spaces where “significant” events took place.  Although I am convinced that it is important that we keep the past before us to avoid making those same mistakes, sometimes “American history” can be “too much.” It is surely overwhelming navigating that terrain while nurturing the development of a child.

No explanation necessary.

Klan Robe. On Display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

My hubby and I, along with many other parents, served as chaperones for a field trip to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. The Sixteenth Street church is the site of the September 15, 1963 bombing that took the lives of four girls who were preparing to participate in Sunday worship services: Carole Robertson (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), and Addie Mae Colllins (age 14).  Sarah Collins (age 12), the sister of Addie Mae, survived but suffered life-altering injuries as a result of the hate crime, a consequence of mounting racial tensions around desegregation.

My little one knows a lot about American history, but I was worried about this field trip. I didn’t want his being in the physical presence of that place to change him–to make him angry or fearful, or worse, to feel the limitations of his own agency.  I recalled his strong sense of injustice at the pronouncement of a “Not Guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman.  His concern, then, was not black and white, but child and adult.  He wondered aloud how rational adults could allow another adult to “get away with” killing a child. I did not know whether he would be outraged or miserably grieved by hearing the finer details of the deaths of the “little girls”.

Sketch of the Four Little Girls by Cameron Shepperd

“Tragic End for a New Beginning.” Sketch of the Four Little Girls–Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair–by Cameron Shepperd. It hangs in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

As we toured, I cautiously waited.  Held my breath.

Being in the church where the girls chatted and worshipped was far more intense than reading about it and knowing about it.  There were no words for the mixture of grief, anger, horror, powerlessness, “what ifs,” and “whys” that stormed my brain.  As I was trying to process my own emotions and keep them “in check” at the same time, I was watching my son. Making sure he was [still] okay.

He listened intently. He studied images. He read captions and discussed them with friends. He danced in the exhibit modeled like a 1950s/60’s jazz club for “coloreds only.” At the end of the day, on the way home, he asked questions. He processed. And I whispered a prayer of gratitude.  He knows more, but his sense of self and his place in the world is still intact. I exhaled.

For now.

I continue to wait.  For the dawning. For the intense sadness he now feels about the [continuing] assault on black skin and black bodies to transform into anger.

And I pray that it does not damage or debilitate him.

Original pew. Our tour guide pointed out that the pews are the same ones that have sat in the church since its building in

The pews have been in the church for more than 100 years.

When we were at the church, our tour guide reminded us that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is not simply a “tourist attraction” or a stop on the “Black History Tour,” but it is still a vibrant church that serves many of the same roles in the community that it’s served since its beginnings.  So while we mourn the four little girls and America’s defective past and turbulent racial present, we can celebrate the fact that we are still here–worshipping, dreaming, doing, and creating change in our own small areas of the world.

BHM10

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church “Where Jesus is the Main Attraction,” Birmingham, Alabama

For more information about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, click the image above.  For a succinct  historical overview of racial tensions in Birmingham, the bombing, and convictions in the murders, click here: The 16th Street Church Bombing.