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Thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a special affinity to Martin Luther King, Jr. with whom I share a birth day–he was born 30 years prior. I grew up admiring and loving him and wanting to be like him. I grew up hearing, “two great people were born on January 15.” And I felt the pressure of the notion that I should be “great” like King. History will judge me as it is judging and will judge him. But I will NEVER lead a movement in the way he did.

Today, I am aware of how irritating King Day celebrations are to me. I’ve been trying to figure out why. Here are my initial thoughts.

I resist the notion of the “exceptional negro” and the “lone wolf” as the way we speak about King and the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and beyond. It’s easy to tame a movement if one can tame the one man that people consider the “legitimate” leader of the movement. There were many leaders and even more activists in the movement. People took on the beast of brutal white supremacy and racism and lost their lives. Those people were young, old, black, white, Hispanic/Latina/o, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheists, non-religious, formally educated, not formally educated, poorly educated, wealthy, very poor, middle class, sexist, feminist/womanist, military, anti-military and on and on. I wish on King Day we owned the fact that he was an imperfect leader inspiring a mass movement that inspired other mass movements. I wish we didn’t need to deify our leader in order to respect him. I wish we didn’t have to act as if critiquing his foibles was an act of disloyalty and/or treason.

During the Civil Rights Movement, many people were jailed, beaten, shot in cold blood or hanged from trees. Students left school as they embraced the spirit of the times. Parents tried to stop them. Religious leaders used religion to try to temper the movement. The government used sanctions, death, surveillance and threats to try to stop them. And they kept coming. King got his courage from God, first, yes. But he also got it from those other young people (he was young, too, you remember?).

On MLKJr Day and beyond, I hope we will not merely reflect on his life, but also on the lives of people who helped to make him the Voice of the movement, especially the prophetic women who kept pushing the movement to righteousness. I say his name, yes. But I also say: Coretta Scott King, Viola Liuzzo, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall, Mother Dorothy Height, Mother Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Songbird of the movement Bernice Johnson Reagon, and many more. I think of all the high school and college students, black and white and otherwise (there were many Mexican Americans in midwest and western states, for example) who put their lives on the line for the Movement.

And beyond remembrance, I am challenged to take on the anti-militarism, anti-racism, and anti-poverty work that King embraced. As a womanist, I want also to challenge this legacy of blatant sexism, of his dismissing women or using them as props (or taking their work and calling it his own). Mumia Abu-Jamal’s reflection on King’s call reflects particularly on my concern. I want also to challenge the way he and other black leaders/preachers to treat with disdain the man who was the architect of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, a gay black Quaker who helped put the theory of nonviolence into practice. Rustin mentored King in an existing tradition of nonviolence resistance.

I’m old(er) now. I had someone I admire tell me that I was important “to the movement” and someone else who strengthens me called me “brave.” I am important and brave, if I am, because I am a member of a movement for equity and justice, for righteousness and for peace. I will always withstand powers and principalities that destroy dignity and try to erase personhood. I will always oppose racism, militarism, making people poor, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, trans-antagonism, and any other death-dealing power that intends to shame, limit, or kill people. I am for loving the whole folk. And when I am called to lead, I hope I do it with some real recognition that I lead in a movement, among leaders. When I am called to follow, I hope I do it with some acknowledgement that we must support leaders who need the energy of the many to speak on our behalf. I wrestle my own elitism to submit to causes. I struggle with my own sense of inadequacies to take up mantles. I like to think King did too. And despite any propensity for egoistic grandiosity (demons that plague all leaders), I like to think he’d be irritated at the way we’ve deified him to the point of impotence.

(Edited version on a January 20 post on my Facebook page)

Christmas Time

It’s Christmas time. And here’s what I’m thinking:

Holidays are difficult for many, many people for a variety of reasons but most are related to loss of some kind.

Everyone is not “happy” and our attempts to “make them cheer up” (for godsake) only exacerbates feelings of depression and loneliness. They know we can’t be trusted with the truth that their hearts are aching, that they are sore from grief, that there are relationships they want to restore and can’t no matter how hard they try, that memories of their dead kin and/or friend/lover makes them hold their breath to keep from feeling the intensity of the pain, and on and on.

They know that their grief makes us feel helpless (or even angry)… I mean, forgod’ssake at least through the holidays, fake it for US!!!! “YOU’RE SO SELFISH! IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU!!!” And so we make those who suffer almost unbearably during the holidays feel bad for not taking care of us and our emotions. If we can’t see a “real good reason” for them to “still” be sad, depressed, lonely, etc., then we’re REALLY pissed off. And besides, our compassion only lasts through the first story of their grief. They’re not allowed to sit near it or (godforbid) in it. And if there is more, we become more Job’s friends than Job’s friends were. We begin to theologize and philosophize about why they are the way they are, in the condition they are in, unable to break out ot the condition, and on and on.

I am praying for people struggling in this Christmas time. Not every shepherd heard angels sing. Not everyone saw a special star. Not everyone dreamed dreams. Some people hobbled along without any sense that anything had changed around them. There are still people who don’t. I am praying for you.

ON NEVER GOING INTO ANOTHER HOME DEPOT

I am (usually) a very reasonable person. I work with people, businesses and institutions a long time before I throw up both my hands and quit. I’ve been a customer of The Home Depot for as long as I can remember. I LOVE decorating and sometimes just showing up in the store to look at colors or rugs or even cabinet hardware would give me ideas. When I bought my house in Lancaster, my friend Thomas and I frequented Home Depot to buy everything from paint to light fixtures. I changed EVERY light fixture in my house except one from shopping at The Home Depot. I painted the entire house. Bought crown molding and floor edges. I redid the fireplace. Bought hard wood for my bedroom; tiles for the kitchen; backsplash, you name it. Plants for the landscaping…. In cash and on my card, I spent more than $20K to make my house a home. I planned to live in Lancaster a long time. That plan didn’t work, but I spent the money in order to make my space glorious. Wellllll, a funny thing happened on the way to being a “valued” customer. Turns out The Home Depot will take your money, and if they mess up, will continue to take your money and tell you to “sue them” if you want that to change. OK, Home Depot. I won’t be suing anyone. But you can believe everyone I can reach will know that I think they shouldn’t spend another dime in your stores. Here’s what I posted on my Facebook page today:

If I have ANY credibility with you, I am telling ALL my colleagues, acquaintances, friends, family, frenemies, wannabes, lovers, enemies: DO NOT PATRONIZE The Home Depot. They will take your money after having given you the WRONG order, taking 100+ days to install the wrong doors, ask you if the service people were “nice” and “courteous” while giving you the wrong doors, charge you MORE than what you wanted because they “upgraded” the doors for you and then tell you that you have to sue them to get your money back (which they know you won’t do because of the cost and aggravation).

Don’t COME FOR ME Home Depot. I PROMISE you that you don’t want none of this. I am in a personal zone of being SICK of institutions and companies that act unjustly and then put the onus on you to make them do right. I’m not suing you. You just have lost a customer who spent more than $20K in your store in the last 5 years. OK. NOT. ONE. MORE. DIME. And if I have ANY pull, not a penny from most of my friends.

Don’t send me a letter, an email, a tweet. NOTHING. If your mail does not have a check in it. Don’t talk to me.
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Down from Heaven: Uncle (3rd Installment)

She had decided that it would be the very last time she called the number. Angela had insisted that she keep trying. “He won’t answer immediately,” she whimpered. “But he will. And I need my uncle.” She had wanted to call the child’s parents, but since she wouldn’t give her full name and the only number she would surrender was her uncle’s, she had no choice. The doctor wouldn’t treat her without parental consent. She had no such consent. And now, standing in the foyer of the emergency room, she was getting irritated at the one person the child insisted had to be there. “Pick up the damn phone!” she whispered under her breath. “Pick it up!” 

John sat by his bed in the overstuffed maize colored chair. It was his favorite from growing up and the only thing he had insisted on inheriting when his mother died. All the other children split the fine china, the antiques, and the two million dollar policy they were surprised to learn about at the reading of her will. He told them to keep his portion and divide it among themselves. The lawyer raised her eyebrow ever so slightly as she explained in a monotone that he would have to sign an affidavit and get it notarized in order for them to take his quarter of the money and give it to his siblings. He had already anticipated her response and had brought his own attorney and a notarized statement surrendering any and all effects left to him, to be divided among his siblings and their children as allowed by law. He had already told his sisters that he only wanted the chair. Sitting here now, he waited once again for the phone to stop vibrating. He had looked at it each time, and had not recognized the number. He waited for the person on the other line to actually listen to his message instead of merely hanging up when the message center picked up. “Idiot,” he thought. “You can find out you have the wrong number if you just listen to the message.” He turned his thoughts back to the comfort of his chair and the latest collection of Alice Walker essays, “Living by the Word.” Running his fingers over book spines in Book Lover’s Haven, the title had caught his attention. He wrote, but had not yet figured out how to live by what he wrote and hoped there would be a hint, an inspiration in the volume that would help lead him.

She walked back into the emergency bay where Angela was curled into a fetal position with four blankets thrown over her. Even so the child shivered as if she were naked in a snow blizzard. Her heart hurt for the baby. “Honey, he still hasn’t answered. Please give me the name of someone else to call. Or I’m going to call the principal at the school to come identify you so we can get you some help.” Her own desperation was talking over. Almost in concert The Voice and the little girl said, “No!” She shivered, but not from cold. “Please try one more time,” Angela said. “He’s there. He’ll answer this time.” She sighed, some out of frustration, some out of compassion, but mostly out of unbelief. Thirty minutes of nonstop calling did not give her hope that this time would be a charm.

He put the book down and closed his eyes to imagine himself at a reading from his own novel and a book signing. He saw himself smiling as his sisters and their children lined the walls, watching him with admiration. He caught Angela’s eye and winked. She was his favorite niece, the child he never had. He was more than uncle to her and, holding her when she was five as she cupped his face, he promised her with the earnestness that she demanded that he would never leave her. This promise felt more covenant than anything he had ever said in his life, and he had meant it. In this reverie, she looked intently at each person that approached him and either approved or not. She had his attention even as he signed books, but…

The phone interrupted his daydream. He looked again. It was that number again. He decided this time to tell the person how much of an idiot he thought she or he was.

“Hello, you crazy person,” he answered the phone with the irritation and sarcasm he felt. She was taken aback and paused. “Well. You’ve been calling for the past 30 minutes. What’s wrong? You realize you’re an idiot when I answered the phone.” He was amused at the silence on the other end. “I, I… I’m calling for your niece Angela.” She didn’t know how to respond to his rudeness. But she knew Angela needed her not to give a damn about his phone manners in that moment.

“What?!? What’s wrong? Who is this? Where is Angela?!” he asked with rapid fire cadence as he reached for his keys and his coat. “WHERE is my NIECE?” he screamed.

“Angela is going to be okay. She’s at Mercy Hospital and asked for you.” The phone clicked off. She knew the rude uncle was on his way and she would have to meet him. She wanted to calm down before she did because right now, in that bed crying was a little girl who needed them both. The Voice had insisted.

Down from Heaven: A Voice (2nd installment)

She expected to hear a voice when she prayed.

Sometimes, the Voice sounded like her. Sometimes indistinguishable from hers. Sometimes it sounded like a man, maybe her dad. But when she sit still after making her requests known the Voice would speak. And never cryptic, even if she didn’t understand its meanings. “Go to the playground at King Elementary,” the Voice had said in prayer. Never why. Or what to look for. Only this instruction.

She crosses Jackson Street, then Hawk’s Down. She had never paid attention to Hawk’s Down Street. Who named it that? She imagined the hawk that must have landed down just in front of the person who named it. She made up a whole story about the naming of the street. Lost in that story, she missed her turn onto Douglass Avenue and had to circle back around. Then the growing since of excitement as she approached King Elementary. She was scared but didn’t know why. She was keenly aware that she was being led to something serious. The Voice returned. “STOP!” She wasn’t accustomed to a shout; it was usually a whisper. She was startled and so stopped abruptly, causing the driver in the car behind her to swerve and curse. She waved her left hand in an apology, but from the frown and expletives she could tell it was not accepted it. Oh, well, she thought.

She parked to collect herself. “Look at the swings,” the Voice said. She squinted, trying to take in the landscape. Oh, the swings were behind the slide. She got out of the car and started walking. The dread in her stomach got heavier. She squinted harder as she walked toward a little girl on the swings, clasping the mettle links and sobbing. Her heart quickened with her footstep.

“Oh, baby,” she said, as she scooped the child into her arms.

(January 5, 2013 installment posted late)

Inventory

The New Year always tempts me to take inventory, to see how I’ve come on the things I promised I would do. And usually, I am extremely dismayed at my inconsistencies. It’s the usual list: did I lose the weight I wanted to lose? Did I exercise as much as I intended? Did I drink water? Sleep well? Did I make amends with the people with whom I am estranged? Did I nourish my older friends? Make new ones? Have I lived in balance? I’m very personally satisfied with how the answers land to most of these questions. So, while I’ll probably continue to “take inventory,” I’ve decided to try something new. I’m going to try making a decision in the morning and assessing how I did at the end of the day. If I’ve over-committed, then I’ll reassess for the next day. I’m going to try not beating myself up. Tomorrow, I may decide to combine my two blogs into one. But I’ll decide that… tomorrow.

 

(Late January 6, 2013 post)

The Down from Heaven (working title) Novel

You should see your face, he says. He stands over the stove scrambling eggs and her mind at the same time. She never knows what he’s gonna say that will make her head hurt. This time it’s a simple thing. He say: people don’t like you like you think they do.

What fascinates her is that she never thought people liked her at all.

He says, People just know you’re gullible like any jackleg preacher. He snorts laughter as he lifts the steamy eggs on a plate next to the toast and hands it to her. The butter has congealed on the cold toast. She wants to warm it up or toast another piece. Instead she puts the eggs on it with strawberry jam and folds the bread over. He puts sliced cantaloupe on the table, then a glass of pulp-filled orange juice. He has a system whenever he makes her breakfast and in all the years they’ve sit at this table looking out the back window over the garden, he has never broken the ritual. She knows the hot coffee and a glass of cold water will follow in five minutes. That is the way eleven years of breakfasts that he cooked always proceeded.