Archive for June, 2007

Colored School Teachers

Friday, June 29th, 2007

I’ll pass right now on snatching up one of those Bill Gates’ iPhones that hits the stores today. But if Gates is as serious as he seems to devoting $2 billion dollars from his foundation to saving public schools then I probably won’t delay too long in dropping by the Apple store to check out his latest toy. True, my trusted Motorola does everything I want a cellphone to do. But the last time I checked, the CEO of Motorola hasn’t said a word about losing sleep over the high school drop out rate in the U.S.

It should gall all of us that 1 in 3 high school students in the U.S. quits school. Among black and Hispanic students, the rate is closer to 50%. They say that kids who quit school don’t just suddenly drop out; it’s more of a slow fade. Researchers believe that you can predict with 66% accuracy a student in elementary school who will go on to drop out from high school. Poor reading skills in elementary school is one indicator. Poor interaction and relationship with teachers is another indicator.

I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up when it was still possible to go through elementary and high school and be taught almost exclusively by colored school teachers, as they were affectionately called back then. Though in 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered all public schools to be desegregated, things were slow to change in my neck of the woods. I was in school, in fact, back when colored teachers were still gods and goddesses. They were our dreamkeepers. Motivated by a strong sense of mission, teaching was their calling, even among those who chose teaching because there were few other career choices available to them. Teaching was a way to uplift the race and make dreams come true. They weren’t perfect, not all teachers anyway. But enough cared about students that you were bound to run into one or two who would go out their way to reach you before the school year was up.

Colored school teachers saved my life. Besides making sure I knew my 9x tables and how to diagram a sentence, they saved me from boredom, from laziness, and from the excuses I had about why I couldn’t learn. They also saved me from the restlessness and aimlessness that prey on young adolescent black girls from working class families who dream of being rescued by love. They couldn’t keep me from falling in love with the wrong boys at the time. But they did manage to convince me that if I applied myself I had something to look forward to other than becoming an 18 year old bride and working downtown at Rich’s Department store. I’m grateful to those who took turns in elementary school beating me and hugging me, braiding my constantly loose hair and applying Jergens lotion to my perpetually dry legs, and those from high school who went to great lengths to search for things for me to do after school in the hopes of keeping me busy, determined to penetrate the heavy armor of protection I dragged around with me from one class to the next.

Thank God, Alice Doanes, Lewis Smith, Roseann Pope (bless their souls) would not be defeated by a womanish acting 14 year old whose socks could not stay up on her legs. “Don’t you know there’s something within you that’s special?” each asked. I wanted to believe, but I was too young to know how. All I could do at the time was believe in their believing in me. Convinced that I could make something of myself, my teachers were determined to see me graduate from my high school of 400 students (where less than 10% of the student body went to college) and leave Atlanta and go away to college, away from the hulky, weight-lifting, underachieving boyfriend I was dating at the time, away from whatever demons were nipping at my heels.

You and I don’t have Bill Gates’ billions to overhaul the educational school sytem in the country. We don’t need Gates billions to make a difference. We can impact a child’s education by doing for one of them what some colored school teacher did for us. Care. Teach. Reach. Encourage. Advocate for. Mentor. One hurting, hard-head, seemingly unreachable, child (of God) at a time. Here’s a shout-out to school teachers everywhere.

Simply Grateful This Birthday

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

As a birthday gift to me today, I relieve myself of the burden of having to find something profound, witty, relevant, or prophetic to write about on my blog this morning.

It is enough today simply to be grateful.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, bring peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. (Melodie Beatie)

Things I am Grateful to God For Today:

For my husband’s love which never ceases to amaze me. When you grow up as a child in a household where there was never enough love, and what love there was had to be bargained for, you’re apt to be speechless (and a bit awkward for a time) when you happen upon someone who loves you for you.

For a daughter who some days lets me fool myself into thinking that I am the mother to her I wish my mother had been to me. On other days she reminds me just how true are the words to a Sweet Honey in Rock song, “Our children come through us, but they don’t belong to us…”

For work that fits my soul. I have the blessed privilege of doing work that suits my odd personality, work I genuinely love, work that makes my life feel meaningful. I’m also grateful that I work for someone I like a lot (myself).

For my friends who put up with my curmudgeon ways. “Without friends, problems weigh more and pleasures yield less joy,” says a writer. The plain truth is that friendship matters to me. Many of us who once believed men, children, and family were the center of life now know that friendships with other women can mean the difference between a lonely life and a lively one.

For readers who buy my books, read my articles, and who return again and again to my blog. That there are people who actually find my ramblings, my hunches, my opinions, and my occasional encounters with God helpful to their own spiritual growth only reinforces my belief in the scripture, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us.” (Here’s one of those times when the KJV translation of the Bible says it best.)

For books. It will come as no surprise to most people who know me that I’m grateful for books. Reading has saved my life and given me my back my sanity on more than one occasion. I am grateful to my mother for the one unequivocal blessing she left me, the love of reading.

For a reasonable portion of health and strength. Despite the many indiginities that come with aging, I am grateful to be alive, to be in relatively good health, and to be “clothed in my right mind.”

For my church and all the people who show up Sunday after Sunday in search of the same thing I come wishing to find, namely, a cup of hope. Best of all, I am grateful to belong to a community that prays for me when I can’t pray for myself.

Thank you God.

Rachel is Weeping for Darfur

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

This is not about Condoleezza Rice who is an enigma to many of us. (That’s another post for another day.) It’s about putting aside our questions about who she really is and bracketing whatever questions we have about her confounding loyalties to this Administration. It’s about urging the Secretary of State to intervene on behalf of the men, women, and children dying from genocide and starvation in the Sudan.

The Bush administration took a desperately needed first step last month when it announced its “Plan B” sanctions against the Sudanese government. Now Secretary Rice must use the upcoming meeting in France on Monday with French, Chinese and other leaders to increase the pressure on Sudanese President Bashir. Secretary of State Rice will have an unprecedented opportunity on Monday to help end the genocide when she attends a meeting about Darfur with top officials from the U.S., China, France and other key nations.

Click here to send a message to Secretary Rice today.

Again, this is not about Condoleezza Rice. It’s not about what First Lady Laura Bush said about Condoleezza Rice back in December 2006, nor is it about the fact that some reporters think it newsworthy to report that the Secretary of State wears a 6 dress size but the same reporters have never once commented on the shoe size or in-seam measurements of any of the men on the Cabinet. This is about the power Condoleeza Rice has as the first African American female Secretary of State to see to it this coming Monday that the U.S. combines forces with France and China to end the tragedy in Darfur.

The people of Darfur have waited long enough, more than four years in fact, for world leaders to make a concerted effort to end the violence. Secretary Rice must make sure Monday’s meeting in Paris marks the beginning of sustained, unified world diplomacy.

So you see, this really is not about what you and I personally think about Condoleezza Rice. This is about heeding the warning our mothers once gave us: “You better mind what you say about people and how you treat them. You may just need those same people to put in a good word for you one day.” This is about seizing the moment to let Secretary of State Rice know how much we are counting on her as one of the most powerful women in the world to help bring relief and aid to women being raped, men being slaughtered, and children left orphaned by war in Sudan.

Lend your voice in asking Secretary Rice to use this one-of-a-kind opportunity to urge China and France to join forces with the U.S. on Darfur diplomacy.

Click here to send your message to Secretary Rice by the end of today, Friday, to make sure Secretary of State receives your message.

This is about our understanding that each day that we wake up on this side of freedom, we have a gift that comes with a responsibility. This is about our understanding that when it comes to what’s happening to our sisters in Darfur we are indeed our sister’s keeper.

Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

On days when the writing is not going well I fill my head with music. There’s the music I listen to when I’m on a plane (gospel and urban inspirational). There’s the music I listen to when I’m working out on the elliptical machine (funk, classic 70s, disco, hip-hop). But when I’m writing – whether it’s writing a sermon, a book, a speech, or a post for this blog– there’s only one kind of music I can bear to let in. The voices of women like Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Etta Jones, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, and other female jazz singers, must surround me if there’s any hope of my muse returning home to me. Ah yes, muse, that’s the word my heart has been searching for all morning long. In ancient Greece, the daughters of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory were known as the Muses and came to embody the arts and inspire the creation process with their physical graces. Muse. Music.

My uber-pious readers are probably galled at my audacity to admit to relying on jazz as my inspiration when writing sermons. But I love hearing these women sing. Whether it’s Sarah Vaughan playing with the chords to “Obsession” or Abby Lincoln singing “I’m Learning How to Listen” or Nina Simone arresting the mind with “Little Girl Blue,” there’s a gift in the way these women took a song and transformed it into their own image. I love how they used the grittiness of their voices to cast a spell on their audiences. Heck, I like watching the grace with which they wiped sweat from their brow without missing a chord.

But there’s more. I am not just a fan of the music of female jazz singers. I am a purveyor of their lives. I buy and read every biography I can get my hands on about these women. Why jazz singers? More probing books and articles have been written about Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald than there have been about Shirley Caesar, Clara Ward, or Mahalia Jackson. Why? Probably has to do with our being both fascinated with and repulsed by women who refuse to be saints. But there’s a lot you can learn from women who are nonconformists. Until the biographies of women in ministry are written, until more biographies of black women writers are available, and until more women start speaking up and telling the truth about what it cost them to be the first, the only, and what it means as a woman to try to make it on your own, then women like Nina Simone, Carmen Mcrae, and Shirley Horne, are worth studying if you’re a interested in learning what it takes to invent yourself.

She had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may have well have invented herself.”
(Toni Morrison, Sula)

Reading stories of women living out of their suitcases night after night, singing under sometimes impossible circumstances, expected by their audiences to bring down the house every time they sang despite whatever was going on in their personal lives, the sexism they faced in the music industry, the betrayal of managers and record companies who cheated them, living with the label of being “difficult” women when they spoke up and spoke out, the multiple marriages they had but never really finding true love, the solace many of them found in the after-hour meals with their band, all of this sounds familiar to me.

Sure, we all know about Billie’s addictions, Nina’s moody outbursts on stage, Sarah’s three-octave range which later morphed into a raspy whisper (from years of smoking), Dinah’s sharp tongue, and Ella’s stellar performances despite battling loneliness and painful shyness. But that doesn’t make them any less worthy of our admiration. They remind us how work can chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful, of what happens when you betray your truest self, and of why you must never confuse what you do with who you are. “Eventually it comes to you,” the playwright Lorraine Hansberry once wrote, “the thing that makes you exceptional is what also makes you lonely.”

Whether it’s singing, preaching, writing, painting, dancing, braiding hair, gardening, or putting the final touches on your summation for a trial, all work calls for a bit of art. You need inspiration just to get through the day sometimes, the ability to dive deep and break the surface to find that something within that’s both a part of you and greater than you. Your muse. Woo her whatever way you can. You need that third eye that allows you to see as God sees –both beauty and ugliness, feel both love and pain, and know both hope and doom – and make art of it.