Archive for December, 2007

Remembering Ruby Doris

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Sociologist Charles Payne talks about the slow respectful, behind the scenes, work that makes the dramatic moments possible. Making the phone calls. Running off flyers. Sending out reminders. Booking the flights. Training new volunteers. Smoothing out differences and navigating turf wars. Passing reminders to speakers about important announcements. Raising bail money. Striking up the right song while sitting in jail to keep everyone’s hopes alive.

These were just a few of the duties of Ruby Doris Smith as a formidable force in the student sit-in movement and eventual leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

As part of my ongoing fixation with women’s biographies, especially those of little known women, I finally managed to track down a copy of Cynthia Griggs Fleming’s, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. I’ve been trying for months to find a copy. It was worth the wait. Once again there’s much to learn about women’s ongoing struggle to juggle love and work, the private and the public, conventional notions of power with conventional thinking about femininity. Unlike many other black women from that period whose stories we probably know better, Ruby Doris Smith was young, and, until her illness and death from cancer in 1967, she struggled to combined her passion for the movement, with her marriage and eventually motherhood.

Was it the writer of Ecclesiastes who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9)?

Atlanta born Ruby Doris Smith was only 18 years old when she, along with seventy-seven students from throughout the Atlanta University Center, fourteen of them from Spelman College, was arrested for attempting to integrate white cafeteria counters throughout Atlanta. Ruby Doris had arrived on Spelman’s campus two years earlier at 16 as something of a child prodigy. But from the time of her arrest on March 15, 1960 on she stood out for her courage and commitment to the cause.

In the months and years following March 1960 Ruby Doris Smith took part in dozens of pickets of supermarkets, restaurants, bus terminals, white churches, and state and capital buildings. From time to time, some girls would pull out of marches at the last minute, complaining that their periods had started and that they didn’t want to be in jail on their period. Others like Ruby Doris Smith stuffed sanitary napkins in their socks and went on to the marches. Her remarkable organizational skills, her attention to details, along with her courage and energy would eventually make her an indispensable presence in both the local and the larger national student sit-in movement.

One thing that strikes me as I read Ruby Doris’ biography is the role women sometimes play in their own erasure. While she was powerful and had no problem using that power, Smith seems never to have wanted to call attention to her power or to herself. Sexism within the male dominated SNCC was a given, and she often bristled at men like Stokely Carmichael who seemed to relish the spotlight. But Ruby Doris shied away from any personal spotlight for herself. The personal must give way to the political, she argued. I can’t help wondering how much women like Ruby Doris Smith and Ms. Ella Baker (who argued similarly) contributed to their anonymity by repeatedly shunning personal attention and by refusing to see how intertwined the personal and the political often are.

Even though her involvement in early sit-ins, marches and pickets, her willingness to go to jail for her convictions, and her growing administrative responsibilities within SNCC would force her to drop out of college several times, Ruby Doris Smith did eventually graduate from Spelman in 1965. The struggle to juggle commitments would continue when two months after graduation Ruby Doris Smith (now Robinson) gave birth to a son. For the next year she would divide herself between a husband, a child, and her new full time job with SNCC as Executive Secretary. That struggle ended sadly, on October 7, 1967, when at 25 years old, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson died from cancer — and sheer exhaustion, says some.

It would be easy, though not quite true, to say that with the death of Ruby Doris came the death of SNCC. Other forces were ripping at the organization’s seams in 1968 and contributed to its eventual demise within that year: turf wars, an ideological shift away from nonviolence toward more militaristic methods, the death of comarades, the increasing number of whites in the movement, sexual tensions, King’s assasination in ’68, harsh government reprisals, economic hardships. It does seem true, however, that with the loss of Ruby Doris’ daily presence there in the SNCC office for those nine months she lay dying in the hospital, the organization’s demise was hastened. That’s how important Ruby Doris Smith was to SNCC and how much we miss out by not having her around today to pose questions to. Especially since her decison to marry and have a child so early, say Flemings, was in large part the result of her belief that a woman’s identity ultimately grows out of motherood. Some of us may disagree with such a notion today, but it’s not one we haven’t bumped up against forty years later.

Reading the biography of Ruby Doris Smith is to be reminded that we are not the first generation of women who’ve struggled to find a balance between the personal and the political, love and work, ministry and motherhood. Her biography is also a reminder how important it is to know your worth and not be shy about tooting your own horn when necessary, if only for history’s sake.

I wake up the next morning with Ruby Doris on my mind. “She was only a girl, a teenager, a young woman in her twenties, when she was doing what she was doing” a voice inside whispers. I sign back on this morning to salute young, brave lionesses like Ruby Doris who find their passion at an early age and spend themselves exploring where it leads.

Do What You Have The Power To Do

Monday, December 10th, 2007

You don’t even have to be a starry-eyed Oprah follower to know how much medial mogul Oprah Winfrey respects Maya Angelou, writer, activist and poet. She quotes from Maya Angelou on her show and has had the Poet Laureate on many times over the years. Maya Angelou was one of the 25 honorees at Winfrey’s Legends Ball earlier this year, and Oprah has even given her mentor a weekly radio show on her “Oprah & Friends” satellite radio channel.

But when it comes to politics, evidently friendship has its limits. And that’s a good thing, I believe.

Close friends Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey – mentor and protégée, godmother and adoring daughter-like figure —have decided to use their star power to lend their support to their favorite presidential candidate. The problem, for some, is that the two friends disagree on which candidate should become president. Oprah Winfrey has decided to go all out for Barack Obama’s campaign by throwing a Hollywood studded fundraiser for him back in the fall and this weekend joining him in Iowa and South Carolina at his stomp speeches. Maya Angelou, 79, who was the poet at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in January 1993, makes it clear that she’s ready to pen another poem for a Clinton presidency

Speaking to the throngs in Iowa and South Carolina who, like myself, have doubts about Obama’s experience, Winfrey said: “Experience in the hallways of government isn’t as important to me as experience on the pathway of life…The amount of time you spent in Washington means nothing unless you are accountable for the judgments you made with the time you had.”

Frail, but undaunted, poet Maya Angelou has taken her support of long time friend from Arkansas, Hillary Clinton, to the airwaves in a 60-second radio spot running throughout South Carolina entitled “My Girl.”

“Each generation of African Americans stands on the shoulders of those who came before,” says Maya Angelou.” Today, the challenges facing us threaten the dreams we have had for our children. We need a president with the experience and strength to meet those challenges. I am inspired by Hillary Clinton’s commitment and courage … a daughter, a wife, a mother… my girl.”

It’s a lesson in the use of power. We are witnessing two African American women using their power as cultural icons to make the changes they want to see in the world.

You remember the story in Mark 14 of Jesus’s anointing at Bethany by the woman with an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment. When some of the guests treated her rudely, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone.” (I like that part.) Then Jesus told them, “She has done what was in her power to do.”

Do what you have the power to do.

Power. Influence. Charisma. Seniority. Wisdom. Capital– financial and moral.

Certainly, power is difficult to define and takes many forms. In the past power has been defined in the male sphere as having control. But as more and more women stretch out and begin to use their moral, economic, political, and intellectual influence to change the way things are done, perhaps it’s time to redefine power itself as having the energy, influence, vision, and the courage to risk becoming a change agent.

I admire Oprah Winfrey. I like what she has to say about Obama’s candadacy in her stomp speeches. (Too bad Obama has to take the mic after Winfrey.) I agree with her that values and vision matter. I just disagree with her on how very much experience matters when it comes to the highest office in the land. Too bad she’s not running for president. I trust her experience in effecting change more than I do Obama’s.

But that’s a point for another day.

For now, I am just enjoying watching two powerful black women go out on a limb for who they believe in. Angelou and Winfrey, two women at the height of their careers, one in media and the other in art, each using her seniority, making use of her influence and visibility, and tapping the moral and political capital she’s amassed over the years in her career, to get her favorite candidate elected. I’m delighted to have lived long enough to see black women making it clear where they stand by playing an important role in reimagining and redefining power in all of its contexts—not only for the sake of women, or for blacks, but also for the well-being of all people, all cultures, and the earth itself.

Do what’s in your power to do.

What’s the point in having seniority if you’re going to play if safe, like you did when you were an upstart and were afraid to make waves? What’s the point in climbing to the top of your profession, if all you’re going to do when you get there is to continue with business as usual? What’s the point in having power if you’re not going to use it?

Do what’s in your power.

Leave the rest to God.

The Color of Love

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I have not been able to get the last installment in the NBC’s “African American Women: Where They Stand” series out of my mind. You know the one that dealt with black women in interracial relationships.

Search and you’ll find dozens of websites out there by black women promoting and defending interracial marriages. They exist to encourage black women to exercise their option to broaden their dating and marriage pool. It’s an option black men have taken more often than black women.

My Lord, times have changed.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Frederick Douglas and his second wife Helen Pitts.

They were all guilty of breaking the law, the miscegenation law, that is; the law forbidding marriage, cohabitation, and sexual relations between people of mixed races.


Now there’s a term that’s racially charged enough to make folks leap across the tables at each other. Miscegenation. It even sounds nasty. Sounds like something you do with animals. Which is probably what those who used the word to oppose mixed marriages had in mind when they moved in 1661 to ban marriages between people of different races. “Interracial” has replaced the more controversial “miscegenation,” but race relations in this country see to it that the topic of relationships between black women and white men continue to inflame passions. The last of the miscegenation laws in this country were struck down just 40 years ago, in 1967, when the Supreme Court, in Loving vs. Virginia, ruled that Virginia’s miscegenation laws were unconstitutional

Snapshots of interracial couples like Alfre Woodard and Roderick Spencer, or Iman and David Bowie, or Janet Langhart and William Cohen make me grin with glee at the thought of a black woman getting the love she deserves. On the other hand, the picture of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who ran off in 1958 to Washington, DC to marry and returned to their homestate of Virginia to build a family, leaves me with chills. How did they do it? The price for that kind of love in the 50s was higher than most of us would want to pay.

If asked my opinion fifteen years ago about black women dating white men I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer. And I didn’t need scripture to defend my position. Fear alone was enough to make me dig in my heels.

Fifteen years later, my position has softened. I just want to see black women loved. I’m just glad to know that my friends with white, latino, asian, and arab men who adore them are happy. I wish every black woman who wanted to be loved and revered by a black man would find that, but that’s not always possible. So, date who you will and love who loves you back, and move on. Falling in love with someone who shares your race and background does not keep you from being hurt.

Here’s what I know about falling in love. There’s no such thing.

Call me Cruella, but I do not believe that you can not help who you fall in love with. People do have sudden passionate attachments, which aren’t easily explained. But the attachment is usually based on fantasy, not anything or anyone that’s real. Falling in love, if you insist upon using that sort of language, is a decision. By that I mean, you love on the basis of who choose to be and who you choose to be with. Romantic love, the sort that leaves you in an altered state of consciousness where you are helpless, uncontrollably, overwhelmingly consumed with passion – gosh, can that sort of love be fun and enjoyable. Just as long as you don’t do something foolish like try to construct your life around it.

True love is work. Whether the two of you are black or from different races, love is something you’re gonna have to work at cultivating. It finally makes sense to me why in some cultures people marry for more practical reasons, and trust true love and affection to kick in later after the tests and trials of committed union. The search for someone to build a life with is a search for someone who is willing to experiment with loving and living with you in ways, speaking heterosexually, he’s never imagined, but ways he’s eager to experiment with. You find him, you’ve found a good a thing. Regardless of his color, his nationality, his religion, or his background.

Day Before Yesterday

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

There’s a German phrase bantered around a lot in biblical criticism, Sitz im Leben, roughly translated “setting in life.” It refers to the sociological setting out of which biblical passages emerged. The argument is that taken out of its original context, the original meaning of a passage is often lost. Thus the context of exile is the best way to understand Psalm 137 where the psalmist opens lamenting over the holy city Zion (”By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept…” and ends with a bitter cry for revenge. Likewise, the coronation ceremony of a new king is the most likely Sitz im Leben out of which the beautiful lyrics in Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is given, unto us a Son is born: and the government shall be upon his shoulders…” were originally sung, though they would later be interpreted prophetically as portending the birth of the Messiah.

Language arises out of contexts, and so do individuals.

Each of us has a Sitz im Leben that informs who we are, a context that has a lot to do with how and why we see the world the way we do. Our Sitz im Leben doesn’t explain everything about us, we are more complex than that, but it explains a lot about the shape of our consciousness, or lack thereof.

It matters, then, if you were born in the 50s or in the 80s. It matters if you grew up listening to to James Brown and Aretha Franklin’s on 45rpm, or to Michael Jackson and Take 6 through a tape deck, or Ja Rule and Kirk Franklin on Ipod. It matters if “The Cosby Show” and “It’s A Different World,” or “The Mod Squad” and “Bewitched,” or “I Love New York” and “Pimp My Ride” were part of your weekly diet. Just like it matters if you were married in your 20s and were busy raising babies during in the 70s and 80s, or if you postponed marriage, went on to do graduate work and was reading black women’s literature in the 80s and 90s, and had your first baby at 40 years old.

We are not prisoners to our Sitz im Leben, thank God, but neither can we escape its influence no matter how much we wish otherwise.

Sitz im Leben matters. Whether your awakening to life and its contradictions can be traced back to witnessing the Birmingham church bombing, Watergate, Enron-gate, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Jena 6, or to the Don Imus affair, or to a lesser known incident, there’s something to be said for being able, like the prophets in the bible, to recall the time of your call and conversion.

Of course, it’s quite possible to live through a revolution and refuse to be touched by it, going so far as to renounce its changes and avowing to cling to a former paradigm. Then again, it’s also possible to live an utterly un-self-reflective life, totally ignorant of how your politics and theology have been shaped by your times, and believing smugly, and wrongly, how smart you are in creating yourself and coming to conclusions on your own. But you’d be dumb to do so.

This weekend I finally got around to opening a Christmas gift someone sent me last year. The gift got misplaced in all the Christmas paraphrenalia of last year, and was stuffed away in one of the big plastic bins in which I keep the lights and bulbs for the Christmas tree. The gift was wrapped in red Christmas paper. I unwrapped the paper to find an oversized picture book, the kind you keep on the coffee table.

Black Panthers: 1968 by Ruth Marion Baruch & Pirkle Jones.

The collection of photographs of the passionate, defiant, yet tender young faces from the early days of the Black Panther Party in California was touching to look it. The photographs reveal how young these young black people were back then, how determined they were to change the world, and how naive they were about how ready and prepared J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. government were to tear them to pieces.

I almost joined the Black Panther Party.

A flyer circulated around my high school by the Panther Party asking for volunteers to help serve breakfast to elementary kids as part of the Panther’s “Free Breakfast Program.” I managed to talk my unsuspecting father into driving me across town one Saturday morning and dropping me off in front of the Black Panther House there in Atlanta. I was around seventeen years old, and was finally old enought to take part in some of the student protest activities I’d been witnessing on television for the past decade.

I stayed around for a few months helping Panther women serve breakfast (I know, I know) on Saturday mornings to hungry kids before heading off to college. I never got around to joining the Panther party.

Thanks to whoever you are for the photograph book of the Black Panther party. Thanks for the memories. To me it was just day before yesterday.

Sitz im Leben.