March 14, 2017
Today has been a slushy one here in New York as we braced for a blizzard that never was. But thankfully schools were closed which gave me ample time to reflect. During this solitary day, I returned to my thoughts about our relationship, part of which I shared with my students last night. Before I asked them to write a letter to a family member or someone close to them, I shared the story of the letters we had exchanged over the years and how each had made me feel. I confessed to them that I planned to write you a letter today on what would have been your birthday, that it was annual tradition that I have come to embrace. So here I am.
There is so much to say, so much I want to share, but I’ll start with a passage that my students and I discussed last night. In it, the author, a philosophy professor, describes the challenges he faced with teaching a seminar on death, and quite naturally, your image emerged during the discussion. I had planned the syllabus in advance, of course, but in doing so, I hadn’t noticed that the reading would coincide with my annual meditation. Like most things, however, I considered it fortuitous.
In one of the more moving passages, the professor expounded on the fear the seems to grip us when we face death. Then he countered this fear with something I hadn’t considered: “We have nothing to fear in death because we need to exit our lives gracefully to leave room for the generations that follow us.” This statement served to assuage some of my sorrows, for you were keenly aware of our gifts and actively sought to nurture our talents. You lived so selflessly that I wonder if you chose to bow out in your sleep if only to offer a final example of your grace and encourage us not to mourn too severely. (more…)
I read a book a few weeks ago that reminded me of you. It’s called Negroland by Margo Jefferson and details the writer’s upbringing in the netherworld of the Black elite, where many of its inhabitants consider themselves better than most Blacks and long for white privilege. Their world is complicated in that it often maroons them on a no man’s land where a virulent psychosis ravages the community and inspires self-slaughter.
The author is of your generation, and when she described her admiration of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt, I remembered watching HBO’s biopic of Dandridge with you. I remembered the racism that she faced and the longing for white suitors and the despair visited upon her when her dreams were thwarted. I remembered not understanding all of the cultural references, but I mostly remembered the gleam of your focus. I remembered your exuberance. You delighted in her story.
I miss your train of thought in this state, when the passion thick in your voice would envelop me. You would have loved the book, I’m sure, and I would have loved to hear your thoughts about it. I would have loved to ask you why you sent your son away to a boarding school far from home, where the ultra-white sheen of his teachers and classmates must have been blinding. Were you seeking his entry into the white populace, hoping to secure his footing among the Black elite? (more…)
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he calls upon Jew and Gentile alike to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord. He challenges them further to embrace the teachings of the gospels and to disavow a strict adherence to the old laws proscribed by Moses and the Old Testament prophets. His tone does not chastise from the high-minded perch of the pulpit. Instead, he shows them his own human failings so that they understand his message as universal, one intended for all men. He too, is impaled by the sins of the flesh, and only through God’s forgiveness does he gain salvation. He writes, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
As I reflect on the year that has passed since your death, I find myself in Rome reading Paul’s words and remembering you. It has been a trying year. A friend was buried yesterday, and the black body has continued to be marred by death and destruction. In your time, you witnessed your fair share of the white man’s wrath, and his racist predilections haven’t abated. Just days before your death, you saw Michael Brown lying prostrate in the street for hours after he was struck down by an unrepentant cop. And the slaughter has continued. Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old, was slain for playing with a toy gun in a playground. There was no warning, only shots. Eric Garner was strangled to death on a busy Staten Island street corner. Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer as he ran through an open field, treated like one of those target practice silhouettes. Freddie Gray had his back broken for running away from the police. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after refusing to extinguish a cigarette. Samuel Dubose was shot in the face during an unwarranted traffic stop. Nine parishioners were killed in an AME church, including Clementa Pickney, an elected official and man of unquestioned faith and considerable promise. Kalif Browder’s death shook me the most. He was a young man who was wrongfully jailed for three years and who upon release was showered with attention from celebrities and concerned citizens in the hope that he would be able rise above his trauma, but he killed himself because the pain was too much. He could have been one of my students, anyone of the young men and women who are ensnared in criminal justice system. This year confirmed that death is all around us. (more…)