BHM ‘19 – Women of Power: Shirley Chisholm

For young women it may seem like we are in a new age of feminism. They may feel like the most radical chics on the planet and in history. Standing up to assault. Taking over long held corporate bastions of manhood. Seizing control of our wombs and redefining motherhood. Certainly one of the more notable areas where we have made strides is in the political arena.

When you are blessed to see life progress over decades you begin to see life isn’t a smooth trajectory of progress. You have times when you progress quickly and other times when it feels like a slog through the muck. Every once in a while, we take a giant leap forward and it is in those moments that our heroines appear.

Yes, we are living in transformational times. But we have been here before. We have made great leaps in progress due to the effort, idea or sacrifice of a heroine who stepped up. This Black History Month we will look at four women who made their mark in politics and changed the trajectory of the country and these islands. We start with a woman who’s name is not mentioned as often or with the weight it always deserves. The Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm.

Do you love “Auntie” Maxine Waters for her outspoken courage? Do you respect Mia Love for her practical willingness to compromise on issues but not on her principles? Are you excited by the blossoming career of Stacey Abrams? Then you should say a word of thanks for Sister Chisholm.

“Fighting Shirley” was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. At a time when a lot of people would tell you a woman’s place was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, Chisholm was demanding the laws and rights of this country be equally and equitably applied to women and men. 44 years before HRC, Chisholm kicked in the door to the old boys club of presidential candidacy and brought the issues of African Americans, women, veterans and working poor to the national stage.

Born in Brooklyn, NY to a factory worker immigrant father from Guyana and a seamstress immigrant mother from Barbados, she was a studious child who grew up to graduate with honors from Brooklyn College. She began her career in early childhood education. She eventually got her master’s degree from Columbia University and went on to work for the NY Division of Day Care. In 1964 she ran for and won a seat in the NY state legislature, becoming only the second African American to serve.

When redistricting created an opportunity to head to Washington, Chisholm ran for and won a congressional seat, against three heavily favorited African American men challengers in the primary. Her tough talk and up close and personal campaigning style earned her win against a liberal leaning Republican who confounded CORE and organized Freedom Riders in the general election. Her campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” was a direct attack on her opponents strategy of trying to paint her as just a “little schoolteacher.”

As a freshman congresswoman she fought her way on to the influential Veterans Affairs Committee. In 1977 she became the first African American woman and the second woman to serve on the Rules Committee. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Over her seven term career in the House she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and was a warrior for racial and gender equality and the poor. She was especially adamant about bringing an end to the Vietnam War.

Chisholm’s greatest claim to political fame was in her 1972 candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. She was blocked from participating in televised debates and had to take legal action to get permission to give the one speech she did do. Chisholm campaigned across the country in 12 primaries, meeting up close and personal with voters. Her efforts earned her 152 delegate votes which was 10 percent of the total despite being under-financed and weakly supported.

Her run for the highest office broke down long standing gender and racial barriers. She stood toe to toe with titans of Washington and delivered for her constituents. She took the heat for wanting to find areas of compromise with Republicans and whites but insisted that to get anything done we had to build bridges between the two communities. She was ahead of her time in working with the Latino community and bringing their issues to the forefront.

When Chisholm eventually left office she returned to education as a professor at Mt. Holyoke College. She also remained engaged by cofounding the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for Jesse Jackson during both of his presidential bids. She settled in Florida and wrote and taught until her death in 2005.

The influence of Chisholm reaches far and wide. For generations of black women she was the motivation behind their careers and efforts in politics and public service. She defied convention, gender roles and racial boundaries to be a transformational figure in American History. Chisholm said her legacy was that she was a woman who “dared to be a catalyst for change.” As we continue to push through the barriers to equality that remain we must remember to look back at those who have fought tough battles, taken the hits and propelled us forward.

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You are the Past, Present and Future

Artist: Phyliss Stephens

So you registered to vote and have checked the location of your voting place. You know where to go and how to use the machine. So you’re all set, right?

Not quite yet. The other piece of that puzzle is to be aware of who has earned your vote and why. That “why” part is important.

When you step into the booth to vote you aren’t there just representing yourself. You are there representing the past, present and future. You are there adding your voice to the conversation about what our society will be.

There is only one voice that has always had a voice in our democracy. At one point the opinion and wishes of the white male landowner were the only thing that counted or mattered. Every other group has had to fight in some way for their natural right to speak and be heard.

Power never concedes willingly. Those without it have always had to wrench it free from the clutches of those who want to hoard it for themselves. The path to this point in voter inclusion is riddled with the bodies of those who sacrificed so that others may have what was denied to them. It is for them that you vote.

In our current political climate voters are constantly being pelted with hot button issues designed to get them focused on the trees while others clear cut the forest. So called identity politics are the bright flashy issues that attract a lot of attention but really are just a distraction from the bigger picture.

While it is true that we are not a homogenous society, it is a ruse for us to believe that the issues facing the community I claim are not connected to the issues another group may claim. Everything is connected because they take resources. How the resources of our society get utilized and distributed is directly related to the officials we elect and the officials they in turn appoint or hire. The decisions we make today do have lasting effects on the future but they also have immediate effects on today.

People are making laws about issues like gun control, wage equality, healthcare access, education opportunities and environmental protection right now that will determine how we live our lives right now. If you have children in the public school system it matters who is on the Board of Education. If you have someone battling a chronic illness it matters who runs the health department. If you have been a victim of or been accused of a crime it matters who the judges and prosecutors are.

These jobs get decided and filled all the time by those we vote into office. So while it may seem like you only have to look out for your own self interest when you go to vote, your vote actually has more power than that. It effects your neighbor, your coworker, your friends and family. It is for them that you vote too.

As quickly as it seems changes get made sometimes by any given election, societal change actually comes very slowly. Emancipation happened about 150 years ago in a rapid turn of events that saw thousands of Africans go from enslaved to free overnight. However the road to full equality and restitution has been long and continues. It has taken incremental moments along the way to reach where we are. So many who came before us fought and protested and demanded rights and freedoms for us that they knew they themselves would never enjoy. Like them, the choices we make now may take generations to bear fruit but if we don’t plant the seeds now then the results will never manifest. It is for those future generations we will never see that we vote.

Sometimes it can feel like there is so much to fix that you don’t know where to start. This last year has also taught us, once again, that no matter what we want the future to hold, sometimes there are forces beyond our control that can change the trajectory on which we thought we were traveling. We did not expect to have the year we just had. We did not expect to lose the resources we lost. We did not expect to be thrown off course in the way that we have been. Plans that we had no longer fit the reality of where we are.

That’s life. Life is the past, present and future woven together in an intricate pattern that is ever changing. That’s why when we think about who we want to lead us we need to consider their past, present and future. What have they done already to show their commitment to the growth of the community? Who do they associate with and who has helped shape their character and beliefs? What is their vision and plan for the future and how flexible can they be to whatever challenges may come?

Even with only three days to go there is still time to educate yourself on the candidates and be ready to make an informed and thoughtful decision. Casting your vote is one moment in your life when you are simultaneously existing in the past, present and future. Make it count.

African Liberation Day 2018 – Unified at Home and Abroad

Moving Shadows II_X_Girma Berta_t

Close your eyes and visualize Africa. I know it’s a big place and there are a lot of visual images that could come to mind. Don’t get too bogged down in the details. Just note the first image that comes to mind and hold it there.

When the movie Black Panther came out folks went all Wakanda all the time. At levels not seen since the 70’s people were claiming their African-mess and doing the most for the culture. It was February too? We couldn’t be black enough.

Not only were we proud black. We were indignantly proud black. For days, we had a hair trigger for colonizer shenanigans. We showed our pride in our roots through our clothes, hair, our talk, mannerisms and social media. The memes, oh the memes.

The Hotep lifestyle had been on the come back for a while. As the music and style began to revisit the 90s there came with it a growing level of wokeness that has been developing and fermenting for years. It was further strengthened by the tense atmosphere created by the new administration and the spate of violent interactions with the police. Tired of feeling like the victim it’s like the whole community decided to use pride as an offensive tactic to fight back. The whole attitude found a perfect accelerant in the movie set in the mythical Wakanda.

Who wouldn’t want to be from Wakanda? The fictional land of tradition, culture, heritage and modern technology is the stuff of our dreams. It is the Africa we all want to claim. So we did.

Pull up that image of Africa you started with. That first flash that comes to mind when Africa is mentioned. Be honest. Was it of Wakanda? Or was it the Africa we have been fed through countless forms of media and ads from seemingly well-meaning charities trying to pull your heartstrings and wallet. For decades, no centuries, we have been fed a steady diet of a “dark continent” of war, poverty, famine, disease, uncivilized practices and superstitious beliefs. So few of us knew anyone from Africa or had ever been ourselves. What outlets did we have for disputing this information?

It was not by accident that the images of Africa that come to mind for most of us are of devastation and degradation. European countries that carved Africa like a Thanksgiving turkey and military and political dictators had a vested interest I. Keeping an image of an impoverished and unsafe Africa. Entire industries and economies are based in exploiting Africa’s people and resources and having millions of Africans around the globe proud to be African was not going to fit in their agenda.

It is through deliberate effort that most people have any kind of positive relationship with Africa. We learn what e can about it’s ancient, pre-colonizer ways and try to connect with a more specific location. Some of us are even using the new DNA technology to get more specific about where we came from so we can make that connection.

Well, thankfully, I’m here to tell you that those images we hold in our heads about Africa are not the only reality. Yes there are parts of Africa that have been devastated by nature and by man. There are parts that are impoverished and parts that are war torn. Just like every other continent. There is also great beauty and rural wonders. There are modern cities and beautiful developments.

We can love a fictionalized version of Africa but we can also have a very real connection with Africa that will give us the same pride and joy. It’s not the particulars of the place that bring forth that love. It is the acceptance of Africa and recognizing Africa in ourselves that brings forth that pride.

This week we recognize African Liberation Day. The theme this year is “Unified by common struggle, history and culture -Africa Home and Abroad Unite.” This theme is so appropriate for harnessing that feeling we felt watching the best of Africa displayed in the movie. More than that it speaks to the pride we feel with expressing the myriad of ways our African identity has grown and evolved through our history as a people forced to exist in societies hostile to our presence.

In their song Arrested Development sings “Africa’s inside me/She taking back her child/She’s giving me my pride/And setting me free.” Our story is fractured but despite the many different roads we have travelled we share common threads. Wakanda may not be real but the more we unite around the goals of ending our struggle, sharing our true history and expressing the variety of our culture the more we can do to heal Africa’s wounds and develop her strengths at home and abroad. The more we can continue to free ourselves from the lies we were told.

Better For Perfect

When it’s spring, I don’t know that because of the dates on the calendar or because of the flowers that are starting to bloom or the trees that are starting to bud. I know because of that feeling that comes over you that time of year. That feeling of renewal and inspiration. I can smell it in the air and feel it in the wind. The tone of the days changes.
So when I feel the season turn to spring my mind and spirit feel like they are waking up and looking around at all the possibilities of what could be. My mind starts racing and thinking about all the areas of my life I would like to change or improve. At first if feels exciting but the more I examine it and start to try and make plans the more I begin to feel a bit over stimulated. There is so much I want to do, so many things I want change, improve or try that I don’t know where best to start.
At a recent women’s circle we were asked to make a visual assessment and plan for what we want to see come to fruition in our lives in the spring. It was a very frustrating exercise for me because I couldn’t prioritize the things that came to me. I couldn’t figure out if I needed to start with something broad and then get to the specifics or if I should pick one specific thing, finish it and then move on to the next. Should I choose the easiest thing first or the hardest? The window of opportunity to take advantage of how the change in season affects my spirit seems so brief. I feel like if I don’t make a decision or choose the wrong thing to focus on time would be wasted and perhaps opportunities would be missed. I just want to get it right.
Couple of day later while this exercise was still on my mind I was driving along listening to my sports radio. I heard a commentator mention a quote from NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell. “Don’t sacrifice better for perfect.” What Goddell was talking about had nothing to do with life changes or anything so ethereal as that. Whatever his context, my hearing the quote was very timely.
I think often we forget that everything doesn’t have to be exactly right for there to be a benefit. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in achieving an exact replica in real life of our imagined life that we get stymied in our efforts to accomplish anything.
In essence we sacrifice making things better because we can’t make them perfect. Even if we aren’t a perfectionist it is a state of mind that still applies. We look at that monstrous pile of laundry and think, there is no way I can finish all that today so rather than tackle it bit by bit we ignore it one more time. We want to go back to school but when we look at the big picture of all we will have to do to get that degree we want/need it seems like such a daunting prospect. So instead we convince ourselves that we can’t do it. Maybe when the kids are grown or when we get these bills under control or blah, blah, blah.
When I let that quote roll around in my head for a day or two and contemplated the paralysis that had set in as I tried to figure out what to do with my spring energy, it came to me that plans are just as easy to make as excuses.
As much as I was balking at making a choice because I didn’t want it to be the wrong one I realized that even if I didn’t get done exactly what I wanted by the time the malaise of fall set in, at least I would have accomplished something. My life may not be exactly where I want it to be, perfect so to speak, but it would be better than it is now. Like the song by the Blind Boys of Alabama, I may not be what I want to be but I’m better than I used to be and I’m getting better all the time.
When you are trying to progress and improve your life no choice you make is going to be a bad one as long as it leads you along the path to your goal. Some choices may move you along the path further and faster than others. You may make a decision and realize you actually need to go back and take a few smaller steps first before you can fulfill that action but you are still moving forward.
Spring comes with the infinite possibilities it inspires. The only way to enjoy the beauty of the season is to bloom.

A Real Revolutionary is Self-Sustaining

    Each year on the day after Thanksgiving we gather on the shore of St. John to walk the timeline of our revolutionary past. We blow the conch and call the names and offer the sacrifice of our time and attention and effort.      We stand on the resurrected stones of the Catherineberg Mill and wish the walls could talk. Will they tell the stories of the enslaved tradesmen who calculated the thickness of the walls and the depth of the underground rooms? Will they reveal the whispered conversations of those who planned to one day soon be free from the yolk they were forced to bear? We visit the site of the ironworks that ushered our people into a new era.  

    We find ourselves at the foot of Fortsberg Hill, some of us unaware of the strenuous nature of the climb that lies ahead. As we walk the trail perhaps we can only focus on each step. Perhaps we can only make it by following the rhythm of one foot in front of the other as we go step by step. Perhaps there is time for joking, chit-chat, light hearted talk. 

    Once we reach the summit and gather our thoughts and breath and spirit we can feel the weight of the place and the event we have come to commemorate and honor. Lives were lost here. Blood was shed here. Battles were fought here. It was the spark that ignited the flame of revolution.

    The rebellion of 1733 was a moment in history that deserves the reverence and notice of any major turning point in the story of our species. It was not meant to be a moment. It was meant to be an explosion that tore/down the old ways and made space for a new way. It was the beginning of a rebellion that was intended to spread to neighboring islands as far as it took to set people free.  

    As they marched up that hill with machetes in their firewood bundles, their minds were on the task at hand. I imagine they must have also thought of their motivations for being there. As they climbed that hill they did not do so alone. All across the island in windowless shacks and rooms off to the side, brothers and sisters sat and waited for the signal that meant seize the day.

    There were only two outcomes that would arise from the actions of that day. Either they would fail and lives would be lost or they would succeed and lives would have to be maintained. Those early St. Johnians held control of the island for almost 6 months. For that time they weren’t getting help from St Thomas. There were no food shipments or aid packages coming to them. They were on their own

    How to maintain their control and provide for the people were questions that were part of their plan. Their plan required that they not only think like revolutionaries but that they also think with self-sustainability in mind. Everyone had to lend their talents and skills to perform the tasks for themselves that they were mainly used to doing only for others. They had to not only have warriors who could protect them but craftsmen, farmers, cooks, seamstresses, hunters, artisans, and so on.  

In our modern times we have left behind many of the basic life skills that used to be a part of our everyday life. We talk about being revolutionary and wanting to fight the powers that be. It’s all well and good to want to crash the system but if you don’t have the basic skills to rebuild and reinvent a new one then old habits will quickly emerge.

    The ability to be self-sufficient is not just revolutionary in the sense of creating a new reality. It is also revolutionary from the viewpoint of your day to day life. When you can feed yourself or cloth yourself or build your own shelter you take back that much more control of your life.  

    Our ancestors didn’t just arm themselves with weapons on that fateful day. They were also armed with the knowledge they needed to live free of their oppressors. They armed themselves with a plan for life after liberation. They knew how to take care of their basic life needs so that they did not have to fall helplessly back into the arms of their captors. 

    We can honor their revolutionary example by learning a skill or skills that will lessen our dependence on those who ultimately only seek to oppress and control us. That is being ready for the revolution.

©November 23, 2013

April Fool

“By the time the fool has learned the game, the players have dispersed.”
-African Proverb

One of my son’s favorite holidays is April Fool’s Day. He played his first April Fool joke when he was four. His jokes are mostly variations of “there’s a spider on you.” He still hasn’t quite grasped the fact that April Fool’s Day is just that, a day. So he is inclined to pull pranks in the name of April Fool’s Day on, say, September 24th.
He’s a little boy so most of the time it seems to him that everyone else knows more than him. So he delights in feeling like he tricked someone with something so silly. Too often, though, there is nothing silly about foolish thoughts and foolhardy actions. There are many ways to be foolish, be fooled and act a fool that are not only damaging to you and others but are also dangerous.
“In an abundance of water, a fool is thirsty.”
-Bob Marley
Foolishness is connected to wisdom or one’s lack thereof. We have access now to more information than ever before in the history of our species. That access is growing exponentially every day. And yet there are those of us who are fine and comfortable with our ignorance and who are happy to let others think and analyze for them.
That’s all well and good if you are talking about following fashion or music trends. One great thing about being human, however, is our ability to combine logic with free will. That means we can make choices about our destiny and are not driven solely by instinct. By allowing others to tell us what is important, what is true, what is necessary without investigating and analyzing on our own is foolishly dangerous. It means we can be swayed to follow a genius or a madman to greatness or disaster.
“You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.”
-Joseph E. Levine
The rise of casual celebrity has fed our ego to foolish proportions. It is an understatement to say that we humans will do anything to be famous. I am amazed everyday at the things people will do and say simply because there is a camera around. I am shocked everyday by the things people will do or say knowing there is a camera around. In every age of man there have been those willing to do outrageous acts to gain notoriety or simply as a rebellion against conformity. Now that such acts have the capability to go viral around the world simultaneously attracts and repels.
There are stories on the news of how one bad decision or one moment of lapsed judgment can ruin someone’s life. We also see cases of people whose behavior would normally get them ostracized at best and jailed at worst. Now, however, they are glamorized and given a platform. With the right wardrobe and spin their image can be anything they want the public to believe and anything we are foolish enough to give credence.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
-Benjamin Franklin
We are at our most foolish, however, when we seek only the negative and can only rise through the downfall of others. It takes no effort, no thought to manipulate others with negativity. That’s why so many people have found success by playing the fear or hate card. It can bring money, fame and power but it is the proverbial house built on the sandy land.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”
-E.F. Schumacker.
The most frustrating type of fool is the one who refuses to acknowledge foolish behavior. We humans have a dogged ability to follow a course of action to its end even through overwhelming evidence that the end will not be pretty. We have a pride that sometimes does not allow us to admit that we are really, really wrong. So we keep digging, no matter how deep, dark and stinky the hole gets, not because we are brave enough to take the chance but because we are too scared to admit fault.
“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”
-Charlie Chaplan
Ultimately, thought, being a fool gets a bum rap. Sometimes you have to get a bit foolish to get what you want or to enjoy what you have. Sometimes you have to act a fool for love. Sometimes you have to risk looking like a fool to make strides and progress. The key is to be able to gauge when it is the right time to take foolish chances and when you are just fooling yourself and when you are being played for a fool.
“Everybody plays the fool, sometimes.”
-The Main Ingredient

Make Room for the Extrodinary

Over the past few months my son has spent a lot more time working on his drawing skills. The other day he came up to me with a drawing he’d done of General Grevious from Star Wars. Drawing characters from Star Wars are his forte. He likes making epic battle scenes and detailed character sketches. I was commenting on his latest drawing with the usual parental interest when I noticed an odd looking symbol in the upper corner. It looked like a funky “S” next to a mushroom.
So of course I asked him what it was. He very confidently informed me that it was the price. He was charging nine dollars for this particular piece of art. I noticed in days to follow that when he had a drawing that he’d worked particularly hard on and was especially proud of he would put a price on it. Some were as low as two dollars. There was one very intricate battle scene that he priced at nine hundred dollars. When I questioned his pricing he shrugged it off.
“If they don’t have enough,” he said, “I’ll take a little less or sell it to someone who has the money.”
If I were a capitalist I’d be impressed by his enterprising attitude. I was pleasantly surprised that he thought to charge for his work. Not because I want him to be all about the Benjamins. No, I was more fascinated with the fact that he saw the value of his efforts and was confident enough in those efforts to charge money for his art. With a customer base of first and second graders, I don’t see massive riches in his future.
What I do see in him and in many other examples around me are the building blocks of extraordinary. Recently I wrote about the merits of living a regular life. While I still hold to the belief that there is no need for everyone to be fabulous, famous and bigger than life, I also believe there is a place for those who choose to be extraordinary.
In the development of our society there have been those who have created progress simply by putting in the work that it takes to keep a society moving forward. Their contribution is immeasurable. Then there are those who, through their ingenuity, creativity and courage, take society forward in great leaps and bounds. That can only happen when a mind is allowed to free itself from the confines of “should’s” and “maybies” and allow it to roam in the realm of making the impossible seem attainable.
For a child it is so easy to see beyond the limits of reality because everything is so new and it is in your nature to push boundaries. As you age the pressure to conform and be a part of the pack gets more aggressive. Even if you feel in your heart that you are meant for something more special there are people and moments that make you feel cautious about sharing that special part of yourself.
It is usually when you have the confidence instilled in you from early in your life that you can push past those doubts and ignore the criticism and naysayers to find a way to fulfill your vision of what is possible. Even more than that, however, it takes knowing that what you have to contribute has value and is worth recognition and, sometimes, compensation.
We have created in this country an environment where our children see even their smallest efforts celebrated. There is usually someone nearby to offer them assistance when they encounter any obstacle. While it is nice to have an adult who cares about you to catch you before you fall, it can be detrimental to not even be allowed to feel the exhilaration of trying, stumbling and catching yourself before you fall. Having that freedom to fail, reevaluate and try again is what produces the fertile ground where extraordinary blossoms.
In South Korea education became so important that the country’s leadership created a whole atmosphere of academic achievement. They stress the importance of study and testing. Intellect is tied to success throughout a person’s life. So while they have upped the intelligence of their population, they have also created a society of stressed out young people who’s identity is tied to their ability to achieve academically.
There is a thin line between pushing your child to achieve their greatest potential and squashing that potential underneath the staggering weight of demands and extreme expectations. There is nothing wrong with ordinary. The world needs ordinary. But if you have the opportunity and talent to go beyond the ordinary, then you owe it to yourself to explore that.
Being extraordinary is not about supremacy or elitism. It’s about recognizing what you have to offer. It is about pushing yourself and working your talents. Ultimately you have to be brave enough to recognize that your talents and efforts are worth something. Ultimately you have to believe that if you put in the work you can create something beyond the ordinary and possibly of value to others.