My Black History Month hero is my mother-in-law Loree Murray. She died in 2009 after a long life of service to her community and love of her family. Unofficially dubbed the “mayor” on Northeast Washington, D.C. in the area near Gallaudet College, upon her death a street was named in her honor and The Loree Grand, an apartment complex symbolizing the new gentrified and revitalized Northeast also bears her name. Loree Murray arrived in Washington, D.C. in the nineteen thirties and set up soup kitchens to feed the many homeless and destitute Black migrants flooding into D.C. from the south.
She was active in local politics and a stalwart of the Democratic Party as well as the push for DC statehood. She would pick up the phone and call the mayor about a cut in the budget for recreation facilities for youth, or picket the home of a congressman working to strip the city of autonomy, with equal ease.
In the bad old days of the crack epidemic, when her neighborhood was ravaged and terrorized by violence and crime, she helped form, “The Orange Hats”, a cadre of seniors who lived in the neighborhood who wore orange baseball hats and regularly patrolled the streets at night and by their presence and fearless occupation of the area, let the criminals know they were willing to stand up to ensure the safety of people and property.
Improvements in neighborhood schools and ensuring that residents had a strong voice in plans for community revitalization were among her passions as well. She was the kind of woman who felt if something needed to be done, somebody had to do it, and often it was her. She received many honors and much recognition in her lifetime. She received the awards graciously and then would wake up the next morning and walk out the door and get back to the work of being a concerned and creative citizen of her community and the world.
The other “talk” Black families need to have
A decade ago I wrote Don’t Play in the Sun One Woman’s Journey through the Color Complex. The book helped usher in and support a growing willingness to discuss and dissect colorism, the belief that light skin and European facial features, straight hair and looking white are superior physical attributes that deserve preferential treatment for those with those physical qualities. I have been heartened that on the internet, in public forums and in college courses there now exists a vigorous and robust discussion about the emotional, economic, psychological and sociological divisions among people of color all over the world because of this dangerous belief.
However the place where these conversations, honest and often healing, most need to take place is the home. And that is where they rarely happen. Black families will have “the talk” with young people about what to do if stopped by the police while driving. But few families dare discuss with their children what to do if they are teased or bullied for being too dark, too light, told they have “nappy hair” or labeled a “high yellow b___”.
When I talk about colorism before audiences it is clear that the wounds of colorism are deep, and very raw despite the brave face that those who are colorism’s victims may present to the world. Parents need to tell their children that colorism is a false and dangerous belief, that they have a right to talk back to those who would marginalize them in any way because of their color, and that real beauty, attractiveness and value radiate from within. Young people need to be asked if they have ever been the victim of a colorist taunt and how they handled it. They need to hear the adults they love and respect tell their own colorism stories and how they responded to and healed. If the wounds are deep counseling or therapy may be advisable. But whatever a colorism conversation reveals young people need to know that despite its acceptance colorism is wrong, it is not normal and it is not ok.
Lori L. Tharps has written a new important book on colorism that examines how it manifests in multi-cultural families. The book is Same Family, Different Colors.
Be Here Now
Spending four years researching Alzheimer’s disease for my new novel The Wide Circumference of Love, provided me with numerous opportunities to learn crucial lessons about the human spirit. One of the most important lessons learned was how to be here now. I wrote the following to capture the incident that provided that knowledge.
Read the first chapter.
Twenty Minutes of Zen
I sat before what I thought was my most intimidating audience, preparing to read from a story I had written and talk about my life as a writer. A group of well-dressed men and women who had Alzheimer’s disease sat waiting for me to begin. For several months I had been visiting the Memory Care Unit of this Assisted Living Residence in Prince George’s County, Maryland as part of my research for a new novel I was writing about a woman loving and living with her husband as he journeyed through Alzheimer’s. I had interviewed the facilities’ director and social worker, sat in on support groups provided for the families of residents, talked with care-givers and watched the people sitting before me engaged in group exercises such as folding napkins and setting a table, actions that they no longer remembered how to perform. Despite this immersion in the world of Alzheimer’s disease and those affected by it, I remained unsure of how to talk to and relax in the presence of those suffering from the illness. The residents’ short attention spans, fragmented memories, partial and fast fading vocabulary turned the conversation the residents offered me into tests that I felt I never passed. More than once when I looked into the faces of these mostly African American retirees who had been (among other professions), teachers, bank executives, firemen, and government employees, I feared that it was some future version of my own face I was really seeing.
Now I found myself before this group not as an observer, but as a storyteller.
“You’re a writer and the residents would enjoy hearing about your work,” the engagement director said when she asked me to do a reading. Yet, even as I accepted the invitation I wondered how much of what I read or discussed the group would comprehend or appreciate? How much could they?
Anxiety, dread, and a low-grade terror had been bubbling inside me in the hours before the reading, fueled by the question that haunts a writer with each public reading of their work-“Will this audience be engaged and moved by my story? Offering a story to an audience is actually a presentation of oneself and so ego, pride, and the desire for acceptance form the backstory every writer brings to a reading or talk. I knew I could not expect the usual audience reactions and nervously wondered what would rise up in their place. I sat smiling at the group, scanning their faces, taking deep breaths, shifting in my seat, taking a sip from the glass of water I had been given. Smiling. Stalling.
I couldn’t delay any longer. The book I had brought to read from rested on a small table on my right. Gazing into the passive, curious, expectant faces I impulsively, but with an unexpected sense of relief decided not to rely on the book.
“I grew up in Washington, D.C. I write books. My writing has taken me all over the world,” I said, my voice a bit louder than necessary, more to calm myself I thought than to be heard. “I went to Jamaica once and my favorite place on the island is a place called Negril.” The silence was actually only momentary but felt eternal.
From the back row a tiny woman stylishly dressed in a red power suit, a pearl choker and matching earrings thrust her hand and her voice into the room as she stood up and announced, “I’ve been to Jamaica.” Thank goodness. I made a connection. Heads turned to stare at this woman who I suspected in her previous life, was used to being listened to. “My husband takes me there every year for three weeks’ vacation,” she said with slow twist of her head upward and a monarch’s disdain. I had been told by the certified nursing assistants that she was a widow, whose only surviving relative a niece visited her twice a month. Before I could thank her for sharing with the group, I heard a jittery mumbling began to grow among the group as several people gazed at me with sudden interest and began talking to themselves or the person next to them. “London,” a man in the front just a few feet from me shouted. His chin rested on his folded hands which held the head of a cane that he rocked back and forth. “Germany. I was stationed there while I was in the Army. I didn’t like the food much but the people were sure nice.”
In the row behind him a woman wearing a Hampton University sweatshirt, blue jeans and a scarf covering a mass of white curls, leaned on the shoulder of the man beside her and unfurled her considerable height. She folded her arms and told us, “I been to Egypt. I been inside the pyramids.”
Now I was smiling in gratitude as the discordant chorus swept through the room as I heard New York City, Ghana, Paris. My audience was creating a vibrant story gumbo. I had no idea where we were headed. I gave up trying to steer and coasted on a bed of remembrance that may have been real, or imagined. I simply rode the wave they created as the energy in the room connected us with a radiant and nearly palpable force. So we “talked” about the cities we recalled with fondness for a while. Then we slowly grew silent. We caught our collective breath, sated by whatever the names of those cities had brought forth.
Maybe now I thought, I could read. I reached for my book and slowly read a paragraph about a woman who had, like some of them I was sure, migrated from the south to live in Washington, D.C. in the early years of the twentieth century.
“I wonder if I knew her,” a voice mused aloud. “Maybe you did. You said you were from North Carolina and that woman is too” her neighbor assured her.
“You think I know her? I was asked. “Who knows,” I shrugged with laugh, “You could have.”
After that talk and reading I began to write my novel from the inner life of the character with Alzheimer’s disease. In my writing and in my relationship to the people I was observing, I had erected a wall that prevented me from imagining and understanding how complex and rich the Alzheimer’s mind is.
I call on the memory of those “twenty minutes of Zen” often. When I slam into a wall of disappointment or surprise masquerading as life, I remember the best audience I ever had. I recall the exhilaration of allowing the moments between us to unfold as they would, and the uncanny strength that allowed me to trust myself and the unpredictable, the unknowable, careening toward me.
My audience reminded me of the power of the here and now and the promise and pleasure of the present moment. And I thought I was the one bearing gifts that day.
What I have read lately and recommend
by Natalie Baszile
Queen of Chaos The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton
by Diana Johnstone
In April, the Washington Independent Review of Books will present their annual spring writer’s conference Books Alive!
To register visit www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com
Award-winning authors Kyle Dargan and Tiphanie Yanique will lead workshops at the 2017 Hurston/Wright Writers Week. For more information visit http://www.hurstonwright.org/2017-writers-week/