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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Yesterday I sat by the pond in Copley Square. It was just late enough and just chilly enough that few other people sat by the water that day. The light was low and golden. It bounced off the water to beautiful effect. Leaves drifted by in different colors and when they circled the concrete stretch they’d catch the light and glow.

Fallen leaves in swirling waters. I’ve photographed those a lot but that day I did not have my camera. Just food. I was kind of glad because then I could just eat and behold the beauty without trying to “capture” it on the screen. No camera also gave me freedom to look around me and so I noticed the woman across the pond, on the sidewalk side, next to Boylston Street.

She gazed in my direction but I do not think she saw me because she was quite focused on cleaning herself. She was deliberate and calm. You would have thought she stood in her own home staring into a mirror. First brushing her teeth and then flossing. A wet brush through her dark brown hair. Then a wash cloth to her face and other exposed bits of flesh. Just a quick wipe here and there. Like I said, it was cold that day. She did not fully take off her coat or the many layers beneath. All of the items she had pulled from a plastic ziploc bag which she tossed in the trash after cleaning herself. Then, after collecting several large trash bags, with great dignity she walked away.

Then my gaze fell upon the man who sat not too far from me.  He was well-dressed. I imagined he was taking a respite from his workspace in one of the neighboring office buildings. I yearned to borrow his thick wool blazer as the wind created eddies in the pond. In his hand was a notebook. On occasion he would pull from his knapsack a pouch full of fancy pencils. I recognized them from one of my favorite stationery stores. The pencils were all sharpened and the page of his book was blank. He would take out pencils and then put them back and I wondered what vision he was hoping to realize on the page. In between reaching for the pencils he would reach into his pocket. At first I thought maybe for an eraser but instead he pulled out a little bottle and downed it in one sip. He didn’t toss it on the ground like I’ve seen some of the guys on the benches do. No, he simply gently placed it back in his pocket and reached for a pencil again.

By the time I finished my lunch the man had emptied several small bottles, and as I rose I could see the large brown bag tucked next to the brown leather of his shoes.  Something to take home I guess. His head remained low the entire time. Only his hands moving really except for the quick tossing back of his head.

As I walked away, still, there was nothing on his page.

 

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WashingtonandRoosevelt

Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

StarGazetteOct1901

It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

BruceandDouglass

Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

Liliuokalani_in_London_(PPWD-16-4.014)

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

WeeklyClarionLedgerMS

excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

AtlantaConstitution1901

excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

OgdenStandard1901

Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

TillmanandDixon

Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

McKinley-Theodore_Roosevelt_Campaign_and_Inaugural_Items,_ca._1900-1901_(4360047582)_(cropped01)

One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

Booker_T._Washington and Family

Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

Theodore_Roosevelt_and_Family_-_24_August_1907

Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

BrooklynDailyEagle1901

The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

MoberlyWeeklyMonitorTillman1

excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

kentuckynewspoemexcerpt

In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

DePriestandHoover

Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggers_in_the_White_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_De_Priest_tea_at_the_White_House

 

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I think the lady meant Jesus, but in any case …

I heard her coming before I saw her. She made her way up the ramp with an awkward sliding gait, using a cane for additional support. I walked over to greet her. A small woman — a good wind could blow her down — but she exuded presence even when she wasn’t talking. Now when you enter the building where I was that day one of the first things you might see is the No Public Restroom sign, a not uncommon sight in the heart of Boston. And it was when she saw that sign that she made her declaration about God and peeing but she quickly moved on from that topic to talk about life more generally. And as the air around me became lightly perfumed by the scent of alcohol, I gently interjected to ask, “Ma’am, I see, but how can we help you today?” She seemed perplexed by the question so I added, “Would you like to sit in the sanctuary for a bit and maybe pray or something like that?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course!” Now when she went in, I did peer through the window to make sure that that was all that she was doing. She sat with head bowed and I let her be. Eventually she did come out and as I held the door for her — she was trying to coordinate handling several bags as well as her cane — she asked, “Now where’s the bathroom?”

After letting my colleague know I was going to be occupied for a while, I guided her to the restroom. It was a long walk because as she explained several times, she can’t walk fast anymore. As we came to the stairs, she held onto the railing for support. At one juncture, I took one of her bags. And all the while she talked to me, telling me of her daughters, her son out west who was buying a house where she might stay one day. As for today, she was waiting for a bus. “And I planned it just right,” she explained, “so that I have time to come here to pray and then go to the bathroom and then get to the bus stop. I got plenty of time. Cause you see I don’t like to be rushed.”

“Where are you going on the bus?” I asked. And when she said to the shelter, I asked which one and she said Pine Street Inn. I could only say, “I’ve only heard good things about Pine Street.” And she nodded.

Now by the time we make our way down the stairs, there is no railing for support and so I say, “If you need to, you can hold my arm.”

She leaned her whole self against my side and took my hand.

Resuming our slow walk toward the bathroom, she apologized, “I don’t walk fast anymore.” I said, “That’s okay.”

Eventually we made our ascent from the restroom, back up the stairs.

She said, “You’re a lot like my friend Sue. She doesn’t mind that I’m slow. She never rushes me. Sometimes she lets me stay at her place. I can take the bus there too. She’s got her own place you see. She’s the best friend I ever made at Pine Street.”

Finally back in the lobby she adjusts her bags and we agree after looking at the wall clock that she still has plenty of time to make it to the bus top for her journey to the shelter.

“What’s your name?” she asked. I told her and then I asked her name. With a big smile she said, “It’s Theresa. Like Mother Theresa. Maybe I’ll be a saint one day too.”

And then she was gone.

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/

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This morning I woke to … sound. Phone alarms going off on multiple floors inside the house. Outside, car horns honking, then the cursing that usually follows honked horns, the beep-beep-beep of delivery trucks backing up and so on and so forth. Life in the big city. By the time I made it to the kitchen table and sat with my first cup of coffee, I’d decided that today I was going to write about silence! Not silence as in the absence of all sound but as in the absence of mankind. I wanted the silences that I had just experienced along the Eastern Shore and in the mountains of Virginia. I scribbled some notes about birdsong and humming insects and water lapping at rocks. I was getting darned poetic. But even as I tried to wrap myself in that real yet also romanticized silence, I could not help but remember sounds I had experienced just two days ago, just one day after returning from my travels.

shorebirds

shore birds

The morning began calm enough. Home brewed coffee is always a good start. But then suddenly the air was filled with the sound of heart-wrenching sobbing. I rushed to the window to see a woman walking away from the neighboring police station. Every few steps she’d turn and look back, her hand sometimes pressed to her heart and sometimes over her mouth. After a while I turned away, not wanting to speculate about the source of her grief. Later that same day I walked into Harvard Square and there too was a woman crying. She sat huddled next to a storefront with a beat up cardboard sign. It said something like, Please help me eat today. She’d propped the sign against her knees. Her hands covered her face, muffling her cries. Her body shook just as hard as the woman I’d seen that morning.

egretimage

At one point the woman in the morning had thrown back her head, I think to ask God why?, at least that’s what I deduced from her creole. As she stood there for that short moment, the wind whipping her white dress about her dark skin, she brought to mind the Haitian man whom I’ve written about before, the man who regularly travels past the place where I live and who, even in the rain, will lift his face to the sky and sing joyously, perhaps to God as well, songs like Ave Maria.

shoreimage

eastern shore of virginia

The woman in the square was quite young, probably a teenager based on her ragged jeans and t-shirt. Red wavy hair spilled over her hands as she cried. Some people walking by placed money in her cup, but her tears did not stop, I think, until another teen sat down next to her with his sign.

My hearing these women did not change their circumstances but their crying did affect me. I was humbled because no matter what aches or pains or grievances I may have, the sound of their tears reminds me how awfully lucky I have been in this world. It is too easy to shut out the cries of those around us. I do want, and maybe even need on occasion, that special quiet of wild places but I also want to remain aware of the aches, pains, and joys of the loved ones and of the strangers around me as I hope there are those who are aware of mine.

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white tailed deer in virginia

 

 

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

four

Robert C. Winthrop. Charles Sumner. Phillips Brooks. Martin Luther King Jr. The lives of these four men span over 150 years. What’s the connection? For me, it’s in their words and actions, or lack thereof, on the subjects that humanity has struggled with since the beginning.  Most often these subjects involve issues of race, class and gender, issues that have always, it seems, inevitably produced tensions within defined societies that then threaten to tear those societies apart. As then as chaos looms or even reigns, individuals within those societies, like these men, must decide what to do, if anything at all.

Robert_Charles_Winthrop

Robert C. Winthrop, 1850

It has been two years since I last wrote about Robert C. Winthrop in the context of Hope, the stained glass window that he purchased for Trinity Church in Boston. Winthrop, a one-time Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives, was a complicated man.  He was a major philanthropist especially to educational institutions in the north and south believing that education was vital to blacks and whites. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, he too gave anti-slavery speeches. He did not want slavery to spread but as far as ending slavery where it already existed, he differed with Douglass and other activists, like Charles Sumner.

Charles_Sumner_by_Southworth_&_Hawes_c1850

Charles Sumner, 1850

Sumner was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who became the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans. He was an incendiary speaker against slavery, one speech of which led to a physical attack on the Senate floor. When Sumner died in 1874 after a long career in domestic and international politics, people immediately remarked upon his anti-slavery leadership. One of those people who praised Sumner’s legacy was Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church, himself noted for his powerful oratory.

Phillips_Brooks

Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church

The words were spoken on a Sunday morning at the end of his sermon.  Exactly what Brooks said in entirety, I do not know. What I do know I learned from Winthrop’s memoir. The diary entry he wrote in response to Brooks are thought provoking.

“I sometimes question whether the cause of religion is advanced when clergymen, from a pulpit on a Sunday, single out for especial admiration statesmen in no way identified with religious observances; and I have been led into this train of thought by the fact that my own rector, in the course of a fine sermon this morning, took occasion to make a brief but glowing tribute to Sumner, who, according to Henry Wilson, had not been inside of a church for twelve years past, unless to attend a wedding or a funeral. He spoke of him, moreover, as one who was ‘a friend to freedom when others were its enemies,’ and as  ‘hating slavery when others loved it.’

Precisely what was meant by this allusion to ‘others’ is not quite clear but it was interpreted by some in the congregation as referring to the party with which Sumner was originally associated. If so, I do not think it fair. The great Whig party loved freedom and hated slavery as much as he, though they could not adopt his mode of showing love and hate. It is a perversion of historical truth to stigmatize that party as having been, in any sense, a proslavery party.  …

We did what we could to keep the peace between North and South, hoping that a day would one day be opened, in the good providence of God, for gradual emancipation on some basis which would be safe for both blacks and whites. Emancipation came as a necessity of the Civil War which we had sought to avert. Perhaps it could have come in no other way, but we had always looked to the ultimate disappearance of slavery under the influence of civilization and Christianity, without endangering the Union or sacrificing half a million lives. …”

His words irritated me.

Upon reflection I realized why and then I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written nearly 100 years after Winthrop put pen to paper.

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr, 1964

The 1963 letter opens “My Dear Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely. … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

King goes on to affirm that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” …

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. … 

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Well, fifty years later, you have only to read the headlines of a reputable news source. Indeed, now is the time, yet again, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of injustice of any kind for anyone.

An addendum: I recently saw a news story about a small town in coal country in a southern state. The mass majority of people left in the town are white, economically adrift with few job prospects and with little access to health care and food. Drug use is rampant, and there is great love of Trump because somehow there is a perception that he is just like them. After surviving in this strange new world through July 2017, I now realize I don’t need those people to ever like me, someone who is so different from them, and I don’t need them to vilify Trump and his cronies. At least not yet. First I need to see their living conditions improved … because what they are dealing with, whatever their beliefs, is indeed an injustice. And, as we have seen with this recent Presidential election, its that kind of injustice, as well as injustice regarding race and gender, that can too easily become a threat to justice everywhere.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sumner

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Charles_Winthrop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.

 

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IMG_0835

photo by patricia cobb

I feel I honored the memories of the children like Willis Cofer. 🙂

CSinstallation2

CSinstallation

I have received many encouraging words about the installation. For me it was a truly collaborative process where people around me helped bring to life the picture in my head. I am thankful. We’ll see what the future holds in terms of future installations. Meanwhile, I do hope if you’re in the area you have a chance to walk beneath these branches.

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The opening reception for Peace: Cutting Through Turmoil at Brickbottom Artist Gallery was a powerful night. What a treat to have my work featured next to such wonderful artists. Each shares work — from paintings to sculpture to video — that is quite different and yet the whole comes together quite cohesively.  Each artist telling a different story. Kudos to curator Lois Fiore for her vision.  The exhibit will be on view Thursday – Saturday noon – 5pm until July 1st.

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lois fiore

Lois Fiore, Curator: http://loisfiore.com/pages/artist.html

10 Patricia Cobb: https://www.brickbottomartists.com/artist/227

Cedric Harper: https://edward-film.squarespace.com/about/

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cedric harper

Riki Moss: http://www.rikimoss.com/

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riki moss

Jose Santos: http://joselsantos.com/about_jose.htm

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jose santos

Brynmore Williams: http://brynmore.com/

 

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