Saturday, February 26, 2011

Strange Fruit Remembered: Angela Sims Making History, Listening to the Stories

I am proud of my former Howard University School of Divinity M.Div classmate and fellow scholar and colleague in ministry Rev. Dr. Angela Sims who is currently engaged in an oral history project for a forthcoming book on stories of lynching.  Dr. Sims is featured in the New York Times article Seeking Lynching Stories as Accounts of Faith by Samuel G. Freedman published online on February 25, 2011.  The article appears below:

DALLAS — With a broken bone in one foot and gout in the other, Shirley Johnson limped across her living room toward the front door. The visitor waiting there one recent afternoon, the Rev. Angela D. Sims, hoped that at age 74, Mrs. Johnson’s memory was in sturdier shape.

Dr. Sims interviewing Ola Comins, 84,
at er home in Dallas on Thurs.
     A few minutes later, with Mrs. Johnson settled into a wheelchair, Ms. Sims took out a notepad and placed an audio recorder on the coffee table, beside a photo album and the family Bible. An assistant with a video camera set up his equipment across the room and focused his lens on Mrs. Johnson, a retired bill collector in a pink sweater and gray cornrows.
     Ms. Sims spent the next 20 minutes or so asking questions about Mrs. Johnson’s personal history to put her at ease, and they laughed together when Mrs. Johnson said that if she had known about being on camera she would have worn her wig.
     Then, her gaze steady and her voice both velvety and firm, Ms. Sims came to her point. What, she wanted to know, did Mrs. Johnson remember about lynching. Mrs. Johnson let out a long sigh, which hung in the air unbroken for a time.
     “It’s hard to explain,” she finally said. “In the black community, we always talked, we always heard, we heard the adults.” As a child of 5 or 6, Mrs. Johnson went on, she heard her grandmother and a family friend talking, and they used a phrase the girl had never picked up before — “messing with.”

     The two women were talking about a black man in their neighborhood who had lived with a white lover in defiance of segregation’s code. “And next thing they know,” Mrs. Johnson told Ms. Sims, recalling that conversation across all the decades, “he was floating in the Trinity River.”
     For close to two years, Ms. Sims has traversed the country in search of such memories, the recollections of African-American elders about lynching. From New Jersey to California, through Alabama and Oklahoma, she has recorded nearly 85 men and women speaking on a subject most had been determined to avoid, a degradation never to be reawakened.
     Ms. Sims has sought to elicit and so defang the sense of shame. As an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of ethics and black church studies at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., she is gathering the accounts to preserve the historical record and to grasp the faith that allowed lynching’s witnesses and survivors to persevere.
     “I’m listening for what salvation and redemption might look like,” said Ms. Sims, 54, during a break between interviews. “I’m listening for how grace might play out and for notions of forgiveness.   "I think about some of the individuals I’ve met and the way they’ve talked about having to get rid of racial hatred — to be in relationship with God, to not hate themselves. I’m looking for a way to articulate this ethic of resilience.”  In the near future, her findings will take two forms, thanks to her partnership with Baylor University in Waco, Tex. The university’s academic press will publish a book based on the oral histories, “Conversations with Elders: African-Americans Remember Lynching,” and its Institute for Oral History will maintain the recorded interviews, which should be available online in 2012. For Ms. Sims, the project grows from scholarly and personal soil. A corporate accountant who answered the call to ministry in middle age, she wrote her doctoral dissertation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia on the anti-lynching campaigns of 1890-1920 led by Ida B. Wells. Toward the end of Ph.D. work, in late 2007, she heard a black minister give a sermon in which he recalled a lynching that had occurred when he was 8.
“I told myself there must be others,” Ms. Sims recalled.
     Fortified with a $30,000 grant from the Louisville Institute, she started the search in May 2009, sending out hundreds of e-mails to personal and professional contacts, asking if anyone knew anyone who might know anything. That scattershot appeal yielded the initial 45 interview subjects.
     They told Ms. Sims of seeing black men castrated, of finding charred bodies, of walking on blood-soaked ground. They told her of the pervasive fear of doing something that could bring forth a lynch mob. They told her, too, of the unexpected intervention of some whites. One man recounted how he had escaped an impending lynching because he was tipped off by a Ku Klux Klan member, who happened to have been his father’s boss.
     From her own mother, Helen Pollard, a retired schoolteacher, Ms. Sims heard the story behind a family story about the ancestor who abruptly left Louisiana. The explanation that Mrs. Pollard revealed started with a black couple, her grandparents, walking down the plank sidewalk of their hometown.
     “This white man pushed her off the sidewalk into the mud,” Mrs. Pollard went on, referring to her grandmother, “and my grandfather tackled him and would have killed him if they had not gotten him out of there and got him home. And his — his boss was a member of the Masonic Lodge, and they smuggled my grandfather out of Louisiana at night.” She continued, “Because black men just did not—in fact, you just did not disrespect any white person. I don’t care whether they were a boy or a girl.”
     For Ms. Sims, such interviews went beyond racial issues to ontological ones. “The question of where God was in the midst of this evil,” she said, “is held in tension with the way God acted. They name the evil, but they recognize something beyond it.”
     In trying to form a “theology of resilience,” Ms. Sims has combined the firsthand testimonies with Biblical teachings, particularly the Book of Micah with its cry for moral justice and the Gospel of Matthew with its mandate for disciples to travel the land. She has also been inspired by the essays of Alice Walker and a lecture by James H. Cone, the leading exponent of black liberation theology, about the lynching tree being the crucifix of African-American Christianity.
     With her field work nearing its end, Ms. Sims said she was just beginning to reckon with the psychic toll of undertaking what she calls “this ministry of presence, of sitting in the silence.” Nothing, however, has made her question the mission.
     “There is no rest for a weary soul,” she said, “when you’re doing the work you were called to do.”

Dr. Sims's first book Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells' Interrogation of American Terror (Palgrave McMillan, 2010) is available at See her book in the carousel above.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I too am fearfully and wonderfully sculpted: The Hypocrisy and the Hatred of Black Women’s Bodies

     Recently Rush Limbaugh accused Michelle Obama of being a hypocrite stating that she eats ribs and does not look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and yet she has the audacity to promote a healthy lifestyle for our children.  Well, it’s no secret that most of the women who model for Sports Illustrated do not in reality look like the covers that bear their images.  Many likely starve themselves leading up to the photo shoot and even then their photos are professionally airbrushed, never mind the professional makeup applied prior to the airbrushing. 

     To suggest that Michelle Obama cannot eat ribs and be healthy is ludicrous. To suggest that Michelle Obama or any woman is not healthy unless they are a size 2, regardless of height or bone structure is irrational and constitutes an intentional attempt to discredit based on a knowingly mythical (as in fictional) standard.  To be sure Michelle Obama has born a lot of criticism since becoming First Lady of the United States of America some of which certainly has to do with race.  We also cannot deny that First Ladies prior have been scrutinized and criticized based on their physical appearance. For example, Hillary Clinton was censured for having thick ankles or cankles and accused of wearing pants suits to hide them.
     But still Michelle Obama is a tall woman with a relatively large bone structure; she would definitely not look or be healthy at a size 2.  But I can’t help but believe that what we see in Limbaugh’s comments is the age-old disdain for black women’s bodies, still.  Still in a society where women, white and black, purchase padded pants to increase the size of their derrieres and even resort to plastic surgery to make their butts larger and rounder to resemble the average black woman’s behind.  Black women sported voluptuous behinds long before Jennifer Lopez or Beyoncé.  The only ostensible difference between JLo or Beyoncé’s behind and that of Janet Jackson, Angela Bassett or Elise Neal’s is the level of pigmentation in the skin covering their derrieres (and the rest of their bodies, of course).  Many dark skinned ethnic minority women have always had beautiful, shapely derrieres. It is safe to idolize and/or covet the behinds of fair-skinned black or other ethnic minority women who have more Anglo or Caucasoid features. And I am certainly not faulting these women. No one has control over the skin they were born in.   
     I could also mention the collagen and fat that women are injecting into their lips to make them fuller.  The paradox is that black women have been and continue to be aesthetically devalued or ridiculed for having large lips.  And I won’t go into the browning of white (and yellow) skin and the proliferation of the use of tanning beds.  America has a love, hate attitude toward black women’s (and other women of color) bodies.
     The other unfortunate effect of derogatory contentions propagated by folks like Limbaugh is that some black girl somewhere will internalize, consciously and/or unconsciously, this hatred of black women’s bodies. I love that Michelle Obama is encouraging our children and other women and men to live healthy lives.  I love it because Michelle Obama is an intelligent woman of faith who exercises regularly; practices and promotes healthy eating and thinking; sometimes eats unhealthy foods and admits it, but does not let those moments interfere with a general determination to practice a healthy life style; and that Michelle Obama wears clothing that tastefully and unapologetically accentuates all the beautiful, sexy curves she inherited from her black ancestresses.  And I hope (and am sure) that Michelle Obama will continue to, in moderation, eat her ribs and ice cream when she feels like it without a second thought about other people’s disdain for and hang ups about her black body. And I hope all women–black, white, yellow, brown, red, pink–will live their healthiest lives and unapologetically love, with a haughty strut, their own bodies.  
     Reportedly the years of criticism of Hillary Clinton’s ankles led to many women’s fixation with their own “cankles” to the point of an increase in plastic surgery or targeted exercise regimes to narrow their ankles.  Just because someone or a group of people determine that “thick ankles” are unattractive does not make it so. We give power and virtual verity to such devaluing judgments by ordering our lives (and expecting others to follow suit) according to such arbitrary and self-serving opinions. Hatred of dark skin of course has led to a billion dollar skin lightening industry. Who benefits from black people’s internalization of others’ hatred of their dark skin and distinctive features? Certainly, not black women or the black community. I hope my sisters and I will not allow those who hate our bodies to compel us to change our bodies to please our haters because (1) we will never please our haters. Those who hate us because of our black bodies will always and only see us as black bodies and will find something else to hate about us; (2) such misplaced energy and money detracts from finding and living to the fullest our God-given purposes;  (3) failure to accept and love the bodies we were born with nurtures an unhealthy self-image, a self-hatred, and a distorted self-confidence, which we unwittingly and often in greater intensity pass on to our daughters and sons; and (4) when we hate ourselves, our body image, it is easier to hate another person because her body image does not fit the mold.  It is up to us to counter-culturally resist and reject the devaluing of our dark skin and bodies because they do not conform to others’ pre-judgments and attempts to knock us off our game through superficial diversions.  As Anna Julia Cooper stated in A Voice from the South, “only the black woman can [and should] say when and where she enters.”   

Saturday, February 19, 2011


 We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

~Maya Angelou

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Remembering Eartha Kitt

I feel a special connection t0 Eartha Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008). As a teenager, I remember walking in downtown Columbus, Ohio in the mid 70s and having two men in the same day tell me I looked like a young Earth Kitt--one man on the street and another in a shoe store.  I couldn't relate at the time.  Sadly, I don't think I had even laid eyes on Ms. Kitt. I only remember seeing her in later years when she performed, for example, in Eddie Murphy's 1992 film Boomerang.  I was very young when she gained notoriety for her 1960s stint as cat woman in the Batman television series. And her career spanned more than 60 years. 
As a high school student, Kitt developed a passion for reading and later enjoyed contemplating the works of philosophers such as Plato and Nietzsche.  Kitt became interested in the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (the first African-American troupe to gain a major reputation in the world of ballet) after seeing them in a movie. Kitt gained an audition with Dunham and landed a spot with the troupe. In 1947 Kitt toured France and England with the Dunham Company earning rave reviews. She recalls being called a "beautiful creature" rather than a "beautiful woman."  In about 1950, Kitt left Dunham's troupe and began performing in an upscale nightclub in Paris.
I remember my mother telling me that Ms. Kitt had been blackballed for speaking her mind about the Vietnam War while a guest at the White House when Lyndon Johnson was President in 1968.  Kitt told Lady Bird Johnson that "Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America. It is a war without explanation or reason." "When the people who are responsible for our country ask you a direct question, I expect them to accept a direct answer, not to be blackballed because you are telling the truth," Ms. Kitt would later say. When Ms. Kitt was blacklisted in the U.S., she found work in Europe, and would only be welcomed back in the US in the late seventies. She would also return to the White House to sing as the invited guest of President Jimmy Carter. 

Other things Ms. Kitt said:
"Everything should be done with moderation and using common sense."
"We're not thought of in terms of color because we are entertainers. We are there to entertain you not because we are black, white, pink, or green or gay or straight or because we are Catholic or Protestant."
"I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma." 
"Just because you are different does not mean that you have to be rejected."
"Let's take care of the necessities first: give people jobs, and find a way to get us out of poverty."
"My house was bugged. They couldn't find any information on me being a subversive because I happen to love America; I just don't like some of the things the government is doing."
"My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions."
"The river is constantly turning and bending and you never know where it's going to go and where you'll wind up. Following the bend in the river and staying on your own path means that you are on the right track. Don't let anyone deter you from that."
"Thank God you've got a sense of humor, or you'd be in trouble."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Jewish Women-Righteous, Torah-Educated, Powerful: An Early Jewish Feminist Interpretation

An Early Jewish Feminist: Naomi Jacobs's Great-Grandmother Mary Limon Wiernikowsky

Early Feminist
Mary Lemon Wiernikowsky,
 Naomi Jacob's Great Grandmother
In 1902, 27 years before Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of Our Own, a twenty-three year old Rebbetzin wrote an article in beautiful Hebrew in a major periodical, Ha-Maggid, arguing that women are essential to the promulgation of Jewish culture and that Jewish women must receive a complete Jewish education. (For more on the history of the education of Eastern European Jewish Girls, see the essential work of Dr. Eliyana R. Adler).  Born in 1879 in Slonim, ( just three years before Woolf, Miriam  (Mirka/Mary) was of Sephardi descent and family legends suggests her ancestor was a deserter from Napolean’s army. She was distantly related to Mordechai Limon, the late Israeli military hero
   According to the 1977 Slonim Yizkor  Book (Post-Holocaust Memorial Book), Mary overcame parental disapproval and managed to obtain a splendid Jewish education, including Talmud, with her best friend, Hinda Schluper, daughter of the Slonim rabbi. Mary is in fact mentioned in a book written by one of Hinda’s relatives  (Esther Rafaeli, “The Modest Genius—Reb Aisel Harif” pages 314-315).

Werne Family
Mary Limon Wiernikowky (Center)
    Mary moved to Königsberg  after marrying Isaac Wiernikowsky (later chief  Orthodox rabbi of Los Angeles).  According to a letter written by Isaac printed in the Slonim volume, the editor of Ha-Maggid confessed that he visited their home because he thought her husband, not Mary, had composed her published work. When she wrote the article below right in front of him, he realized she really was the author. She also published in the journal Ha-Tzafir.

  Mary had four children. Bertha, not pictured, Benjamin (to the left), Jake, and Florence (born Fanny), my grandmother. Not long after this picture was taken, Mary, like Virginia Woolf and so many gifted writers, took her own life. She was only 40 years old. Had Mary lived longer, she would have been better known. Her descendants include seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and at least two great-great-grandchildren. 
   The article was written for Passover. I have done my best to translate it from the Hebrew.

April 17, 1902

On Account of Righteous Women
By Miriam Wiernikowsky Königsberg

“As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things”
[tr. See Micah 7:15]
Some weeks ago all the newspapers in Russia praised their great writer Nicholas Vasilyevich Gogol. Likewise, the Hebrew newspapers dedicated lengthy articles on the jubilee year following his death. And here, if the author of the book, “Before Bulia” deserves that we will divert our attention even a short while from our own condition and we join in his jubilees, which is still doubtful. But just as God does not withhold the reward for a fancy conversation, so we are not entitled to ignore it and the conversation on which I seek to attract our brothers, discussed this superb author in his words about 
“The woman and her value in the world.”
“You imagine,” says Gogol in the book, “that woman’s activity in her society was useless, but I say the very opposite: the activity of a woman is very necessary . . . and especially in this time!”
Thus is the structure of a fancy conversation that is uttered by the Russian literary genius in Russian literature, we the Jews, who are all wise, who are all clever, who all know the Torah [tr. Phrase from Passover Haggadah}, three things alone removed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, a harsh land whose king was harsh and whose decrees were harsh . . . but if we look at these three things in a clearer and brighter way then we will see clearly that they conceal much more power and strength and ability to fight against the yoke of a more difficult exile than through swords and spears, or horses and chariots of war. Changes of name, clothing and language are the three angels of assimilation. As long as the Jews is ashamed of his Hebrew name, of every clothing item that makes it obvious that it is Jewish and of his language and he changes them, his Hebrew name he changes to one typical and ordinary in that land in whose midst he dwells, everything whose Jewish mark is upon it he endeavors to distance from himself and abolishes his language which is an inheritance from his ancestors, they the Jew begins to sink still further in the clinging filth of the exile alone, the exile of the body, he further suffers in this the very harsh exile of the soul, because all hope has left him and he also does not expect any help he will die in the dust of his race and will not feel even the blade which cuts into his flesh . . . not so if he will keep the heritage of his ancestors, upon his Hebrew name there will be his pride and in the language of his ancestors he will become great – then, these three things are made for him into three angels of salvation. And these angels who warm their hearts and bore children to them, and children of children, with whom together, they raised the flag of our ancestors. Therefore our ancestors attained merit while in Egypt, for in their youth and their old age, with their sons and with their daughters all went with one counsel and one opinion for sake of the Lord to save their people. And the Lord, the wonder worker, saw that it was time to bestow favor because the appointed time had arrived, so he sped up his salvation and showed them his wonders. And it is upon us to instruct for if it were not for those three angels of peace who were there for our ancestors in Egypt, is it not that we and our children and the children of our children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt (tr. Allusion to Passover Haggadah).
After all of this, the words of our wise ones, should come to no surprise in saying that despite what was indicated above, the Israelites would not have been redeemed but “on the account of righteous women” because truly two sayings of the Talmud have a single meaning. 
From then on and forever, even before humans recognized the advantage of women and agreed to give them special rights for their sake, women were already the moving spirit in the spheres of life and they inclined the men to their wishes. God gave power to the first man and it should have been that he would have been given the Torah, but as much as he desired not to turn either right or left from the commandments of the Lord, he was not able to control himself not to listen to the advice of his wife to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Our ancestor Abraham, symbol of good and righteousness, when he brought guests into his home, and was very upset that they would not come to his home, he suddenly turned heart and forgot his offspring when Sarah his wife said to him, “Chase away the son of the maidservant” . . . only due to the advice that Rebecca our mother did Jacob our father cunningly received the blessing of the dew of the sky and from the fertility of the land. Examples and tales like these I could supply in the thousands, but I do not think that this is necessary because famous saying that the heart of men is in the hand of a woman and that what she wishes, she will incline him towards, does not require evidence. From now on, every man will understand that even these three angels of “name, language and clothing” were in the hands of women and in their hands was the ability to turn them into angry angels of assimilation, to soothe their men in the clinging filth of a long and bitter exile, they were able to turn them into the angels of salvation, to revert their captivity, all according to the desire of the women . . . and when they did not change their names, their clothing and their language, it was only “on account of righteous women” that they did so.
 The woman who is not righteous – begins first of all to be ashamed with her Hebrew name and her entire desire to change it for a foreign one. Little by little she begins to send away from herself anything in which the Jewish odor emits from it, afterwards she causes her husband and the members of her household also to forget the language in order to seem like the inhabitants of the land  . . . Although it is truly very harsh for this man, this new beginning, not with a willing heart does he give the bill of divorce to the holy things of his heart and the heart of his people but he gives in even though he still hopes that he will come back and return . . . but the experience teaches that it is not sufficiently in his power after this . . . although truly, the deed of the woman is great.  But God wanted to give merit to Israel and so fulfill this promise that he offered to our ancestors – what did he do? He created “righteous women” in that generation, women who cared for the lot of their people, wishing to improve it and remove it from under the suffering of Egypt, which suppressed them to freedom . . . the women who were not only not ashamed by their Jewish names and did not strive to distance anything that bears the seal of Judaism, and they did not cause their children to forget their language, rather, in great affection they would endear all the holy things of our people upon men and children – in this way they ignited an intense love of their people in their hearts and great zealous flames for all of its holy things – And thus Israel bears eternal salvations!
Such was the work of women in the days past – now, come and think how great could be their work now during the present time.
The situation of the current and upcoming generation is that of great danger. It is on the verge of not knowing its people and its language and it distances itself each day from the tradition of the ancestors, which connects our souls together in a chain and keeps us who are scattered and separated throughout the world as a single living and existing nation. Those who distance themselves from the Israelite body feels contempt for all the holy things of Israel, because they do not know the secrets they contain. Can we then take for ourselves spiritual warriors who will serve honorably in the temple of the national idea which now fills all the spaces of our world? Can we take people who will lead before us? The situation of the coming generation and the situation of our people fully needs salvation and this salvation can only come to us by the hand of a woman.  As the power of the women then so is the power of the women now and perhaps with even greater vigor and increased strength, it can change the whole world with all its fullness in a single glance in a single wish. As was then, so now, they have took nine in conversation (tr. This alludes to a statement in the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Kedushim 49 that “of ten measures of gossip that came down into the world, women took nine") to tempt their husbands and to persuade them to change their minds. The women can provide the education to their children according to their wishes and together with the milk of breasts they can provide it also with the Jewish feeling, which will accompany us through every path in life . . . all of this is within women’s capability – the righteous ones! But who will supply them for us? Where are these women of valor in whom the heart of our people could be secure, who will reward with good and not bad, who will open their mouths with wisdom and the teaching of mercy on their tongues – give us righteous women!
And still it seems to you, that the work of a woman is worthless within national thought? But isn’t it evident that this is not true? A woman’s work can be great and honorable, especially in a time like this.
In a time like this where the first and last task is only to make souls for our people to wake and revive nationalism, who else but a woman has the ability to begin and finish this work? We need only “righteous women,” we need to teach them our Torah, our language, and our history ...
    And the writers who stand on the watchtower, are silent . . .
O brothers the writers! To your palates a shofar and with me cry out to the ears of our people, give us “righteous women” and redemption will be ours!

My Guest Blogger, Naomi S. S. Jacobs, received her Ph.D in Early Judaism at Durham University with Loren T. Stuckenbruck. She recently taught as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. Her latest publications include “Nebuchadnezzar's Hibernian Cousin”, in the John J. Collins Festschrift and “Disability,” forthcoming in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Her book, Delicious Prose: Reading the Tale of Tobit with Food and Drink, is in preparation. She also is the creator of the art blog, and offers professional dissertation and book coaching for writers in the humanities and social sciences.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hot Flashes

Whew! They ain’t no joke
No joke coping, livin with Hot flashes
Hot flashes invaded my body when I wasn’t watchin
Watchin now, feelin my body
My body’s hormones at war with myself
Myself and my hormones raging war
Raging war, when and as they please
When and as they please, they don’t bother to consult me, PLEASE
PLEASE, tell me why do things, people at war, rioting, looting, burning
Please tell me why they tear up their own neighborhoods war, rioting, looting, burning
Burning up everywhere, even­ at the grocery store
At the grocery store waiting in the line with a slow moving clerk
Clerk taking her good ole time
Time moves so darn slow when my hormones are raging against me
Rage against me, burning up like God custom made a huge hair dryer just for me
Hair dryer just for me cover my whole body
Whole body hot, sweatin in line, all the time of all lines, in the grocery line
In the grocery line tearing open my coat, hair gettin bigger and bigger, bushy and big, frantically scanning
Frantically scanning my things, my groceries for a fan
A fan, any fan will do—grocery list too small
Small of my back, all down my back quickly becoming Niagra Falls
Niagra Falls, if only I could dip in the Falls in the grocery store, in January
January O, grabbin O from the mag rack, O might due
O Might due as a makeshift fan til I can get outta this oven
This oven that is my body
My body can’t escape my raging self, but O Oprah
O Oprah probably got hot flashes too, but she got other means
There’s got to be other means of escaping this raging lady
Raging lady, she ain’t no joke—had no idea she was so cantankerous and moody, a thorn, it seems
It seems, she visits me anytime she pleases
She pleases when I’m driving
Driving in January with windows down hysterically trying to cool off
Off I must seem, but she visits when she pleases, see
See, she pleases when I wanna sleep at 2 am
At 2am thinking I wanna stay warm in January
Warm in January don’t mean hot as hell
Hot as hell under those covers
Covers off, kicking, kicking covers off
Off and on, off and on, On and off, On and off
Off in a world of my own because nobody knows but me what a nuisance she can be
She can be a… be a hot mess
Hot mess like somebody’s grandma forced to play peek-a-boo for hours with a four-year old child
Child, them hot flashes ain’t no joke; they’re for real
For real I thought the sisters were exaggeratin, blowin things outta proportion
Proportion, what’s that, girl
Girl, them hot flashes ain’t no joke
Ain’t no joke carrying around this oven that is my body, sista, Whew! gotta find some herbs
herbs like black cohosh, but in the meantime Whew!
Whew! Girl, Gimme a fan!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Problem of the Color Line and the Poverty Line

Cairo, Egypt

W E B Dubois in his Souls of Black Folk (1903) wrote that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.  That line remains a problem.  And it intersects and overlaps the poverty line.  The problem of our century is the problem of poverty lines and lines of poverty. The current protest in Egypt is primarily driven by people fed up with the tyranny, greed, and economic and social abuses of resources and wealth and the impact of such vices on the masses relegating them to a life of poverty. The masses have found the voice and agency to speak in unison about their inhumane living conditions.  Here in the U.S. many people white, Mexican, Latina/o, Asian, Native, and black people live at, on, or near the poverty line.  And ethnic minorities live disproportionately at, on, or near the poverty line. Poverty affects people’s ability to have a quality of life and survival and access to quality health care and education.
July, 20, 2010 protest in Raleigh against NC re-segregation

De facto, our school systems are segregated along color and class lines so that the children of persons who live in poverty too often receive an impoverished education.  Recently a judge in Summit County, Akron, Ohio sentenced Kelley Williams-Bolar to ten days in jail for improperly enrolling her two girls in the wealthy white school district of Copley-Fairlawn where she did not  (and could not) reside.  A jury convicted her of two felony counts of tampering with records. The judge decided to make an example of Ms. Williams-Bolar who had no previous record.  She is a single mother who was going to college and working as a teaching assistant at Buchtel High School. Social networks like Facebook and major television networks and shows like the Today Show picked up the story and interviewed Ms. Williams-Bolar from her jail cell. Within a few hours had garnered over 50,000 signatures petitioning  Ohio’s governor to pardon Ms. Williams-Bolar. As of this writing over 80,000 have signed that petition. Ms. Williams-Bolar was released from jail early after serving one day of her sentence.
The school districting lines can be as systematic and intentional as they are arbitrary. They are intentional in overwhelmingly keeping poor and minorities out of certain districts telling them where they cannot attend school. But they are arbitrary in determining which schools poor and minority children can attend.  We grew up in the Rich Street projects in Columbus, Ohio, which was on the wrong side of the railroad tracks (on the other side was downtown Columbus). We had no choice concerning what schools we could attend. A narrow two-way, two-lane street of about three blocks long ran through the middle of the projects –Cherry Drive, if I remember correctly. Children who lived on one side of Cherry Drive attended one elementary school  and children on the other side of Cherry Drive attended another school. The overwhelming majority of children in the projects where we lived were black.  This arbitrary division ensured that too many black children did not attended either one of the elementary schools.
Recently Governor Rich Perry encouraged a group of conservative businesspersons at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Houston to pull their children out of public schools.  He stated, “Now I know most of you present here have already enrolled your children in some of our state's finest private schools. But I want to make private schools more accessible to Republican Christian families that cannot afford to pay high tuition and for those who cannot home school their children. [We know the overwhelmingly majority of Republicans are white.] In a city like Houston private school tuition can cost between $10,000 to $25,000 per year per child.” (Emphasis and bracketed info supplied) (Source:, Jan. 28, 2011). White flight is nothing new and black middle class flight is on the rise.  The blatant abandonment of poor children to failing public school systems amid budget shortfalls is nothing new, but neither is the phenomenon of poor parents defying the district lines to send their children to better schools.
Poor people of all races are expected to conform to the arbitrary and systemic school districting lines as well as to the poverty line if they are to expect government help and/or protection. (And that protection is generally meant to keep them within or close to those lines and not help them move into the Promised Land.) On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011 the Washington Post online published a story by Laurence Changy and Geoffrey Gertz entitled “Poverty’s Success Story.”  Changy and Gertz argue that the World Banks’ (WB) global poverty figures that determine how many people live on less than $1.25 a day are out of date. Based on that figure, according to Changy and Gertz, the WB has stated that “1.37 billion people around the world are poor, including 456 million in India and 208 million in China.” Changy and Gertz point to a new Brookings Institution Report Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015" as proof that the WB's official “less than $1.25-a-day” figures are no longer relevant. They claim that “the global poverty landscape has changed with the emergence of developing countries”; that  “between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world's poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period.” (Emphasis supplied). I would like to know how Changy and Gertz define “extreme hardship” and by what measure have they determined that millions of people have been “lifted out of poverty”?  How are they defining poverty?  Is the measure still based on those who live on less than $1.25 per day as if living on $1.26 or even $1.50 per day should not be characterized as extreme poverty?  People who have no idea what it means to live in real poverty normally decide where to draw the poverty line.  People who seem to equate a penny or even a few dollars with a thousand dollars or more determine the poverty line.  They treat people living in poverty like points in the stock market.  To live in the United States and to declare that poverty is declining around the world is callous and out of touch with real people at best, and at worst it is an unconscionable and cruel attempt to sweep the poor under the proverbial rug. Changy and Gertz are more in touch with figures than they are with where and how people in their own country live.  Are people like these authors not aware that the homeless population in cities like Detroit has almost doubled and the available places for the newly homeless (never mind the chronically homeless) is shrinking.  Have they heard about the food lines that have at least tripled?  It is in the best interest of some people to act as if the poor among us are disappearing. But this etcha sketch approach to describing poverty is not in the interest of people who live in poverty. 
The 2009 poverty threshold for a person under 65 with no children is $11,161 per year.  So the person who makes a dollar more is not considered as living in poverty. A two-parent household with one child has a poverty threshold of $14,787. And if they increase their income by a few dollars, they are no longer considered to be impoverished. These statistics are systemic and yet arbitrary.  It seems to me more humane and just to focus on whether or not people’s basic human needs are being met.  And at the same time we must determine that things like quality education, health care, healthy food, safe and clean living conditions constitute basic human needs.  Love justice and equality for all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Not by Man's Authority": Old Elizabeth (1766-1866)~Itinerant Preacher

The “Almighty…does not work by man’s authority,” declared Elizabeth when class leaders mocked the idea of God revealing things to her, a black woman. Old Elizabeth, born in Maryland to slave parents, traveled and preached in Canada and throughout the U.S. speaking to white and black audiences. She preached boldly and prophetically to free and slave in the antebellum south.  When God called Elizabeth to preach the Gospel, she immediately commenced the torturous road of walking in her vocation. As with many women of the Nineteenth Century, her first foray into public speaking was by offering community prayers.  She graduated to house-to-house ministry or exhorting (admonishing and encouraging).  And finally God’s Spirit compelled Elizabeth to move into full-fledged itinerant gospel preaching. And she "took a text.” 

The socio-historical context in which God called Elizabeth, like many of her peers, was hostile, to say the least, to women as public preachers.  Women’s place will still in the home.  In the face of God’s call, Elizabeth initially struggled with her own socialization that said women’s most important duty is to be a silent and submissive woman, wife and mother. Because Elizabeth was a product of her times,  her call journey provoked internal and external battles.  Many of the brothers and sisters expressed the opinion that God does not call women to preach.   But Elizabeth continued to step into her call marching into foreign and hostile territory.  While preaching to slaves in Virginia about the evils of slavery, the local authorities threatened to enslave her. They questioned Elizabeth’s authority to preach and her lack of ordination credentials. Elizabeth responded with her usual rejoinder, “not by the commission of men’s hands: if the Lord had ordained me, I needed nothing better.”

Imagine a barely literate, black woman striking out to preach from city to city, among blacks and whites, slave and free in the nineteenth century and later writing about it!  Yes, many black churches and denominations still deny that God calls women to preach the gospel and/or to function as pastors of churches.  But women like Old Elizabeth, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia Foote preached the good news wherever they could and among both hostile and friendly audiences. Sometimes God transformed hostile audiences into welcoming and attentive saints once they experienced the power of God’s Spirit moving and prophesying through these preaching women. But sometimes they remained unwavering in their opposition.

When God calls, God creates a path in the Red Seas of life; but God does not promise there will be no Pharaoh!  When God calls, God will introduce a widow with a little bread and oil to God’s prophet; but God does not promise there will be no famine.  When God calls, God will appoint a woman like Deborah as chief warrior-judge; but God does not promise she won’t have to go to war.  God calls and God enables against the challenges of oppression, famine, and war.

During this black history month, I am thankful for black foremothers who walked where I must walk; who preached with power and conviction even when the pulpit was denied to them; who did not let the ridicule, scoffing, and physical abuse of detractors distract them when they made up their minds to be, to do, and to say according to the power of God at work in them.  As my mother Flora Smith consistently admonished me, “Greater is he [God] that is within you Mitzi than he [or she] that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

“I know why the caged bird sings…the caged bird sings of freedom.” ~Maya Angelou

Note:  You can find a copy of Old Elizabeth’s Memoir of Old Elizabeth A Coloured Woman: Electronic Edition online. This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Philadelphia Quakers. An excerpt is also published in Marcia Y. Riggs’ Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women. An Anthology.

If you have not already done so register for the Women in Leadership Conference, March 30-April 2, 2011 at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan where Dr. Marsha Boyd is the President.  I’ll be presenting a seminar on leading like Jesus.  Other guest speakers include Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes of Yale Divinity School and Rev. Dr. Renita Weems. For more information go to:  or visit the Women in Leadership Facebook page.