Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Stories Beneath the Story

                         The Stories Beneath the Story
“There are so many men and women who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous.”    Nelson Mandela

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  Nelson Mandela

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people working consistently can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”  Margaret Mead

   Last week was a week of celebration and thoughts about change and courage for me. Last Monday was the Reverend Dr. King’s birthday, and his life always brings a focus on people displaying courage to make change and make things better. There were King Day breakfasts, service projects, religious and political meetings, and I took part in a march from Independence Hall to Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard, which rests on the oldest piece of property continually owned by Black people in the United States. It was both a day of reflection and action. Last Tuesday we saw the film, Hidden Figures, about Black women who worked for NASA in the 1950’s and 1960’s and were a vital part of the space program. There were some 33 black women who were the “computers” of the time, and these women had to deal with both the racial and gender issues of that time.  Their lives and experiences, about which I knew nothing, were eye opening to me. The film focuses on three women very specifically, but there were a lot of scenes of the group of women together that clearly made the point that this was about more than just 3 exceptional people. Scenes showed the important roles family, church and community played in the women’s lives, and I was again amazed at the beauty and power in showing the courage of ordinary people in some pretty extraordinary circumstances. 

    Experiencing the two things so closely together deeply moved and affected me. I was glad for both experiences. And it also made me aware again of one of the things that sometimes bothers me about our historical celebrations and observations. Without necessarily meaning to, we leave a lot of people on the sidelines that were important parts of the stories we are honoring, and we miss, I think, an important part of the story when we do that. Too often we are guided by the “Great Person” way of looking at history, and we miss some very important and wonderful things.  When I taught American and world history I often told students that history is about story-what happened, why did it happen, how did it happen, and most importantly, who were all the ordinary people involved.? How were they affected? What did they do leading up to the big event  or just after it. To me, that is where the power and beauty of history rests. As the Margaret Mead quote states, it is the actions of groups of people and not just 1 great person that makes history and makes change. We may symbolize or personify the story through a great person, but it is the work of groups and of the "ordinary" that also played a huge role in making it possible.

    I love Dr. King; he is and has been an inspiration to me for decades. His quotes move me, the way he could strategize and plan for the future were amazing, and his courage was formidable in the face of great danger and even of the face of his own great fear. And the more I came to learn about him the more I realized that he was a person who was able to do extraordinary things in very dangerous circumstances only with the help and support of thousands of other people. Those folks were the “ordinary people” who made things possible, and when we look at them we can see that they have important and fascinating stories as well. We have endless quotes from and renditions of the “I Have A Dream Speech, every year, and it is thrilling and moving. I weep a little every time I hear it. But way before that moment in Washington, there were the actions of hundreds of ordinary people consistently doing things that led up to that moment and made it possible. I would love to see their stories told as well; they deserve it, and we need to see it. 

  One of the reasons I loved the film, Selma, was because it showed both King and the movement more fully. It showed him as a real person, with foibles, fears, and occasional confusion, and bad actions. He wasn’t just an icon. It also showed the ways some people disagreed with him, challenged him, and were the infrastructure of the movement that allowed him to accomplish so many of the things he did. He was great, yes, and for many he was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it was not him just by himself.

   Take the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. People know about Rosa Parks’ refusing to sit in the back of the bus and being arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955. But most people do not know that she had worked with the NAACP for years, was not the first black woman arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, and that she had set out to get arrested. Most people also do not know that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was not really associated with the people who helped organize the initial meeting which led to the famous boycott.  It was labor leader E.D. Nixon who tricked King into hosting the first meeting because King was new in town and the powers that be in Montgomery did not know him and therefore had no plans on how to deal with him. And the first boycott meeting happened, in fact, not because of King, but because of the actions of one of my all-time favorite unknown heroines-Jo Ann Robinson. A long-time member of the Montgomery Women’s Council, a black group that had been advocating for change in the Montgomery transportation system for several years, she and her family hand mimeographed-not XEROXED or photo copied-hand mimeographed some 52,000 fliers Thursday night that were placed in churches, given to high school students, and placed in barber shops and other places on Friday, December 2, calling people to that first meeting on that Friday evening.  That initiated a one day boycott of the bus system on Monday, December 5, and it was the success of that Monday boycott that led to the full- blown Montgomery Bus Boycott that we think of today.

   So behind every great or important person and event, then, there are hundreds of ordinary people without whom the story of the great person/event would not have been possible. Yes, the Reverend Dr. King was a phenomenal and charismatic speaker, had wonderful ideas, and  said many wise and inspiring things. But without E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and so many others in the early days of the boycott, he would never have emerged as a leader of the boycott. And then, without the hundreds of maids, cooks, shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, mechanics, students, teachers, volunteers and others who later marched in other rallies for years and were willing to be beaten and arrested, the movement and King’s emergence as a force for change would simply not have been possible. It was these groups of ordinary people that sustained the movement and helped bring forth change. That is important to me, for it says you and me, we all have a role to play in affecting and moving society. We are not all great thinkers or planners. We are not all great speakers. Most of us are “ordinary.” But being “ordinary” is not a deficit, and it doesn’t mean we have to be regulated to the sidelines. We all can be part of the change we want to see in the world. We can all be a part of making it happen. That is what has made things happen in the world and will continue to do so in the future. And that is one of the legacies of Dr. King’s story and of the women in Hidden Figures. All of us have roles to play if we are willing; the times for us to act will definitely be there.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Remembering Those We Lost in 2016

 The life of the dead is placed in the memory
    of the living”    Cicero

     Janus, the Roman god for whom this month is named, has two heads. One is looking forward and one is looking backwards, simultaneously and always. I like that image. That seems fitting to me. Often we have to look at where we have been in order to have an idea of where we are headed and/or want to go. It is a good and necessary practice, and we do that both as individuals and as a culture. Personally, we look back and say, “This worked; I will keep it.” Or we say,” This didn’t work out so well; I need to change some things.” The beginning of the year seems a good time for that type of reflection.


   This is one of the purposes of our New Year’s resolutions. We see the new year as a chance to do some personal housecleaning, and we try to get rid of things that no longer work or fit us. This is a universal human process. Religions and cultures from around the world have practices in which they either break or burn old household items, do ritualized house and/or body cleansing, light massive bonfires and more to symbolize making a new start.  It is both a solemn and celebratory affair. Many religious traditions emphasize special prayers and rituals to mark the beginning of that religion’s New Year. These practices call for people to take a good look at where they are morally and religiously. The hope is that they will re-dedicate themselves to making changes for upcoming year and to reaffirm their devotion to the religion's beliefs and practices.

  There are also rituals that seem to be more secular in purpose. These  often involve special foods, music, dance, but also some type of outrageous celebration. Think of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, which has its roots in a Roman workers’ festival in which, for one day, the social order was turned upside down and serious things were satirized. It is now a big day of music and dress up. It seems that we as humans need to acknowledge this special passage of time in ways that are both solemn and festive.

   One of the things I like to do in January is to look back at the year just gone by and note the people who died during that time.  It is a regular feature of TV news programs, magazines, newspapers, and I like doing it myself. It gives me a chance to slow down and reflect on the ways my life is and was affected by what others have done, stood for and accomplished.  For obvious reasons I am particularly cognizant of writers and musicians-they speak a special language that resonates with me.  We lost a number of both last year, and many of them were important to me.  We lost some big names in music, among them Prince, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. These were folks from very different genres and with very different styles, but each of them dramatically shook up the music world as well as my ways of looking at music in some profound ways. Bowie and Prince did it in part by joyously combining and mixing musical styles, producing outrageous stage performances, giving enigmatic interviews, and emphasizing their ability to call into question gender roles and definitions of “manliness.” They were also consummate musicians, songwriters and arrangers, and they helped me look at rock and rhythm and blues influenced music in some new ways. Cohen gave me an appreciation for the poetry and theater of songwriting and an appreciation of tone in songs.
     We also lost more traditional but unique voices in musician and singer-songwriters Mose Allison and Leon Russell. I first got to know Russell from his playing and arranging on Delaney and Bonnie LP’s and from seeing their tour way back in 1969-1971. I loved his funky piano and guitar riffs and fills, and the way he made gospel, country, and blues all fit together in an unforced, seamless manner. And he was flat-out fun to watch; he seemed to just love playing and making music.  As for Mose, I still recall my first Mose Allison LP and being taken in by his smooth, wry voice, great lyrics, and swinging piano style. I got to see him play a number of times over the years, and it was never disappointing. Songs such as Parchman Farm, Everybody Cryin’ Mercy, Your Mind is On Vacation-their cool and clever lyrics still make me smile, cry and move me deeply. He was an original.

   We lost some great writers as well last year.  Many of them produced works that were important in shaping my thinking and values. I was fortunate to not only read but teach works by several of them. Richard Adam’s Watership Down helped many 8th graders come to understand allegory, fable, and the power of description and detail in a well told story. When I read and later taught Night, Elie Wiesel impressed me as an example of a person who could endure such evil and yet still be such a gentle bringer of illumination, love and truth.
  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” These words Wiesel wrote have a timeless meaning and bear repeating and remembering.

    I never got to teach Gloria Naylor’s, Women of Brewster Place, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting, Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini or The Water is Wide, or the short stories in the collection, Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson. But each of those works took me deeply inside specific places, specific times, specific dilemmas, and specific characters in ways that gave me greater appreciation for and understanding of how ordinary people try to cope with life’s struggles. These considerations of meetign the dilemmas of ordinary life have stayed with me for decades. Someone once wrote that the purpose of good writing is to "make the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary ordinary". These writers were all able to do that, and I am grateful to have come across them. What they wrote will forever be with me, and their ideas and words help shape how I approach the world.

  There were a lot of other people who died in 2016 who both made a difference in the larger world and meant a lot to me. Muhammad Ali, John Glenn and Gwen Ifill are three of them that readily come to mind; there were many others. This happens every year, of course. And that means that as long as I am alive I have the opportunity to do this looking back and to learn from it. It is a treat and it is important. I get the chance to think about these people, reflect on who and where I was when I firstencountered them, and to thank them for the ways in which they have changed my life and being. Like Janus, I get to look back.  And like Janus, I then get to take what these people have given me in the past and bring it forward into a new year and a new time. Not a bad way to start the year. I wish you all good reflection and a Happy New Year.