This was originally published in The Baltimore Sun on 2/20/2014.
In the days leading up to the end of the Michael Dunn “loud music” case — in which a white Florida man shot and killed a 17-year-old black teen after getting into an argument over the boy’s so-called “thug” music — I was overwhelmed with feelings of restlessness, worry, frustration and fear.
CFP: Call for Articles and Lesson Plans for an edited volume based upon the Civil War pocket diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn black woman
Articles and Lesson Plan proposals are invited for an edited book titled “The Emilie Frances Davis Companion Reader” (Apprentice House, May 2014).
The book will be a supplement to the forthcoming “Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis,” (USC Press, May 2014) written by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.
Emilie was a freeborn black woman who lived in Philadelphia during the United State Civil War. From 1863-1865, she recorded her daily activities in three leather-bound pocket diaries. In “Notes,” Whitehead provides a transcription of Davis’ diaries and reconstructs her life by exploring her worldviews and politics, her perceptions of both public and private events, her personal relationships, and her place in Philadelphia’s free black community in the nineteenth century.
The editors welcome articles and lesson plans written for students in either K-5th grade; 6th-8th grade Social Studies; or high school history courses. Each lesson plan will use entries from Davis’s diary to help students connect her life to theirs. Lesson plans are needed in the followingareas:
Articles and Lesson Plans should be no more than 15 double-spaced pages, including endnotes. Please note, The Chicago Manual of Style must be used for citations.
The DEADLINE for all submissions is March 28, 2014.
“The Emilie Davis Companion Reader” will be co-edited by Dr. Conra Gist and Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead. Direct all questions and submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and to receive entries from the diary.
*This was reposted from http://magazine.loyola.edu/issue/opinion/6080/8-things-to-consider-for-black-history-month
By Brigid Darragh
February 4, 2014
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History has selected Civil Rights in America as this year’s theme to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Signed into law on July 2, 1964, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Civil Rights Act outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national, and religious minorities and women. It made illegal the unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by public facilities.
Fifty years following the signing of this landmark piece of legislation into law, what should we be thinking and talking about this month?
Kaye Whitehead, Ph.D., offers some topics to consider.
Whitehead is an assistant professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.
She is also a historian and Master Teacher in African American History, and a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker.
Her new book, Sparking the Genius, expands on a lecture about Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work, The Mis-Education of the Negro, which challenged readers to think about the importance of sparking the genius in young people in a world where obstacles for race, gender, and religion still prohibit people from becoming who and all they might be.
This month, Whitehead will be giving talks at several universities and conferences around the country on Black history, contemporary issues, and Sparking the Genius, which hit bookstore shelves last week.
She will be discussing the following in her classes and on public radio during Black History Month.
The 50th anniversaries of:
1. Freedom Summer
Also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, Freedom Summer was a campaign launched in June 1964 with the goal to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had a history of excluding blacks from voting.
It was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations (SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC).
The Mississippi Summer Project set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout the state to aid African Americans.
2. The deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman
Three American civil rights workers were killed by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964, for their participation in Freedom Summer and helping blacks to register to vote.
Their murders sparked national outrage and a massive federal investigation; outrage over their deaths assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
3. The founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) by Malcolm X
The goal of the OAAU was to fight for the human rights of African Americans and promote cooperation among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas. The OAAU also focused on voter registration, school boycotts, housing rehabilitation, rent strikes, and social programs for addicts, unwed mothers, and troubled children.
4. The Harlem Race Riots
Riots broke out in the Harlem section of New York City following the shooting of James Powell in July 1964. The incident set off six consecutive nights of rioting that affected the neighborhoods of Harlem and
Bedford-Stuyvesant. Four thousand people participated in the riots, vandalizing, looting, and attacking the New York City Police Department.
The Harlem Race Riot is said to be the precipitating event for riots that took place later that summer in Philadelphia, Rochester, Chicago, and in several cities in northern New Jersey.
5. The founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)
Created in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, the MFDP was organized by black and white Americans and sought to challenge the legitimacy of the white-only U.S Democratic Party.
6. Dr. King and the Nobel Peace Prize
Fifty years ago, at the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, Dr. King announced that he would give the prize money of $54,123 to the furthering of the civil rights movement.
As for contemporary black history issues, Whitehead will be discussing Black Twitter and the Classroom to Prison Pipeline.
7. Black Twitter is a modern trend that is changing the way people discuss and take action on current issues and events, one hashtag at a time. Defined as a “cultural identity” on the Twitter social network, it focuses on issues of interest to the black community.
“Black Twitter is a place where African Americans meet on social media to talk about an issue or share information. There’s a movement behind it, and some of the things that trend are really good and can make a change. It gets other things to trend that are of importance or relevance,” Whitehead says.
Black Twitter has gained momentum during such events as the George Zimmerman trial following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in February, Fast Company’s list of the top 25 most influential females in business (in which not a single black woman was recognized), and Paula Deen’s racist comments on television, to name a few from 2013.
“It can be a very effective organizing tool because it’s used as a way to organize and talk about issues, and it can also have a revolutionary side,” says Whitehead.
What’s trending on Black Twitter now?
“A lot of black poetry. Also the notion of Black History Month versus BH365—shouldn’t we be celebrating year round?”
8. The Classroom to Prison Pipeline refers to the one million African American people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. According to a 2012 study, roughly 2.3 million people are in prison in the U.S.
“We are finding there are more and more students who get to high school, drop out at age 16, and end up in prison. They are not being pushed towards college or a trade,” Whitehead explains.
“In 2012, 84% of African American fourth graders were reading below grade level. The same year, 47% of African American males dropped out of high school at age 16. With those statistics in mind, where else are you going but prison? You can’t read, you can’t write, you don’t have the basic tools needed for a job,” Whitehead says.
Her book, Sparking the Genius, poses the challenge of sparking the genius in the young people around us: “How do we dismantle and disrupt this classroom to prison pipeline? How do we get young people studying and reading? How can we get students to have a better knapsack of all the things they need to succeed?”
Whitehead believes the key is to foster the ability for students to imagine themselves somewhere different, more than what they are now, better than current circumstances.
“If we can we get them to close their eyes and see where they want to be—and then open their eyes and make that happen—we can create change.”
Whitehead joins Marc Steiner on the Marc Steiner Show on Wednesday, February 5, to talk about these issues and more, and she will be blogging about Black History throughout the month on her website.
Her second book, Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, is due out in May.
On The Road to Becoming the Person that You Were Born to Be!
At the front of my new book, “Sparking the Genius: The 2013 Carter G. Woodson Lecture,” I include a poem for my children to spark their genius where I encourage them to “Commit themselves to becoming the people that they were always meant to be.” This idea, of using words to spark their genius, was taught to me by my father after he read Carter G. Woodson’s book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” Woodson argues that,
”The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race.” [emphasis added]
My dad said that his job as a father consisted of more than just bying shoes and clothes; but, that he was charged with a lifelong mission to spark my genius and teach me how to spark the genius of everyone around me. In 2013, when I was first asked to deliver the Woodson Lecture at the 2013 ASALH Convention, my goal was to write something that could be used to help to spark the genius of every young person who was struggling with trying to understand who they are and why they are here. To that end, I wrote the Lecture and worked to have it published as a book. It is my small contribution to add to the arsenal of weapons that we need in order to save every young person in our community in an effort to save our community. It is a lofty goal but I believe that if everyone contributes something to the arsenal then our bag of tricks, weapons, tools will never be empty.
And, if you combine this arsenal with our desire to save, rescue, and transform the young people around us then we will be able to (in the words of my father) “spark their genius, set them on fire, and set them loose into the world.” Finally, I believe that there is a place that exists beyond our current reality, beyond our unfulfilled dreams and broken promises, beyond poverty and crime and illiteracy and abuse, a place that exists —only at this moment— in our dreams. A place that we can only get to by sparking genius, shifting gears, and changing the current narrative. The Woodson Lecture is designed to be used as a road map to guide us along the way.
“Ukufa yinto engenakuthiwani bani. Xa umntu sele elufezile olwakhe ugqatso, elusebenzele uluntu nelizwe lakhe, anganduluka aye kuphumla ngoxolo. Ndiyakholwa ke ukuba ndizenzile ezo nzame, kwaye kungoko ke, nam ndiya kulala ukuthula.”
(“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”)
I woke up this morning thinking of two people, Tata Madiba and Dialiita Leita Phakathi. One was an international icon, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and a former president and the other was an unknown domestic without a husband or children. Both of them were born in South Africa and were Xhosa. He was born into the Thembu royal family, attended the Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand. She never finished high school though she, like him, wanted to study law and work for her people. I have never met either one of them but both have influenced my life in ways I could have never imagined.
II. LEITA PAKATHI
In 1995, I led a group of college students to South Africa to work in Acornhoek, building houses and teaching children. We knew that Nelson Mandela had been free for three years and that he had been working with de Klerk to organize a democratic election in the country. We were excited and anxious to see if and how the country had changed since his release. There were ten of us in the group: seven African Americans (six women and one man), two white women, and one Asian American man. When the plane landed in South Africa, we clapped and cheered as some people kissed the ground and others begin to cry. Our host was Geoff Phakathi, a South African freedom fighter, a teacher, and a self-proclaimed rebel. He was six-feet tall and had a loud voice and a delightful habit of saying “boom” at the end of every sentence that he thought was significant. “We will have democracy in this country or we will all die trying. Boom!” or “I will drive you by Winnie’s house and if you yell loud enough she just might come out and tell us to go away. Boom!” I loved him as soon as he started calling me sister and welcoming me home. “Since you black Americans don’t know where you’re really from,” he told me, “you might as well claim South Africa. Boom!” He took us everywhere, from the shanty towns of Soweto where we witnessed cows and children drinking from and using the bathroom in the same stream to the all white neighborhoods of Johannesburg where most of the houses had an armed black guard sitting at the front gate. Right before we left the country, after introducing us to Nadine Gordimer and some of his fellow rebels, he told me that he needed a favor. His sister, Leita, had passed away many years ago and instead of throwing her passbook into the fire, he had decided to keep it as a way to remember her. He wanted me to take it back to America, a place where she had always dreamed of visiting. He said that I reminded him of her and that I was doing and had done so many of the things that she had always talked about. “Keep her memory alive,” he said that night while wiping tears from his eyes, “and if there are times in your life when you think of giving up and letting go, think of Leita, and just hold on a little bit longer because help is on the way. My sister wanted to be there when Madiba was released so she could greet him and thank him, since she couldn’t, I did it for her. Every time I thought about letting go, I thought about Leita and just held on a little bit longer.” I keep her passbook on my wall as a reminder of what true struggle looks like and what it means to hold on just a little bit longer.
III. TATA MADIBA
There are only a few days that go by where I do not think about Nelson Mandela. I keep a picture of him near my computer as a reminder of what sacrifice and courage look like. I thought about him this morning and about how—unlike our leaders (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, George Winston Lee, Jimmie Lee Jackson, to name just a few)—he lived for such a long time. He was 95 years old! Over the years, we have watched as he has grown older and matured. We laughed and cheered when he walked out of prison with Nomzamo by his side and his fist held high. We prayed for him and his safety during the first democratic election when he became the president of a country that had imprisoned him for 27 years! We cried with him and sometimes (and I think now of the “Free Mandela” movement) we cried for him. Mandela is one of the few people that I wish I could have met. I am sure that like many others, I probably would have just sat there without saying a word, happy to be in his presence. I grew up admiring Dr. King but I became an activist because of Madiba. I studied black history because of Barbara Jordan but I studied African history because of Madiba. I traveled abroad because my father urged me to go but I traveled to South Africa because I felt as if Madiba was calling me home.
What I admired most about him was that he was not a mythological figure. He did not walk on water or perform miracles. He was a man and like all men he was flawed; but, it is in his flaws where we find hope because if he could forgive his captors and oppressors then so could we. In 1990, while I was studying abroad in Kenya, I remember reading about the Soweto uprising (16 June 1976) and about all of the men, women, and children who died on that day, the nameless and faceless foot soldiers who gave their lives (willingly and in many cases, unwillingly) in the struggle to end apartheid. I realized then that this was probably going to be Mandela’s reality if he were ever released. He would be working to build a new political and social system while others, were either openly or secretly working against it and him. Despite the increasing violence and horror and the passing of the years, Mandela stayed the course, pressing forward toward the mark to finish the race.
When I used to teach my sons about Mandela, they wanted to know how one man was able to move an entire country beyond apartheid and hatred and violence to a place where they could unify and become one nation. I told them that this change never would have happened if Mandela had worked alone. Apartheid would not have ended, democratic elections would have never been held, and the violence would never have stopped. It took the effort of many, encouraged by the commitment of just a few, for real change to take place.
Sometimes I wonder what it would take to move our country to a place where racism and discrimination are things of the past, not just in policy but in practice and even more important, in the hearts and minds of all of America’s children. We, as a nation, have moved beyond Jim Crow. We have moved past the marching and the singing. We have seen African Americans prosper and aspire and ascend to some of the highest offices in the land; but, on quiet Sunday mornings while my sons are still asleep, I wonder how much we have changed and whether or not we are still committed to changing. We have so much work to do in this country and unfortunately, we do not have (and have not had for a very long time) a Tata Madiba—a man or a woman who is willing to put everything on the line to push, encourage, cajole, and force our nation to reach a place where all doors are open, all hearts are able to sing, and men, women, and children of all races can find a resting place. There are some who believe that the days of having just one leader have come and gone and although I agree with them, there is a small part of me that longs for one person to unite us all and lead us in the same direction.
IV. HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO
I mourn for both of them: for Mongi omkhulu Leita who never experienced a day without apartheid, never had a chance to vote, move freely through her county, and whose life ended far too soon; and, for Tata Madiba who moved mountains, changed lives, ran the race, and stayed the course.
I spent the day thinking about my grandmothers, Nana and Red, as I slowly started to realize that for the first time in my life, I am without any grandparents. I grew up with both sets of my grandparents and my maternal great grandparents. I was well into my twenties before I started to lose them, one-by-one. The first was my paternal grandfather who was hit by a speeding car as he was driving along the highway coming from the fields on his tractor. He was a good man and was known for being kind and honest. A few years later, while I was studying in Nairobi, Kenya, my maternal great grandfather maternal great grandfather was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I remember that when I received the letter telling me that he was sick, it took me an hour to get down to the city and call home to check on how he was doing. I was told that he had already gone home and that he sent his love. That night, I walked around Chemundu so that I could find a place to sit quietly in the darkness and say goodnight.
My Nana had always told me that when a person passed away, it was simply a visual representation of the ending of the sunset on this life and the beginning of the sunrise on the next. We were never to say good-bye, only goodnight, confident that we were going to meet them again at daybreak. My paternal grandmother, Red, passed away next. She had both a brain aneurism and a blood clot but I believe, after spending hours at her bedside, that she died of a broken heart. She was one of my favorites because she knew who she was and she never wavered whenever she knew she was right. I was three-months pregnant with my first child when my maternal great grandmother pass away. I was devastated as I had hoped that she would live long enough to greet and hold the fifth generation. It was only a year later when my maternal grandfather, Dee-Dee, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I rushed down to South Carolina so that I could see him before he died and so my son would have a chance to say goodnight. died next. He lived two years longer than they thought and he was in unbearable pain every single day. By the time, he reached the end we were all praying for the Lord to take him home.
It would be seven years before my maternal grandmother, Nana, would run on ahead to see how the end is going to be. She was not sick. She did not have heart problems or cancer or any type of illness, she just decided that she was tired and she was ready to go home . She simply made up her mind and stopped eating and drinking. She survived for three months before her body finally got in line with her spirit and sat down and rested.
I come from a long line of strong willed Southern Christian feminist women. They taught me, either through their words or their deeds, how to meet every challenge with dignity and with grace. I may have been the first woman in my family to get a Ph.D. but I was not the first woman to struggle and sacrifice for a goal that only I could see.
I was born in South Carolina. My father grew up in Lexington County on a farm with an outhouse, miles of land, and a lake that set at the bottom of the hill at the edge of their property. He picked cotton over the summer, taking long rest breaks to read his book, one chapter at a time. He had one suit, white. When his mother, my dear sweet grandmother Marie, bought it for him, it was too long so they rolled both the pant legs and the sleeves up. Every year, he would roll it down until the year that he was able to see both his ankles and his wrists. My grandmother had a mane of blazing red hair and a personality that was almost too big to capture. She seemed to always be in motion, even when she was standing still. She was a big woman but she walked very lightly, almost as if she was gliding across the floor. I used to go fishing with her though I knew she did not like to take me. I talked too much and had too many questions. She liked to just sit, in silence, and wait for something to happen. “Black people,” she used to say, “have been waiting all their lives for something good to happen. If they can wait for freedom to come, then surely I can wait on some fish to bite.”
She used to wear an old straw hat, a jersey dress, and black flip-flops. She used to chew on a stalk of grass. She was a pretty woman, a Southern girl. I remember when she would take me into town in her blue car. She would let down all of the windows and drive really fast because the car did not have any air. “Sometimes,” she said as she stared wistfully out the window, “you got to drive fast to meet the change that you are waiting to come.” I would just laugh, not because I understood but because I didn’t. I thought she was joking because when she would say things like that, she would look over at me, wink her eye and start laughing. She had a quiet laugh where her whole body shook but she barely made a sound. She had dimples and freckles and moles. She was Sunday morning and Thursday afternoons all rolled up in one person. She made me feel good and special. She told me that I could be anything I wanted to be and even more than that if I put my mind to it. “You’re a black woman,” she shouted as we walked through the woods on the way to the pond, “and we’ve been holding up this world for a long time. If we can hold up the world then you can be a lawyer, you can see the world and you can change it. You come from a long line of women who knew what it meant to work for change.” I once asked her was she a feminist. “I’m southern born and bred,” she said, “and if feminism means that I want the world to recognize how much I do to keep it upright, then count me in.”
My grandma Nana, my mother’s mother, was also a feminist. She was the yin to Red’s yang. Red was country and she knew it and was proud of it.. She was sandy floors and screen doors. She was about picking cotton and catching fish. She moved fast but took life slow because in her words, it was too darn hot to move too fast. Nana was different. She was an educated city girl. She was white gloves and refined hats; leather purses and white stockings; she was classy and prim. She wore cotton in the spring, linen in the summer, and worsted wool during the winter. She was absolutely flawless at all times. She grew up in Ola, South Carolina and went on to attend a private all-girls boarding school. She graduated at the top of her class and went on to become one of the first black nurses in South Carolina. My mother and her seven siblings grew up in Columbia, SC. They were not familiar with outhouses and dirt floors. Their lives consisted of schoolwork and conversations about college. My Nana had this incredible ability to look at you and see you for what you could be and not for what you were at that moment. She had faith that God could take the little you had and make it into a lot. She used to tell me that if I did not believe in myself then I should believe in her because she believed in me (words my mother would later tell me over and over again).
I remember when I used to go and visit her and she would make me get dressed to come to the breakfast table, telling me that I had no idea who might show up and I always needed to be ready. She used to make me read out loud to her so I could be ready in case I was ever called on to speak before the president or before her pastor. She gave me the first items for my trousseau and then told me to go out and see the world before I got married. “I married your Dee-Dee before I got a chance to see the world,” she used to tell me, “and now, eight kids later, my world is right here in Columbia.” She would tell me that she was blessed and that this was the life that she had chosen but if she could do it again, she would see the world first. “Marriage is a blessing and I love being a married woman,” she said, ‘but the world is so big and since I won’t ever see it, then you have got to see it for me.”
IV. Leaning Into the Space
I went and visited both of them before I left to spend a year in Kenya. I went to Columbia first and sat at the table with Nana and talked on and on about what I was planning to do once I got there. She just listened with tears rolling down her face and then said, “You’re going to get there and a piece of me is going with you.” She said that I had to be more than a candle but less than a forest fire. She explained that since candles burned out and forest fires raged out of control, I had to make sure that I neither burned out nor went out of control. I needed to light the way but remain rooted in who I was and whose I was. She said, “You have to write everything down, even the little things, because I want to hear all about it when you come back to me.” She used to tell me about Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, and her grandmother. “Black women,” she would explain, “are powerful beyond measure. We stand as a veil of protection between the world and our families. I have taught you how to stand and you must teach your children how to do it as well. We must be women who will not sit in the face of danger but will stand and like David, we will run to meet our challenges. We will lean into those spaces and claim them as our own. Remember that.”
When I told grandma Red that I was going to Africa she took me with her to pick cotton. I had only picked cotton once before on my tenth birthday. She told me that I could keep all the money that I earned that day. I picked cotton from sunup to sundown and I believe I made about $2.50 but for a ten-year old during the 70s, that felt like a lot of money. When we picked cotton this day, I remember how hot I was and how hard it was to keep my back bent over for long stretches of time. My hands were getting scratched as I worked hard to pull all of the cotton off. I was drenched in sweat before 10:00am and we still had to rest of the day to work. I complained once and she stood up and looked at me for a long time. “You’re a Anderson,” she quietly said, “and Andersons don’t complain. We move mountains because we can and we finish every job that we start.” She then turned and worked without saying another word for the rest of the day. I was crying by the end and when they weighed my bag and gave me three dollars, I was indignant. I could not believe that I had worked hard all day for pennies. When we got in the car and sat drinking our cold pops, she told me that I was at the beginning of a journey that was going to change my life. She talked about our family legacy and how enslavement and bondage was a part of our history. We were the children of people who chose to survive. She told me to think about the women who were taken from Africa and put on a ship without having any idea of where they were going and then making a decision to survive. I had to go back to the continent fully aware that I was a child of people who had chosen to survive. I had to remember that though Africa was a part of my heritage, America—with all of her imperfections—was my home. She then said, “Go wherever the adventure takes you and when it is over, remember to come back home.” She hugged me for a long time that day and kept telling me to remember.
And I did. I remembered what they both said when I was backpacking in Nairobi and when I was climbing mountains in Tanzania, visiting churches in Ethiopia and sitting in the hot springs in Wando Genet. I remembered when I was “inducted” into a Masai family and given a name that meant “Happy One.” I remembered their teachings when I was working with kiosk women and when I was teaching young girls how to read. I ran to meet every challenge while I was on the continent and remembered often that Africa, beautiful and peaceful as it was, was not my home. I said goodnight to my dear sweet Red over eighteen years ago and to my wonderful Nana less than a month ago and on both of those days, I felt like my life stopped…for just a moment. Although they are no longer with me, everything that was good and pure about them—their spirits, their faith, their smiles, their unwavering confidence, and their laughter—is still with me. Nana used to always tell me that she was a redeemed sinner who fell and fell often. Her daily challenge was to get back up and keep growing in grace. Red said the same thing, just slightly different. She said that when she fell, and she fell all the time, she worked hard to fall on her back because as long as she could look up then she was confident that she could get up. I was raised by women who chose to survive, who chose to lean into the wind, and chose to hang on to the broken pieces. I am challenged everyday to do the same and to do it with as much grace and dignity as they did.
“When someone you love gets diagnosed with a terminal disease, your life as you know it stops working”
(Originally published in The Baltimore Sun on 11/6/2013)
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
I hate losing. I hate it when I lose my keys, lose my way, or lose my train of thought. I have spent my life trying to learn the rules of every game that I played in an effort to ensure that I was always prepared and that I had everything that I needed to be victorious. The game always made sense to me when I knew the rules. I respected the boundaries and I fought hard. I am not accustomed to or comfortable with losing, and that is why I am having a difficult time.
Earlier this year, my dear sweet mother-in-law passed away, less than three months after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized from her lungs to two places in her brain. When we were first told that she was sick, I kept telling myself that times had changed, medicine had gotten better, and the field of medicine had been revolutionized, but, in so many ways, it has not. There is no cure for terminal cancer, and there is nothing worse than having a doctor tell you that there is nothing that can be done to cure you or a loved one. Nothing. At all. My mother-in-law, Florence Whitehead Huzzey, went from being a robust and vibrant person to being on complete bed rest in less than a month. She went through six weeks of radiation to the brain, and because of it, her body was acting like she had had a stroke, so her left side stopped working. In so many ways, so did we.
When someone you love gets diagnosed with a terminal disease, your life as you know it stops working. You lose touch, and you lose track of time. The days slip by, and though you are going to work or to school, you are not fully present anywhere. It is as if the universe demands everything you have to give and makes you focus all of your attention and energy on trying to keep your loved one alive. I could feel myself almost trying to will her back to good health.
Cancer became real to me, and it was everywhere. I would hold conversations with cancer and demand that it answer my questions about what I could do to force it to leave mother-in-law alone. I got angry at cancer. I fussed at it, ignored it and apologized to it. In my mind, cancer was like a spider that had caught my mother-in-law in a web, and everyone who was connected to her was caught as well.
There were days when I convinced myself that we were winning and days when I knew that we were not. Her cancer was aggressive and mean and relentless. It was smart and was always about two steps in front of us. It was playing a game that had no rules. When we attempted to fight the cancer in the lungs, it moved to the brain, and when we went after the cancer in the brain, it moved to the lower gastrointestinal tract. I remember the day we found out that it had moved from the lower gastrointestinal tract up to the trachea; this was the day when I realized that we were fighting a battle that we would not win.
By that time, my mother-in-law had not walked in a month, had not smiled or laughed or spoken to me in two months, and I had not exhaled in close to three. I was walking around in a semi-comatose state just waiting for the next thing, to hear the next place where cancer had taken up residence or the next remedy that the doctors wanted to try. I was a weary traveler.
Although my mother in law stopped smoking almost 30 years ago, her cells’ DNA had been permanently altered. When she first became sick with recurrent bronchitis, the doctors, even though they knew her history, did not order a low dose CT scan. We are encouraged to get mammograms at an early age if breast cancer runs in our family or early prostate checks if prostate cancer runs in our family, but former smokers are not typically screened for lung cancer. Even though it is the second most common cancer, it is one of the few cancers that is rarely detected in the early stages.
Unfortunately, the 5-year survival rate for all stages of lung cancer is about 16 percent. I do not know if an early screening would have saved my mother-in-law, but when I think about her smile, her spirit, her laughter and our loss, I wish we would have at least tried.
1. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the number one cancer killer. Worldwide, lung cancer is the most common cancer in terms of both incidence and mortality.
3. Prognosis is generally poor. Of all people with lung cancer, 15%-16% survive for five years after diagnosis. The Stage is often advanced at the time of diagnosis.