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Book Club Discussion Guide for “Notes From a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis”

May 12, 2014

Notes from a Colored Girl

280 pages; 9 b&w illus.
ISBN 978-1-61117-352-9
ISBN 978-1-61117-353-6

A rare glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of a free

black American woman in the nineteenth century

© 2014 Karsonya Wise Whitehead


     In Notes from a Colored Girl, Karsonya Wise Whitehead examines the life and experiences of Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn twenty-one-year-old mulatto woman, through a close reading of three pocket diaries she kept from 1863 to 1865. Whitehead explores Davis’s 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. Although Davis’s daily entries are sparse, brief snapshots of her life, Whitehead interprets them in ways that situate Davis in historical and literary contexts that illuminate nineteenth-century black American women’s experiences. Whitehead’s contribution of edited text and original narrative fills a void in scholarly documentation of women who dwelled in spaces between white elites, black entrepreneurs, and urban dwellers of every race and class.

     Whitehead delineates a narrative that grapples with the complexity of a free black woman’s lived experience during the Civil War. In the book, readers will have the opportunity to see how a historian takes a critical perspective to resurrect a black woman’s writing from a time period when their writing was limited and repressed. In this sense, readers can see how Whitehead is generating knowledge about the black female experience by developing and situating the narrative as part of a limited cannon of detailed personal accounts that describe the lives of everyday free black women during the Civil War. Additionally, by transcribing and reconstructing the life of Emilee Frances Davis, Whitehead provides an opportunity for readers to position Notes alongside other texts and engage in comparative analysis and interpretation that explores, for instance, the history of black Philadelphians and / or the diverse experiences of black free women during the Civil War.

*Questions for the Book Club:

  1. What were the dominant social scripts about black women during the Civil War?

  2. How do Emilie’s diaries, as a public record, challenge and / or affirm the social scripts and narratives written about black women during the civil war?

  3. Although Emilie enjoyed certain liberties as a free woman, in what ways was she still unsafe as a black woman living in the Philadelphia?

  4. How did racial, gender, and economic inequality work through institutional structures and social practices in Philadelphia during this time period?

  5. How might the reconstructed life of Emilie Frances Davis be different if it were written from the gaze of a white male perspective in contrast to a black female perspective?

  6. In what ways might Whitehead be working to disrupt the collective imagination about black women during the Civil War?

  7. How does Emilie’s life disrupt, challenge, or confirm understandings of black women as intellectuals during the later part of the nineteenth century?

  8. How does Emilie Frances Davis, the pocket diary writer, push contemporary understandings of who can be knowledge generators?

  9. How is shame experienced in raced, classed, and gendered ways in Emilie’s pocket diaries?

  10. How did power relations between men and women, and between women, shape Emilie’s lived experiences?

  11. How, if at all, does Emilie express a sense of cognitive dissonance between her life as a free woman and the lives of enslaved women during that time period?

  12. How does Emilie read and understand how inequality shapes her life?

  13. How, if at all, does she analyze social problems and take action?

  14. How did Emilie’s social community help her navigate obstacles?

  15. How did she negotiate her collective and individual identities?

Author Bio:

• Birth—Columbia, South Carolina
• Reared—Washington, DC, USA 
• Education—B.A., Lincoln University, PA; M.A., University of Notre Dame, Indiana; Ph.D., University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD. 
• Currently—lives in Baltimore, MD

      Dr. Whitehead is assistant professor of communication and African and African American studies in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland; a motivational speaker; a Master Teacher in African American History; a curriculum writer and lesson plan developer; an award-winning former Baltimore City middle school teacher; and, a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. Dr. Whitehead was selected to participate in the 2013 and 2014 Black History Month Panel sponsored by President Obama and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH): in February 2014, she was selected to moderate the panel on “African Americas in the Armed Services” and in February 2013, she was one of four experts selected nationwide to present on the topic of  “At the Crossroads of Emancipation and Freedom.” Dr. Whitehead was also one of several feminist scholars selected to present at the 100th Anniversary Harriet Tubman Symposium at the University of Albany. She has received various fellowships and grants to support her work including a 2012 Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History and a 2010 NEH Summer Stipend.

     She was recently selected as one of the top 25 women professors in Maryland by Online Schools Maryland; and she received the 2013 Loyola University Maryland’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Engaged Scholarship (presented to only one faculty member per year). Whitehead has also received the 2006 Gilder Lehrman Preserve America Maryland History Teacher of the Year Award (sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Maryland State Department of Education); was one of fifty alumni to receive the Distinguished Black Alumni Award from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (2005); and, was a winner of both the Langston Hughes, David Diop, Etheridge Knight Poetry Award (1999, 2000) and the Zora Neale Hurston Creative Writing Award (1998) from the Gwendolyn Brooks Creative Writing Center at the University of Chicago.

      Dr. Whitehead has served as the Historical Consultant for a series of Emmy-award winning documentaries on Philadelphia; the guest editor for the 2014 edition of ASALH’s Black History Bulletin; and the Historical Content Editor for Red Lion Press’ Children’s Historical Fiction Graphic Novel Series, released in Fall 2010. She has worked with over 2500 K-12 teachers throughout the country through lectures and workshops throughout the country, training them in how to become culturally responsive teachers in diverse environments. She wrote and helped to create Cr. Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint’s Civil Rights Movement website With All Deliberate Speed and has written lesson plans for schools, museums, and cultural centers; and state and local history curriculums. Dr. Whitehead is the author of three books: Sparking the Genius: The Carter G. Woodson Lecture (Apprentice House 2/14); Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis (USC Press, 5/14); and The Emancipation Proclamation: Race Relations on the Eve of Reconstruction (Routledge, 10/14); and the editor of The Emilie Davis Companion Reader (Apprentice House, 5/14).

     Dr. Whitehead is also an internationally renowned motivational speaker that has spoken to adults, teenagers, and children around the country, a prolific blogger, and a frequent guest on radio and television. Dr. Whitehead is also a wife and a mother of two teenage boys.


Book Reviews:

“‘To day has bin a memorable day. I thank God I have bin here to see it.’ So begins the pocket diaries of free black woman Emilie Davis of Philadelphia on the day of Emancipation at the midpoint of the Civil War. Her words also capture my feelings in seeing Davis’s diaries published under the expert eye of Karsonya Wise Whitehead, whose scholarly annotations not only set the scene but reveal how this ‘everyday’ domestic-dressmaker’s decision to record her thoughts at the critical hours of the African American journey was itself an emancipatory act.”–Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

“With Notes from a Colored Girl Karsonya Whitehead has painstakingly rendered the obscure visible and shed light on a singular figure whose life is a stand-in for millions of unknown stories. This is history at its most democratic and scholarship at its most vital.”–William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director, Institute of African American Studies, University of Connecticut

“This is a remarkable glimpse into the head of a Civil War-era African American woman. Emilie Davis’s perspective shows her full consciousness of her role as a privileged urbanite. Whitehead’s insightful historical/literary contextualization of Davis’s journal makes this an invaluable contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century communities.”–Emma Lapsansky-Werner, professor of history, Haverford College

“Notes from a Colored Girl is a beautiful testament to the personal life of a single free black woman, superbly reconstructed within the social, political, and religious life of free people of color in Civil War Philadelphia. Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s meticulous attention to detail brings Emilie Francis Davis – a literate woman participating in and shaping the spaces of a free society near the contested borders of slavery – and her personal writings to life. Emilie’s diary is an enduring legacy of the mundane and the extraordinary, carrying us through everyday moments of joy and tragedy, of sewing, socializing, church and school, all within the larger contextual landscape of a nation in upheaval and a community undergoing change. Whitehead treats us with a rare glimpse into a spirited and articulate single woman’s interior world, revealing how she navigated the worlds of work, friendships, religion, family, politics, and community. A great addition to interdisciplinary studies, Notes from a Colored Girl is perfect for exploring the historic contours of race, gender, faith, freedom and community in the nation’s most vibrant biracial city of the age.”–Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero


*BookClub discussion questions were developed by Conra Gist. “A Black Feminist Translation: Reading Life, Pedagogy, and Emilie” in  The Emilie Frances Davis Companion Reader, (Apprentice House: Baltimore, MD, 2014): 15-16.

Book Release Countdown: “Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis”

March 20, 2014

I have been working on the diaries of Emilie Frances Davis since 2005 and I am absolutely delighted to announce that finally (finally!) the book is coming out! It is scheduled to be released by the University of South Carolina Press on May 18, 2014. I would suggest that you preorder it, that way you won’t have to keep reminding yourself to buy it!

Barnes & Noble:


A never ending war [Commentary]

February 19, 2014

This was originally published in The Baltimore Sun on 2/20/2014.

By Kaye Wise Whitehead

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.

They were the same feelings I had at the end of the George Zimmerman trial. The same ones I have when I think about the day when my sons will be old enough to drive or walk to the store by themselves. I worry so much about what could happen to them simply because they are black and male. I feel like my husband and I are in the midst of this never-ending war, the same war that my parents and my grandparents fought. It is the same war that black people have been fighting in this country since American slavery was first legalized. This war is simply to keep our boys safe in a society that devalues them, suspects them, fears them and often dismisses them. It is a war that I now fear I am losing.

When my sons were first born, we held them in our arms and promised them that we would love and protect them. When they learned how to crawl, we ran around the house moving things out of their way. When they learned how to toddle, we walked behind them, always ready to catch them right before they fell. When they started school, we used to check in with their teachers every day to make sure that they were comfortable and safe and happy. We taught them how to say please and thank you, how to raise their hands in school before they spoke and how to wait their turn. We taught them to be respectful and polite. We spent hours reading to and with them, taking them to the library, to the museums and to see Shakespeare in the Park. We saved our money, moved into a safe neighborhood and sacrificed so that they could attend the best schools, take piano and play sports. We took them to church and made sure that they learned their scriptures and prayed before they ate their food. We really believed that we were doing everything that we could do to keep them safe, to beat the odds and to win this war. There was a moment when Barack Obama was first elected president that I thought that the war had finally ended and that we had won. We celebrated because we believed that the work that had been done to create a fair and just society. We believed that America was finally colorblind and post racial. We have come to realize that we were wrong.

We are still living in a country where our sons will be judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. I believe that it does not matter how much education they have or how polite they are or how much money we make or that they can play the piano and fence and swim. In this country, no matter were they are or what they are doing, they will still be seen as threats and thugs and criminals. They will be seen as disposable.

My heart broke last year, when the Zimmerman verdict was read and I wondered aloud if it was open season on black boys. My husband and I had our race talk with our sons and talked to them about what it means to be perceived as a criminal even if you are just walking down the street. We told them what to do when they were approached by the cops or were followed in a store. At the same time, I quietly asked myself, over and over again, how many more weaponless black boys were going to die as a result of white men standing their ground. My sons followed the Dunn case very closely, asking questions about the defense and about the law. They argued with each other and with me because they believe that this is a human rights issue and that no person has the right to shoot into a car full of people. We sat and listened to the outcome and tried to understand how the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge against Dunn, convicting him only of three counts of second-degree attempted murder. My youngest wanted to know if we would ever live in a society where boys like Jordan Davis, Dunn’s victim; Trayvon Martin; or Emmett Till would ever have justice. My teenager wanted to know that in addition to not being able to wear a hoodie or stand on a corner or ride on the subway, does this mean that he can never sit in a car with his friends and play music. Although I am helping them to understand that these issues are much more complicated than that, in so many ways I do recognize that they are not. We live in a society where black boys are not able to walk free and where they are devalued and are without personhood. We are living in a society where the war continues.

Kaye Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of Communication at Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached on Twitter @kayewhitehead or by e-mail at

Read more:,0,7948302.story#ixzz2tjlAI0Us

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

February 10, 2014

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:




*Social Studies





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 and to receive entries from the diary.


"Emilie Frances Davis"  (this is a picture of what she might have looked liked) painting by Calvin Coleman

“Emilie Frances Davis”
(this is a picture of what she might have looked liked)
painting by Calvin Coleman

8 Things to Consider for Black History Month

February 5, 2014

*This was reposted from

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.

Sparking the Genius: The 2013 Carter G. Woodson Lecture

January 20, 2014

On The Road to Becoming the Person that You Were Born to Be!

Sparking the Genius: The 2013 Carter G. Woodson Lecture Author: Karsonya Wise Whitehead  Publisher: Apprentice House Cover art by Calvin Coleman Edited by Ronald J. Harrison

Sparking the Genius: The 2013 Carter G. Woodson Lecture
Author: Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Publisher: Apprentice House
Cover art by Calvin Coleman
Edited by Ronald J. Harrison

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.

For Mongi omkhulu Leita Phakathi and Tata Madiba (Nelson Mandela)

December 16, 2013
English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo date...

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo dates from 1937. South Africa protect the copyright of photographs for 50 years from their first publication. See . Since this image would have been PD in South Africa in 1996, when the URAA took effect, this image is PD in the U.S. Image source: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“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.”)

–Tata Madiba

My sister, Dialiita Leita Phakathi

My sister, Dialiita Leita Phakathi

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.




            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.




     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.




     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.


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