“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.
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Nikki Giovanni once wrote that, “childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re black” and when they write your story about your childhood they will never realize that in the midst of the struggle you were quite happy.* I have come to believe, as I tell myself my childhood stories, that my memories are both real and imagined. I feel like I have to preface every statement with a disclaimer that everything that I remember is real, whether it happened or not. My memories and experiences have shaped and molded me. I have found that these two things are separate because both the way that something happens and the way that I interpret and remember something happening to me are pieces of me. I make no apologies, not anymore, not like before.
My earliest memories are of my father sharing his stories about his childhood spent growing up in rural South Carolina; about his adventures in the military and during the Civil Rights Movement; and, about him and my Mom falling in love with each other long before they had been introduced. At night, while some kids were getting a bedtime story about green eggs and ham, I received a history lesson about life before Brown v. Board. I remember thinking that he was just saying these things to scare me and to make me straighten up and fly right. On Saturday nights, my father would make me and my siblings hot chocolate with marshmallows. We would lay on the floor in our sleeping bags and he would sit in his easy chair and talk. We did not have a television so we would watch our father.
Our gifted and animated Griot who made the Movement come alive. I felt like I was with him when he used to walk past all of the white schools to get to his all-black one-room classroom. I used to feel the heat when he would describe the big black cast iron stove that set in the middle of the classroom burning wood throughout the winter to keep the room warm. I used to squint when he would talk about how everyone had to move to one side of the classroom in the afternoon so that they could use the sunlight to see their books. I used to shiver when he would talk about how he only had one coat and two pair of shoes—one for everyday and one pair for Sunday church. He used to wear his shoes until he got holes in the bottom and then put in cardboard and wear them until the cardboard ran down. He told us how he used to wake up hungry and spend the day thinking about food. There was just enough food to keep him from starving but not enough to make him feel full. My father shared stories about his life and how difficult it was growing up black and poor and male in the South. He believed, as did my grandmother, that the only thing that could save him from a lifetime of poverty and malnutrition was either a good education or the military. My father chose education and would study every night while making promises to himself, “If I get an A on the chemistry test, then I’m going to buy myself a honey bun.” He kept a secret ledger with a balance sheet and every time he made an “A,” he would pay himself a quarter. He would pay himself when he had to clean the outhouse or when he gave his sister the last slice of bread or when he had to pick cotton or sweep the sand out of the house. It became a game of how much could he pay himself not to complain or cry out or just stop believing that life would ever change. He promised himself that as soon as he made it, the first thing he was going to do was take his money and get everything he always dreamed about in his ledger.
My favorite story, and the only one that my parents would tell together, is about how they met and fell in love. They used to finish each other sentences and laugh out loud, as the details started to change once they got older. My father fell in love with my mother when he was 13 years old. Their churches used to host a joint picnic where all of the families would come together and worship. My mother was a city girl. Her mother was one of the first black nurses in South Carolina and her father worked for the railway. They used to come to the picnic in a car, one of the few families that owned one. There were eight of them, my father remembers because he counted all the kids as they got out. My mother was the last one out and he said that he knows because she swung her legs out first and he thought it was odd that her knees were shining. He said that he remembered that they day was slightly overcast because he heard it was going to rain and he thought about not coming. “She smiled,” he used to say as he eyes looked away for just a moment, “and it was like the sun had come out.” That summer my father had finally saved enough money to buy a white suit. He had worked everyday after school and had saved every single penny. He felt like a man on the day he bought the suit home in a paper bag.
My mother said she saw him out the corner of her eye. He fascinated her because she had never seen a black boy in an oversized starch white suit with the cuffs and the sleeves rolled up. She remembers that he had on white shoes and white socks as well. “He did not sit with the other kids,” she said, “he sat with the men and he talked to them like he was one of them.” My mother sat with her sisters; close enough to pretend as if she was not listening. She thought he was smart and wanted to say something to him but good girls never spoke to boys first. My father did not speak either. He just watched her whenever she laughed or walked around. He said his heart dropped when all eight kids piled back into the car. Their father did not say a word, he just got up and all of the started to move. He said they looked happy and healthy, like they ate one day at a time never worrying about whether they would eat tomorrow.
He did not see her for an entire year. On the eve of the annual picnic, he took his suit out of the back of the closest—he had hid it there so that he would not be tempted to wear it—and laid it across his chair. It fit him this summer and like before, he spent the whole afternoon sitting with the men and watching her whenever she moved. She spent the day trying to figure out whether my father was wearing a new suit or the same suit. And if it was the same suit, why was it so white? It looked like he had not worn it at all. He did not. The summer before (after he met her), he had decided that he wanted to have one nice thing for the picnic so he saved the suit. When my mom was getting ready to leave, he walked over to and introduced himself. She said he did not smile though he said he could not remember doing anything but smile.
When she saw him the next summer, she said her heart leaped. The white suit, the one that he had worn both times she saw him, was now a little too small. She could see his wrists and his ankles. He was 16 and she was 14. He talked to her this time and they sat together at the picnic. He was not thinking of marriage or commitment. He just wanted to talk to the pretty brown girl with the shiny knees. They do not remember what they talked about it, something about the future, schoolwork, traveling, and their parents. They both wanted out of South Carolina and had dreams of going to school up North. My father joined the military at 18 and though he never saw my mother at another picnic, he said he used to dream about her and tell all of his bunkmates that when he got home, he was going to find her and marry her. When he arrived at the door, my mother was shocked that he had found her and that he had been looking for her. She was 20 years old and was dating a law student from Boston. My father was ready to get married and he was ready to be married to my mother. They never told me how he won her heart (some secrets really should be just between lovers) just that he did and they were married within the year. He told that he would take her away from all of this—the racism, the South, the struggle—and they would start over with a clean slate.
They settled in Washington, DC and my father worked at a gas station during the day and attended college at night. I know that he worked and went to school when I was child but I do not have any memory that does not include him. He was always there, every trip or family night or parent teacher Conference. He showed up each and every time. I remember once when my teacher started talking to me at a parent teacher Conference. My mother had stepped out to check on my sister and I was standing there by myself. My teacher looked down at me and started telling me everything that I needed to change to be a better student. I remember that my hands started shaking, as they usually do when I get upset, and right before I said anything my father suddenly appeared, took my hand, and begin to answer the teacher in my defense. He told me that night that he was my first line of defense, when I am wrong he would be the first person to correct me and when I was right, he would be the first to defend me. He was like a superhero to me, like I had my own special bat signal that I could use whenever I felt afraid or alone. (Little girls need their fathers to be superheroes, catchers in the rye.) My father worked hard so that my childhood memories would not be a drag. I remember that I was never hungry, I never thought about food, or wore shoes lined with cardboard. I never used an outhouse or had to boil water to take a shower. I never had a ledger because I had my daddy. I remember summer vacations, hot chocolate, and stories about the Movement. I remember laying on my daddy’s shoulder and always feeling like it was put there just for me.
I often wonder how my father changed his economic situation. I now believe that it was a combination of things. The first is that he enlisted in the military and by doing so, he received a monthly income, healthcare, and a housing allowance, which allowed him to save a large portion of his pay. Next, my father is educated and was committed to receiving a college degree. He later earned both his Master’s Degree and his Doctorate of Ministry so it was easy for him to transition from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. Additionally, my mother supported my father’s dreams and though she could not “see” them, she believed that they were real and attainable. She was a stay at home mom and she did everything she could to ensure that our home was a place of peace and love and stability. Next, and often overlooked, is that my father had opportunities to be successful. He had an uncanny ability to predict those moments when opportunity and talent would coalesce. He calls it luck, I call it being attuned to your talents and always being ready to use them. Finally, my father has grit, which is hard to describe and even harder to quantify. He has that unique ability to focus on a goal and finish it. He can will himself to the finish line despite whatever obstacles might be in his path. He is amazing. He has told me and has shown me how important it is to have your history be a stepping-stone for your destiny. It should not hold you back rather it should be seen as a necessary step that will propel you to the next level.**
My father has carved out a path for me to follow and has left both his footprints and breadcrumbs to guide me through. He has told me that the path that has been carved was designed just for me; therefore, I am not in a race. Everything that is for me is for me alone. It is a journey and though there are times that I feel that I have been walking for a long time, I am still on the path and am a long way from home. My memories, both real and imagined, are my guideposts that I am using (just like my daddy’s footprints and breadcrumbs) to guide me back home. My father, your grandfather, has trained me well so I understand that as I make my way through I need to step hard and leave large breadcrumbs for you.
*Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki-Rosa.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177827
**I am grateful to my students in my F’2013 CM330 Stereotypes course (especially Katlyn) who finally helped me to put some text around this idea. I have been wrestling for years with trying to figure out what is needed to help a person move from one income level to the next –in the words of my students it’s “the little extras.”
ReFraming the Historical Narrative:
Using the Lens of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to
Examine the Civil Rights Movement
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
[In less than a month, the 2014 edition of the Black History Bulletin will be published. Founded in 1937, the BHB is the oldest journal for practitioners. It features articles that cover the Black History Month theme, which is introduced by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and endorsed by the White House. ASALH currently distributes 15,000 copies of the BHB to middle and high school teachers and teacher educators around the country. *Historically, “academic journals” were referred to as “bulletins.” The BHB chose to retain its heritage name rather than switching to the modern term. In preparation for the upcoming publication, below is the Cover and my "Afterword" that describes each article and lesson plan in detail.]
In 1954, in a landmark unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board decision ruled that the American system of state-sponsored segregation, which had been in place since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, was unconstitutional and inherently unequal. One year later, the Court ruled that integration had to occur within all public schools “with all deliberate speed.” The ambiguous language used in the Brown II ruling was seen by many to be a victory for white southerners as it did not force them to integrate by a certain date. As a result, integration was a slow and difficult process. Since the Supreme Court does not have the ability or the right to enforce the law, black and white southerners quickly found that progress would not peacefully occur without the direct intervention and assistance of the executive branch. During that time, the struggle for civil rights was a legal issue that was being defined by the American Courts but not translating into real change in the lives of its citizens.
This decision unofficially marked the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement, which was a period of tremendous growth and change in the political, social, and economic landscape of our country. Similar to the Reconstruction Era, this period fundamentally changed the everyday lives and experiences of black Americans. With the Brown II decision and the reaction to it, it was obvious that real progress would not occur unless there was a direct, sustained, and organized plan to confront and fight Jim Crow state by state. Civil Rights leaders and foot soldiers began to organize and change started to happen: the Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955; Little Rock Nine integrated in 1957, the Sit-In Movement began in North Carolina in 1960; the CORE Freedom Rides started in 1961; and, James Meredith confronted the University of Mississippi in 1962. At the same time, the push to stop the slow march of freedom and integration intensified as the police, acting in concert with white southerner politicians, used a number of fear tactics, including mass arrests, aggressive attack dogs, water hoses, and lynching.
This was the environment, the one where the goal of freedom and equality for black people was being challenged over and over again, that existed when Governor George Wallace announced in his 1963 inaugural address that in the state of Alabama segregation would continue to exist today, tomorrow and forever. On June 11, as two black students prepared to enter in and desegregate the University of Alabama, Wallace in is now famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” attempted to physically block them. Even though they were peacefully admitted, it was was only because President John F. Kennedy had sent the Alabama National Guard to enforce the law. Later that day, in a live radio and television broadcast, Kennedy called on all Americans to recognize that the struggle for civil rights was a moral cause that everyone needed to not only contribute to it but be committed to it, as well. He proposed the Civil Rights Act as the means in which to bring about the change that needed to happen to free African Americans from “the bonds of injustice” so that they will finally be “fully free.” Although Kennedy was assassinated seven months later, this legislation, that abolished discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and federally funded programs, was pushed through by President Lyndon B. Johnson and became known as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This issue of the Black History Bulletin called for papers that would use the lens of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to examine key moments that took place either during the modern Civil Rights Movement or during the early Civil Rights Movement (which occurred during the enslavement and Reconstruction). The 1964 Act is an incredibly complex piece of legislation to teach in the classroom as students need to have some understanding of some of the key events that were taking place that led to Kennedy’s address. They also need to understand that though the struggle for civil rights and social justice did not begin or end with the modern Civil Rights Movement, this period of time was when our nation began to shift from being two societies, “one black, one white—separate and unequal,” to being one society with freedom and justice for all.
Articles and Lesson Plans
In the Gist and Whitehead article, “Deconstructing Dr. King’s ‘Letter’ & the Strategy of Nonviolent Resistance,” the authors take a close look at the practice of nonviolent resistance as it is explained in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which was released two months before Kennedy’s address). The authors examine the policy of nonviolent resistance; outline the key events that led up to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the introduction of Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage; and deconstruct both the “Call to Unity” and Dr. King’s public response. In their lesson plan, they highlight and explain how students can use Close Reading strategies to deconstruct activist writing, specifically looking at the “The Power of Non-violence,” the “Call to Unity,” the “Letter.”
Abel and Johnson, in their article “The African American Sage from Enslavement to Life in a Color Blind Society: or Racism without Race,” takes a slightly different approach in helping students to reframe the historical narrative. They divide the Civil Rights Movement into two parts, the first from 1865 to 1877 and the second from 1954 to 1965, and then provide a historical context so that students can understand how these two Movements were and are connected. In their lesson plan, students have an opportunity to “pull the history forward” as they examine primary and secondary sources to better understand the voting controversy and subsequent succession efforts surrounding the 2012 presidential election.
Since Abel and Johnson’s article explores both the modern and the historical Civil Rights Movement and the Gist and Whitehead article only focuses on the modern, the Garrett-Scott article, “‘When Peace Come’: Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth,” provides a nice complement by providing a close examination of enslavement and Juneteenth. In it, the author explains that for students to clearly understand the significance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they must first understand some of the smaller historical moments that set the stage for the legislation. One such moment was the Juneteenth event, which is used as a starting point to help students to explore and understand the lived reality of Americans of all races and ethnicities. In the lesson plan, the author, in partnership with two practitioners, provides three lessons where students examine the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth to understand the process of freedom in social, political, economic, and cultural contexts from the 1860s to the present.
The final article, “Understanding the Local Context of the Civil Rights Movement: Using Service Learning to Develop an Oral History of Our Community,” is actually a first person essay that discusses the author’s childhood experiences in Detroit of learning about the Civil Rights Movement from people who had either participated in it or benefitted from it. Using his life as a starting point, Simmons discusses how he works with teachers and students to create oral history projects that focus on local communities. He stresses the importance of partnering with the community to expose the students to living legacies. In his lesson plan, he provides a detail guideline for how teachers can teach their students how to collect, store, and analyze first person narratives.
Each of these articles and lesson plans, either taken individually or collectively, will provide both researchers and teachers with a broad understanding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and some of the key historical moments that paved the way for the passage of this legislation.
ReFraming the Historical Narrative
Finally, as we celebrate the golden Jubilee of the Act, it is important that we move forward—as teachers, researchers, and students of history—like Sankofa birds. We fly forward into this future that we are creating and making up along the way; and, we keep our eyes on the past so that we do not repeat the mistakes and we learn the lessons. These articles and lesson plans are designed to do both, provide us with an understanding of key historical moments as well as offer us new ways to teach and understand these moments.
 In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested in Louisiana for attempting to ride in the “White” car on the East Louisiana Railroad. Although Plessey, as a Creole of color, was light enough to pass for white, he was considered to be a black person and therefore required to ride in the “Colored” car. His lawsuit against the state eventually made its way up to the United State Supreme Court, which ruled that “separate” facilities for black and white people were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” This decision, which began with the railway, quickly moved into other areas of public life including public schools, restaurants, restrooms, hotels, theaters, churches, and universities. http://www.lawnix.com/cases/plessy-ferguson.html
 Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955) http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=349&invol=294
 As is the case in everyday life, the terms black and African American will be used interchangeably in this article.
- Top 10 books for Black History month (theguardian.com)
I. Preserving History
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
My son was four years old the first time he visited the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.* The Museum had just opened and we had been selected as the focus family so a reporter from The Baltimore Sun followed him and captured his excitement about experiencing black history for the first time. I remember that later that day he told me that he was proud to be black because being black meant something big. He said, “I’m going to do great things because I come from great people.” During that time, we made frequent trips down to the Museum and he became familiar with every exhibit, statute, and painting. I used to take him and his younger brother to the third floor, find a quiet corner, pull out an African American picture book, and we would sit there and read. They used to take their sketchbooks and sit on the floor and pretend to copy a painting or a sculpture. We would sit down in front of these amazing quilts and I would tell them stories about how black history is part of the American quilt and though we have had some very difficult times in this country, we are still a part of its fabric and our blood is mixed with the soil. I would tell them that we were the descendants of black men and women who chose to survive and in doing so they stood tall in the face of uncertainty, fear, and unchecked violence. They loved being at the Museum and I loved that they were surrounded by images of people who did great things who looked like them and who were all from Maryland. I wanted them to fall in love with black history so that they could begin to develop a healthy and positive black racial identity. I knew that when they started school and started studying American history more formally, they would be offered a slightly different interpretation of black history. People that looked like them would only be talked about in February and the lessons would only include the names and experiences of those who are often talked about during this time. I knew that when they were in their classrooms, they would not learn about the life of Robert Bell or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; Vivien Thomas or Daniel Alexander Payne Murray; Cab Calloway or Billie Holiday, all Marylanders. I knew that they would only get this type of exposure and this type of learning from the Lewis Museum and they did.
My sons are now as adept and comfortable talking about the richness of black history as they are with talking about white history. They do not see themselves as outsiders because they know they are descended from community of people whose contributions are stitched into the fabric of our nation. I remember the first time my sons saw Judge Bell in person and my oldest whispered to my youngest, “It’s him. It’s the man whose robe hangs in the Museum!” To them, Judge Bell was a hero and not just because of his contributions and his accomplishments but because his picture and his robe hung in the Lewis Museum—a place that celebrates and recognizes greatness. The years that my sons spent growing up in the Museum and learning about Maryland African American history firsthand have had a significant impact on their lives. They have learned how to be oak trees having grown up reading the stories of people who stood tall and stood firm. My sons are now twelve and ten. They are smart and talented and are proud of who they and are clear about who they are becoming. We visited the Museum two weeks ago and as they walked though there, confident and self-assured, I could not help but give thanks that there was a place here in Maryland where they could go and see what they could become. My sons laughed as they walked through there, remembering their days spent running through those hallowed halls. My oldest said that the Museum was like holy ground to them because over the years, it has served as a reminder of the beauty, the importance, the significance, and the richness of Maryland’s African American history.
My heart leaped that day because I knew that no matter where life takes my boys, a piece of The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History will go with them.
- Today’s Birthday: FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER (1825) (euzicasa.wordpress.com)
- http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2005-08-07/news/0508030414_1_museum-slave-ship-kofi/2 (The Baltimore Sun 2005 article about my son)
2003 New York-Emmy nominated documentary film
“The Twin Towers have attained mythic status in the 21st century. The effect of their destruction and the tragic loss of life is engraved on the American consciousness.
Here is a fascinating history of the buildings that set the character of lower Manhattan and symbolized not only the power of New York City but American culture and financial dominance. The Twin Towers takes the viewer on an architectural journey that explores the design, construction and ultimate destruction of the 110-story buildings. Through interviews with architects, cultural historians, engineers and construction workers, a rich and absorbing story emerges.
It was David and Nelson Rockefeller who initially envisioned the development of lower Manhattan as the center for international trade. There is a certain irony in that they thought global trade would promote world peace. Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki was chosen to design the World Trade Center, and despite some negative response toward the “spaghetti boxes,” most believed these two major buildings would usher in the 21st Century.
The film describes the technical problems that were overcome, including the challenge to the ironworkers. It also recounts the daredevil stunts that the buildings attracted. Paul Goldberger, renowned architecture critic, and others contemplate the future of the site.
“The commentary is insightful and the images are often fascinating.” Library Journal
“This insightful homage is a worthy addition to the burgeoning list of September 11 programs.” Booklist”
To purchase a copy of the documentary: http://www.amazon.com/The-Twin-Towers-Educational-Performance/dp/1463110316
President Obama’s rush to attack Syria betrays the hope that he would lead us away from violence
(Originally published in The Baltimore Sun, 9/8/2013)
When my children were growing up, they were very selfish, and they demanded a lot of attention. They learned the word “mine” and then proceeded to use it to describe everything that they could see. They used to push and hit and stomp their feet over and over again while I patiently taught them how to share and not to hit. I taught them that violence was never an answer and that the best way to solve a problem was to talk about it and find a way to compromise.
I used incidents that happened on the playground and in the classroom as teachable moments to talk about the path of nonviolence. I made sure that they were familiar with the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, James Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr. and that they understood that nonviolence was not passive resistance. It is an act of courage to stand tall in the face of violence and conflict, whether it is happening on the playgrounds of Baltimore or in the hallways of Congress.
This path of practicing nonviolence has not always been easy for my sons. They have been bullied and teased and have had to learn how to walk away. They have learned how to pray for their enemies and how to meet hate and intolerance with love and patience. I remind them (almost as much as I remind myself) that the universe, as King once said, is on the side of justice and that these moments of controversy and confusion are the ones that shape their character. There was a time, early on, when I foolishly believed that all parents were teaching their children the same thing: how to choose love instead of hate, nonviolence instead of violence, and how to listen to one another and seek compromise instead of accepting chaos and confusion. I believed that we were working together to be the type of change that we wanted to see in the world.
One of the reasons that I voted for Barack Obama was that I was convinced that he was a man who believed in and fought for peace. He campaigned on a platform of change, and I thought that meant a change from all of the policies that have led us into Afghanistan and Vietnam and have led us to bomb Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and, in one sad case in 1985, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia. I was excited when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, confident that anyone who is bestowed such an honor must be a passionate believer in and a crusader for peace. I think of other Nobel winners, like Mother Theresa, Wangari Muta Maathai, Liu Xiaobo and Tawakkol Karmane, to name just a few, whose very lives have been spent working to create a more peaceful, just and verdant world.
This is why I was so horrified when I sat with my sons and listened while President Obama talked about bombing Syria with the same type of casualness that one talks about shopping. He mentioned that there would not be any “boots on the ground,” as if bombs dropping from the air would have a different result. He talked as if the only way to establish peace was to attack first and then negotiate with anyone who was still standing at the end. I almost laughed when I remembered his “red line,” because as both a parent and an activist, I always knew that it would come back to haunt him and would force him to make this type of decision.
I could not understand nor could I explain to my sons why we were seeking to establish peace in the world without first establishing it at home. I do understand that there are some valid reasons why Mr. Obama and others feel that we must move forward and that we are once again called upon to be the peacekeepers for the entire world. At the same time, I challenge the president as I challenge my sons to think about alternatives to war and to consider starting our peacekeeping work closer to home. I offer the cities of Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York (to name just a few) as places that would benefit from peacekeeping efforts, from love, and from national attention.
If peace is really the goal, then we should start by promoting peace at home — in the cities across America where people are dying and starving; where they are unemployed and underemployed; where our kids are dropping out of schools or spending countless hours playing senseless violent video games and listening to violent, misogynistic rap lyrics; where folks live in sub-standard housing within food deserts; where murder, violence, rape, drugs, crime and gang activity are accepted as normal behavior; where the classroom to prison pipeline has yet to be disrupted; and where conscious people are working hard to try and raise healthy, happy and whole children.
Mr. President, these are the lessons that we should be teaching our kids: that peace is possible and should start at home, war and violence are never answers to conflict, and as global citizens, we must work together to be the type of change that we want to see in this world.
Kaye Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of Communications and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. Her website is http://www.kayewisewhitehead.com, and her email is email@example.com.
Quote from Mother Theresa was originally posted at http://www.pillarsofpeacehawaii.org/assets/uploads/000/000/257/original/pop_new_03.jpg?1337111377
- Loyola University prays for Syria (abc2news.com)