Why I Wrote Daughters of the Dream: An Anniversary Story

Sometimes parts of your world connect in ways that are only clear in hindsight.

It happened seven years ago. It was February 2012 when I started to write Daughters of the Dream. Initially, it had been my friend Renee’s idea to write a book about our lifelong friendship — eight girls as we grew to become women —  but she didn’t have the time; so it became my project. New author, same focus. Then, on February 26, 2012, a tragedy happened. Trayvon Martin was killed.  His death changed the story.

My son, AJ, was roughly the same age as Trayvon (born 366 days apart). I kept seeing AJ in that situation and knew only fate had led Trayvon, not my son, to that horrible destiny. About a month after his murder, I wrote a post for The Daily WRAG, the blog produced by my organization, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. In the post titled “Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak” I openly shared my feelings about Trayvon’s murder and discussed talking with my son about how he should negotiate everyday life events, like driving- and shopping-while-black, to lessen the likelihood of a similar situation and threat to his safety.

Following the post, many white colleagues expressed surprise I still had to talk with my son about discrete behaviors because of his race. That is when I knew it. They perceived me to be like them. They thought my life experience was like theirs. In some ways, we may have presented to be similar—education, family background, community standing—but our worlds were very different.

tlc. bookOnly in hindsight did I recognize these factors as  all contributing to how I approached the book: Trayvon’s death, my WRAG blog post on his death, and then my clarity on the lack of understanding of what my world is like from some of my white colleagues. And lastly, it was February, Black History Month. Subconsciously, I was processing all of this as I began to write Daughters of the Dream., a book initially only about a lifelong friendship.

The first conscious shift from a focus solely on friendship was my decision to frame our story within the context of black history. My structured education on black historical facts stopped when I left segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School, but at least I had had that foundation along with a black family and a black community that ingrained in me an understanding of the accomplishments and challenges facing black people.  As I wrote, I wondered how, or if, white people learned black history,  that is black history at any depth.  I knew that they got the high level information: slavery occurred, it was terrible, maybe something about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, then the exceptionalism of Frederick Douglass, skip to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and then the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps they received a quick introduction to a few other black leaders during Black History Month, but there was no immersion in facts about the black experience in white people’s day-to-day education.

The recent incident in Virginia, my home state, of a picture unearthed of someone in blackface and someone else dressed as a hate-filled Klansman revealed a lack of understanding of the viciousness of such imagery, or maybe it revealed a more base lack of caring.  Perhaps if those in the picture had an underpinning of knowledge about black contributions to America and clarity about the oppression and degradation of blacks by whites, their actions, and those of others, would have been different – perhaps. For far too many white Americans, their knowledge about African-Americans is  very limited, coming primarily from personal experiences or the media. Far too many in white America still do not understand black Americans.

I wanted to use my book to introduce white readers to ordinary black people, living everyday lives. I wanted them to see that there were families free of the pathology they so often heard about from the national media and, at one time, even from leading sociologists and psychologists.  I wanted them to see parents who were not living in deprivation, but who worked through their daily lives in the positions available to them while preparing their children to rise to the next rung of societal opportunity. And, I wanted them to see those children as adults, similar to them, but with issues of race and racism swirling about them everyday, realities of which many white readers may be unaware.

And, I wanted black readers, particularly younger ones, to recognize another aspect of black history from what they typically learn. I tried to reinforce that the struggles of Selma and Birmingham were real, violent, and important, but so too was the gentler resistance of the Richmond34 protesting the segregationist practices of the two major Richmond department stores or the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Crusade for Voters working to elect leaders who would understand and represent the issues of all Richmonders.  The fight for racial equity has taken different paths, but all black people have been a part of the fight.

As I wrote  our story, I recognized that over the years, whenever my girlfriends and I gathered, we would go to a black-themed art exhibit or see a black-themed movie. We would follow that with lunch at a black-owned or Southern-themed restaurant. And, always our talk was, and is, of some current event that affects black people. Why? We are always thirsty for black culture, knowledge, and for balance. We swim in a white world,  moving upstream against  erroneous white narratives of criminality, dysfunction, incompetence, and immorality. Our group offers a needed space to process the events of our world, to re-fuel our souls, and to develop the inner strength to go on.

So, yes Daughters of the Dream captures our friendship, but it also captures our history, our normalcy, and our desire to shape America to be the country that recognizes all who built it and all who contribute to its place in the world.  We may not all have been visible, named leaders, but each of us played, and continues to play, a part in the ongoing push for racial justice.

 

The Green Book Movie: Don’t Let the Imperfect Be the Enemy of the Good

For the last couple of months many have celebrated the movie ‘The Green Book’ at the Golden Globe Awards, the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and soon at the Academy Awards. The accolades for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen come amid criticisms about the accuracy of the movie, the manner in which African-American concert pianist Don Shirley was portrayed and his relationship with Tony Vallelonga, his Italian-American driver, during a concert tour in the 1960s through the Deep South. The movie has been called racially tone deaf.

I don’t want to get into the debate. Really, I don’t. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I had never heard of the ‘Green Book’ until I was an adult, long after it was useful and needed. That doesn’t mean my family didn’t use it. I just don’t know. We traveled a lot, but primarily to visit family in the mid-West and in the North. Driving was typically done in one day, no lodging necessary and we always packed food for the trip. My sole hotel experience as a young child was a family trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. On that trip, I only remember seeing African-Americans at the motel where we stayed. ‘The Green Book’ may well have guided my Dad in knowing where to stop for gas or even in knowing of the motel where we stayed. If he used it, he didn’t talk about it. Like I said, I knew nothing about it until it came up in conversation with a family member.

img_4151My mother had undertaken a genealogical study of her family. When her 950-page tome was printed, instead of calling it The Descendants of James and Keziah Charity of Charles City County, Virginia, its official name, the family has always referred to it as ‘the green book’ referencing the bright green color of its cover. On one occasion, someone mentioned ‘the green book’ and quickly added, “Not the original one, I’m talking about Aunt Edna’s book.” That was my prompt to ask, “What original one?” Not until then had I ever heard of Victor Green’s reference guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book.

Just as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson was unknown to me until I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I had never heard of Dr. Don Shirley until I saw the movie, ‘The Green Book.’

Some younger black viewers or white viewers may be unaware of the degradation suffered by African-American performers, talent sought after to play or act for white audiences, but still not able to eat in the local restaurants or at the performance venues. The threats to black performers in the South and the manner in which they had to live while performing was portrayed in the movie. I know that the greats of the ‘40s and ‘50s who came to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia—names like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington—could play in the white venues, but when it came time to eat or sleep, they were in Jackson Ward, one of the all-black enclaves in Richmond, in hotels and restaurants on Second Street. The movie even references a 1956 event in which Alabama native son, crooner Nat King Cole (father of Natalie Cole) was about to perform in Birmingham when members of the Ku Klux Klan came on stage and beat him with clubs in front of an all-white audience.

So many of the contributions of African-Americans to this country are rarely revealed, seldom studied, hardly taught. This flawed, but beautifully-acted, movie has revealed parts of history, American history, to many who never knew it. I am conflicted. Do I want an accurate portrayal? I do, but those who could attest to accuracy—Shirley and Vallelonga—are both deceased and the movie notes it is ‘inspired by,’ not a documentary.

I want to celebrate the revealing of another hidden figure of African-American history and culture. I want to celebrate Mahershala Ali’s powerful portrayal of an African-American virtuoso who had been lost to history. I want to recognize that ‘The Green Book,’ the movie with its imperfections and ‘The Green Book,’ the guide, reflect the reality of separate, and unequal. Together they—the book and the movie—have prompted another conversation about racial injustice. That is good, good for all of us.

 

Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?

Yes.

The Friendship Spark

There’s always the chance a dormant friendship can re-ignite, but doing so needs a little kindling, a resurrected spark, and someone to breathe life into it.

If I had thought about it at all in my 20s and 30s, I would have said the friendship of the Valianettes—my closest childhood friends—was over. It wasn’t an unpleasant ending, no drama, just life’s transition as we moved into adulthood. First, different colleges, then careers, and husbands and children. The distance grew between us. I didn’t think then about how time had passed and life had parted us.

We had been friends since elementary school, a group since middle school and a named club—the Valianettes—since high school. We went everywhere together. Long before seat belts limited (and protected) the number of people in a car, we would pile into someone’s car, sometimes on each other’s laps, to get to that Friday night party. We always went together. We had to. None of our parents would allow us to go unless a critical mass of the group was going; protection in numbers. There were duos and trios of even closer friendships within the group, but we were all intertwined friends. Then that major rite of passage—high school graduation—occurred, and the bond evaporated. Even for those of us who went to the same college, too many things—the newness of becoming an adult—took us in different directions and it just wasn’t the same. For nearly twenty years, we were apart. No one thought anything of it; we had all moved on.

Then in just one day—with the arrival of my son AJ—my friend Marsha changed all of that. She and AJ were the kindling.

shower twosome. twelve.compressed
Top photo — L to R — bottom row: Gloria Reid, Marsha Ware, Debby Smith; middle row: Zena Claiborne, Debbie Riddick, Tamara Copeland, Renee Mills; top row: Veronica Abrams, Janice Bowie, Madeline Swann; Bottom photo: Tamara and baby AJ

Marsha’s life had taken her to a small girls’ college in Western Virginia—Hollins College—not as a student, but as a staff member. As part of her responsibility, she would periodically bring a group from Roanoke, Virginia to Washington, DC to see the nation’s capital and would call me to get together for lunch. After several times, we realized it was like old times and when I told her my then-husband and I were adopting a baby; she decided to host a shower for baby AJ.

Who would come? Well, the Valianettes, of course. They were the core of the invitation list. That one gathering was so much fun it led to many others. We just needed that spark. First just lunch now and then, then regularly-scheduled lunches, then weekends at someone’s home, then our first trip together — all led now to twenty years of being reconnected after twenty years apart. Last year, we laughed and finished each other’s stories on a beach in Jamaica.

Is our friendship special? I think so. I know no one who is a part of a group that has been together since the first grade. Sometimes I think about the role that segregation played in placing us together in school, early dance classes and in scouting troops, but that wasn’t it. Others have been together in similar circumstances, but that magical connection didn’t happen for them. It wasn’t until we attended one of our high school reunions we realized that others had noticed the strength of our bond. One of our teachers was there and commented on the fact we were together at the gathering. She said, “I knew you would all be together. You were always together.”

As we enter a new year, reminisce, and consider our prospects for the future, we sometimes think of a joyful moment in our history and believe it was just that, the past — something to be remembered with a smile. While singular events may be long ago, whatever led to the joyfulness of that event, the core of that happiness, is still there. It can be brought to life with intentionality and nurturing. So, as I enter 2019 and reflect on what gives meaning to my life, family is paramount, but friends—the family you choose—are a close second.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

— Robert Burns, 1788