On the Coronavirus, Kindness, and Friendship

I suspect the coronavirus—the pandemic—is top of mind for all of us.

“Breaking News” flashes across my television and my phone with a regularity that only contributes to my anxiety. And, yes, I am anxious as I look at the impact in other countries and recognize the dearth of preparation in the United States to address this dire situation.

My email is full of messages from sources as diverse as my DC Council representative, Walmart, TDBank, and the Kennedy Center. Everyone is reminding me of what to do to keep myself and others safe during this national/international emergency. The number one recommendation—social distancing—has become a common term. Stay at home, away from crowds, is the preferred practice.

Before we isolate ourselves, we must get ready, an action that often involves being in crowded situations. I noticed something last week as I negotiated grocery store aisles packed with shoppers (no real distancing then!). People were friendlier, Christmas friendly. It wasn’t exactly a festive air, but there was a kindness that seemed to permeate every grocery store or pharmacy I visited. There was a chattiness, helpfulness, a genuine “we’re all in this together” sense of community. I like that. It feels good.

And I’ve realized something else. I’m not concerned about the prospect of being in my home for two weeks, a month or longer. Well, I am an introvert, but it’s more than that. I have food, television, music, books and I have my friends. No, these aren’t imaginary friends. I haven’t gone off the deep end yet. I have friends with whom I am connected via social media.

internet-3113279_1920Experts talk a lot about how we have already self-isolated because we focus more on social media than pure social interaction, direct one-to-one contact with people. I believe that some, particularly young folks, may go overboard with their level of attention to Snapchat, Instagram, or whatever platform draws them in. But I see the benefits/the positives. Facebook and Instagram are my preferred sites. Posts from my friends offer glimpses into their worlds. It’s not the same connection as sitting for hours over a glass of wine in a favorite restaurant. Still, the back-and-forth on Facebook and introducing new views and experiences into the “conversation” offers a one-on-one connection.

As a person in the high-risk category for coronavirus, I am mindful of what will keep me safe. I won’t attend anything where there are crowds. My exposure will be limited to the grocery store, and I hope there won’t be much of a need for that. I will take walks, read, watch movies, Facebook with friends, and settle into a quieter life. The seriousness of this situation must stay somewhat in the background — just for now; so I can stay centered and calm.  But, please know …  I am concerned about hourly wage workers – many of whom are black and brown — who are being negatively affected by the canceling of sporting and major entertainment events and the closing, or significant shortening of hours, of restaurants and other venues. I am concerned about the health status of Lyft and Uber drivers. And worried about school children, so many of whom have their healthiest (and perhaps only) meals at school and who may not have the technology at home to enable their access to online education. I am extremely concerned about the declaration of a national emergency that places somewhat uncontrollable power into the hands of the president. That concerns me a lot.

The coronavirus is our shared enemy, and people come together when there is a shared enemy. I will rely on my friends to keep me centered, sane, and in community with them. I will depend on the rationality and public policy expertise of elected officials (and their staffs) to address our national response to this disease in a manner that is science-based and human-centered. I will rely on the kindness of strangers—tall ones—to get that last box of penne pasta I can see on the top shelf but can’t reach. And I will cheer on folks like the multiple NBA players and the team owners who have said they will pay for arena workers’ salaries while the stadiums are closed. And I applaud the members of philanthropy—my former professional community—who are asking what philanthropy can do as they adjust restrictions on grants and thoughtfully consider how to best support their grantees and the people they serve.

I know that examples of greed and insensitivity have popped up during this emergency. I suspect more will come, but I hope that kindness, friendship, and understanding will predominate. I hope that as serious and deadly as this pandemic is… in the aftermath and as we go through it, we all learn something and realize we—all people—are part of the greater whole. Show compassion and treat each other well.

 

Getting to the Truth is …

Exhausting.

Like the rest of the country, I have just been through an impeachment, the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, and the Nevada Democratic debate. I thought these events would offer glimmers of hope for my country, an America I perceive as mired in racial hatred and inequity.

Ultimately, none of them did.

With evidence of the president’s coercion of a foreign government to uncover potentially compromising information on a political challenger, I thought our elected officials would do the right thing.

They didn’t.

They fiercely supported the president. While his racist behaviors predominate in why I want him removed from office or defeated, they aren’t the only reason. I fully believe, and there is much to suggest, that Trump is moving America to fascism. Think 1930s Germany.

The impeachment didn’t give me my hoped-for solution. In fact, soon after that, Trump thumbed his nose at black America at the State of the Union when he celebrated Rush Limbaugh, a radio commentator known for his racist remarks, by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country.

puzzle-1152792_1920On the heels of that travesty, the Iowa caucus occurred. I still don’t fully understand why the Iowa caucus is so important. I know it indicates who the country will support, but why Iowa? Iowa is not representative of the country. 90.7% of the state’s population is white as compared to 76.5% nationally. And to add insult to injury, if you have been convicted of a felony in Iowa, you can’t vote for the rest of your life. 26% of the state’s prison population is black even though only 4% of the state’s population is black. Iowa’s views don’t represent me or a lot of America that looks like me.

Then, we went on to New Hampshire, another disproportionately white state where the field of Democratic presidential candidates narrowed to Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.

Have you looked at their records on racial equity/racial justice? I think most people don’t have the time and/or policy acumen to review all the public statements and votes to come up with some indication of the candidates’ racial justice sensitivity and record. Fortunately, the Center for Urban and Racial Equity has done that for us.

The Center ranked Trump F, Biden F, Klobuchar C, Sanders B+, Buttigieg B+, and Warren A-. While Bloomberg wasn’t in that field of candidates, his visibility has been rising; so, let’s add him to the list. The Center ranked him F.

If you are non-black or not a person of color, you may have the luxury of only considering the candidates’ records on issues like access to health care, climate change, educational reform, etc., the issues that on the surface shape America. That is part of white privilege. But hidden behind/underneath all those issues is the fundamental matter of racial justice.

Bernie Sanders often seems to conflate economic inequality with racial inequity. They are not the same. For most of his life (certainly the majority of his adult life), he has lived in Vermont, the whitest state in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is not an indictment against him, but the reality is he has had to work harder than most to even have a connection to a black person. And we understand how vital proximity is to true understanding.

Residents of South Bend have commented that Buttigieg displayed significant insensitivity following a police shooting of an African American man, and he wrongfully equates prejudice against gay people with discrimination against African Americans.

A news report just came out in February that Amy Klobuchar may have played a significant part in wrongfully convicting a then 16-year-old African American for murder. Is that true? I will have to keep looking for news coverage on this or wonder if it’s being buried by news outlets who don’t see this as a significant story.

Joe Biden’s stumbling over questions of race has revealed a man who believes he has a lens for racial inequity, but who doesn’t. He must, for example, be reminded racists have always worn suits.

Earning the highest score is Elizabeth Warren. As has become her catchphrase, she has a plan for that, a strategy for addressing racial inequity that spans issues as varied as economic parity, maternal mortality, and housing, for example. It all sounds good, but even with Warren, I am on edge as I wait to hear the racial negatives that may still hide in her closet.

Until the Nevada debate, many political pundits were suggesting only Michael Bloomberg could defeat Donald Trump. Who knows where they stand now after that public bloodletting, but if he becomes the Democratic candidate despite proudly, and loudly, promoting “stop and frisk” policies directed against black and brown people, this will be the presidential matchup: Racial score of F against racial score of F.

Good lord.

We cannot let that be our choice.

Every president has had to deal with issues of racial equity on some level for decades. As you’re considering your choice for president, I urge you not to minimize their racial sensitivity and understanding. Which of the current pool of candidates is best equipped to do so as he or she also faces a myriad of other issues?

I have been a lifelong Democrat, and will support the Democratic candidate whoever it is, but must I hold my nose to do so? Must I settle for a candidate who has no or only minimal knowledge or understanding of the oppression that has been, and continues to be, the norm for black and brown people?

Am I going to have to settle for a candidate who has been an oppressor?

I am exhausted by the level of vigilance necessary to reveal their racial pasts, to discern their true beliefs in all they say and do or don’t say or don’t do. I read and read the backgrounds of the candidates. I listen to the comments about what this one did ten years ago, ten months ago or just 10 days ago.

I always have another step to take to get to the truth, the complete picture, the truth for black people. It’s exhausting, but …

I will not stop being a truth seeker. What about you?

 

P.S. — I do believe that people can change through a very deliberate process that takes time and intentionality. If you are supporting a candidate with a low racial score, is he or she willing to take that racial equity learning journey?

Note: Your vote on Tuesday, March 3 — Super Tuesday — will make a difference in determining the Democratic candidate. I urge you to vote.

What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?

This will take just a few minutes—25 multiple-choice questions to be answered on your computer. No friends throwing out the answers. No public shaming or public celebration. Just a quiet few minutes to see how much you know about the African American experience and history. Please take the quiz before you read any further.

https://worldhistoryproject.org/quizzes/black_history

* * *

Many are likely to know the answer to the first question, but what if it was re-worded: “Who was the first African American allowed to play major league baseball?” You’d still know the answer, but you might think about it a bit differently. Not that there weren’t African Americans with the talent, as the stated question might imply. And if you click on the “Learn more” button, you see that the argument from the team’s manager isn’t focused on racial justice or morality, it is focused on economics. The white owner of the team, the white manager, and the white players were all going to be financial beneficiaries of this change. Then, if you have time, go deeper into his story to learn about the life of this “first” and the mental anguish he, and his family, suffered.

Then look at the second question. “Learn more” will remind you that the black community isn’t monolithic. While being black in America offers a distinct vantage point from being white or Asian, Native or LatinX, and while there may be unanimity in the desire for justice and equity among black people, there is no shared sense of strategy. In that divergence, however, a center point may become clearer. Some suggest if there hadn’t been a Malcolm X, a perceived radical, Martin Luther King’s views might not have been deemed reasonable and viable. He would have been the radical. That point alone could generate a vibrant discussion if you move just a little beyond the presented fact.

Now to the third item in the quiz. “Learn more” reveals that in 1960, just two generations ago, black people were fighting for the right to sit down and have lunch in an integrated environment. Perhaps that would have been your parents’ or maybe your grandparents’ generation. Where did they stand/fall on the question of civil rights? Have you ever asked them, or if you are the parent or the grandparent, have you ever shared with the younger members of your family what you were doing or thinking in 1960 when people were actively advocating for the civil rights of African Americans?

These are conversations that we should all have. Maybe Black History Month offers an entrée to this topic for your family.

lamp-4436364_1920Understanding a people’s history isn’t just about knowing the dates or being able to rattle off trivia at a cocktail party. It’s about revealing and understanding the layers, the actions and reactions, that contribute not just to those people, but to the fabric of the bigger, “US” as a people, as a culture. Often those revelations and the discussions happen in school. I know that is where I learned, explored and discussed much about the history of the country. My parents and my community often talked about current events, but rarely do I recall family discussions about historical events. And once I left the segregated school system, never did black history enter my formal education.

Over the last 50 years, black history has increasingly been recognized as the essential part of American history… and world history, that it is. Some states now require its incorporation into the educational curriculum. Textbooks are being written. Students are asking for it. But the subject still doesn’t seem mainstreamed into the curriculum. Some suggest that history and social studies teachers aren’t trained to teach it. Even when they try to cover the topic, they aren’t comfortable enough to delve deeply. The conversation typically stops with the facts. Others suggest many of the textbooks introduce black history with slavery, reinforcing African Americans in a lower position in society. I’m not so sure I agree with that even though I can appreciate the viewpoint. Black Americans’ history did, in no small measure, start with being enslaved. There is just so much about that reality that can be explored. Teachers can take the lesson back to Africa.* In school, we often talked about what was happening in Europe that pre-dated white settlers coming to America. I still remember the weight of my European history textbook. Whole semesters focused on the subject, but never in the 16 years of my liberal arts education did I have one course on African history. What was happening in the countries and kingdoms there?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that when Carter G. Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life (1915), later became the chief advocate for Negro History Week (1926) and promoted the study of African American culture and history throughout his life, he was not suggesting it as an add on. He was filling a void until the topic could be fully fused into any study of the history of America.

Taking a quiz or focusing on interesting factoids can start a conversation. It can begin the learning, but we must remember the facts are just where real discovery and understanding begins.

What will you do special during this Black History Month? What will you do throughout the year to better understand, appreciate, and value the contributions of African Americans?

“The past should not oppress, it should illuminate.”

—Kasi Lemmons, Director of “Harriet” during a panel discussion following the movie’s showing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 10/21/19

*If you are interested in learning about Africa’s civilizations, check out the PBS six-hour series called “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” narrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Thank You is Enough

The sidewalks in the neighborhood were narrow and uneven. sidewalk. bricksPeople walking in opposite directions often had to shift or even stop, to pass without bumping into each other. In this century-plus old section of the city, there were many tree roots twisting beneath the sidewalks creating tilts and ridges that threatened each step. So, the need to pay attention to where you were walking was necessary and the norm.

The first time we passed each other, I wasn’t sure he was who I thought he was.

For about a month, I would pass him every day around 7:45 a.m., after dropping my son—AJ—off at preschool. As I walked to the metro, mentally moving from mom to nonprofit exec, I would think about what I had to do at work that day. I was still adjusting to taking AJ to preschool. Until that September, he had been at home with a care provider. Now it was time to get him into a group with other children. So, I had to get him up, dressed, and fed… and me, too. As the saying goes, “it” — parenthood, in this case — “was more than a notion.” In my early 40s, I was an older mother, and the adjustments to motherhood had been many as I also worked to succeed in my career.

Some mornings were a bit unfocused as life’s demands jostled through my mind. Not paying careful attention, I had almost tripped on the sidewalk the previous week. On that first morning, when I saw him, I was head down, focused on carefully negotiating the uneven bricks. I glanced up just as I passed him. The glimpse was quick, perfunctory. I wasn’t sure it was him, but I thought it was.

On the next day and the subsequent days when we passed, I was sure. I knew who he was. At first, I would nod and smile. Then after a few days, I started to say, “Good morning, sir.” To which, he would nod and smile, sometimes replying with a pleasant “Good morning.”

At no time during those few weeks in 1997, when our paths crossed every morning, did I ever try to have a conversation with Congressman John Lewis. I wish I had.

I was reminded of those small encounters when I heard the announcement last month he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

When Congressman Elijah Cummings, a long-time civil rights champion, passed last October, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to him as Congress’ North Star. I understood why. He was a strong and outspoken advocate for what was morally right. But John Lewis has always been my North Star. In 1997, I wouldn’t have thought of him with that term, but I have always admired his courage. I knew of his civil rights work, particularly the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For me, he was then, and still is, the personification of fierce leadership and dedication to purpose.

After reading his memoir, Walking with The Wind, in 1998, the year after our brief encounters, I remember wishing I had engaged him as we passed each other. His leadership was even deeper and more critical to the civil rights movement than I had initially known. But what would I possibly have said to him or asked? How would I have broached meaningful topics in those brief moments? He was hurrying to important committee meetings, I suspect, with no time to carry on a conversation. I do, however, remember wishing I had said, “Thank you” as we passed kennedy quote. thank youon that sidewalk.

I was fortunate. I had a chance to say just that almost twenty years later.

In 2016, he, along with then-Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, was presented with the Congressional Patriot Award by the Bipartisan Policy Center. I was lucky enough to be invited to the event, held at the Library of Congress. I brought my copy of Walking with The Wind, knowing I would ask him to sign it if the circumstance presented itself. As the guests mingled in an ornately beautiful room before the ceremony, I saw him enter without fanfare. I gathered my courage, walked up to him, and thanked him for all he had done for me, for people who looked like me, and for our country. Graciously, he thanked me for the kind words and signed my book.

At this time of the year when we are focused on resolutions and retrospection, I hope all of us take the time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives or in our world. If you have the chance to say something to that person, do so. Don’t wait until the perfect statement forms in your mind. Don’t be shy or intimidated thinking you may be intruding on a moral giant. The opportunity may never come again, and, realistically, your words will never be as perfect as you want. The eloquence will come from the purity of your feelings and the sheer power of uttering the heartfelt words, “Thank you.”

Happy New Year to all and wishing healing mercies for Congressman John Lewis.