If Only She Had Someone To Talk To…

Work and paperwork brought home from the office meant she didn’t get to bed until around midnight most nights. Reeling from exhaustion, she would fall into bed only to have her sleep disturbed by strange dreams. There were only a handful of days in a month that she didn’t wake up with a headache, nausea, backache, and/or stomach pain. Yet, she pushed through the sick feelings to do what was expected at home and at work. During an entire year, she missed only one day of work because of sickness, and she used this as an “opportunity” to catch up on paperwork. If only she had someone to talk to.

She drove herself to do more than required on her job and in her volunteer work. She was like a robot doing what she was programmed to do. But she was not a robot, and her body kept telling her that. If only she had someone to talk to.

Why the struggle? She was a mid-level administrator. From her perspective, being mid-level in the hierarchy of administrators explained the purgatory in which she lived. If only she had someone to talk to.

Though she could see the positive results of her efforts, she was denied a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction because, before the good feelings could register, someone would do or say something that would cause her to push back in anger or retreat into a lonely shell of self-doubt. If only she had someone to talk to.

She could not understand why people resisted doing their jobs. Her attention to this would bring on accusations that she was micromanaging, and that she was managing rather than leading. If only she had someone to talk to.

Whatever staff needed for resources, she fought to get. If they had ideas about how to improve support to students, she was all in. She encouraged innovations and saw more than a few of them become successful. No one could give more to the job than she did. If only she had someone to talk to.

When particularly antagonistic staff began to misquote her and tell her that she had said things that she had not said or—even more mystifying—that they, themselves, had said, she felt incensed. If only she had someone to talk to.

When her mind seemed to be becoming a mess of tangled ends, she began to ruminate on the Joseph Heller quote from Catch 22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” She thought, if only I had someone to talk to, someone who could see in me what I can’t see for myself.

86

The Mystery, Layers, and Rarity of DMX

On Friday, April 9, 2021, Earl Simmons, known as DMX or X, died. His heyday as a rap artist was in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was nominated for three Grammy awards and was in a number of action movies. His tragic death at the age of 50 is being mourned by many, and it’s through this outpouring of grief and the flood of tributes that I’ve become somewhat familiar with the artist DMX.

In addition to his regular fans, many celebrities have made comments on social media about the man and his life:

In an Instagram video, DMX’s very close friend and music collaborator, Swizz Beatz, said that DMX was a “humanitarian who never talked about it, and he should be celebrated. He was different because he lived his life for other people. He prayed before and after every concert, and he prayed for fans and for anyone who asked him. He prayed for everybody before he prayed for himself. He was a prophet—the only one, DMX.”

Justin Tinsley, sports and culture reporter for ESPN’s The Undefeated, in an April 12 interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” said that “DMX’s music was a portal into our own lives. Tinsley recalled DMX saying that if he helped another person find light, he will have lived a good life.”

In an interview on the Dr. Phil Show several years ago, DMX admitted that he made angry music. Yet, he had a conversation with the Lord on every album. He was in violent action films and he also loved the 1990s television sitcom, The Golden Girls.

Some who knew him saw DMX as a victim. However, his behavior toward Iyanla Vanzant, life coach, on Iyanla Fix My Life,might paint him as a bully. In an interview following the interaction with DMX, Vanzant said that he called her the “B word” numerous times and was so aggressive that security had to be on standby.

He read the Bible and prayed publicly, referenced God in his music as well as the devil. DMX was a man of contradictions.

Michael Eric Dyson, professor and minister, tweeted, “The late great #DMX fused raw Black pain, personal suffering, the struggle with his many demons and an incurable quest for Christian salvation and redemption in music and lyrics—and prayers—that toured hell to provide a plan of escape. May his soul Rest in Peace #RIP DMX.”

If the Rev. Dr. Dyson’s description is accepted, I’m not surprised to discover that this puzzle of a man loved and cultivated orchids. Orchids are the largest plant family in the world, presenting in a variety of forms. As numerous as they are, they can also be rare and precioussome of the most expensive plants in the world.

In a description of one of the lesser-known orchids, Tom Mirenda, horticulturalist and renowned expert on the cultivation of orchids, wrote, “Every orchid has an interesting story. Once you look beyond their beauty, other captivating qualities emerge about virtually all of them.” The orchid Mirenda was writing about was ugly and it also stank! (“Meet Stinky ‘Bucky,’ the Bulbophyllum that Shutdown a Smithsonian Greenhouse,” Smithsonian Magazine)

From a very limited sense of the man based on a cursory review of his public life, I think that DMX loved orchids because he was as mysterious, layered, and rare as they are. He was a prominent example of the complexities that make us human.

R.I.P. Earl Simmons, a.k.a. DMX.

April Was the Cruelest Month

Many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing on April 16, 2007, when we learned about the unspeakable tragedy of the campus murders and subsequent suicide at Virginia Tech.

At the time, I was executive director of NASPA. I was grabbing lunch at a restaurant with the incoming president of the board of directors, Dr. Jan Walbert, vice president for student affairs at Arcadia University.  I was looking forward to a scheduled meeting with her university president in the afternoon, in which I would give her “boss” a sense of the importance and far-reaching influence of Dr. Walbert’s volunteer position with NASPA.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech altered the trajectory of Dr. Walbert’s year as president of the board of directors. Within weeks after the mass shooting, Dr. Walbert was giving testimony at a congressional hearing in response to their request for guidance on what campuses could do regarding effective emergency preparedness with the potential of increasing the safety of students and the campus community.

I say “potential” because it’s not possible to predict or prevent violence. Indeed, within the year, another tragedy would occur at Northern Illinois University. What can be done is to provide requested resources in order for mental health professionals to be as accessible as possible to the increasing number of students who need and seek help. What we were reminded of in the wake of these campus shootings is that the median age of onset for mental illness is in the range of late teens through the early 20s, with young adults aged 18-25 years having the highest prevalence of any mental illness, and this doesn’t take into account the effects of a yearlong pandemic.

In an Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders conducted by Gallup in 2020:

  • 78 percent of student affairs leaders said the number of campus visits to mental health professionals had ‘increased a lot’ in the last five years, and
  • 63 percent said the same for the number of students on prescription medicine for mental health issues.

When these leaders were asked about the issues on which they had spent a significant amount of time during the past year, 93 percent at public institutions and 96 percent at private institutions listed student mental health.

Even before the pandemic, mental health had been an increasing issue for college and university students for more than five years. When students return to campuses, their need for services may be greater than ever before, and the need will have to be met. No college or university wants to experience what Virginia Tech went through during the cruel month of April 2007.

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

As I attended to the beautiful voices and faces of four Black Student Government presidents representing The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Purdue University, and MIT, the song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, came to mind.

The young leaders who were presenters on the Chronicle of Higher Education webinar, “Race, Class and Student Voices,” are the embodiment and manifestation of the second line in the song: “Oh what a lovely precious dream.”

In 1970, when we first heard Nina Simone sing this song, we, as young people, already knew that we were the realization of the dream of so many who had come before us. Now, our dream was to live during a time when the reality of that dream would be recognized as ordinary for all Black people and not extraordinary for a precious few. 

Thinking of ourselves and our children as gifted and Black made us proud and unapologetic about all the ways that our Blackness set us apart. We used the power of the words “gifted and Black” to destroy the stereotypes of our intellectual inferiority, to push back against behavior that demeaned us, and to lift up the truth of our value. Hearing the finality and emphasis Miss Simone put on the word “Black” in the refrain of the song was our inoculation against the disease of racism and all its side effects.

Accepting that we were the agents of our future, we put our faith in ourselves. It was the kind of faith that propelled us to expand our imagination to include our own success as well as the happiness and success of our gifted Black children for generations to come. Hearing Miss Simone sing this song assured us that we had potential as individuals and, as a collective, we would internalize our right to be free and liberated because we were “young, gifted, and Black.”

The increase in the numbers of Black Student Government leaders throughout higher education is a continuation of the reality of that precious dream.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter Aligns with Mars

Back then, our generation was consumed by the layperson’s minimal knowledge of astrological sun signs. Sun signs played a role in determining who would be our best friends, who was the best person to date, and who might be a good prospect for marriage. “What’s your sign?” was the question most frequently asked when young people spent any amount of time together. Instant assumptions were made about the essential character and compatibility of the person depending on their answer to that simple question.

Astrology was not only our guide for determining compatibility with others, it could also be useful when making decisions about fashion and home décor. When choosing among options, the colors associated with the sun signs of the zodiac were sometimes deciding factors.   

For example. our first house was one of ten houses on a dead-end street. In choosing to buy this house, we might have noted that it was a brown brick, like the earth for stability. For a small house, there were a lot of windows. Windows and light were something to love, but the window coverings were another story. Impressed with the wooden window blinds, we were disappointed when we realized that the dingy yellow of the blinds would not return to white even after scrubbing them with bleach and cleanser and using a considerable amount of elbow grease. Without easy alternatives, we made the bold decision to paint the blinds. But what color?  Sky blue was the choice because it was always associated with positive traits, astrologically speaking.

Our baby’s room was a sunny yellow, purported to reflect the joy and happiness of people born under the sun sign Gemini. In line with the Gemini character, the crib and chests were bold and cheerful in orange and white. The tops and sides of the chests were orange, and the drawers were white with orange pull knobs. We were so proud of our little nest and over the moon with our baby. I thought that leaning over the sides of his crib softly singing, “Good morning star shine, the earth says ‘Hello.’ You twinkle above us, we twinkle below” was the best way to start the little angel’s day.

In 1969, Good Morning Star Shine and other songs from the Broadway musical Hair were the catechisms and prayers on the lips of our generation. We were spiritually struck by, and literally infected with, the songs from the musical. Many people knew the lyrics to all the songs and, even though we lived on a shoestring, we bought the album and played it over and over again.

The song everyone recognized from Hair was Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In. The feelings evoked by the song confirmed our alignment with the universe and with humanity. During the turbulent war-torn times and political schisms of the late 1960s, all laced with violence and brutality, this song, in the opinions of many of the young, was one way to imagine all of humanity on the same page. Singing in unison with the singers on the recordings was liberating and hopeful at a time when we, as young people, felt constrained and misunderstood.

Astrology was one thing we could trust and believe in. When we didn’t always live up to our own expectations or those of others, we didn’t have to take full responsibility for our shortcomings because some things were pre-ordained according to our sun sign. According to our astrological sun signs, we all had parts that we might not boast about, but there were always the good parts that we could hold onto when we needed a boost. We could always choose to see ourselves in the best and most flattering descriptors of our sun sign. The balance in the descriptions made us whole.

Though it sometimes felt as if fate had dealt us a bad hand, we had faith that one day “when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”

Oprah Winfrey: She is Woman

Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Vera Anderson/Wireimage
Oprah Winfrey

In celebration of Women’s History Month for 2021, I raise up Oprah Winfrey as a true icon. Given the overuse of the words “icon” and “iconic” in describing people, when I use the term, it is to describe someone who crosses cultural boundaries and performs as if they have special powers, such as “a god, a hero, or an idol,” as the word “icon” is defined. 

Bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, Oprah has made an indelible mark in the entertainment industry. She has penetrated the psyche of people all over the world by persuading us to focus on what she thinks is interesting at a particular point in time. Her interests become our obsessions. Some will say that Internet stars and the Kardashians do the same thing, but none of these influencers can hold a candle to Oprah because she came from so far behind and her reach extends far beyond entertainment and commercial endeavors.

Coming from an impoverished childhood in an obscure town in Mississippi, enduring hardships no child should experience, and competing for a place in an industry that is both racist and sexist, Oprah Winfrey is the iconic self-made woman of our time. And what’s more, having reached the pinnacle of success, she sustains her prowess.

Sure, she works hard, is dedicated to her craft, takes risks, practices gratitude, and is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. Others have approached life in this manner, as well, so what makes Oprah different? In regard to her success as a talk show host, it’s said that, “She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives” (“Oprah Winfrey: The TV Host,” TIME Magazine, June 8, 1998).

Oprah’s empathy and penetrating questions may be the secret sauce that makes her the world’s most admired talk show host, but she is so much more than a TV host.

We have witnessed how she has endured intense scrutiny and criticism. Sometimes it has seemed that the world is waiting for her to fail. And still she rises.

To achieve the kind of fame and fortune that Oprah has garnered is nothing less than miraculous. Her success against all odds makes one ponder life’s mysteries.

But when all is said and done, Oprah is the iconic woman of the 20th and 21st centuries whose life and legacy reveals the possibilities for all of us, especially women and girls.

Our Story, Our Song, Part 2: The Black Church in Chicago

(read pt. 1: Our Story, Our Song)

After living in Memphis with my Daddy, his wife, and my baby brother for several years, my Daddy sent me back to Chicago at the age of 12 to be with my mother and her family.

In Memphis, the two Black churches I knew were large, elegant, traditional religious structures in which members could feel a sense of pride. The first church I experienced in Chicago was a “storefront church” on the West Side of Chicago. It was on Fulton street surrounded by manufacturing industries and crisscrossed by “L” trains.

On my first visit to this storefront church, I thought it was not a real church because of its name and how it looked. There was a large showcase window to the right of the entrance with the name of the church painted on it. It read “West End Baptist Church.”

I soon came to realize that what West End Baptist Church lacked in traditional religious ambiance, it made up for in the religious fervor and dedication of its small and loyal congregation. Because of the loyalty of members such as my family who scraped together money, the congregation was able to rent a space shortly after my arrival in Chicago in a modest “real church” structure a few blocks away on the same street.

To say that my family was very involved in the church is an understatement.  My grandfather was on the Deacon Board and the Usher Board; my grandmother was in the choir and on the Mother Board; my mother was in the choir and the “poet laureate;” and I was in the choir. On Saturdays, my grandfather and I cleaned the church.

Some of the most exciting times at church were the Sunday afternoons when another church would visit. The choir, minister, and some of the members would represent their church. It was really fun when more than one church visited because it was like the battle of the choirs as each choir would have an opportunity to sing its best songs before the minister began the sermon. While I claim not to have any artistic talent now, I was quite proud of the banners I made to welcome visiting churches. Our dining room and car never seemed to be free of the glitter I used for my creations.  

On one occasion when West End Baptist Church was hosting visiting churches, the person who usually gave the formal welcome to visiting churches was not available. Since my mother was the resident poet who wrote poems for every special occasion, reciting them from memory most of the time, the thinking was that I, her daughter, should be able to give the “Welcome Address,” as it was called on the program. Apparently, the welcome I gave met expectations and, from that day forward, I was the most frequent designee to welcome visiting churches.

This storefront church challenged children in many ways. Church members were the encouraging audience for whatever any child wanted to try. The members praised my tacky welcome banners and responded to my welcome addresses as if they were something special. They gave me the courage to keep doing what I didn’t believe I could do. And, as challenges became successful efforts, my faith in myself and something bigger than myself continued to grow.

Our Story, Our Song

I recently watched “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” a PBS documentary that creator and narrator Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes as a message of “race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing.” 

Indeed, my Black churches revealed me to myself. They helped me to see who I was in relation to others. They showed me models of women I could strive to emulate. They challenged me and gave me the opportunity to try. They gave me the concept of faith as an enduring value.

The first church I remember is Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, TN. My mother and her parents loved this church. It was the first church they joined after leaving the Mississippi Delta. To see how they dressed and the sophisticated manner in which they carried themselves when they attended this church, one would not believe that it had been only five or so years since they had been sharecroppers.

In addition to Sunday services and other religious programs and meetings, the church was also the meeting place for charitable fraternities such as the Masons of which my grandfather was a proud member. My grandmother and mother were members of the women’s counterpart to the Masons, The Eastern Star, to which they were dedicated and seemed to be always involved in raising money for one cause or another.

The “Royal Court”

One of these fundraisers was a pageant where a little girl was crowned princess and a little boy prince depending on how much money their sponsors raised. My most vivid memory of Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church is the night of the pageant when I was six years old. I remember being sleepy and my folks kept me awake so I could be in the pictures that would be taken that night. Apparently, my folks had not raised enough money for me to be the princess, but I was part of the royal court standing next to the princess and prince. Being in the royal court and not the princess may have been the first experience that made an imprint about who I was in relation to others.

The other Black church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis I became familiar with was Mount Pisgah Church, where Miss Bailey attended. Miss Bailey had a standing taxi appointment for my Daddy to pick her up early in the morning to take her to work. I think she was a nurse. I could tell that my Daddy respected her a lot, and he asked her if I could go to church with her on some Sundays when he picked her up to take her to church.

Miss Bailey was a kind lady who had manners, dressed nicely, carried herself in what people called a “dignified manner,” and seemed to have the respect of all who knew her. I felt good standing next to her in church with hymn book in hand singing “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” “Blessed Assurance,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and my favorite song, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Singing these songs and being in the presence of Miss Bailey, though I was only nine years old, I could feel the love of God, and I knew that Miss Bailey was the type of woman that I wanted to be.

The Black Church is, indeed, “our story, our song.”

(Next Week: The Black Church in Chicago)