Author Archives: gwendungy

“Gift” Unto Others

Perhaps you, like me when hearing certain songs, conjure memories of what you were doing when you first heard the song. 

When I hear a recording of Barbara Streisand singing Secondhand Rose, I see myself in a small café where the noise of the el trains is so ubiquitous that no one notices it.  

During a break from college, I was at home in Chicago. My priority was to get a job—any job. I saw a classified ad in the newspaper for a waitress position, and that’s how I ended up working in a White, working-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

The man in charge of hiring questioned me about whether I was one of those college students just looking for a summer job. He said that he didn’t want to hire somebody who was going to be gone in a short period of time. I could understand his position and that is why I pondered whether I should tell the whole truth and ruin my chances of getting a job or rationalize telling a lie because if I didn’t get a job, I most likely would not be returning to college.

After the lie about my status, I was hired as a dishwasher. This was something I had experience doing. It was during the times when I was washing dishes that Streisand was singing Secondhand Rose. Hearing her was like being with a friend.

Occasionally, I received a reprieve from dirty dishes and could help the waitress. I was eager to pitch in for even a short while because I thought I might be able to get some tips.

One day, a group of men who were having their lunch break from their laborer’s jobs were laughing a lot. Being a Black woman, I assumed that they were having a laugh at my expense. I just kept Barbara’s beautiful voice and song in my head and continued to clean tables, all the while keeping alert in case customers needed anything.

I recall that I was deliberately attentive and courteous to the “happy” men because I thought that if they noticed how attentive I was, they might leave a tip. When the laughing men left, I went to clear their table.

The tip was one thin dime. I felt anger and hurt. I wished that they had left without what I saw as a mocking gesture. I felt demeaned. I understand and believe that it is not the gift that counts, it’s really the intention and thought that matters. The thought and intention were clear to me. I believed that the paucity of the “gift” symbolized these strangers’ measurement of my worth and the intention was not to reward me for service but to put me down.

My feelings associated with that experience have made me sensitive to what I think others might feel upon receiving a gift that does not reflect a sense of authentic caring. That’s why I think that you ought to gift unto others as you would have them gift unto you or don’t gift at all.

Becoming With One Another

Is it too late for us to see one another as good neighbors? Is there anything that will make us honor and value one another?

Optimists used to think that extreme threats would bring people together in harmony and mutual caring. Now they might not be so sure. Since 2019, the entire world has endured a potential life-ending threat and during that time, rather than bringing people closer, the schisms and reasons to separate have become more apparent. The threat itself became a cause for disunity and separation.

Witnessing the failure of a pandemic to make us mortals live together in harmony, one might think that even “the really big one,” such as a catastrophic earthquake, would not make a dent in softening the hard hearts of many people who have staked out their position on every conceivable topic.

A metaphorical earthquake is occurring all around us when voices escalate over ideological conflicts, when citizens arm themselves with lethal weapons, and when states roll back laws protecting civil rights. It’s no wonder that people get drawn in and fixate over TMZ-brand news, reality shows, soap operas, and other distractions that “stream” into our homes.

When I attempt a philosophical perspective on how people treat one another, I come back to a thought I’ve had for many years. That idea is that we are part of each other’s becoming. What I experience from you is only a part of the equation. My reaction to what you initiated completes the formula. Your behavior toward me and how I react determine how both of us are growing into or away from our ability to live as social beings. What if we purposed to become each other’s foil in our quest at becoming? Then our principal role would be to help those we encounter to become the best that they can be.

We’re all works in progress tasked with learning how to value our connections. It’s not too late for us. However, the impetus for honoring and valuing one another is not outside of us. The motivation comes from us. We know what the right thing is. We just have to do it. One person at a time.

What Brings You Joy?

If you knew that you were living your final earthly days, barring any physical or mental disabilities that would prevent you from doing what you desire, how would you spend the time you have left?

Giving the question serious thought after watching the film Don’t Look Up, I rejected a host of what I considered cliché or stereotypical answers. I let the question hang without a conclusion.    

Shortly after these ruminations, a good friend and I were Zoom chatting about the world in general and especially about our emotional reactions to the horrors occurring in Ukraine. To change the subject and move to a more cheerful topic, my friend asked what brought me joy. Unlike the struggle I experienced when considering how I would want to spend my last days, I was able to articulate what brought me joy without hesitation.

In that moment, I realized that what brought me joy was how I want to spend my precious time near the end.

For some time now, without the conscious intention of preparing for my final act, I have taken note of my life’s journey through photos, video recordings, and journal writing. The happy memories provoked by these treasures bring me joy. They nourish me as I live in memory. The happy memories are what I want when I’m completing my journey. 

What brings you joy?

KBJ: Portrait of Black Women

The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.

Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.  

I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.

Unsung Hero

One of my happiest memories was when my mother and I studied together. I was in high school and she was working days and attending Marion Business College on Madison Avenue in Chicago in the evenings. It was quite a hike on foot, but she made the trip with a spring in her step. She wanted to acquire secretarial skills in order to be qualified for an office job.

To study, we would close the door to the kitchen to lessen the sound of the television in the living room. In my memory, my grandparents were always watching the western, Gunsmoke.

Sometimes my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table next to a cold radiator because, more often than not, there was no heat. This inconvenience did not deter us from studying, however.

We would turn on the gas for the stove, strike a match, and light the oven. We would keep the oven door open to try to keep warm.  When it was too cold to study in the kitchen even with the oven door open, we would take our books to my mother’s bed and wrap ourselves in blankets and enjoy the warmth of our shared body heat. Rather than complain about the cold, we sometimes would exaggerate the chatter of our teeth when we tried to talk and laugh so hard that our eyes would water.   

Muhdear, as my siblings and I called our mother, was her best self when she was learning. She was excited about learning the Gregg Method of shorthand. I would quiz her by reading sample passages typically used in a business office and she would rapidly transcribe them into shorthand. I was fascinated at how easily and quickly she learned. She was so smart.

This photo of her as she exited the school with her certificate of completion captures her joy of achievement against so many odds.

I am so proud of her.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Bottom of the Cup

I streamed the movie Nightmare Alley recently even though I hadn’t heard anything about it. What I did know was that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the actors included Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara, among other noteworthy cast members.

Carnivals and their various hustlers create the context for the film. Highlighted are the grittiness of life and the ingenuity of the people who entertain.

As I watched the film, I was struck by how, historically, some individuals have been able to make a living and even fortunes by manipulating the vulnerabilities of others. The manipulators have been able to convince intelligent people that they have the gift or power to read minds, to know a person’s past experiences, and to predict someone’s future. Stunningly, people who use logic in their everyday life can be fascinated by the idea that some people may be endowed with powers of the mind that defy all logic.

About 20 years ago while in New Orleans, a couple of friends and I were strolling through the streets and saw a sign in a window that read Bottom of the Cup. Finding it both hilarious and fascinating that someone would “read” tea leaves and tell us all about ourselves and even our future, we decided to have our tea leaves read.

As strong skeptics, we went into the shop “knowing” that this was just a way for the tea-leaf reader to make money and provide some entertainment for tourists. Yet, I think there was a small part of us that hoped the tea-leaf reader could tell us who we were and what we would do in the future. Aren’t we all desperate to know these things?

I was disappointed that almost none of the revelations about my current circumstances hit the mark. However, the tea-leaf reader recorded the readings to take with us. Years later, I came across the tape of my personal reading. I played it and was surprised that one of her very particular predictions that I thought came out of left field had actually come to pass. Coincidence or not, she said that this situation would occur. As I’m thinking back on some of the other things that the tea-leaf reader said, I think that some of what I saw as inaccurate about my life at that time may not have been misses, but the time had not yet come. 

Many of us are thinking more about what lies ahead for us personally and for us as a community of people. If only it were true that we could find some sense of stability by having our tea leaves read.

Who We Are

When a dear and trusted friend who has been super cautious regarding COVID said that she would risk dying to see this film, I decided that I had to see it as well.

Who We Are movie poster with Black man looking at American flag

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in Americais a documentary written and told by Jeffrey Robinson and directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Without hyperbole, Robinson makes the case that since Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas, there have been conscious and deliberate efforts to keep people with black skin enslaved in one way or another.

The film uses a graphic to show what continues to occur. A small ball climbs slowly up one side of a curve and when it reaches the very top of the curve, instead of continuing to move forward, it slides back down the curve to where it began. Though I don’t know much about physics, I think that the climb up to the top of the curve was slow and hard, but the descent, with the force of gravity, was swift and strong.

Though disappointed that more people didn’t choose to see this documentary with the word “racism” in the title, I was glad that I was the only person in the theater, alone with my feelings. I left the theater thinking that the nature and culture of our country is the same old song. Some of the lyrics are re-arranged, but the chorus stays the same.