Author Archives: gwendungy

Joy (muted)

I love celebrating the back-to-back winter holidays! The celebrations make my cup of joy run over! I’m so happy and thankful for family, friends, life! Opening my eyes wide to take in the beauty of the many decorations, especially the lights everywhere on everything, is joy in all its splendor!

With my heart full of joy, I was stopped at a traffic signal. On the side of the street was a woman carrying a cardboard sign that read, “Please, we have no money for food.” On the ground behind her was a man half sitting and half lying down. A child about the size of a three-year-old was face down sprawled across the man’s lap.

My eyes welled up, my nose burned, my chest felt heavy, and I said out loud, “Have mercy.” Helpless to do something for this particular family, my joy is muted.

I was doing my exercise routine and the blood was warming me up. I felt the sheer joy of being alive. Then through my earphones I heard news about more civilian deaths in Ukraine, many needless deaths in Haiti due to the country’s implosion, increasing numbers of deaths worldwide because of a resurgence of COVID, and I said out loud, “Have mercy.” Helpless to do something to make it better, my joy is muted.

As I continued my exercise, I received a text from a friend telling me that Brittney Griner was coming home. It was just a few days before that I had told my friend that I was praying for Griner’s return. I was elated by the news that she was being released. Later I learned that Paul Whelan who has been detained since 2018 was not released. Helpless to do anything about it, my joy is muted.

Although it isn’t easy when joy intersects with the unfairness of life, I will continue to look for occasions to celebrate and feel joy even if it might be muted.

I wish you unmitigated joy, peace, prosperity, and love.

For the next couple of weeks, I will be busy seeking joy and will be taking a break from writing my blog.

A Trend in the Right Direction

Remember when everybody smoked cigarettes? 

My retrospective about smoking is informed by growing up in a family of smokers. It seemed that the folks who were chewing tobacco and dipping snuff in the 1940s switched to cigarettes as their main nicotine source in the 1950s. Smoking cigarettes was certainly more convenient and cleaner than the type of tobacco consumption that required spittoons, spit cups, and brown paper bags with the tops rolled down.

The television and magazine ads for cigarettes depicted glamor and cool for both men and women. While men historically indulged in a chew, cigar, or pipe, women were less inclined to be spitting tobacco juice, blowing smoke from cigars, or teeth-clenching a pipe, thus making women a targeted and ready market for cigarettes.

I imagine that the concept of “cool” along with the suggestion of menthol was what fired the imagination of advertisers to brand a cigarette with the name “Kool.” Perhaps one of the coolest things about smoking was that society allowed men and women to be on equal footing as they indulged their habit.

I can recall family members and friends of the family smoking all brands of cigarettes. My father smoked Lucky Strikes. My grandparents were partial to Camels. Realizing that folks were addicted and loyal to their own brand of cigarettes, my mother opted to switch brands often in an effort to avoid having to share hers with others.

Damages to the health of generations of people have been devastating over time. While our current times seem dark and pessimistic on so many levels around the world, I found a bit of optimism when I read an article from 2015 about the rate of smoking in the United States.

Likely because of bans on indoor smoking and effective messaging about the health perils of smoking, data showed that smoking had decreased from 45 percent of the U.S. population in 1965 to 15 percent in 2015. (Dennis Thompson reported data from the CDC in Healthy Days according to Erin Blakemore in Smart News, September 4, 2015)

In 2018,* the rate of U.S. adults aged 18 years or older who were current cigarette smokers was down to 13.7 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is one trend in the right direction.

*most recent data available from the CDC

Let’s Talk About It…

Am I the only one who is still working on the same issues that have been concerns and sources of consternation most of my life?

As I read the journals that I have diligently kept over the years, I think it’s sad that I have not conquered the enemies, overcome the obstacles, and smashed through the roadblocks that have plagued and hindered me from being the best that I can be. I seem to be skirting around my great potential. Over the years, I’ve come close to it, and then I’ll just skitter back into the same habits that are not getting me closer to my goal of being as healthy as I could possibly be.

The obstacles are all of my own making. Am I the only one who is ashamed to say out loud what the problem is? I confess that I’m a glutton about food that I like. I admit that I’m addicted to sugar. I’ve overcome so much in my life, but these two—of my own making and through no fault of anyone else—have proved to be a tough match for me.

Given this, am I the only one who finds this time of year the most difficult? To be sure, November, December, and January are anticipated with joy, but realized with dread. The scenario of the upcoming struggle is clear to me: I will tell myself that I will be moderate and temperate in the way I eat, all the while knowing that I tell myself this every year and most of the time fail miserably.

As far back as high school, I’ve struggled with these twin demons. Back then, my best friend, Pat, and I would give up sweets for Lent. Invariably, Pat would tough it out and succeed while I would succumb to my weakness. I can’t count the times that my New Year’s resolutions about food and sweets were dashed before the end of January.

Like my father who told me that he was not addicted to alcohol because he could stop drinking whenever he wanted, I tell myself that I can stop eating too many sweets at any time. And, like my father who proved that time and time again but eventually would return to the alcohol so, too, have I proved able to not eat obvious sweets for several years. During these years, I even checked labels on everything I ate in order to avoid all sugar.

How was I able to do this for several years and other times I’m unable to go without sweets for more than a couple of days? The cessation in my addiction to sugar was prompted by my dear secretary, Linda, who was the most understanding person one could ever meet. But even these saint-like people have their limits.

One afternoon, Linda, with a serious look on her face, said, “I’d like for you to stop the flurry of what you’re doing and sit down. I need to say something to you.” I recall clearly the afternoon that we sat at the small conference table in my office.

I was apprehensive because I didn’t know what was coming. Linda said that she noticed that my behavior changed on the days that I went to the vending machine and bought a Snickers. I asked what she meant about a change in my behavior. She said, “To put it bluntly, you turn into a crazy person, moving fast, talking fast, flitting from one thing to another. You become easily annoyed. You have no patience with me or anyone else who comes into the office on those afternoons that you eat a Snickers bar.”

I was dumbstruck and didn’t know what to say. She went on, saying, “I like working with you and we have a good relationship, but if you continue to eat those Snickers resulting in a sugar high, I won’t continue working with you.” With this ultimatum from Linda, I stopped cold. No Snickers. No sugar at all. The price was too high. I didn’t want to lose her.

One would think that my overall health should be enough for me to make the change I want to make. But it hasn’t proven enough yet. Am I the only one struggling with the same issues of one’s own making year after year?

I find it easier to deal with the problem of gluttony because, at a certain point, my clothes don’t fit. Then I have no alternative but to cut back on food. I refuse to change the size of my clothes in order to accommodate a bad habit.

Sweets are a problem of a higher order. What I want is to be able to continue to eat sweets, but in moderation. Years ago, I met a woman who was in her nineties and looked fantastic! I don’t know what led to the revelation during our conversation, but she had a habit of having a dessert after every evening meal. If dessert was cookies, she would eat only one cookie. I don’t think that I even want to be that constrained, but I would like to not eat the entire box of cookies!

Am I the only one who has self-made demons that continue to plague over the decades?

Mighty Mighty Mattie

Mattie Butler

My cousin, Mattie Butler, passed a couple of weeks ago. She was small in stature and physical features but huge in courage and compassion. She was a saving grace and a rescuer. Everyone in the family and otherwise had a code to use when they needed serious help: “Call Mattie.” 

We’re all elated that she was recognized for one of her greatest accomplishments before she passed:

Woodlawn was once neglected, disinvested, and considered a dangerous south side Chicago area beset by violence, and filled with at-risk, in need of repair properties. But a determined, fierce neighborhood advocate, Mattie Butler, stood tall, confronted, challenged, and changed the prevailing deceptive narrative with her community building and investment efforts. Throughout her life, the indomitable warrior fought for social equality and housing affordability for marginalized residents.…

Many of us grew up and often heard our elders declare, “Give me my flowers and accolades while I can enjoy and remember them.”

Recently, Mattie Butler was the surprised and elated beneficiary of such an effort because whatever she’s done for others, it’s always done exactly right. Butler was recognized for vital contributions to the same Woodlawn community, during her more than 45-year residency. Two newly renovated affordable rental apartment buildings were named in her honor.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined 1st District Congressman Bobby Rush, Chicago Housing Department Commissioner Marisa Novara, other public officials, religious and community leaders and scores of local residents on May 26, 2022, highlighting affordable housing opportunities for Woodlawn residents during a news conference celebrating the meritorious work of advocate Mattie Butler.

“Thanks to Ms. Butler’s strong leadership, we generated a workable Policy Roadmap which reflects our shared vision for Woodlawn’s future. Preservation of housing affordability was key. Further, the inclusive, open process incorporated input and feedback from diverse local community stakeholders, residents, governmental agencies, non-profit, civic, religious, and private sector partners. She commands my utmost appreciation and respect,” said Mayor Lightfoot….

Congressman Bobby Rush who has partnered on grassroots initiatives with Butler and WECAN for years, laughingly recalled, “Over the years, as an activist, former Black Panther, Chicago Alderman, and U.S. Congressperson, I’ve confronted formidable high-profile and little-known opponents. However, I admire and refuse to tangle with Mattie Butler. She has a deceptively warm and sweet demeanor – at first. She’s always armed with irrefutable facts, figures, and contingents of devoted supporters, remaining staunchly unafraid. Mattie’s a strong social advocate, a modern-day Harriet Tubman. I will always respect that.”…

Reverend Dr. Byron T. Brazier, pastor of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God praised Butler’s tenacious, dynamic spirit. “She’s been WECAN’s driving force, developing housing for neighbors, the homeless, organizing drug rehabilitation programs, delinquency prevention, numerous education, and support services programs, launching a food pantry serving hundreds of people. Butler also greatly influences developing sustainable local, statewide, and national public policy initiatives.”…

Acclaimed Black author James Baldwin once expressed: “Your crown is already bought and paid for…All you must do is put it on your head.”

Mattie Butler’s crown of successful achievement rests comfortably and regally on her deserving head. Equally important, she’s alive to receive it. Grateful Woodlawn locals believe it will forever stay there. She’s always stood for them. A few days ago, they returned the favor, standing united to praise and illuminate her altruistic, benevolence. What a profound living legacy.

Read full article, “Chicago’s iconic affordable housing advocate Mattie Butler honored,” on The Chicago Crusader Newspaper site

Let Go

A few years ago, I moved into a smaller space, and I had to make judgments about what of my accumulations from over the years to keep and what to let go. Recently, I looked for a favorite fall jacket and when I couldn’t find it, I realized that it didn’t make the cut when I decided what to let go.

During the process of downsizing, I was faced with decisions about clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes. I also had a huge store of files with articles and papers that I had accumulated over a 50-year career. Two large storage cabinets and five upright file cabinets were full of what I thought were important pieces of information that I might want to reference at some time in the future. At the time that I stored these items, I thought that they were too important to let go.

The files were alphabetized, from the first file cabinet on the left to the fifth cabinet on the far right. When I would pull out the top drawer of the first file cabinet, the first quarter of the drawer held folders that were all labelled affirmative action. The folders held articles that I had written about affirmative action starting in graduate school, as well as many articles written by others that I collected over the years.

Recently, when I heard news about arguments on affirmative action at the Supreme Court, I was prompted to go to my new downsized file cabinets to review some of the papers and articles on affirmative action.

I was stunned to find that I had let go of every single folder labelled affirmative action! In fact, it was a surprise to me that in the top drawer of my new alphabetized first file cabinet there were no folders containing topics beginning with A, B, or C. With the first folders now beginning with the letter “D,” I found “diversity” folders in the place “affirmative action” folders had once been.

This single word—diversity—and its many connotations has been the single thread and lifeline to maintain the spirit of affirmative action, particularly, in selective colleges and universities. In making the argument for the value of diversity for all students, colleges and universities had to let go of race as a prominent qualification in admissions considerations.

With the anticipated decision of the Supreme Court on affirmative action, I want to believe that there is no entity more capable of finding a way to keep the original intent of affirmative action/diversity alive than higher education. To let go of diversity—not only as a compelling interest for all students, but also as a way to ensure that Black students, faculty, and staff are well-represented participants throughout higher education—has huge current and future ramifications for the whole of U.S. society.

Notwithstanding the probable decision of the Supreme Court, let’s hope that colleges and universities will not let go of the spirit of affirmative action/diversity with the construct of race at its center.


To know him is to love him.

He’s innately good and he was born that way.

He’s kind and thoughtful. Like the time his kindergarten teacher wrote, “He has a good attitude toward others; wants to please and do the right thing and is bothered if others do not.”

He’s compassionate. Like the time when he took blankets off his own bed and gave them to people in the neighborhood who had been negatively impacted by a snowstorm.

He’s generous. Like the time when, at seven years old, he took money from his bank, went to a neighbor’s garage sale, and bought his mother a letter opener and a cookbook.

He’s patient. Like when he slowly, without apparent annoyance, repeats what he has already explained. His kindergarten teacher described this as “good self-control.”

He’s positive. When people around him find fault with something or someone, he finds something to say that expands the perspective so others can see the person or situation in another light. 

He’s disciplined. He decides on a goal and, without falter, takes the steps to achieve it. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He is very conscientious about his work—tries hard to do well, and completes what is expected, and enjoys doing it! He’s very well-disciplined—but also enjoys just being a boy sometimes.”

He’s optimistic. Like when his best efforts in pursuing a goal appear to fail, he perseveres, looking for the rainbow.

He’s responsible. Like when he got his first job at age 12 and has not been without a job from that point on.

He’s confident. Like how he never seems to doubt his abilities. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He seems pleased and happy about himself, school, and others.”

He’s courageous. Like the times when he has been selected as the spokesperson for a group and takes the role regardless of the possible consequences. 

He’s fair. Like the times when during a discussion he often asks, “Is that fair?”

He’s funny. Like the many times he makes those around him laugh out loud even when the situation is what might be described as “dark” and “not funny.”

He’s curious. Like when he finds just about everything interesting and, judging from his behavior, in need of further study and work.

He’s self-possessed. Like when he seems to be walking too leisurely and never wears a watch, yet always gets to where he intends and on time.

I like being in his presence because there is a lightness of being around him.

I like seeing him live his life unstintingly, stretching it out to experience and enjoy every inch of it.

He is the light of my world. The joy of my life.

He is our son, Danton.