Archive for October, 2020

Sticky: Eavesdropping on the Elders

Articles | Posted by Jim Clingman October 11th, 2020

Late one evening, while I was working on this book, I inadvertently overheard a conversation among some of our elders.  I didn’t mean to be discourteous by listening to their conversation, but I just couldn’t help myself when I heard who was doing the talking.  The more I listened the more I knew their ruminations were really meant for me to hear; they actually wanted to get their message out to their children and had no other way to do it except through me.  So, I listened intently and even took notes in an effort to pass on the correct information to you.

Marcus, the flamboyant and assertive one in the group, called the meeting of several brothers and sisters, who were trying to get some much needed and well-deserved rest. Marcus is the kind of brother who never seems to be able to rest; he is a veritable whirlwind.  He always wants to talk, to write plans on organizational strategies, and he keeps everyone on their toes despite their weariness from long days of laboring for their people.

“What is it this time, Marcus?” asked Harriet, “I walked hundreds of miles during my lifetime, bringing slaves to freedom, and quite frankly I am exhausted.”  She proudly looked at Marcus with loving admiration, which reassured him, as always, that Harriet respected him for his initiative. 

“Yeah, Marcus,” Frederick chimed in.  “Why do you keep marching around in that army uniform?  Don’t you ever get tired?  Don’t you know how old you are?  You should be getting some rest, my brother.”  Marcus replied, “I can’t rest no matter how much I want to and how much I try.  I can’t and won’t rest until our people are free.”

“What do you think, Booker?” Douglass asked.  “You fought hard for our freedom, and your life ended quite abruptly and prematurely, during the height of your movement.  How do you deal with the plight of our people?” Booker lamented, “Yes, it is difficult to rest while our people are still fighting the same battles we fought more than 100 years ago.  I was only 58 years old when I had to stop, so I am with Marcus; we have to continue, and even though our bodies are weary, we must keep our spirits strong.”

“I told our people what to do way back in 1829!” interjected an angry David Walker.  “I only made it to age 34, but in my short lifetime I appealed to our people to run for freedom, but many of them refused.  It’s not that I’m tired, my brother, I’m too young for that; I’m just frustrated at our people’s lack of resolve to take their freedom.”

“Let me say something,” said Mother Mary McLeod Bethune.  “In my Last Will and Testament, I left instructions for our people, among which were directions on how to save and how to build institutions.  I told them to save their pennies and nickels, and work cooperatively for our collective wellbeing.  From the looks of things, they didn’t listen to me, Marcus.  So what do you have in mind now to get our people to change?”

“That’s right,” retorted Maria Stewart.  I also told them to unite and open stores; their response was, ‘Where will we get the money to do that?’  I told them we have all the money we need, but we spend it on nonsense.  Nothing has changed.”

Then Richard Allen came strolling up to the crowd, imploring them, “Brothers and sisters, I know our people have made several strategic errors by failing to do as we did. Instead of maintaining the institutions we established, they abandoned them and now find themselves in dire straits.  If we were able to do what we did back then, surely, they can do better today, so let’s not get too frustrated; let’s see if we can help them”

The conversation started to get a bit heightened and energized; that was just what Marcus wanted.  Others who heard it stopped by and sat down to add their wisdom to the mix.  One was a fellow named Martin Delany.  “Do you remember when I told our people to be producers, to build houses and rent them, to manufacture clothes instead of buying everyone else’s?   I warned that unless we were committed to make those changes, we would walk around with our heads hung in sorrow and our faces hidden in shame.  I knew, even then, that our progress resided in the work of own hands.  What’s wrong with our people?  All they have to do is listen to us,” Delany said

“I know, I know,” Marcus responded, “but we must continue; we cannot stop.  Even though our people have refused to hear us and even though they have allowed themselves to be misled, we love them and we must help them.  Can you imagine how I felt and what I thought when some of our brothers and sisters were turned against me?  I helped start many Black owned businesses and raised millions of dollars toward an economic movement that has not been duplicated since.” 

Marcus continued to lament, “I can remember when we had our own publishing company in Harlem, during the Renaissance, when many of our Black writers protested about white owned publishing companies discriminating against them by not reviewing or publishing their works.  How sad I was to hear our people complain about white folks’ publishing houses when our own UNIA publishing house, located in the heart of Harlem on 135th Street, was there for them.  We had six million UNIA members who stood ready to purchase all the books Black authors could write, without depending on the largess of white companies.  How ridiculous was that?  But still, we cannot give up on our people.”

“Hey Brother DuBois, you and I have had our disagreements and you have acknowledged that even you, one of our most learned men, fell prey to the divide-and- conquer tactics that caused disunity between us.  What are your thoughts on this issue?” Marcus inquired.

W.E.B. answered, “I hear you, and I hear all of the others.  I lived on the earth for 93 years, and it took a long time for me to see what was really going on in America.  When I left for Africa, I was disheartened and frustrated even at my beloved Talented Tenth.  I witnessed the squandering of tremendous intellectual and financial resources among our people, and now as I assess the situation facing our children I am convinced they need our messages even more, and we must aid them in any way we can.  We must teach them sacrifice over selfishness”

Brothers and sisters throughout the crowd began to get engaged in the conversation as well, supporting what Garvey and the others were saying.  Martin, Medgar, and Malcolm added, “We agree that our children’s most important need is economic.  Our messages are there for them to read and heed.  Our lives were taken from us as we worked for their freedom.  We can no longer be divided and disjointed in our response to this pressing need.” 

“I wholeheartedly agree with these brothers,” responded Elijah Muhammad.  “That’s what my economic program was all about in the 1960’s: self-sufficiency, ownership, and wealth-building.”

Looking as though they could no longer remain silent, three brothers leaped to their feet and shouted out in unison, “Amen!  Freedom, every aspect of freedom for our people must be the ultimate goal.  What is life without freedom?”  I wondered who those bold, brash, outspoken brothers were.  I soon found out when Marcus acknowledged them as Nat, Denmark, and Gabriel, former slaves who died trying to set their people free.

Kwame Ture and Fred Hampton spoke up too.  “Our brothers are absolutely right.  What is our legacy if it is not our willingness – and even our eagerness – to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of our people?” 

Then Sister Ida B. Wells stood up, and with her usual aplomb and commanding presence, said, “My dear brothers and sisters, we lived during a time when our people were lynched, and those who perpetrated those cowardly acts went unpunished.  Their unnamed souls call out to our children who still walk that land called America; they seek relief just as the souls of those in the Book of Revelation called for their rescue.  I pray our children will respond and do the things they need to do to help themselves?  If they don’t change, they are lost”

As the crowd grew larger, over my right shoulder I saw a much younger brother standing there, listening intently, with a pensive smile on his face.  He obviously had not been there as long as the others.  His name was Ken Bridges.  Marcus saw him and motioned for him to come closer.  “Brother Ken, we know you are a relative newcomer to our midst, but we were watching as you tirelessly worked for freedom for Black people and, like the UNIA, the Matah Network was a stroke of genius.  What do you think now, as you see our people continue to struggle despite all of the wisdom we passed down to them?”

Ken humbly stepped to the front of the crowd and simply said, “Our people have been tampered with, Marcus, and they are suffering from the vestiges of psychological programming that still cause them to dislike everything African about themselves.  But I believe if they would just love themselves and their brothers and sisters more, and redirect more of their spending toward one another, they will achieve the goals you promoted and set for them.  The messages all of you left are still there with our people but they need to be reinforced continuously.  When I left, there were new Kwame’s, new Martin’s, new Frederick’s, new Ida’s, and new Harriet’s on the way.  I am proud of them, for their courage and for their commitment, and I am confident they will make you proud too.”   

Marcus was relieved, and so were many of the others who heard Ken’s words.  Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson were giving high-fives to everyone; Mahalia Jackson was singing, “Glory! Halleluiah!”; Satchmo was blowing his horn; James Baldwin, Bob Maynard, and Amos Wilson were busy writing down everything they witnessed; Queen Mother Moore was hugging everyone near her.

Harold Washington stood up and, with that familiar engaging smile, starting “pressing the flesh,” remembering his days as Mayor of Chicago; Ron Brown and Reginald Lewis now felt much better about the future of those they left behind; and Fannie Lou Hamer sat back down in her rocking chair, able to rest once again.

Brother Chancellor Williams was so excited that he actually picked up Sister C.J. Walker and spun her around in his arms.  Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, J.A. Rogers, Langston Hughes, Elders A. G. Gaston, and A. Philip Randolph joined hands in a small circle and silently offered thanks to The Creator.  Maggie Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Annie Turnbo-Malone, Betty Shabazz, and Gwendolyn Brooks jumped for joy at the thought of their children’s awakening.

Tupac, Biggie, Aaliyah, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes quietly sat at the feet of these elders, full of regret and remorse for their untimely departure from their loved ones but comforted, nevertheless, by their understanding of what love and sacrifice truly meant.  They wept.  Mother Hattie McDaniel embraced them.

Garvey was all smiles by now, buoyed by what he had heard and seen.  Although he knew his people still had a long way to go, and although Marcus regretted our not having followed the lessons of all the great elders gathered before him, his big smile was a dead giveaway that down deep inside he was confident we would one day soon follow through and fulfill our quest for true freedom. 

Marcus was even more reassured when Maynard Jackson, who had just arrived, boldly walked up to him, gave him a huge bear hug, and thanked him for the sacrifices Marcus had made for our people.  Maynard, in that beautiful baritone voice of his, thanked everyone in attendance for the lessons and examples they passed on to him.

Garvey was visibly moved by the gesture, as he took his beloved Amy’s hand once again, embraced her, and slowly walked away from the crowd.  This time he was determined to get some rest, and this time Amy would see to it that he did just that. 

My initial feeling of eavesdropping on a private conversation subsided; I was supposed to listen in.  After all, those were my brothers and sisters, my family members, and my elders; I have an obligation to listen to them and, more importantly, I have an obligation to acknowledge them and to follow their lead.  I was not eavesdropping; I was learning.  I thanked them for their words of wisdom, which are echoed throughout this book.  

With deep respect and boundless gratitude to those who sacrificed for our freedom; they continue to teach us the “stuff we need to know.”

Jim Clingman