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PARENTS AS MENTORS
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Arthur Jerome and
Maggie Leola Bowen Wright
The distinguished theologian Howard Thurman once described an oak tree in his childhood yard with leaves that each autumn turned yellow and died, but stayed on the branches all winter. Nothingneither wind, storm, sleet, nor snowdislodged these dead leaves from the apparently lifeless branches. Dr. Thurman came to understand that the business of the oak tree during the long winter was to hold on to the dead leaves before turning them loose in spring so that new budsthe growing edgecould begin to unfold. At winter's end, what wind, storm, sleet, or snow could not force off passed quietly away to become the tree's nourishment.
My parents were like that oak tree. They hung onto their children until we could blossom on our own and always put our needs ahead of their own. When I think of them, I think of integrity, consistency, high expectations, family rituals and regularity, prayer, meals, chores, church activities, study, reading, service, and play. I think of common sense and sound choices, of sacrifice and bedrock faith, of their unwavering gratitude and belief in the graciousness and presence of a Creator who gave us life, and to whom Daddy entrusted us in his will. I would have been devastated if I had ever found my parents not to be who I believed them to be. They never let us down.
Breakfast was always ready when we got up, got dressed, and got ready to go to school. A hot dinner waswaiting when we came home from school around four o'clock. Our parents worked hard to keep us physically and morally clean and to maintain the rituals of family life and community work.
Mama was a pillar of Shiloh Baptist Church where Daddy was pastor. She was director of the youth and senior choirs which often practiced in our home or at church, church organist, founder and head of the Mothers' Club, and fundraiser-in-chief. Mama was a natural-born organizer of people. She organized the Mothers' Club to emphasize the importance of mothers' leadership roles at home and in the community. She organized a Cradle Roll Department and many other activities for children and young people. She raised the money to help Daddy build the new church and to pay its bills with all kinds of communitywide events and contests: baby contests; Miss Universe contests; Queen for a Day contests; hilarious male-only wedding contests. The winners who raised the most money got bundles of prizes Mama extracted from local merchants and the acclaim of an always jam-packed Shiloh Baptist Church.
With her good and faithful women friends in the Mothers' Club, she prepared hundreds of Christmas bags of cheer with fruit and candy and nuts and threw a big party in the church's educational building, which we called the "hut," for all. For those who couldn't make it into the church the church went out to them. With Daddy or Mama and then alone, after we learned to drive, my siblings and I went to deliver food and coal to the poor on Christmas Day. And we were expected to visit and do errands for the poor, elderly, and sick whenever needed throughout the year.
Mama was the creative entrepreneur in the family. Daddy could not have managed without her. She always had a dime and an idea and a streak of independence that my strong father would try in vain to rein in but could always rely on. He called her "Pal."
As I grow older, I look more and more like her. My mother's strength sustains me wherever I waver in the face of tough challenges. I remember once, after I became a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I brought home to visit Mama a small girl who had lost her eye when marauding Mississippi Whites sprayed buckshot through the windows of her family's house. I'd been instructed by Jeannie's mother how to remove, clean, and replace her glass eye, which I felt able to do in theory. When confronted by the reality, though, I quavered. Seeing my hesitation, my mother gently pushed me aside, and quickly removed, cleaned, and reinserted Jeannie's glass eye without missing a beat.
I do what I do because my parents did what they did and were who they were. I first saw God's face in the face of my parents and heard God's voice in theirs as they cooed, read, told stories, and sang to me. I adored Daddy's affectionate nickname for me"Booster." I first felt God's love in their hands and arms and feet as they held, rocked, fed, bathed, and walked me when I was fretful or sick. I first learned God's caring by watching them care for me and my sister and three brothers and for others Within our family and community. When Daddy's sister Ira got sick, he moved her and her five children to our hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina, where she later died. Daddy and Mama helped raise Aunt Ira's five children all of whom went on to college. When Daddy's Aunts Cora and Alice got too old to live alone in the red hills of Gaffney, South Carolina, Daddy's birthplace, they came to Bennettsville, where my parents tended to them. When dignified old Reverend Riddick became homeless and others in the community could not care for him, my parents began the first Black home for the aged in our town. Mama ran it after Daddy died. My brother Julian ran it after Mama died. His daughters, Stephanie and Crystal, have run it since he died. Many of my childhood elders have found a caring haven in Bennettsville when they could no longer care for themselves.
I learned to speak the truth because it was expected and enforced in my house. I learned profanity was unacceptable after violating this tenet on more than one occasion and having my mouth washed out with Octagon soap. I learned to stand up when an older person entered the room and to give him or her my seat and to say please and thank you and yes ma'am and no sir to adults. (And I want to tell young and older peopleWhite, Brown, and Blacknot to dare call Mrs. Rosa Parks "Rosa" or Dr. Maya Angelou "Maya" or Dr. John Hope Franklin "John Hope" if they are not personal friends.) We need to reinstill respect for elders at all levels of our society and elders need to deserve it.
I learned from my parents that marriage is a struggle and a sacred partnership between two people and a covenant with God and with the children the union brings into the world. I learned that girls are as valuable as boys and that I could go around, under, and overor knock downthe extra hurdles girls, especially Black girls, face.
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My parents expected their two daughtersmy big sister Olive and meto achieve and contribute as much as their three sons, Arthur, Jr., Harry, and Julian. I recall my father's palpable disappointment, as I hid behind the tall hedge watching my sister's fiancé nervously ask my father's permission for her hand in marriage, that she, only three years out of Fisk University and a teacher at Benedict College, would think of "wasting" her education and talents by marrying so young. His expectation that she would go to graduate school first to enable herself to contribute even more to others before she married stuck with me as I attempted to give back in service the interest on my own education. My sister, a gifted teacher and teacher trainer, has more than paid her interest, and Daddy would be very proud of her as our whole family is. But I never once considered marrying in my early or middle twenties; I was too busy trying to make a difference as Daddy expected.
The American society outside my home did not share my parents' egalitarian expectations. During my childhood it was the custom of many Black parents with incomes too limited to educate all their children to send their daughters to school before their sons to make their girls less vulnerable to sexual and other humiliations in the segregated South. This led to many educated women marrying less well-educated men. In my hometown, a core of the pacesetters and mentors were refined, college-educated women. But they befriended and respected their many less formally educated women friends, who often possessed enormous mother wit, integrity, love, strength of will, and spirit that no degree could confer. This book is dedicated to three of these unlettered but kind and wise souls. I always knew deep in my soul that Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's eloquence, intelligence, spirit, and courage, like Mayor Unita Blackwell's brilliance, unhemmed in by the King's English that I was taught to speak and write at home and in school, were as worthy as the words uttered by those with college and professional degrees. My parents and community co-parents taught me not to put on airs or to look down on others who had had less opportunity. They understood the difference between being able to test well on paper in school and to live and serve well every day.
My parents taught us to make sound choices and to focus on the truly important. My brother Harry tells about coming home from Morehouse College for Christmas and gently chastising Daddy for allowing the family car to deteriorate. He had a heavy social agenda planned and needed the car. He also noticed that Daddy's clothes were not up to their usual standards and that his shoes needed to be replaced. Harry called all these things to his attention. Daddy smiled and quietly replied: "My credit is good and I could trade in the car in the morning. I can replace my suits and I can buy new shoes, but your tuition is due in January. I cannot do both. So I have decided to tune up the car, clean the suits, and have my shoes repaired." Daddy died with holes in his shoes several years later. But he had three children who had graduated from college, my brother Harry enrolled in divinity school, my brother Julian enrolled in college and me, at fourteen years of age, dreaming about what college I'd attend.
Daddy believed in God, in serving others, and in education. He constantly tried to be and to expose us to good role models. He invited Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse College's great scholar-president, to come speak at our church and to stay in our home. That visit prompted my brother Harry to decide to attend Morehouse. Dr. Mays promised him a job, which was provided in the Morehouse College kitchen when Harry enrolled several years later.
Daddy would pile us children into our old Dodge and drive us to hear and meet great Black achievers whenever they came near our area. I heard Mary McLeod Bethune and other inspiring speakers at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolinaalmost 100 miles away. Daddy also would drive us to Columbia to hear Dr. Mordecai Johnson, then president of Howard University, every time he came to speakusually for several hoursat the city auditorium. I heard illustrious Black artists Roland Hayes, Dorothy Maynor, and my great namesake Marian Anderson sing at Fayetteville State College in North Carolina. I was born a few months after Marian Anderson sang before 75,000 people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, at the Lincoln Memorial, after she'd been barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was Black. On a train from New Haven to New York City many years later, I saw Miss Anderson and introduced myself as her namesake. As a brash Yale law student caught up in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, I asked her why she had sung before some segregated audiences. She graciously and patiently explained that sometimes one has to do things one does not like to do in the short term to achieve greater gains in the long term. It's a lesson that I have experienced repeatedly over the years.
The great Black poet Langston Hughes came to my hometown twice during my childhood. The first time he did not mean to come. He was traveling through South Carolina on his way to Atlanta University in Georgia and stopped at the home of a White Presbyterian minister in nearby Cheraw, South Carolina seeking a place to spend the night. The minister, no doubt terrified at the thought of putting up or being seen with a Black man in his racially segregated small town, and with no hotels or guest houses where Black folk could stay, drove to Bennettsville, asked where the Black high school was, walked Mr. Hughes into the principal's office, said Mr. Hughes needed a place to stay, and left. Mrs. Walker, the principal's wife and my English teacher, told me she wandered into her husband's office, saw this familiar-looking stranger sitting there and thought, "It can't be." He looked at her looking at him and said hello. She said, "You can't possibly be who you look like." He answered, "Try me and see." She said, "You look like Langston Hughes, but you could not be sitting here." He replied, "I am and I am going to spend the night at your house." Shocked, she asked if he would read to her class the next day. He said he couldn't but that he would come back. And he did return and read his poems to the whole school. I especially remember "Mother to Son" and "The Negro Mother."
Later, as a senior at Spelman College in 1960, I again heard this great poet who proudly reminds us of our great common Black and human heritage. That he took time to come back to Bennettsville to read to children and that a teacher made sure her students could meet him gave me a special connection to the poet I called in my college diary "marvelous ... down to earth and unassuming"traits my Daddy shared. I'm so proud that a Children's Defense Fund library at the former Alex Haley farm we now own bears Langston Hughes' name.
Langston Hughes' poetry and books with his wise character "Simple" and Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery were in Daddy's home library. I never met Booker T. Washington, but Daddy greatly admired his teachings about self-reliance, individual initiative, community uplift, hard work, education, and service. Thanks to Daddy, I learned how Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee colleague and scientific genius, George Washington Carver, overcame slavery, and molded Tuskegee Institute into a pathway of hope and opportunity for thousands of Black students.
I learned to love to read because my Daddy loved to read and had a study full of books he spent time with every day. On our living room mantel was a complete miniature set of Shakespeare's works. Buying books to improve our minds was an indisputably higher priority for him than buying a toy or nonessential clothing. The value of staying up to date on the latest thinking and developments in one's field was impressed upon us as we watched Daddy and Mama subscribe to theological and church music publications and buy the latest books by leading theologians and thinkers. While cleaning out our house after Mama's death, I was awed and humbled to find years of saved magazines and clippings on teen pregnancy, family values, and race relations. Among a pile of old issues of Christian Century on the freezer on our enclosed back porch was one opened to a page with a quotation by Dwight David Eisenhower underlined in red: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." I had discovered this quotation independently in a Washington, D.C. library several years before, made it into a Children's Defense Fund poster, and used it in many speeches. How reassuring yet eerie to feel Daddy's guiding hand affirming my work for children and my struggle with still misguided national priorities so many years later. Eisenhower's warning is more relevant today than ever.
Daddy and Mama did not confine their self-improvement to reading. They went to Union Theological Seminary (Daddy admired Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, esteemed pastor of Riverside Church, very much), to a Black Mountain, North Carolina conference center where they met E. Stanley Jones, and to Oberlin College for summer courses and other enrichment. They went away every year for a week to the Minister's Institute at Hampton Institute in Virginia, sometimes taking me along. I would wander along Hampton's waterfront and through the chapel and library at the college Booker T. Washington attended and where he later taught while my parents listened to the latest developments in their fields. I'd join them in the evenings to listen to great sermons and choirs.
My belief that I and others could do more than complain, wring hands, or give in to despair at the wrongs rife in the world stems from my parents' examples. Daddy, a teacher-preacher who never raised his voice in the pulpit and who tried to educate our congregation's mind as well as touch its heart, taught that faith required action and that action could be sustained only by faith in the face of daily discouragement and injustice in our segregated southern society. Because the public playgrounds and many public services were closed to Black children, Mama and Daddy made our church a hub for children. Boy and Girl Scout troops, boxing, skating, ball games, and other physical activities provided outlets for pent-up boys' and girls' energy. Choirs, children's days, pageants, and vacation Bible school made church a welcoming haven rather than a boring chore. And the great preachers and role models invited to speak at Shiloh helped challenge our minds and widen our horizons and remind us of the sky above and of the rainbows in the clouds.
My outrage about children who die needlessly from preventable diseases and curable sickness today is a result of my parents' sadness over the senseless death of little Johnny Harrington, who lived three doors down from our church parsonage and did not get a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail. His good and hard-working grandmother didn't have the money or the knowledge to take him to the emergency room and nobody acted until it was too late.
My concern for safe places for children to play and swim comes from the lack of public playgrounds for Black children when I was growing up and our exclusion from the swimming pool near my home where I could see and hear White children splashing happily. A childhood friend died when he jumped off the bridge into the shallow hospital-sewage-infected waters of Crooked Creek near my home and broke his neck. And I almost drowned in a segregated public lake in Cheraw, South Carolina that lacked adequate lifeguard surveillance. Daddy and Mama built a playground behind our church with a skating rink and swings and sliding boards and lights so children could play at night and Mama opened a canteen with sodas and snacks so that young people could have someplace safe and fun to go.
My advocacy for equitable health care for all and outrage that our rich nation denies it to millions comes from the horror Daddy and I felt when we witnessed a White ambulance driver arrive on the scene of a middle-of-the-night collision near our home only to drive away, leaving behind seriously injured Black migrant workers after he saw that the White truck driver with whom they had collided was unhurt.
Daddy died on May 6, 1954eleven days before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that he had waited and watched for. My mother carried on our family's rituals and responsibilities valiantlydoing what she had to do to continue preparing us for life.
My concern for children without homes and parents unable to care for them comes from the foster children my mother took into our home after Daddy died. I am still ashamed of my resentment and jealousy when I was asked to share my room with a homeless child for a few days. As I grew older, nearly a dozen foster sisters and brothers were reared by my mother.
An elderly White man asked me what I did for a living when I was home for my mother's funeral in 1984. I realized and told him I do, perhaps on a larger scale, exactly what my parents did: serve and advocate for children and the poor.