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By CAROLE SIMPSON
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Carole Simpson
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Chapter OneTIME TO GO
How did it come to this? It's 2:20 in the morning on March 19, 2003, a beautiful balmy night. I stood alone on a seventh floor balcony of Washington's historic Hay Adams Hotel. Gazing across Lafayette Park I can see the darkened White House, the Washington Monument looming majestically behind it. My eyes welled with tears.
At this very moment tens of thousands of U.S. troops were engaged in the ballyhooed "shock and awe" bombing attacks and troop invasion of Iraq, sent there by President George W. Bush to annihilate Saddam Hussein and "liberate" the Iraqi people. I was weeping about the start of another war, and I was weeping for myself.
Although a Senior Correspondent and longtime Weekend News Anchor, ABC News assigned me to watch the White House from nine at night until nine the next morning. My assignment was to call the news desk and tell everybody if terrorists blew up the White House. It was a job, no doubt, one of our youngest and most inexperienced desk assistants could have managed, and I had to beg for this assignment.
At the time I had been a broadcast journalist for thirty-seven years; the last fifteen spent anchoring ABC's World News Tonight Saturday and Sunday, while still covering stories for other news programs. I was the first African American woman to anchor an evening newscast for one of the major television networks. And I had a big following. I received virtually every award presented to journalists and African Americans for professional excellence. I had spent the past twenty years being an outspoken advocate for diversity in the nation's newsrooms, with particular emphasis on women, and people of color.
But why was I here, now? On this night, on that balcony I suspected that I was given such a lowly assignment because I had become a nobody. Everybody says I don't look or act my age, but I am among Americans in the least desirable demographic for television advertisers: over fifty-four. Add my color and sex, and apparently, no matter how good I may look, how good I feel, how enthusiastic I am about the news, my star had fallen.
It seemed to me that I was now dispensable. ABC's planning of the Iraqi war coverage took six months. As our military forces were building up in the Middle East, our producers, anchors, and correspondents were receiving their assignments. Not only was there none for me, the executives decided I couldn't even handle anchoring my Sunday night show during our important war coverage. When I demanded an official explanation, I was told that the executives wanted to try out some of the newer correspondents to see if—in five to ten years-they could become credible anchors.
But the scuttlebutt was I was no longer good enough to "go live." Since when? A person who has spent her life in front of cameras, microphones, and live audiences, is all of sudden no longer capable?
So, for the first ten days of one of the biggest news stories in recent history, I had nothing to do. It seemed all the other correspondents and anchors were assigned to some special show, some special story, some special event, or some prime time documentary. But not the only African American anchor.
During those early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I reported for work everyday seething. I watched all the coverage and read everything in the newspapers and magazines, thinking that, at least if I were ever needed, I would be prepared. All my "boning up" was for naught. There was never an urgent call or email saying, "Carole, we need you to do ..."
It was during that dark hour, on the balcony of the Hay Adams, that I decided I could not, would not, allow anyone to insult my work. Despite the years of struggle to prove myself as good as a white man, white woman, or black man, I surrendered. I was tired of fighting. It was time to leave a career that I loved. The triple pressures of being, female, black and older-had finally taken their toll.
Chapter TwoBECOMING ME
I don't know for sure when I was born. My birth certificate says December 7, 1940. But my mother told me she was in labor with me when news of the Japanese aerial attacks on U.S. Navy ships moored in Pearl Harbor, blared from the radio striking much more fear in her than my impending Caesarean birth. One of my aunts was with her and swears she heard the same alarming reports from the hallways of St. Luke's hospital in Chicago. In all the excitement, were the nurses so nervous they put down the wrong year on birth record? I would like to think so.
I always preferred the Pearl Harbor date. It made me a year younger and I would have been born on the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, "a day that will live in infamy." I always had a flair for the dramatic. But that official 1940 birth certificate date follows me. I always want to correct it with, "Hey, I was really born in 1941."
Although I took my first breath in Chicago, I always felt that my roots sprang from the South. My mother, Doretha Viola Wilbon, was born in the small rural town of Washington, Georgia. Her father was a white man, one of the sons of the richest man in town, Pembroke Pope. When my grandfather, Frank Wilbon, was sixteen years old, he fell in love with a young black girl, named Hilda Stalnaker. She was only twelve. Frank had seen her playing jump rope and ball in her front yard. One day he got up the courage to stop at her house to ask her father if he could court his daughter. My great grandfather must have been astonished. The son of the richest white man in town wanted to court Hilda? He told Frank that Hilda was a little too young to be courting, and suggested he wait until she was older, maybe in three years. Frank agreed. Over the years he would steal peeks of her around her house and waited.
No Negro girl was courted by a white man in the 1880's. If a man wanted to have anything to do with a black girl, he just had his way with her, and a black father better not complain.
When Hilda was fifteen Frank came "a'callin'". My white grandfather followed the etiquette expected of a proper young gentleman of his time. After a year of visiting in the front parlor and sitting outdoors on the big porch swing, he asked Hilda's father for her hand in marriage. My great grandfather gave his blessing. Once Frank had taken a black woman for his wife, unheard of in that place and at that time, he was treated as a black man for the rest of his life. To see his own father, he had to go to the back door with his hat in his hand.
My mother, Doretha, was the eldest of Frank's eight children. Hilda died in childbirth at age twenty-nine and little Doretha was only nine years old. She had to become the "woman of the house," caring for her little brothers and sisters, cleaning and cooking for Poppa and the family. She always regretted that she didn't have her mother in her growing up years. She had no one she could ask questions or who could teach her things. Her childhood was cut short with no time for fun and play. When my mother was twelve, Poppa realized Doretha couldn't handle the increasingly difficult job that had fallen to her, so he took a new wife, another black woman, Eva Hayes. Together they had thirteen more children. That's a total of twenty-one children that Poppa sired. Between the two sets of siblings, there was never any distinction made between half-brothers or whole sisters. They were all Poppa's children and my mother, as the eldest, became the matriarch to them all.
My grandfather owned 160 acres of land deeded to him by his father when he was a boy. Like other farmers of his day he wanted lots of children to help him in the fields. He had cows, pigs, a horse and a mule, chickens, cotton and vegetable crops. He was also a Baptist preacher, who had a circuit of four small black churches around Wilkes County.
Every Sunday he would drive his horse miles from home to minister to one of his various flocks. He was one of those "hell and brimstone" preachers, too. He would jump and shout in the pulpits of the tiny, white frame churches, until he got red in the face and had to pull out his big white handkerchief to wipe the sweat that glistened around his whole face. As a little girl I watched him baptize people in small creeks, pushing each nervous man, woman and child face up under the muddy water for a few seconds, and then pulling them up dripping wet and shouting for joy. He told the family: "I leave some of 'em underwater a little longer than necessary, 'cause it scares the love of Jesus into 'em. And some of these sinful folks really need to "love them some Jesus." Poppa sounded just like a black preacher.
Once Mama Eva took over the household, my mother was able to go to school, but she didn't get past the ninth grade. Photographs of her at thirteen show that she was already beautiful, with dark brown hair so long she could sit on the ends of it. One day one of the white men in town told my grandfather he wanted her, and he said if he didn't turn her over to him, he would take her. Poppa said, "Over my dead body."
Poppa was an incredible shot. My uncles say he could shoot a rabbit running toward him right between the eyes. He got out his best rifle and sat at the door of his house all day and all night waiting for that white man to show up. He had arranged to put my mother on the next morning's train to Chicago, to live with his white half brother, John, and his black wife, Rosa, in Kankakee, Illinois. Poppa would later say it was one of the hardest days of his life, sending his oldest daughter away so quickly and for such a hateful reason. My mother had to work on Uncle John's farm to pay for her keep, so there was no more school for her. A couple of years later she and her uncle and aunt kept the farm but moved from the country to the big city, Chicago.
After they got settled, Aunt Rosa took my mother to Mr. Stephen Simpson's Barber Shop to get her cut. My great aunt thought Doretha's hair attracted way too much attention from men, who were always leering at the young teenage girl. It certainly got the attention of a handsome shoeshine boy in the shop, who would become my father. He and my mother stole glances at each other. Daddy would later say that the moment he saw my mother he vowed to make her his wife.
That shoeshine boy was the barber's son, Lytle. He was born in 1905 in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Stephen, who was born a slave, and Amanda, a Cherokee Indian. He was the youngest of five children. Life was not easy. In the early 1900's, Indiana may as well have been in the Deep South. Negroes lived on the other side of the tracks.
Before he became a barber, Stephen Simpson was a county circuit schoolteacher who taught colored children for a week at a time in one- room schoolhouses in rural Indiana. The work paid little and he felt he spent too much time away from his wife and children. During the first great migration of blacks from the South, 1910 to 1930, Stephen Simpson moved his family to Chicago. With the little money he saved from teaching, my grandfather opened a barbershop. And his youngest child, Lytle, went to the shop after school and on weekends to shine shoes.
My father was a gifted artist. He wanted to become an architect, but his father said there was no money for him to go to college and besides, "No Negro's going to be allowed to design buildings and houses. You need to get a real job, a government job." For many lucky black men, that meant the U.S. Post Office.
While waiting for a postal job to open up, my teenage father painted signs for food specials at a nearby High 'n' Low supermarket. "Roast Beef, 15 cents a pound." "Pound of butter, 5 cents." He enjoyed it. Even though his hand-painted signs weren't the landscapes and portraits he longed to paint, he could point to his work in a store window. His dreams of becoming an architect were never realized. But he continued to sketch and paint throughout his life and even took art lessons when he was in his 70's. We treasure his paintings, which are still hanging on the walls of several family members' homes.
A letter carrier job opened up and soon Daddy was getting up at 3:30 in the morning working at the U.S. Postal Service. In 1926, Doretha was seventeen when she married 21-year-old Lytle. Poppa was proud because his daughter married a man with a "government job." The young couple settled into a small apartment on Chicago's Southside and began a life together that would last forty-seven years, producing two daughters, my sister Jacquelyn, nine years older, and me. My parents' first child, who would have been called Peter, was stillborn.
My folks were God-fearin', church-goin', hard-workin', no drinkin', no smokin', and no swearin', working class people, who instilled in Jackie and me, the desire to be successful, college-educated black women. They succeeded. My sister finished Northwestern University with a degree in Voice and I earned my degree from the University of Michigan in Journalism.
I believe one influential person shapes every human being for ill or good. In my case, it was "Mama." She died of lung cancer when she was sixty-four years old. Too young, too soon, too painfully. But she gave me self-confidence, strength, gumption, faith and a desire to be the best. What would I have been without her?
She was a simple housewife raising two daughters in a small Chicago apartment. My father also had a business with his brother-in-law installing and servicing radios in hotels (twenty-five cents for an hour's worth of music), and he managed a three-flat apartment building he and my mother saved every extra nickel to buy. Mama had three jobs, too: running the house, working at the apartment building, but mainly sewing for white and well-to-do black women. She often worked into the wee hours of the morning sewing for someone who just had to "have this dress by tomorrow, please?"
Mama was a talented dressmaker and fashion designer. She made her own patterns, and could tailor men's suits. If something wasn't exactly right on a garment, she would rip it up and start all over. "Anything worth doing is worth doing well," I overheard her say to herself again and again.
As a pre-school child I still have memories of lying on the floor beside her old Singer sewing machine, with paper, pencils and crayons. To the incessant sounds of the clackety-clack of her foot pedal and the punches of the needle through fabric, she taught me the alphabet, numbers, colors and the names of animals. I remember she had one eye on her sewing and the other on what I was doing. "Carole, show me your work," she'd say.
By the time I entered kindergarten I was the only kid who could count to a hundred, say my ABC's, and print my full name. That was almost unheard of in my neighborhood.
This must seem so quaint in this day of Leap Frog, and Baby Einstein products. She was an excellent teacher given her pitiable education. Once I started going to school, she could no longer help me with arithmetic and English. She made it clear that school was my work and I would have to conquer it by myself. That's what I had to do. I skipped a grade in my public elementary school and my teachers recommended me to the University of Chicago Laboratory School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the city. I was accepted, but my parents couldn't afford the tuition even with the school's financial aid. Mama always regretted her inability to send me to that school. But when I had a similar opportunity, I could afford it and I sent my own daughter to the Lab School. That was one for you, Mama.
I grew up doing the usual chores of washing dishes, emptying trash, and cleaning my room. But because she had to work so hard, my mother laid more housework on me. At age twelve I was cooking dinner, setting the table, and washing the dishes, so Mama could continue sewing. She also made me get on my hand sand knees to scrub the kitchen and bathroom floors two times a week. On Saturdays, I had to do work in the apartment building my parents purchased. I had to polish all the wood in the three-story building, the floors, stairs, and front doors. If I was real fast, I could meet my friends at noon at the Tivoli Theater to watch the afternoon cartoon festival.
One day I made the mistake of asking my mother why I had to do so much more work at home than my friends.
"I don't want to hear anything about them other kids. What happens in their house is not your business. Your business is in this house." I cringed in anticipation of a slap across my face. Mama could be hard sometimes. "You are my child and you will do what I say," she said sharply. "You're going to learn everything I teach you. Just because you're smart in school, you're still gonna know how to cook, iron, clean, and how to squeeze a quarter out of a dime."
She would get right up in my face. "I want you to be somebody special and high. But if you end up being a washerwoman, you're going to be the best washerwoman there is."
Excerpted from NewsLady by CAROLE SIMPSON Copyright © 2012 by Carole Simpson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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