Maya, Vincent …Gone too Soon

Sometimes, when someone dies, you want to wake them up.

I have felt that when loved ones have died, or when certain public figures have passed on.

I felt it this week with the death of Maya Angelou and last week when I learned Vincent Harding had died.

Wake up, please?

I met Maya Angelou years ago, when I was in college. She had come to Occidental College for some special event, (I don’t remember which) and I sat, spellbound. I think it was her voice; it reminded me of what brown velvet looks like, or like molasses being spread over a piece of bread. The words she had written were powerful, true enough, but it was her voice that caught me. After the event, I talked with her and showed her some of my poetry. I remember she told me, “My dear child, you are a writer …and you must always  write. Every day…you must write…”

Her spirit was cemented in mine from that moment on,

Her life story, her poetry fascinated me, but her spirit captivated me.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt,

But still, like dust, I’ll rise …

She had risen, surely. I carried that poem in my heart, as sure as I carried the spirit of my own mother in my heart.

And so when she died, something jostled loose within me…and I wanted to ask her, whisper to her, “Wake up. Please, wake up!”

Vincent Harding I only met recently. I had read only one of his books, There is a River, and had only recently learned that he had written Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous sermon, “A Time to Break Silence.” He wrote that most piercing observation in that speech: “There is a time when to be silent is betrayal…”  What struck me upon meeting Vincent was his gentleness. He had a quiet voice; it didn’t remind me one bit of velvet or molasses, but his spirit was palpably gentle. He said that he had been loved into living; his spirit supported that claim.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast…it is not proud. It does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs….

I want to ask him, politely, to please wake up. People were not ready for him or Maya  to leave, not yet.

These two veteran Civil Rights icons have contributed breath to the lives of so many people. They lived through some of the ugliest episodes of racial cruelty this country has ever experienced, and came through it not only standing, but helping others to get through it and understand it by the words they wrote. They believed in the “beloved community” and worked to spread that good news. As Ruby Sales said, who knew Harding intimately and whom he called “daughter,” Harding and those who worked in the movement brought down an entire (racist system) without ever having fired a single weapon.

They did it with love and with their faithfulness to the gift they both had, that of writing.

It is sad that, now, two of our Civil Rights heroes have “gone home to be with the Lord.” It seems like we who are alive need to talk to those who are yet alive, cherish them, tell their stories, give them homage for what they did for all of us. It seems like we need to at least gather the children, and get those who faced dogs and fire hoses …to come talk…to the children…and tell them the stories before they, too, lay down to rest, their voices never to be heard again.

Do you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops

Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Maya, Vincent …may you please wake up?

You left us far too soon…

A candid observation …

Even Urban Kids …

In an interview of Vincent Harding done by Krista Tippet, Harding talked about his commitment to young people, speaking to their hope and their desire to effect change. He recounted a story of youth from Philadelphia who visited him in Colorado. They were greeted with love and respect and one young man asked Harding, “Uncle Vincent,” (they had begun calling him that), “how can you love us so much?”

The question was a powerful one for Harding because it spoke to these young people who still had hope untapped within them. They were clearly “urban” youth in appearance, Harding said; they dressed, spoke and behaved as the stereotypical urban young person is wont to do. But the question from the young man belied a part of urban youth that is typically ignored or even thought to exist: souls that yearn to be loved, appreciated, respected…and serve.

Harding’s story reminded me of an encounter I had some years ago. I was speaking to an unruly crowd in a high school in Columbus, Ohio. To say they were unruly is an understatement, actually. They were rude and loud …and were not the least bit interested in hearing my little presentation on Black History. It was important to me…but I am afraid I failed in communicating my love for black history to them.

After the presentation, I had the audacity to ask them if there were any questions. I was quite ready and prepared to just exit the stage and the auditorium… to my surprise, a young woman, very pretty, raised her hand. I asked her if she would stand, and she ignored me. I asked her again…standing would help me and others hear her question, but, egged on by her peers, she refused and made a rude comment. I had to hold myself back; I am “old school,” and was taught that youth are to respect their “elders.”  I wanted to remind her who the elder was in this moment.

But I was silent. I listened to her question and answered as best I could. Not a moment too soon, my time with this assembly was done. I was on the front row, gathering my things, when to my surprise, standing in front of me was the young woman who had asked the question.

I looked up …and was surprised. In her eyes were giant crocodile tears. She said, “I am sorry I was rude. I thought you were good…I just want to know, how do I know God loves me?”

I had to choke back my own tears.  This girl, who could not have been much more than 16, was pleading for help. I supposed that among her peers, it would have seemed “uncool” to appear interested or to come off “polite.” Yet, there she stood, the tears in her eyes telling the story of the pain in her spirit. She wanted love. She had something to give but without love, it was never going to come out.

I hugged her and answered her as best I could. I gave her some books she could read. And I told her she could contact me at the church whenever she wanted. I never heard from her again. I hope she graduated and went to college and is in the process of loving this society of which she is a part.

The story of the young man who questioned Dr. Harding, and the young woman who questioned me, tells me that instead of complaining that urban kids are unruly, bad and impossible to deal with, there ought to be more of us looking for ways to reach their spirits and souls. They are human beings, not urban objects. They have songs to sing, the songs of talent and gifts they were meant to share with the world. I am almost sure there would be fewer gangs if more of us could find a way to reach these kids, too many of whom feel unloved and unneeded.

Just this weekend, Hadiya Pendleton was buried, an innocent victim of yet another shooting in Chicago. She made a plea for there to be fewer gangs, but that will never happen if kids keep growing up feeling worthless. It seems that the gang activity, the behavior that causes so many shootings in urban areas, is more a function of kids failing to thrive because of lack of positive attention and pouring into their young minds and spirits. It would not be surprising if the person who shot young Hadiya was performing some sort of initiation ritual for a group of young boys who have banded and bonded together in order to feel respected, loved and needed. Left with far too much time on their own, they devise ways to find that which every human being needs.

I read a story shared by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until she left the safe confines of her all-black community and went out into the world that she felt the alienation that so many urban kids feel within their own communities. She was looking for a job to earn money for college, but she had cut job postings out of the white section of the newspaper, and was rebuffed again and again by incredulous white employers who told her over and over that they “didn’t hire colored.”

She was getting used to that, but came to watershed moment when, one day in her native Memphis, a thunderstorm began while she was out looking for a job. Her grandmother, “old school,” had taught her that one remains inside, quiet and if at all possible, hidden while the storm was on. The storm was to be respected, her grandmother would say, because “God was doing his work.” Being in the midst of such a storm, outside in it, for goodness’ sake, went against everything she had been taught. Yet, when she looked at building to which she might have run for cover, she saw white faces looking at her, with the unspoken sentence, “not in here you won’t come.”

She didn’t try. She walked to the “black side” of town to try to find shelter, but ended up getting on the bus. She was angry. She felt the lack of love and concern and respect for her being just because she was black. She defiantly sat in the “white” section of the bus, on the front side seat. Nobody bothered her.

The difference between Gwendolyn and our kids is that Gwendolyn had a movement into which to pour her anger, creativity and dreams. She was enveloped by people, black and white, who loved her and showed her respect. Any possibility of failure to thrive was cut short by the people who stood in the breach.

There seem to be too few people standing in the breach, and so young innocent children, like Hadiya, are cut down before they get to give to the world their unique gifts. The children who are rude and defiant now were not born that way. They were created and shaped by all sorts of factors.

There are a lot of young urban girls and boys with “crocodile tears” in their eyes and spirits. We just have to take the time to look for them.

A candid observation…