When I Think of Home. . .

When I think of home, I think of a place

where there’s love overflowing~”Home,”~performed by Stephanie Mills

What do you think of when you think of “home”? Not the place where you currently live. I mean the place where you grew up. For me, the best way to explain it is: It’s complicated.

I have some lovely memories of home. Most often they involve my grandparents who watched over me–making sure that I always had everything that I needed, even when times were lean; making sure that I attended church; and making sure that I was a “good girl” and “got my lesson” (finished my schoolwork).

But all of my memories are not warm and fuzzy. For many years, I lived with my mother and a stepfather who was an abusive alcoholic. This, of course, was not conducive to a normal mother-daughter relationship. He was volatile; we never knew what would set him off. His appearance always made my stomach churn, and I avoided him like the plague. Unfortunately, there were also others in my extended family whose lives were often out of control because they abused alcohol. In spite of–or maybe because of–the love and support for my grandparents, I knew that I had to leave home to create a different life for myself. I could not be what I wanted to be–even though I didn’t quite know what that would be–if I stayed home. I infamously told my mother when I was a junior in high school that I could not wait until I finished high school, so I could go to college and never come back.

I was unable to keep that promise/threat, nor did I really want to. But I returned for only one summer while I was in college. I was usually working–trying to get my hustle on. Afterwards, I visited once or twice a year. Following the death of my grandparents, it became easier just to pay for my mother to visit me. So, now it has been four years since I was “home.”

It has been many years since I boarded a Greyhound bus, with my money hidden in a handkerchief (can’t tell you where) and a box a chicken to eat on the 18-hour ride to the University. And now I have a job opportunity that is taking me back home, not to the same city but the same state. Ironic, isn’t it? I’m going back to the place I’ve been running from all these years. Will be difficult? Can I make peace with the ghosts of the past and the realities of the present?

I don’t know, but I wonder where this road will lead.




Thinking About Audre Lorde And Ferguson

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

–Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

Last night, sick to my stomach, I watched the “Prosecutor” of Police Officer, Darren Wilson, explain to the town of Ferguson and the world why the life of the unarmed teen, Michael Brown was not worth a trial (See yesterday’s post, “Ferguson on My Mind”.) He explained why Wilson was justified in shooting him five or more times, two of those shots were to the head. I was disgusted by how much the Prosecutor sounded like the Defense Attorney for Wilson and not the one responsible for making sure he went to trial.

Immediately following the announcement that Wilson would not stand trial for killing Brown, I watched Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, in pain as she heard the verdict. I cried for her and I cried for the families of other black victims whose lives were not worthy of consideration from the American judicial system. Michael Brown never had a chance in that court room.

I hugged my daughter closer to me because unarmed black girls and women get shot by police officers and racist citizens, too. They, too, can be victims of a judicial system that does not recognize their humanity (See the story of Marissa Alexander in The Root.) I cried because for way too many people in this country, black lives have no value.

I watched President Barack Obama talk to Americans about our country being built on justice, and all I could think was “no, it wasn’t, it was built on thievery and slavery.” He continued by telling Protesters that he is standing by the statement given by Michael Brown’s family to protest peacefully.

His sentiments felt shallow because not only has he failed to admonish the behavior of police who racially profile and carefully carelessly snuff out the lives of black youth, but he also failed to connect with the Brown family in a meaningful way. He couldn’t even offer as simple of a statement as he gave Trayvon Martin’s family when he said, “If I had a black son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.”

I asked, “How do I write about this? How can I write about this when I am in so much pain for the future of our children?”

Twitter IThis morning, I awakened to the heaviness of the night before, still feeling ill. I picked up my phone and immediately got on Twitter. I read the Tweets from the activists in Ferguson and noticed a significant number of white people spewing anger and hate at the activism in the area. They wanted to silence the voices in Ferguson. They called them hateful names and wished bodily harm on them, but Ferguson activists ignored their comments and continued to address their ultimate goal: to make #blacklivesmatter.

As I continued with my morning routine of dragging Nina out of bed to get her dressed for school, I still pondered TwitterIIhow I would write about Ferguson. Between the news media using language like “rioting” instead of “protests” or “social unrest” and others on Twitter attacking the activists for the work that they were doing, I was utterly disturbed by the way in which the narrative was being told. The story of black people protesting the systemic victimization TwitterIIIof black bodies was being constructed by the mass media as deviant. It was sick and twisted to watch people stand up for the protection of property in ways that they would not stand up to protect a teenager’s life.

Meanwhile, Nina came down stairs and picked up her pen and finished working on whatever she was writing the night before. She was upset when I told her that it was time to go to school. She told me that she needed to write.

I thought to myself, “What would Nina do if she were confronted with some type of struggle in her 7 year old life?”

She would definitely write.

So, as I walked her to school this morning, I became determined to write/right a story of Ferguson.

During this walk, Nina and I talked about writing. I told her that she may not understand what I mean right now, but she must “right” the world with her writing. I reminded her of her magical powers and that everyone doesn’t possess the ability or desire to write as she does. I told her that she needed to use her writing powers for good: She must tell the narratives of people who don’t possess her magic to write. She must tell their stories because other people needed to hear her truth. Because her truth is important. Her voice is important. Never stop writing.

I needed her to hear these things, on this day in particular.

We have a responsibility to write/right the stories that are being told about Ferguson. Audre Lorde said in the “Transformation of Silence,” “We share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that Transformation.”

I know that when I am no longer around to be the voice for people through my writing, I know someone else who will continue in my place.


Foto Friday: Veteran’s Day

For this week’s Foto Friday, in honor of Veteran’s Day, I decided use old photographs to pay tribute to veterans in my family. 

My “doughboy” great-grandfather, Jim Tanksley, served in the Army during World War I, if only briefly. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France, and a year later he was discharged from the Army. This image of him is from a postcard.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918

Like father, like son. Jim’s son and my great uncle, James Earl Tanksley, was a World War II veteran. Uncle James is pictured here with his mother, my great grandmother, Della. The clarity is not great, but I really love this picture because of the way she is looking at her son with such love and pride.


Uncle James and Grandma Della, circa 1942


Daddy Issues

Image courtesy of arztsamui/FreeDigital Photos.net.

Image courtesy of arztsamui/FreeDigital Photos.net.

I am my father’s oldest child. I am my mother’s only child. And last weekend I was feeling “some sort of way” that I couldn’t quite articulate about Father’s Day. A day to celebrate fatherhood is a difficult day for those of us with “Daddy issues.”

Although I grew up with lots of maternal and paternal family, I did not grow up in the same household as my father. In fact, he lived in another state with his wife and their children, my two brothers and sister. I usually communicated with him through my grandmother (his mother), who made sure I had school clothes and things of that nature. I saw him infrequently, mostly during the summers, when he visited Mississippi or I visited Illinois.

Years ago I was bitter and resentful towards my father for not taking care of me, but I have softened. A few years ago, in an uncharacteristically heartfelt and serious conversation, he apologized to me. Since then, I have felt more sympathy for and empathy with him because I realized that Daddy had “Daddy issues” too.

One clear example of this was my first-and-only meeting with my paternal grandfather. When I was about 14 or 15, my great-grandmother (my paternal grandfather’s mother) died. Strangely enough, though I had never met this grandfather, I knew my great grandmother. She visited the M-I Crooked Letter several times and gave me $2 bills whenever I saw her. I can only recall my grandfather’s name being mentioned a few times, and I don’t remember that being positive. But I knew who he was instantly because my youngest brother was his spitting image.

After the funeral, I saw my grandfather talking with a group of people including Daddy. When I approached them, my grandfather promptly introduced me to my own father. (He didn’t know me from Adam.) “This is my son,” he said, excitedly. “I know!” I replied. “That’s my father!”

As is my nature, I joked about that encounter. But really, how sad was that? In retrospect, I wonder how this made my father feel. That he and his children were strangers to his father could not have been a good feeling. My grandparents’ marriage had broken up in the 1950s when my father was quite young, and his two sisters were not much older. After the divorce, my grandfather remarried and had another family. (My grandmother remarried as well.) Did Daddy feel abandoned by his father? What kind of pain did that cause him? I thought about what kind of role model my grandfather was for Daddy. Not a very good one, that’s for sure.

Now I’m not giving Daddy a pass on all the disappointments of my childhood. But as 2Pac said, “I ain’t mad at ya.” As a historian, I try to understand people from the past so I can tell their stories in the present. The least I can do is try and apply that understanding to my own family. No, he never did send me that bike he promised me when I was ten. But as an adult, he has helped me–coming to pick me up from college for summer, giving me cash occasionally, and more recently helping me on four interstate moves in ten years. I know he loves and cares about me. . . in his way. I don’t know if he felt love from his father.

I’m not sure how Daddy will feel about this post. It’s doubtful that he’ll even see it. I love my father, but I haven’t talked to him in a while. Despite my conflicted feelings, I sincerely hope he had a happy Father’s Day.


Book Review: Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land

PromisedLandThe theme of “The Promised Land” runs throughout African-American history and culture. Enslaved people who accepted Christianity had faith that they, like the “Children of Israel,” would be liberated from bondage and live in the Promised Land. Searching for freedom and increased opportunities to carve out their own “American Dreams,” black migrants from the South fled their homeland for the industrial North during the Great Migration of the 20th century. In addition, on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked the Promised Land three times in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. King implied that he, like the prophet Moses, “may not get there with you,” but “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

In her book, Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land: Working Wisdom from My Grandparents’ Garden, Deborah L. Parker uses these biblical, historical and metaphorical references to discuss the contemporary search for the Promised Land. For African-Americans, the phrase has historically referred to “freedom” or a land of freedom, but Parker suggests no set definition, indicating varied and contested meanings. It can be a physical destination to which one escapes, but it can also be a mental and spiritual space. In fact, each person must mark his or her own “sacred space.”

Once that sacred space is claimed, it must be nurtured. Parker imparts the wisdom of the elders–lessons she learned growing up in a multi-generational family–to instruct readers on cultivating their Promised Land. Her narrative weaves in the practical advice of her maternal grandparents, Joseph Everett and Pearl Cargill Parker, and illustrates the usefulness of words and actions.

Tools to Cultivate the Promised Land is a motivational book interspersed with inspirational stories and family history. Parker is a great storyteller, and the the book is most compelling when she incorporates her own narrative into the discussion. For example, I found her chapter on racism (Weed-Whackers for Racism and Other Growth Stoppers) particularly interesting. She compares racism to weeds in a garden, which can prevent you from achieving your purpose, if you allow it. Although racism has reared its ugly head in her life, she found ways to overcome the obstacles placed in her path. She succeeded in spite of racism because she had the right “tools.”

Parker cherishes the memories of her grandparents and the lessons to be learned from both family and collective history. This book should cause readers to think about applying the lessons they’ve learned from their grandparents as well.



What Is the Most Important Lesson Your Parents Taught You?

Da Realist 1: Standing up for myself

I was very fortunate to have lots of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles around when I was a little girl. And I think I learned some of my most important lessons from them. My great aunt Audrey had a tremendous impact on me. She never had children of her own, which is probably why she liked to have me around. She was a no-nonsense kind of person who was serious about good manners and education. She used to tell me, “You MUST BE intelligent.” So, it was clear that I didn’t have a choice.

Here is Auntie, all decked out in her Order of the Eastern Star regalia.

Here is Auntie, all decked out in her Order of the Eastern Star regalia.

Aunt Audrey (or Auntie–pronounced Aint-TEE–as we called her) taught me to stand up for myself. I was always shorter than the children my age and a little timid as well. I stayed with her one summer when I was about four years old. She would drop me at “Octavia’s”, who would babysit while Auntie was at work.  At some point, she began to notice bruises on my back during my bath time. When she asked what happened, I would say “nothing.” Finally, she was fed up and said she’d spank me if I didn’t tell her what was going on. I, of course, spilled my guts. “Mike,” the babysitter’s son, was beating me up every day. He was also terrorizing his two sisters–one was younger; the other was my age. We told Octavia, but she never did anything.

Mike was one or two years older than I was, so I was afraid of him. But Auntie told me that I better not let him beat me up again. And if he tried, I was to “bite the shit out of him” and don’t let go. The next day Mike was up to his old tricks again–bullying. He hit me, and I latched onto his closest body part, which just happened to be his stomach. I’m good at following directions, so I did not let go. Octavia came and tried to pull me off, but still I hung on until my jaws were tired. According to Auntie, he’s probably still got teeth marks on him today.

Octavia asked me why I had bitten her son. And I was happy to relay that “my Auntie told me to bite the shit out of him.” It’s probably not advice that anyone would give children today, but my aunt was old school. I did not become a habitual biter as a result of the incident, but I did learn that I could stand up for myself. And I’ve had to do a lot of that over the years.

Da Hype 1

If you sit down for any length of time with either of my two parents, they are certain to engage you in a conversation of politics. Both of my parents were working class, blue collar folks, who were heavily engaged in their unions. In places like Maryland, that also meant that they were engaged in the activities of the Democratic party.

My parents never banished me to a place for kids only when an adult conversation was in process, so I heard their thoughts on politics and their thoughts on the way politicians operated our city, state, and federal governments. My first political education came from my home. And, as I became older, I was even expected to participate in those conversations.

When Mrs. Amina, the lady up the street needed people to knock on doors for voter registration and to ensure that voters had a ride to polls, my mother was happy to volunteer me for that job. That was my civic duty. So, when the time came for me to vote, I did so, without reservations. I knew what the inside of a polling booth looked like because I had gone in with my mother for years before.

So, I learned how to engage in politics from my parents. They taught me to stay politically aware, engaged, and most of all active.

Ok, 2 Dope readers, it’s your turn. What’s the most important lesson that you learned from your parents?

Missing Mississippi

Winter in the Heartland

Winter in the Heartland

As I write this post, the current temperature here in Iowa is 12 degrees. TWELVE DEGREES!!! (And let’s not even talk about the wind chill.) With a forecasted high of 23 degrees, today will actually be the warmest day of the week. It’s safe to say that the weather outside is frightful. It’s also safe to say that I’m tired of this. I’m not cut out for this. After all, I am a Southerner. These are the times when I find myself really missing my home state of Mississippi with its mild winters.

Mississippi has had its share of colder-than-normal weather this year, even some snow last week, which is rare. Two inches was enough to shut just about everything down. My mother had a hilarious narrative about our hometown folks slipping and sliding their way around town to the grocery store and to department stores to buy real coats. Because there were no snow plows, city workers with shovels were throwing sand and salt on the streets from the back of a truck. That must have been a sight!

The snow and cold temperatures were inconvenient for them, but I knew that after a day or two, the snow would be gone. Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve seen the ground since some time in December.

Maybe I’ve got the Winter Blues along with a touch of nostalgia. I want to see green grass on the ground instead of snow. I want to see full trees instead of gray stick figures. But Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so I guess spring is still six weeks away for us.

So, I can’t help but envy my family in Mississippi. The high temperature in my hometown will be 64 degrees today. While I long to go outside without a coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and boots, some of my cousins will be wearing shorts.

Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.

Having a Blue Christmas

Image courtesy of jannoon028/FreeDigitaPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jannoon028/FreeDigitaPhotos.net

As I noted in last week’s Wacky Wednesday post, I love Christmas, especially the decorations. But I understand that this time of year is not always joyful. In fact, there were times when I’ve had a “Blue Christmas” rather than “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My Christmas wish was to be on a cruise to the Caribbean rather than sitting at home alone in my apartment, listening to sad songs and watching fictional characters make merry on television.

Feelings of loneliness are often compounded during Christmas, and it is just one of the reasons that the holidays can be difficult. On Sunday I called my mother, who I usually talk to daily, and discovered that she had been deep into her “holiday blues” for a couple of days. She hadn’t called because she didn’t want to burden me. She feared that she would make me sad as well.

For my mother, this season reminds her of the people she loves who have passed away, especially her parents. Both of her parents died in December, although it was years apart. I was only two-years-old when my grandfather died, so I can’t remember him or his death. But my grandmother’s death is etched in my memory, even though I was living hundreds of miles away when it happened. She died December 26, 1995.

On December 25, just as my grandmother, my mother, and their guests were about to sit down to Christmas dinner, my grandmother had a severe pain in her head which turned out to be a stroke. She was conscious as the paramedics were putting her into the ambulance, and that was right about the time that I called home. I was on my way to work that day, but I wanted to find out how Grandma liked my present.

She was in the emergency room for hours while doctors tried to lower her blood pressure, which was skyrocketing. According to my mother, however, they never really provided much treatment. Eventually, later that night, they released her. As my mother was driving Grandma home, she screamed and slumped over. My mother rushed her back to the hospital. Grandma had experienced a cerebral hemorrhage; she slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. She was taken off life support the following day.

My mother feels things very deeply, so I understand how this season affects her. But I chastised her for not calling me. (Even though we live in different states, we are constantly in touch.) I am sure that not talking to anyone only deepens her feelings of aloneness and sadness.

There are so many people who are hurting during this time of year. I have opened this window into my world because I think it is an important topic. Please reach out to family and friends who may be having a hard time. And if you are sad, blue, melancholy, or depressed, you are certainly not alone. Reach out to your family and friends. Let them know how you are feeling. And if your depression is really serious, do not be too proud or afraid to see a counselor.

These are my Confessions: Making Friends with your Kid’s Friend’s Parents

birthday partyOne downfall of parenting is the many conversations I have with people I otherwise would never even talk to. Countless times, I have found myself at a birthday party of some kid in Nina’s class, where I was forced to have some of the most mundane, most pedestrian conversations with people I am not remotely interested in getting to know. But, I endure these painstaking chats, in hopes of not making my child a social pariah.

The more I think about it, though, mundane conversations are probably the safest way to go because any conversation on religion and/or politics is certain to create a situation where my child is alienated on the playground.  In the end, though, I always chastise myself for forgetting to take a shot of Jack and for forgetting to sing Public Enemy loudly in my home in preparation for what is certain to take place. (Don’t judge me, I know that I am not alone.)

One time in particular, I remember a woman going on incessantly about how much she misses her husband when he is out of town, because it forces her traipse their children around town all alone to do the necessary shopping. “People must think I’m some poor single woman!” she blurts out before a chuckle. Everyone else lightly chuckles and nods as if they agreed that being a “poor single woman” would be an unfortunate label for the story teller. Meanwhile, the real single mother in the crowd backs away, feeling alienated and wondering what exactly did she mean by “poor.”

Very recently, I took Nina to another birthday party and was hemmed up in another unfortunate conversation. The basketball court in our neighborhood was caught on fire and it melted (don’t ask me what it was made of, I was just as shocked as you). This became the topic of conversation among a few parents. One of the parents said, “Well, you know, there has been a lot of issues on that court. Since they opened, there has been nothing, but . . .” She looked at me and continued, “let’s just say, thugs.”

Did I mention that I am almost always the only black parent at these parties? So, it was clear that she minced her words in my presence. There was talk in the neighborhood of all of the black boys that play on the court since it opened this summer, and that they were not from the neighborhood. This is problematic for a number of reasons: 1.) They could not imagine that these boys were from our neighborhood, when in fact, many were. 2.) They immediately considered the boys seen on the basketball court as thugs. 3.) The picture shown on the news of the suspect who was videoed committing the crime, was indeed a white boy.

The conversation reminded me of my earlier post, “From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race & Victimization,” that addressed the court’s inability to consider Trayvon Martin as a victim. So, I was boiling hot at the assumptions made by the parent. Luckily for me, the party ended shortly afterward.

So, when your parents tell you all they sacrificed for you: 18 hours of labor, all of the money they contributed to your wardrobe, your violin lessons, dance classes, gymnastic classes, cheer leading uniforms, etc., be certain to add all of the countless times they were forced to engage in some of the most pedestrian, oftentimes obnoxious and offensive conversations with people they would otherwise never talk to.