LIVING IN MY CAVE DURING THE PANDEMIC
Before I begin this month’s essay, let me express my gratitude and appreciation for health and my many blessings. I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have the many resources that I have. I am very mindful that others are not fairing as well during this pandemic.
During this shut-in, I live in my office studio in front of my computer. Let me describe this room. It is approximately 5′ x 11′ and was initially a closet space that some apartments on my line have. There are no windows, so I have to bring in heat, ventilation and cooling to be comfortable.
When we moved into the development, my partner, Toni, drew specific plans to make this space useful. One wall, 11 inches high, is full of shelves. There is also built-in shelving for a desk, keyboard tray, and two large size desk drawers. The structure is designed to house a 4 drawer file cabinet. It is comfortably large, full of my photos, pictures of my Toni, and artwork. My telephone, printer, file cabinets, supplies are all here.
So, I sit in a room designed by my partner. It is her creativity and representation of her resourcefulness. In this space, I live with her and her spirit.
I am lucky to have the desk space to accommodate a 22-inch screen. This computer is my window to the outside world and a connection with my friends on Facebook. I have become adept at performing several tasks at once while retaining the voices and noise that is a constant flow back to me as I sit in front of the screen.
Have you ever thought of how you communicate with others during this time? I get up in the morning, and now most days, I have my breakfast in front of the screen – coffee and toast. It is convenient because all of my many pills are lined up right next to it. I can decide to get dressed or go straight to the computer and remain in my pajamas all day..
I have become a hermit connecting only to the rest of the world through this technical machine. Yet, I probably speak to more people than I have in the months before March 2020. From the beginning of March, this has been my life.
As I write this essay, I recall growing up in a household of many people and sharing a room with my older sister and a bathroom with many children and adults. At that time, my dream was to have my own furnished room. As a young child growing up in Harlem from a family that did not have much money, my expectations were not very large. A furnished room seemed more realizable than an apartment and especially my own home-house.
Over my adult life, I have lived in spacious apartments and houses – including a San Diego historic home – and on a large Finca in Puerto Rico, but I have never realized my dream of living in a furnished room. I guess this is it. I do everything in my studio except tend to my personal needs. The rooms in the rest of my house are mostly vacant of my human body, though the living room serves as a walk through to the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Every morning, I straighten, dust, and sweep these areas, but they are never used as is my office studio. I eat here, set my hair, exercise, sometimes dress and undress, take my daily routine of pills, watch movies, do my shopping, pay my bills, speak on the phone, and communicate with my friends through this miracle of technology… my computer.
Sometimes I feel ashamed for spending so much time on Facebook. I can even be obtusely apologetic when speaking with friends. However, I have no doubt that this technology and social media platform has kept me from falling into a deep sense of isolation and depression during this pandemic.
It all may sound like a limited self-contained life. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Am I being delusional? Maybe. I don’t think so. It is a nest that I have created while I live through this age of the pandemic.
POVERTY IN AMERICA
In 1976, when I was faculty at San Diego State University School of Social Work, I was invited to write an editorial for the Nation’s Bicentennial year by the San Diego Evening Tribune. This editorial brought hate telephone calls to the University.
In our Nation’s Bicentennial year, 24 million Americans live below the national level of poverty. Black Americans constitute 31 percent of the poor. Other ethnic groups of color, mainly white American female heads of households, seniors, and Spanish-speaking people, also suffer severely from the effects of limited income.
For these people, the effects of poverty cannot be camouflaged by statistical formulas and theoretical orientations that distinguish between actual poverty and relative deprivation. Whether one defines poverty in terms of actual income or the level of living in comparison to most Americans, we must be clear that poverty by any formulation perpetuates a process of social, political, and economic disenfranchisement that disproportionately blocks Blacks and other poor people from equal access to the Nation’s wealth.
Incidences of poverty must be viewed for what they are. They represent our Nation’s continuing commitment to inequality.
The thousands of persons living below the annual median income of the country suffer from a social stratification system that assigns statuses of preference and non-preference. It is our ethnics of color and our poor who are related to the status of non-preference. The non-preferred status involves a high incidence of unemployment, economic disenfranchisement, inadequate medical care, inadequate housing, and limited opportunity for social mobility. Preferred status, on the other hand, secures adequate education, housing, medical care, employment, and psychological and social well-being.
In spite of the difference in opportunities and access, we apply the same criteria when awarding dignity. We first handicap our poor by denying them the necessary tools for adequate living. We then proceed to penalize them for failing to measure up to our standards of social acceptability. The double binds of social injustice are passed from generation to generation, along with economic disfranchisement. It is no wonder that our minorities mock our celebrations, proclaiming freedom and equality for all.
Instead of funds to preserve people, we condone financial aid to large corporations to preserve the private enterprise system. Programs addressing structural economic change gain little support because they are described as too costly. The truth is that these programs are rejected because they would interfere with dominant and prevalent value positions. Personal counseling, educational counseling, family planning, and work-study are favored over economic programs directed toward expanding opportunities for adequate income and permanent employment. As long as our solutions to eliminate poverty fail to address the inequitable allocation-distributive systems of our Nation, our programs will remain ineffective and inadequate for the people we propose to serve.
Unless we are willing to commit our values, talents, and resources to building an America where full opportunities are made available for all citizens – regardless of sex, race, creed, or ethnic origins – we will continue our current social policies that reward and benefit some while penalizing others. If we are to offer increased freedoms to the millions of Americans tracked into social and economic deprivation, first, we must raise to public dialogue the contradictions that exist in our society.
Despite our protestations to the contrary, we are a society committed to social inequality. We demonstrate our commitment by:
-our unwillingness to collect and appropriate monies to adequately meet the health and housing needs of all citizens.
-our unwillingness to provide adequate and uniform education opportunities for all children of our Nation.
-our unwillingness to establish and implement a national policy of full employment for all able and willing to work.
-our unwillingness to provide an adequate level of income for those who cannot or who are unable to become gainfully employed, and by
-our unwillingness to eliminate racism and sexism as exclusionary barriers within our society.
In a perverse logic, the existence of the poor serves to reinforce our belief in America, the land of equality. Because the poor exist, we are able to affirm our status and worth-for we have made it. Instead of committing ourselves to a national goal of freedom, equality, and justice for all, we offer curative programs and ameliorate the symptoms of poverty, but do nothing to eradicate the root causes.
Becoming Me: One Women’s Journey Toward Integration – CONTINUED
In my second blog, I began to share my bio narrative* that I have been working on for quite some time. I am submitting a second piece that focuses on my life as a college professor. I would eventually give up my tenure and resign, and you will see in this second piece, the beginning of my new empowered self. This piece focuses on the internal workings of my six years at California State University at San Diego, School of Social Work. I started as an Assistant Professor and ended as a tenured Associate Professor.
* I am using the name, Marilyn, for myself. All other names are real names.
Learning and Excelling in Teaching
Today was the first of the new undergraduate class. After teaching for several years, Marilyn knew that the first day was essential to establishing herself with her class. Her friend and colleague from New York had determined that teaching was about 60% acting and the rest, content. That was not to say that knowledge was not necessary, but without holding the students’ attention, nothing else mattered. At the beginning of each semester, there was always an exercise in getting to know your students, presenting your own style, and personally establishing that you knew your subject. Establishing your authority was crucial, especially being a Black faculty member.
Marilyn believed in running a classroom where every student’s opinion and contributions were important. She learned early to practice an interactive methodology of teaching and learning. At first, students acted in behaviors known to them. Marilyn would never challenge or respond negatively to an aggressive student, but she could not allow a “smart ass” to challenge her. These were some of the things that she had learned from years of experience. Her method worked, mainly for the shy ones and many of the minority students, who could come feeling intimidated.
After a quick look at the class log and introductions, Marilyn could see that the number of Black students got smaller each year, and the Chicano students did not exist at all, even in San Diego. This was one of the reasons that Marilyn was thinking of leaving. She wanted to teach pupils of color who rarely existed in her institution.
Marilyn loved her students, and they loved her. However, the connection was not explicitly encouraged. It was no secret that students tended to gravitate towards specific faculty, almost like a fan club. Marilyn had always been critical, observing how white faculty picked out their favorites and bestowed gifts upon them, some that included access to graduate programs and the financial assistance to go along with it. She did have lots of resources, but nothing like the tenured faculty. The students seemed not to know this. They liked her accessibility.
Assuming Curriculum Development and Administrative Responsibilities
She was saddened by the lack of students of color and took it upon herself to make sure that those present got through to graduation. They knew that she would not “cheat” in any way, but she reviewed papers and gave extensive feedback to help them improve their skills. They worked to do well and to meet her expectations. Their collective companionship provided them with support and allowed them to help one another. Marilyn always ranked second or third among students’ evaluations.
There were periodic discussions about recruiting more Black and Latino students, but Marilyn did not feel that any real effort was being put into the process. Some creative strategies were needed. There was no question that we had to look to the students in the high school and neighboring community colleges. This is why Marilyn accepted the assignment of working on the articulation between the community colleges and the four-year institutions. Frankly, no one else wanted to do it, and she was glad to do the work. This meant traveling to all of the two-year colleges in California, teaching introductory social work courses, and reviewing the classes currently offered – in particular, the syllabi being used. My visits served as an endorsement that the classes met our standards. No one at my institution actually believed this to be accurate, but the law required us to accept them.
It was while doing this work that Marilyn would cultivate her aptitude for curriculum development and administration. She groomed these skills during her time at Stony Brook and community work in San Diego. They would become invaluable later, when she and her life partner, Antonia Pantoja, developed a free-standing educational institution, The Graduate School for Community Development.
Faculty Intrigue and Applying for Tenure.
The workload was heavy, but compared to Marilyn’s previous responsibilities, the College was slow and light. Marilyn was no stranger to challenging work. She had always held supervisory positions since receiving her Masters in Social Work. Just before moving to San Diego, she’d developed and managed the community development unit in a neighborhood health center in Philadelphia. It was not the teaching load that was difficult, it was the faculty intrigue and dealing with colleagues overall. Two other Black teaching staff were there, but they did not bother to even speak to her. She never found out what caused this distance, but she did try hard to close the gap.
There were a husband and wife team along with two other couples on the teaching staff. There were camps of them in certain sections, the tenured and those aspiring for tenure. It made for quite a competitive space. Even Marilyn and another instructor, a Puerto Rican, were considered a camp. This they had not recognized, but being the most vocal of the new professors, it was understandable. Perspective candidates for the new deanship would seek them out and solicit their advice and votes. Marilyn thought their opinions did not make much difference as tenured faculty had control of the elections. Both she and her new friend, from New York, separated themselves from the gossip and intrigue, concentrating on their teaching and responsibilities to students.
Six years passed, and Marilyn was up for tenure. She had mixed feelings because she did not really want to stay, but entered the solicitation for tenure anyway. Marilyn approached the process with an arrogance and boldness that must have annoyed some. She’d completed all of the necessary milestones – several professional articles, chapters in books and journals, gained a solid professional reputation, earned a doctoral degree, chaired a western regional research association for Black and Latino faculty. Most importantly, she was one of only two senior Black faculty. Yet, When tenure came, Marilyn felt no excitement. As part of the anointed group and she would, of course, receive some of the benefits – better office space, better teaching hours, and more influence in curriculum and administrative making decisions. Marilyn should have been thrilled, but there was no satisfaction. She yearned for work that was more challenging and more directly connected to the Black community. She had proven her worth. She had tested herself. Now, she needed to move on to new adventures.
Marilyn was dying inside from the lack of educational stimulation. The institution seemed to be there for the faculty rather than the students. She did not want to die here. The new Puerto Rican colleague would eventually offer her both a career change and a new life.
TO BE CONTINUED.
When We Return to “Normal”
What is normal? What does this mean? Do we even want the same normal? I have thought a great deal about these questions, and I know that many of you have also had similar thoughts. Let us unpack together.
Employment in the Black Community
Normal never meant full employment for some in the Black community, and during the shut-in, many have continued to work as they are declared essential. This is ironic since countless individuals are living below or at the minimal income. Will they continue to be employed? Will the businesses where they have worked open again? Will they be asked to sacrifice more to preserve their employment? It seems to me that many will lose their jobs and have to find new ways of making a living. This will mean training, retraining, or exploration of entrepreneurial opportunities.
Let us look at the area of housing. Many people are facing the loss of their homes because owners and lenders will not give any consideration to the pandemic. How will they find new housing arrangements? Some will have to consider co-housing in the same city or moving to a new location. Sheltering will be the only option for some.
The Black Church
The Black churches in the networks that I know of have moved to offer services online. Some are also considering how they can remove themselves from a physical space or make greater use of a sizeable unused facility. The broader questions for many are: what will “church” look like once we are open? Can we rethink the traditions and customs that have been associated with it? What should service and ministry look like? Will we explore and find new ways to worship? While the church is fundamental to the lives of many Black people, your church may be asking these questions.
Also, can we have a “normal” when the Black community across the United States has lost so many seniors? These seniors have been the backbone of many of our churches with their attendance and financial support. Their death means an absence of their history, the culture, and traditions that are intertwined with their lives. Whatever “normal” may mean to you and me, this loss must be acknowledged by the individual families and the community at large.
Individuals may have found that living together is not a choice that they would make after the experience of being shut-in together. Many relationships will not survive. As I heard a pastor say, “I may like you, but I am not sure if I want to look into your face day after day.”
If we continue to wear masks for a prolonged time, we will be challenged to communicate in new ways. We will only be able to see the eyes of the others. For many of us, “looking in your eyes” is not standard practice. Will we make an effort to truly see one another, or will we refuse and become even more socially distanced?
The Loss in our Black Community
As Black people, we have always commemorated loss in our families with funerals or memorial services. So, what will it take to celebrate these lives? What about the history, traditions, and customs that are lost to their families and communities? Do we need a nationwide project of storytelling and preservation? And what of the grieving that takes place? I believe a national period of mourning for the enormous amount of lives that have been lost is in order.
Life in Recovery
Let us not forget about those who live in recovery. Can these individuals return to normal? So many have lived through a traumatic experience that has placed them at death’s door. How do they recover? It seems to me that they may need counseling while they process the experience and discover how they will continue their lives. There is no normal for them. From what we know at this time, the disease causes last damage in the bodies of those who survive it. Can the old normal ever exist again?
We are seeing two events converging: COVID 19 and the protest for the murder of George Floyd, and police brutality overall. These events allow us to reject a “traditional normal” in favor of creating a new society. Dismantling of the police department represents an opportunity to redefine and determine how policing will look in our cities. In my opinion, it would be unfortunate if we did not take advantage of this space in time.
We have the opportunity to restructure the system of policing as it now exists. Then we can move on to addressing racism and white supremacy in other societal systems – finance, housing, education, judicial, and the media – to name a few. This is our time, and we cannot accept reform strategies that do not change basic policies, procedures, and patterns. Let us not lose this, our time, in history.
What Does the Month of Pride Mean?
So much has transpired since Pride 2019.
Last year, we commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall. All around the world, festivities, parties, marches, and various events took place to celebrate our accomplishments and victories. Nevertheless, even amid the celebration, strife existed.
Two groups chose to celebrate Pride 2019 in different ways. The first group, Heritage of Pride (curators of New York City’s annual Pride March for over 20 years), attracted tourists from around the world. According to media reports, over 5 million were in attendance, more than doubling the number of participants from previous years.
The second group, the Reclaim Pride Coalition, held its event, known as the Queer Liberation March, in Central Park. The Reclaim Pride Coalition identified itself as an alternative, “protesting the commercialization of the City’s official parade.” They defined themselves as returning to the peoples’ political march. I attended this event.
Today, with no march planned and the accompanying outside events canceled, we have the opportunity to consider what is happening in our country and what our lives will look like once it is open again.
In further acknowledgment of June, I am sharing a conversation that my friend Robert West and I did. It appeared in HuffPost Gay Voices (June 18, 2013) and in Harlem World Magazine (June 19, 2013). Keep scrolling after the photos to read it!
PHOTOS BELOW: My days in the sun. These photos, commissioned by HRC for World Pride 2019, appeared on buses and billboard advertisements. My photo was also used on the ID tag for the World Pride Conference. Along with friends, I coordinated a panel on Spirituality and Sexuality to a packed audience within the program of HRC.
The following is a direct presentation of the June 2013 article co-authored by me as it appears online on HuffPost.com.
An Intergenerational Exchange: Two Black Perspectives on Celebrating Pride with Robert West, Harlem Pride Board Member, and Dr. Wilhelmina Perry, LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent
(Note: Robert is no longer with Harlem Pride, and I am Founder Emeritus, LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent.)
Throughout the month of June, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and same-gender-loving (LGBT/SGL) people are busy organizing and engaging in various activities. These events will be weddings, private and public parties, festivals, parades and marches, dinners, and happy hours. Of course, the events that are celebrations will receive the greatest visibility, especially if they seem to reinforce the public’s notions of who we are, but there are deeper sentiments that need to be expressed about Pride and what it means to us.
For me, celebrating Pride is akin to the exhilaration and satisfaction felt upon completing a jigsaw puzzle. It allows me to celebrate the whole of who I am. With my identity as a gay man being just one piece of the puzzle, I never look to celebrate just that facet but who I am in my entirety, which includes being gay.
In the freedom I experience in celebrating Pride, I certainly look beyond the occasion being a moment to party and scream and shout. Of course, I do that as well, but it wasn’t until I attuned my internal expectations to that of the initial reason(s) for Pride celebrations that I began to truly appreciate it in its entirety, just as I’d like for others to appreciate me in my entirety.
Pride is indeed a celebration, but it is also a moment to express gratitude. Yes, that’s right, gratitude. For each LGBT/SGL-identified person, especially those who dare to live openly, we are worthy of a “thank you” that exceeds the mere expression of “thanks” that we are accustomed to. We deserve a “thank you” that is shouted from the rooftops, shouted so loud that it awakens those who are no longer with us and commands them to return to the festivities that were made completely possible due to their courage, sacrifice, love and hope. It is a misnomer to think that only those affiliated with an organization or marching or rallying deserve a round of applause at such annual festivities. No, my friends, as LGBT/SGL people, we all work year-round. For every question you’ve had to answer from family, friends or foe in your daily informal LGBT/SGL 101 sessions, you deserve a “thank you”; for every moment you’ve had to question just how much to turn on or turn off when negotiating varied settings, you deserve a “thank you”; and for every moment you’ve cried with another, holding their hands and not just telling but consciously showing, “It gets better!”, you deserve a “thank you.” These are really the moments that go unseen but are the real fuel behind our movement. So if you happen to see a 7-foot-tall “queen” or “king” shouting “happy Pride!” in your direction, do know that in queer talk, that means “thank you! “Accept it, as you’ve earned it.
As a man who identifies as a black American but is genetically composed of the blood from three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe) while looking very Latino (I’m told) and being gay, my very existence is one that celebrates the innate spirit of humans that desires oneness, yet it is also a reminder of how that inherent purity is polluted when born into self-righteous dogma and just downright hate. My parents, both deceased, were of mixed blood. My Pops was brought into this world by a savage attack by a white man against his mother, a black woman, while my Mama was the product of a love that could have never been publicly revealed, between a black woman and a Chinese man. Both were denied the opportunity to know anything about their non-black heritage. When I think of Pride, I always think of my parents and the countless others who’ve lived parallel lives, and I celebrate (for them) the fact that I can stand in my entirety and declare who I am. With a pot of “chitlins” in one hand and the rainbow flag in the other, as a proud black gay man, I can look out upon the world and shout, “Hello and happy Pride! “
Dr. Wilhelmina Perry:
Pride is a time to reflect upon the concept of freedom. This widely sought dynamic, especially once gained, is often relegated to a construct that we take for granted; a sense of entitlement abounds, and while it absolutely should, one should not neglect to remember those who were not afforded the opportunity to have such lofty expectations. To do so diminishes the lives of those who fought so very hard for it.
Over the past decade, there have been many new images offering glimpses into our lives that permit a more transparent view of who we are, a clearer understanding of how we live and what we are thinking. Our weddings, family gatherings and other occasions of both joy and sorrow have become a consistent part of our news coverage, television shows, print and television ads, and Broadway plays. The freedoms of our community are being played out across the small and big screens, as well as in the very neighborhoods we inhabit.
I can celebrate a society that has become more open and accepting of LGBT/SGL people. I can choose to join the parade and/or attend the special breakfast service at my church or a number of other houses of worship around New York City. Oh, yes, to our ancestors, this new taste of freedom would indeed feel familiar, familiar because it is the same as the joy experienced in discovering, as black people, that they could now attend local movies, public talks and theater productions anywhere they’d like, or the same joy of discovering, as women, that they could now own their own car, property or savings account. We can own who we are!
I feel like celebrating because marriage equality is now the law of the land in many states of the nation, New York City has passed an anti-discrimination law to protect LGBT/SGL people, and our president has evolved to the point of publicly supporting same-sex marriage. I celebrate because I have the comfort and self-confidence to publicly proclaim that I am a lesbian, and I am the convener of an organization called the LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent.
I celebrate because we who are black folk will enjoy our fourth Pride celebration in Harlem. We have evolved to a place where we can stand and say aloud, “We are proud, black and gay!“
Two Generations, One Vision
Though we love the Pride festivities of the great metropolises (there’s nothing like sheer numbers to impress and convey just how far we’ve come and just how much a part of the fabric of any community we are), there is something special about attending smaller or emerging Pride events, like Harlem Pride, an event that, just four years ago, many said couldn’t happen. The fourth Harlem Pride, taking place June 29, 2013, in Harlem’s famed Jackie Robinson Park, is now anticipated to attract over 10,000 people. It’s at these events that you are especially reminded of the courage it still takes to be who you are, and the courage, commitment and selfless giving it takes to fancy a mass assembly of LGBT/SGL folk via a celebration that creates a space for us to fight back in the manner we’ve excelled at: being visible and welcoming others to experience the warmth and fabulousness that is us, all while making it very clear that it’s really a relationship of reciprocity that we seek.
Pride is not just for the out or the long-ago committed ally; Pride is an opportunity to educate and change minds, lives and the world. Pride is also not a time to grow complacent within our own ranks but a time for us to reflect on how we can improve: Are we really embracing the “rainbow” (read: diversity) of our community? We should be proud to challenge ourselves to ensure that all who are represented under the rainbow — every ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status and physical ability — are given equal visibility, voice, opportunity and love. Dare we say that those who first embraced the rainbow as an emblem of our community did so not simply because the colors are beautiful but because the colors complete something of beauty. Envisioning each band of the rainbow as a symbol of something personified here on Earth is the way we’ve chosen to allow its meaning to inform the work we strive to do.
Freedom intersects and should permeate every realm of life. In the quest for freedom, it is at these intersections that we best have the opportunity to appreciate our differences. True love and acceptance is never signaled by a melting pot; rather, it is exemplified by an adeptness and willingness to embrace all things different, to sacrifice the ease of living so others are acknowledged, respected and included. When we celebrate Pride, we celebrate the foundation the past has provided us; the present, simply because it is here, as are we; and the future filled with a hope that all will experience the freedom to be proud of who they are. Happy Pride!
“To fear death is to misunderstand life.”
Can We Talk About Death?
I initially postponed this post because of the subject of matter. I am sensitive to the loss of so many and of all the survivors that are left to grieve the loss of their loved ones. However, I received comments advising that I should post it. In posting, I say to all that I respect your loss. In no way do I intend to equate your loss with the loss of my partner and my grieving process. I share my experiences because I know that you can overcome grief in your own time. I am a witness to the power of faith.
In the midst of a pandemic, how does one get over the loss of loved ones without the ability to say, “good bye” at their side? How does one get over it when there is no opportunity to acknowledge the passing? I send my deepest expressions of condolences and support in this your time of mourning.
Everyone grieves in their own way. Even when the death of a loved one is a public event, grieving for the survivor is very personal. When I see couples together, I wonder if they ever think that eventually, one of them will be a survivor. In 2002, I survived the passing of my partner Antonia Pantoja, who died after a short illness.
When I met Toni, we both were aware of our twelve-year age difference. As we journeyed together, that difference became unimportant. For over thirty years, we lived a life filled with a great deal of public activity and travel, which we often did alone. Because of our lifestyle, we always kept our legal papers prepared and signed. However, the reality of sickness and death was far away from our consciousness. We were not prepared for such an event when we heard the diagnosis: “Cancer. Stage 4. Three months to live.”
What would you do if you lost your partner?
Following Toni’s passing, I moved through almost two years of deep grief, sadness, and suicidal thoughts. I walked the streets of the city, living in a fog with an ache from deep within. At times, I would stand at our living window, moaning and wailing in a voice that I did not recognize, crying out in anguish and pain, “Where are you? You were just here! Where have you gone?” She was no more, and much of my life had gone with her.
Before this event, I’d always believed myself to have a very healthy attitude about dying. This is for two reasons. First, I was raised in a home where I lost my brother when he was a small child. Second, I had experienced the death of both parents. But after Toni’s death, I did not know how to take care of myself. Nothing prepared me for the desperate sense of pain, loss, and despair. It took a lot of therapy and years of grief to recover. But, I do believe that I was there for her in her passing. I pray that I was.
Since that time, I have thought a lot about death and dying. I could never have imagined how permanent and final it actually is. There are movies made, poems, essays, and novels written about it, but it is only real when it comes to you.
I understand that some do not want to think about or discuss death. Speaking about the end is uncomfortable. However, I feel that it is a conversation many do want to have. They want to be better prepared physically and mentally to support their dying loved one during the “passing through” process. They also want to be able to manage themselves emotionally following the loss.
I believe that we fear death more for ourselves than we do for the person who is dying. We close our eyes living with the fantasy that it will not come our way. Even when faced with the reality of impending death, we develop ways to make the real, unreal. We pray, light candles, and practice rituals as a way of keeping it far away from us. When someone who we love dearly becomes critically ill and recovers from that illness, we celebrate their recovery as a miracle. These miracles become the stories that we tell ourselves as we push death away from our reality.
I am thankful for the support that I received from my friends and family, SAGE’s grief counseling group, and my LGBT activist community. Eventually, I found a way to believe in God again and found comfort in recalling my days of growing up in the religious home of my parents. I found support and comfort in their spiritual teachings and practices. I returned to church after fifty years of being away.
I survived Toni’s passing by finding a way to create a new self and forge a new reality. A life without her. Now that I am 85, I am pondering my own mortality. I hope that I can face my death with a sense of being prepared and ready to leave this earth. So, until the time comes – and I do not know when that will be – I will live a life of passion and dedication to ending social injustice. This will be “the rent that I pay” (Shirley Chisholm) for the many opportunities that I have been given.
“He made you you—on purpose. You are the only you—ever. Becoming ourselves means we are actively cooperating with God’s intention for our lives, not fighting him or ourselves. He looks at us with pleasure and with mercy, and he wants us to look at ourselves with pleasure and mercy too!”
Stasi Eldredge, Author of Becoming Myself
Becoming Me: One Woman’s Journey Toward Integration
Over the last few years, I have been writing a bio-narrative that presents pieces of my life. It focuses on my time at the University, culminating in my coming out as a lesbian and combining my life with the woman who would be my partner for thirty years until her death in 2002. This is the first time that I am sharing this part of me. The names are different, but it is my story. What is posted here is a fragment. I have not decided if I will publish all of it.
It was the middle of the civil rights movement, and Black nationalism had found its footing in the big cities. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight against injustice ran side by side with Black pride in Harlem, where Marilyn lived before moving to San Diego.
Both forces had thrust into the universities, and now student demands made it impossible for Ivy League or state institutions of higher education to continue without Black faculty. Many of the institutions, public and private, had one or two on their rosters, but by and large, all claimed that they could not find adequately prepared instructors. The wave that entered with Marilyn as she was teaching at San Diego State University hardly represented “a wave.” It was more like a trickle. The few Black teaching staff present at SDSU’S School of Social Work and its African Studies department were under pressure to perform at higher standards while responding to the constituency of newly arriving Black students. Marilyn was trying to keep her own sense of dignity and commitment in the process.
For her, these values were all important. There was no need for outside forces to help her realize the significance of being at the University. She was acutely aware of her privilege. Despite her internal preoccupations, however, Marilyn found it necessary to defend the new minority students and take them under her wings. She understood the role that they had played in opening doors for Black faculty, and even though others loudly proclaimed that they had made it on their own merits, she knew that this was not so. They were all there because of the demands, demonstrations, and strikes of the students, though the real movement had not yet come to San Diego as had in other major cities.
The pressure of change was less felt on her campus than those of other colleges, yet Marilyn carried a burden. Her private life was falling apart. Her marriage of almost 20 years was just about over, although neither she nor Tom would admit it. Taking a leave of absence to work in New York was clear enough evidence. But it was covered under the guise of an opportunity for Marilyn to develop professionally. It was not until she returned a year later that the purpose of her time from home became clear. It was really a chance for her to prove that she could make it on her own.
A knock on the door pulled Marilyn from daydreaming. “Enter,” she replied. In walked Alex, one of the few Black students in the program. She always enjoyed it when students visited her office, although she knew that they were reluctant to come too close and fearful that she would not be real with them. He needed clarification on the assignment. He also wanted to talk about what being in college meant to him.
The story was a familiar one for Marilyn. It was filled with struggle, disappointment, and a lack of resources. She shared the lived experience. After their talk, Alex lingered, and Marilyn did not push for him to leave. Without spoken words, they understood the necessity of a shared connection in an alienating white world.
Marilyn was no ordinary teacher. Born to uneducated parents who wanted more than anything for her to get a college degree, she adopted the philosophy “that she could create her own style and methodology for teaching because there were no self-imposed models or examples for her to follow.” She expanded her accessibility and resources to become the most effective teacher that she could be. Her student evaluations had proven that she was doing a good job. She was ranked as the third most valued professor at the University.
Alex interrupted the silence. “Where are you from?”
The caution of retaining her professional distance jumped into Marilyn’s head. She ignored it. “I am from Harlem in New York,” she replied. “I bet that my life is much like yours. Tell me about how you got here and what you want to do with your life?”
Alex was ecstatic! For several minutes, he talked about his dream to help others, to return to his old neighborhood, and to start a program for boys at risk. He wanted to work in a Black community. That was where he felt most needed.
Marilyn could have used this moment to return to the world of academia that had thrown them together, the courses and grades that would be required to graduate. Instead, she just listened. When Alex was finished, Marilyn stood and shook his hand. “I know that you are going to make it, Alex. I want you to come back and talk with me whenever you want.” They smiled at each other, knowing that a connection had been made between a Black student and a Black faculty member. They were on individual journeys but bonded by a strong sense of who they were.
That night played out like a record on repeat. Tom usually came late, having already eaten. Marilyn no longer cooked dinner for him or even cared if he came home or not. Her career had become the strength of who she was, and it held her together as a person. She knew that this was probably not good, but she found that it was her work with students that gave her a sense of importance and being needed.
The challenge to stay on top of her courses inspired Marilyn to use all her free time to read, research, and read some more. She had always loved to read and spent most of her time in the various libraries of Harlem. Sometimes, she would read shelf by shelf. Other times, she would take one author, one shelf, or one section and just commit to going through every book there. She loved the Black history library at the Schomburg best. She would start with her father’s collection of Black magazines and journals at home and then search for more information at the Schomburg.
Marilyn thought very little about the marriage she knew was not working. She pretty much came and went as she pleased. Tom never asked where she was, and she never inquired about his absences from home. It was easier to ignore than having to move back and forth between the roles of “Dr. Marilyn Green” and “Tom’s wife.” They just seemed like deeply conflicting costumes she had to wear. No one had prepared her for handling the two. How could they? The first in her family to attend college, Marilyn could remember her dad always saying, “I want you to get an education so you will not be dependent on a man.” What did that mean in the real world? Though his ambitions for her were much higher, most women of the day were factory workers or office clerks. Eventually, he came to anticipate that Marilyn would become a social worker or teacher. She had chosen the latter.
Home alone. This was good. Marilyn had the house to herself and could prepare for the next day’s classes with no interference or tension present. She had brought home papers to grade and books to read. “Actually,” she thought, “the strained relationship is best for me.” She wondered what male faculty did. What kind of family relationships did they have? Perhaps there were no conflicts for their wives, as they were dependent upon their husbands’ income and status.
She was ready for bed now. And, as usual, Tom had not returned.
Day in and day out, Marilyn worked hard, moving towards the payoff of tenure, the ultimate goal for most faculty. This prize package came with a fancy office, extra attention for secretarial work, a good class schedule, respect from your colleagues, and a job for life. What more could anyone want? For a Black professor in a white institution, this was a big thing. The number of Black instructors had grown since Marilyn arrived, but it did not mean that she had support or companionship. They would come in, as she did, with no status and needing to prove themselves. At times Marilyn wondered if she should be more like the others – competitive, attaching themselves to tenured teaching staff, ignoring relationships with students in favor of a more professional demeanor. She thought for a while and decided no. She knew better. Hers was a road in defiance. Marilyn guarded herself against being socialized and refused favors from her white counterparts. Once, after asking a series of questions during a meeting, the dean called her at home. He began by inviting her and Tom on a camping trip with him, another senior faculty member, and their wives. What was he thinking? She was from Harlem. She had never camped in her life! She thought smart and responded by saying, “I will have to discuss it with Tom.” Tom, non-political as he always was, was eager to agree. He never expected any double meanings in things that were done. Marilyn turned down the invitation.
Realizing that his bribe attempt did not work, the dean was forced to reveal the true nature of his phone call. He thought it unwise for Marilyn to discuss budgets and salaries in the faculty meetings. It made folks nervous. She simply listened, affirming within herself that she was on the right track. She had not forgotten where she had come from. She would not become one of them. She was not a sellout. None of their bribes could seduce her. She was Black, she was surviving, and she was making it with her pride intact. Marilyn was a force to be reckoned with, and the best part was, everybody knew it.
To be continued…
Are You A Radical?
“…but once you have discerned the meaning of a label, it may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.” James Baldwin
I was once called a radical. I do not think that the person meant it to be a compliment, but I felt that it was. I want to be known as a radical activist. For me, it means that I analyze and consider the politics of things. I observe, assess, and I act.
We have been socialized into believing that the word radical is negative. Many automatically associate the term with revolutionary acts of violence. An adjective, its definition is “believing or expressing the belief that there should be great or extreme social, economic or political change.“ (Cambridge Dictionary) There is nothing in this definition that indicates violence. However, a commitment to social change is evident.
When we want to characterize a person in a certain way, particularly a person with whom we disagree, sometimes we will use radical as a coded way of damaging that person’s character. Our country has a history full of failed accusations that have attempted to destroy Black leaders’ reputations. Often times, the labeling has created a backlash that has damaged or cost a person’s life. Those who hold power use this label to marginalize those that they want to deter, defeat, or hold at bay. We innocently go along with the description simply because we have not thought critically about who is leveling the charge and what is their stake in doing so.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an excellent example of this. Today, he is honored as an international hero, but that was not always the case. During his life, Dr. King was labeled as a radical, which served to create a culture of hate and animosity toward him. He was harassed and vilified by the FBI, who worked tirelessly to destroy him and the movement. (Common Dreams). Even today, King’s enemies continue their efforts to remove his name and erase his presence from history.
Throughout my teaching years with community leaders and social work students, one of my responsibilities was teaching social policy. My primary objective was to provide the learners with useful lenses and tools for their work. As professionals working with people, I believed that they had a responsibility to act in ways that enhanced lives and promoted well being. I encouraged students to consider policies in terms of “who wins, who loses, who holds power and whose agenda is enhanced?” This is how I view our society, and these basic questions are always foremost in my mind. You and I can dare to ask the questions, research the answers, and risk standing alone while others follow the crowd. For me, this is being a radical.
I am not a revolutionary. I am an activist because I am committed to acting in ways that create change. I will not sit on the sidelines when I see conditions of injustice. I take actions through demonstrating, voting, contacting elected officials. I also withhold my talent and resources and refuse to validate and/or endorse acts that I consider unjust.
These are tall orders that require significant personal commitments. I believe that I must pay back and pay forward for those who have sacrificed to make it possible for the opportunities that I have. I use to identify myself with a political label (socialist or social democrat.) Today I affirm that my social justice principles and actions are embedded in a progressive Christian theology deeply rooted in my family’s history of holiness and Pentecostalism. I was raised in these traditions by parents, who were both union activists and community leaders.
I would like to quote a statement from my partner, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, who was a leading Puerto Rican leader. I consider it a privilege that I had the opportunity to share 30 years of my life with this amazing woman. She would say, “Somehow, I learned that I belonged to my people and that I had a responsibility to contribute to them. I will participate in changing the situations of injustice and inequality that I encounter because they deny the peoples’ rights and destroy their potential.”
So, be a radical! Be an activist! Make a commitment to changing the things that you think are unjust. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Live a life of passion and purpose.
Click here for video of my 2017 interview with Democracy Now: https://www.democracynow.org/2017/5/11/voices_from_nyc_protest_against_house
Click here for video from my most recent protest: https://px11.com.>news>anti-war-protesters-flock-to-Times Square
Growing up in Harlem…
“We get socialized into a family by learning their values and ways of life. As we grow, we begin to create our own ways of viewing our surroundings and making sense of what we see.”Dr. Wilhelmina Perry
I was born in Harlem on December 31, 1934. For my first years, my family lived in a tenement under the Eighth Ave “El” (elevated) train station. Eighth Avenue was a busy and crowded street, filled with the families who moved to Harlem to better their lot in life. The jarring sounds from the train passing overhead often disturbed our sleep. Visitors, some unwanted, wandered in and out of our building throughout the night. Though things were sometimes difficult, we held on to the hope that someday, our lives would be better.
By the time I was ready to enter elementary school, we “moved on up to the East-side” to a building located on 127th Street and Madison Avenue. It was beautiful and well kept. The second front door was made of glass and covered by a white lace curtain. Inside the lobby, there was a floor to ceiling mirror surrounded by an elegant couch and chairs. By all standards, it was luxurious! A nice step up, but I am not sure that our neighbors appreciated such a large family moving into the building. Our apartment had four bedrooms, but there was only one bathroom. You can imagine that with so many of us using one bathroom– my parents, seven siblings, and my grandmother – it created significant traffic for the old toilet, composed of a large wooden water box flushed by pulling a long silver chain. To the annoyance of our downstairs neighbors, we flooded it often.
127th Street was home to many Afro American and West Indian families who migrated to Harlem. It was a solid neighborhood with parents who were connected by their children who all attended the local elementary school. I would remain in this home, sharing a bedroom with my sister for many years until I left at the age of 19 when I was married for the first time.
To be continued…
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