I received some good news recently. My mother's best friend has died. She was 91. You may be thinking, "Why would someone's death be good news?" Good question. But before I answer, let me tell you about "Ms Alma" as I called her, and why their friendship was so special. Ms. Alma and Florence have been friends for about 60 years I guess.
In their younger years, these two beautiful women were social butterflies attracting the attention of the most eligible men in their circle. Alma and Florence belonged to several well known social clubs of the day, and loved to throw fancy parties for their other friends. Family life for Alma and Florence included their husbands, children, church every Sunday and large family dinners, especially at holiday time.
Throughout their long friendship, Alma and Florence were always there for each other through good times and bad, sickness and health. The day came when Florence suffered a major health crisis. Diagnosed in her late fifties with multiple sclerosis, Florence lost her ability to walk. This didn't stop Alma from coming to see her friend. Alma kept Florence's spirits up with stories about the good old days, frequently punctuating the air between them with fits of laughter.
When she came Alma always bought Florence's favorites — corned beef sandwiches or crab cakes. I loved watching those two feast on good food and good conversation. Before leaving Alma always gave me what she called "a little piece of change," usually five or ten dollars. I think it was her way of letting me know how much she appreciated me for taking good care of her friend.
The time would come when Alma developed health problems of her own, limiting her ability to get around independently. No longer could she keep up her regular visits to see Florence, but that didn't stop her. She still managed to call every week to check in with her friend. When Florence was blessed to buy a used wheelchair van, one of the first trips we made in it was to see Alma.
This time, we bought the food. One beautiful summer afternoon, we surprised Alma with an impromptu outdoor picnic. Because her house was not accessible for Florence's wheelchair, Alma's daughter helped set up a folding table with tablecloth on the sidewalk out front. We sat down to a meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and sweet tea. We had fun that day, laughing and joking as Alma's neighbors glanced back at us with disapproving looks as they walked by. Obviously, they had no idea of the longstanding history between these two women, and why this was perfectly normal behavior for the two of them. Later that day, as Alma and Florence said their "goodbyes," I knew somehow that these two friends had probably seen the last of their best days on earth together.
Not long afterwards, Alma's health declined to the extent that her daughters could no longer care for her at home. Alma was placed in a nursing home conveniently within five minutes driving distance from our house. Florence and I visited Alma there often to play dominoes and eat lunch with her. It was almost like old times, except that both women were now in wheelchairs.
Later that year, Florence passed away at age 83. Alma's daughter brought her to the funeral. I will never forget the heartfelt tribute Alma made to her friend:
When they told me that Florence had died, I had to come. Florence and I were the best of friends. I really will miss her.
After Florence's death, I continued to visit Alma. She was always glad to see me. Our shared grief over the lost of our mutual best friend brought us closer together. The time came when I decided to move away from the area. I struggled with how to tell Alma I would be leaving. The night before my last visit with her, I had a dream. In the dream, I was instructed to share the gospel with Alma and lead her in a prayer for salvation, just as I had done with Florence some years before. The next day, when I arrived at the nursing home, Alma seemed especially glad to see me. It was as if she had been expecting me to come that day. With few words from me, Alma prayed to receive Jesus Christ, as her Lord and Savior. The look of pure joy on her aging face was both priceless and precious.
I never saw Alma again after that day. Some ten years later, I came across one of Florence's old phone books. Leafing through its pages, I came across a phone number for one of Alma's daughters, so I called her. When she answered, I found myself blurting out the words, "Is your mother still alive?" After she confirmed who I was, she said that her mother had died a year earlier. My call had come on the one year anniversary of her death. Alma was 91 when she died. I hung up the phone thinking:
What a joyful reunion Alma and Florence must be having in heaven right now.
I was glad to hear that Alma had died because I knew these two lifelong friends would be reunited once more. In life, they shared a special friendship. And now, in death, they share an eternity in the presence of God.
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them.' Revelation 14:13
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:1-2
Davis' history making Emmy win (first black actor to win), only served to confirm how limited the opportunities are for actors of color in Hollywood. Like a broken record, lack of opportunity has been a constant theme playing in the background of every black actor's Hollywood hopes and dreams.
Davis' win elevated the status of just about every black actor in Hollywood, at least temporarily. In her acceptance speech, as other black award winners have done, Davis bemoaned the lack of meaningful starring roles for black actors to give them a shot at even being considered for acting's top prizes.
Hollywood has never been a welcoming place for black actors. Look at the history. During Hollywood's darkest days (no pun intended), blacks weren't even allowed to play themselves on screen. White filmmakers used white actors in blackface to play black characters. When blacks weren't being left off the silver screen entirely, they were paraded in front of the cameras as objects of derision and ridicule thus perpetuating negative images and reinforcing racist attitudes toward blacks. Who can forget the infamous 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, with its blatantly racist images and black stereotypes. It's no surprise that Hollywood has never pulled this controversial film out of circulation despite black protests and calls for its censorship. At one time, it was the highest grossing film in Hollywood. The Birth of a Nation is still available today. It's been reformatted for DVD on Netflix.
During Hollywood's Golden Age, in the late 20's to early 60's when movie-making was at its peak, black actors were cast as slaves, mammys, cooks, coons, and lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin' niggas, which was consistent at the time with white society's view of blacks, Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1940 from the Motion Picture Academy for playing [a] Mammy in the movie, Gone With the Wind. McDaniel, and another black actor, Stepin Fetchit (not his real name), faced much criticism from black leaders for portraying dim-witted or subservient black characters. Even today, calling a black person a stepin fetchit, is still viewed as a racial slur.
Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1931 to 1955, pleaded with African-American actors to stop accepting such stereotypical parts, as he believed they degraded their community. White urged movie studios to start creating roles that portrayed blacks as capable of achieving far more than cooking and cleaning for white people.— the Hattie McDaniel story
Even now, Hollywood continues to attract criticism for how it portrays black life in movies and on television. Far from putting its darkie past behind it, Hollywood has merely rewritten and updated the script for a 21st century audience. The stereotyping and typecasting of roles for black actors has not stopped. The slaves, mammys, coons, jiggaboos and jive talkin' niggas have simply been recast as bitches, whores, drug addicts, dope dealers, thugs, gangstas, and criminals for a new generation of black and white audiences whose understanding of their society is shaped largely by these Hollywood stereotypes.
Stereotypical roles in society have been excessively exaggerated by television programs, keeping racism alive and breathing in America. The careful selections of ethnicities in role casting have had an exceptionally large impact on American society. Young television viewers are learning at an early age about race and discrimination and are witnessing the ugly impacts of these issues.—Racism in Television
If anybody thinks Hollywood has changed its ways, think again. Money is what drives the equation in Hollywood. As long as the movie studios continue to make a profit from movies that depict white racial superiority, reinforce white values, while maintaining the status quo as it relates to blacks, Hollywood has little reason to change its ways. Furthermore, unless Hollywood is convinced that it can still make money by embracing diversity in all its facets, and that audiences will pay to see this level of diversity on film, there's no reason for the motion picture industry to change the formula that's worked for it some 100 years or more.
Also, the fact that a few black actors and producers have recently made breakthroughs with such popular shows as Scandal, Empire and How to Get Away with Murder should not be seen as progress. Neither Cookie nor the Lyon clan, Olivia Pope nor Annalise Keating are the kind of character role models anyone should want the next generation of little black kids to aspire to be like. Real progress will come when black characters are routinely included as part of the human landscape of every show on television and in every movie made. Until then, the Tyler Perrys, Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels in Hollywood should take their cue from black filmmakers like the late Oscar Micheaux and tell our stories in their entirety the way they should be told. I'm believing that there are enough talent resources and collective wealth within the black community to get it done.
For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.—1 Timothy 6:9-10
Following is a speech presented at the 25th Annual Upper Merion Martin Luther King Jr National Holiday Celebration on January 9th in King of Prussia, Pa.
It’s an honor for me to be with you this evening to commemorate and remember the life and work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you to the planning committee for inviting me and to all of you for coming tonight. Can you believe it’s been 50 years since Dr King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC?
President Kennedy, Dr King and civil rights leaders
I listened to Dr. King’s speech on YouTube recently. His speech is just as contemporary and relevant today as when it was first presented in 1963. I remember the year well, I was just 15 years old at the time. And I remember that my mother wouldn't let me go to the March on Washington because she thought there might be trouble. So I was limited to watching it on television from the safety of our living-room.
Two years before Dr King's speech, I wrote a poem that embodied some of the same themes contained in Dr King's speech. I was 13 years old at the time, and at the urging of my eighth grade English teacher, I entered the poem in the National Anthology of High School Poetry contest. Not only did they publish my poem, but they also gave it special recognition for its depth and maturity. The poem is entitled Man and I'd like to recite it for you now:
Shall we judge a man by his race or creed; or shall we judge him by word and deed? By the good he's done for mankind; or by the memory he's left behind? What makes this man is not his skin. Instead, it's what he has within.
So deep within him it doesn't show; but by his words and deeds you'll know that this is a man of dignity. And by his side you're proud to be. For his memory will leave an imprint in the sand; an impression of greatness that will stand the test of time and eternity; as a beacon of hope for all humanity.
When I wrote Man, I’d never heard of Dr King. But like him, I was influenced by the times in which I grew up; and by the injustices I saw happening around me. Man, the poem, echoes the sentiments of the man we celebrate today.
Like many of you, I am a product of the 60’s also known as the decade that shaped a generation. Who here remembers Motown and the Beatles, Star Trek and the first moon landing, the first televised Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, Hippies and the summer of Love, Jimmie Hendricks and Woodstock or that fateful day in Dallas?
And likewise, who can forget the Birmingham church bombing that killed 4 innocent, young black girls, the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmett Till, the murders of Civil Rights workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney or Medgar Evers, segregated schools, Jim Crow laws, whites and colored only signs, Klu Klux Klan lynchings, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, countless marches and demonstrations or that horrible day in Memphis?
Like now, the decade of the 60's was a difficult, if not transformative time in America's history. Dr King galvanized a generation of blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles into a moral alliance for the cause of freedom, justice and equality. This moral alliance succeeded in unraveling and dismantling racially discriminatory laws and practices that had enslaved black Americans for some 300 years.
This moral alliance succeeded in achieving passage of federal legislation that outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment; that restored and protected the voting rights of black Americans, and that banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.
At the time of Dr King’s death in 1968, I was a 19 year old sophomore at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. I was the only black student at the College, which at that time had an enrollment of 635 students. After learning Dr King had been killed, I left the College intent on never going back because it had been a less than welcoming environment for me.
I arrived home to Baltimore, only to find the streets filled with National Guardsmen in anticipation of rioting. Somehow, I found out that one of the local churches had chartered a bus to Atlanta for Dr King's funeral, so I got on the bus with them. There was no stopping me this time.
Once in Atlanta, I left the group and made my way to Ebenezer Baptist Church where the funeral was being held. I was determined to get inside the church In spite of not having an invitation or the proper credentials. I accomplished my mission and took a seat in the balcony. When the service ended, I was exiting the balcony just as Dr King’s casket was passing by. I quickly joined the procession of mourners for the long procession to the cemetery. Glancing across my row of mourners, there was Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross with the Supremes, and singer Leslie Uggams, who later offered to give me a lift back to my bus. Mrs [Coretta Scott] King, Rev Jesse Jackson, and Dr Ralph Abernathy were in the row of mourners just ahead of us. It was an incredible day.
When I returned home to Baltimore, my mother told me that someone from the College had called asking if I had planned on coming back to school. I guess someone noticed I was missing. That call was what I needed to motivate me to return to school, but now with the determination to make a difference. I decided to confront Washington College's long held practice of selectively admitting one black student every three years, a policy that needed to change. It would not be easy.
By the time I graduated in 1970, there were eight black underclassmen enrolled at the College—the largest number of black students ever admitted at one time (Class of 1973). I also initiated the first black student union at the College. I tell you this is to prove that everyone has the power within to make a difference, to impact the culture for good if he or she chooses.
If Dr King were alive today, he would say that the struggle for justice and equality is not over, that the Dream has not yet been fulfilled, that there is still work to be done before we reach the promised land of true equality, justice and brotherhood.
I have some concerns about state of our country. I am concerned about a generation of our youth that we are losing to drugs, alcohol, crime and gun violence. I am concerned about the fact that more black males enter prison than enroll in college. I am concerned about the high dropout rates in our public schools that exceed graduation rates. I am concerned that in this economy, the job market is shrinking, along with wages.
I am concerned about a growing underclass of poor people who lack the skills and the opportunity to compete in a global economy. I am concerned that our elected officials have failed us by not making our lives better. I am concerned that, as a nation, America has become too complacent and too comfortable with things the way they have always been.
But we must not lose hope. The torch has been passed and is now in the hands of a new generation. As torchbearers, we must show the way by investing our individual as well as collective time, talent and resources into fostering meaningful relationships with under-served and disadvantaged communities. As torchbearers, we must continue to promote the ideals of Dr King’s Dream in our daily lives. It’s time to go beyond the Dream and make it our reality.