The weekend before last Thanksgiving, Melanie and I drove to New Orleans to attend my 50th college reunion at Xavier University in New Orleans. In freezing rain and snow, we were compelled to drive no more than forty-five miles per hour between South Bend and Indianapolis. Along the way, we saw cars stranded in ditches. Several miles earlier, one of those had sped breezily past us. We were well into Kentucky before we able to drive at normal highway speeds.
Before and during the drive down, I had ample time to reflect on my college years, 1964-68. Since I had spent most of my high school years in seminary in the Hudson Valley, I had no clue about what to pursue as a major. My mother wisely suggested that I study what I enjoyed, noting that success would follow. I had always enjoyed reading and the power of words, so I decided to major in French language and literature. The rest is history. Now in retirement, after a successful career in academic administration and teaching at two Catholic and two public universities, I consider myself fortunate. Over the years, I’ve thanked my mother for her priceless advice. When I expressed my gratitude to her for the very last time during my Thanksgiving visit, she smiled meekly. I knew then that her time to leave us was nearing. Several weeks later shortly after the New Year, we returned to New Orleans for her funeral. She was buried the day after what would have been her ninety-third birthday.
As an undergraduate, I was addicted to the smooth rocking Motown tunes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes. The raw, bluesy soul music of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Jackie Wilson thrilled me. We danced the Bunny Hop, the Hitchhike, the Twist, the Locomotion, the Monkey, the Limbo , the Hucklebuck, the Mashed Potato, and the Jerk . We imitated the gyrations of James Brown. And in New Orleans-style, we did the Alligator, a sexually suggestive dance of writhing bodies hovering just over the floor boards. And of course, when the trumpet hit the high note, we danced gleefully the inimitable traditional Second Line to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Etta James , Gene Chandler and Jerry Butler sang mournful ballads as we moved slowly, rigidly in place, with our dates. American Bandstand was on the wane and Soul Train on the rise. Saturday night dances at the Barn (Xavier’s gym) with music by the Royal Dukes of Rhythm , were jam packed with sweating bodies.
But those years of collegiate mirth were years of intense civil unrest. All across the South, citizens of all races and ethnic groups marched in protests against odious racial injustice. On TV screens, Americans watched in horror the burning buses of the Freedom Riders, the brutal beatings by police of civil rights workers and the eruption of riots in inner cities. We mourned the slayings of Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney, of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr, and then Bobby Kennedy. America was in turmoil over the Vietnam War; the Women’s Movement too was taking root in the struggle for equality. Martin Luther King’s vision of of a beloved community in America was shattered by his tragic murder in 1968. As cities burned, I remember Bobby Kennedy’s comforting words in Indianapolis as he urged black Americans not to seek revenge while recalling his own brother’s tragic murder. At Xavier’s Barn, the student body gathered in prayer as we listened to then dean of students, Norman Francis, urging us not to give up hope, reminding us too of our responsibility to continue Dr. KIng’s dream of living in a society where we would be judged by our character, not by the color of our skin.
Much has happened in the span of those fifty years. The Class of 1968 did fulfill Dr. King’s dream of extraordinary achievement for black people as we became leaders and high achievers in our respective professional and personal lives. As we met and basked in fellowship, in telling and re-telling of events and stories, we were painfully aware, in thought and words unspoken that our nation within the last two years has regressed shamefully in its progress toward racial harmony and justice. Notwithstanding, we were happy to see each other, our friendships rekindled as if the span of time were non-existent. Remarkably, age has been kind to us. Our septennial bodies relatively still in good form.
The weekend began with a Friday night social with music by a DJ. Since no one was dancing, Melanie and I suggested ballroom dance tunes for him to play. Our foxtrots, waltzes, and tangos delighted those in attendance. Even the DJ came over to show his appreciation and thanked us. Festivities continued throughout the weekend with small gatherings, lunches, basketball game, campus homecoming and cookout, evening banquet and finally with Mass celebrated in the beautiful St. Katherine Drexel Chapel. Replete with African style dances, gospel hymns and a spirited sermon by the celebrant, who was an undergrad during my time at as dean of arts and sciences at Xavier, the Mass was a joyful celebration.
There’s not much to remember about our college graduation. There were the usual pomp and circumstance, the parade of graduates on stage receiving diplomas, the requisite congratulatory handshake from the president of the university and the awarding of honorary degrees . But I do recall one remark by the commencement speaker. Since our generation viewed anyone over thirty as “over the hill” and not to be trusted, he reminded us that we would soon be “over the hill.” We chuckled. Young, vibrant, and eager to make our mark on the world, we thought thirty years of age seemed eons away. I’ve recounted this story countless times to undergraduates over the years, always eliciting laughter.
I am deeply grateful for the education I received at Xavier, the only black Catholic university in the western hemisphere. It was there that my love of the humanities and the arts was nurtured. As a child, books were my friends. Every week during the summer I visited the bookmobile for Coloreds, usually parked under a large shady tree in my elementary schoolyard. Mrs. Roussève, the librarian, always eager to see me, suggested books, typically history and biographies. I read insatiably. At the end of each summer, I received a certificate noting the number of books I had read.
One of my memorable courses as a freshman was an interdisciplinary course, Humanities 101, that blended literature, the arts, philosophy and science. Each week in the campus auditorium, a professor from various disciplines lectured. It was this seminal course that has had the most profound impact on both my personal and professional life. It set in motion the basis of my intellectual rigor, my moral foundation and the way I conduct my life.
My language courses with Dr. Baisier, Sr. Augusta and Dr. Mace were pure joy. Most of the students were women. They were equally bright and beautiful. They challenged me and I had to work hard to keep up. I remember fondly Helena, Myra, Penny, Elise, Eileen. Among them, only Penny and Myra came to our fiftieth reunion. We shared stories and laughter about our favorite professors. Since Dr. Mace’s literature classes were entirely in Spanish, I tried, much to his vexation, to secretly record his lectures. He, on the other hand, preferred that I listen attentively and take notes. Dr. Baisier, a French Resistance fighter, always serious in the classroom, spoke an elegant Parisian French, but would often revert to English. When we began as freshmen, Xavier was entirely black in its student composition, and the majority of faculty, including the nuns, were white. They were devoted to us and firmly committed to making a difference in our lives. They believed in our moral, social and intellectual development during a time when our country was struggling to consider black and white people as equals. Thank you St. Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Xavier University of Louisiana and I share an indelible bond. Wave her colors, bear them onward/Gold and White so true! Hail XU!
Before embarking on our journey to Sardinia with three friends from Le Pradet, we spent two weeks reconnecting with the pace of life here. Since retirement we’ve been coming to Provence every twelve to eighteen months. Beyond the delicious Provençal dishes and the ever-pleasing regional rosé, what attracts us most to this region are the wonderful friends we’ve made over the years. With each visit, our circle of friends and acquaintances grows, and so do our dinner invitations. In the days before and after our visit to Sardinia, we’ve been feted royally, happy beneficiaries of the delectable Provençal cooking that our friends are so rightfully proud of. As in many cultures, food in Provence is essential to the intimacy of family and friendship.
A new experience for us was an evening with neighbors at a street party, une fête de voisins. Our friend, Martine, who serves as the neighborhood association’s president, called the gathering une fetê de civilité, ostensibly to smooth ruffled misunderstandings among neighbors. That evening we met a gentleman who shares my surname. Olivier is a retired airline pilot, who lived for many years in Los Angeles. He and Marc, another neighbor who builds model airplanes and whom he had not met before, had a spirited conversation for most of the evening.
We spent another memorable evening of fine dining with our friends, Catherine and Jean-Louis. About six months ago, they sold their wine vineyard and are now living in a large old house on the west side of Toulon, tucked among the trees behind a row of tony apartments. We had difficulty finding it. Missing from Catherine’s detailed directions was a turn into a long walled alleyway leading to their home. Their house number did not appear on the main street although our GPS indicated that we had arrived. Our mobile phone came in handy; Jean-Louis came out to greet us. As we’ve come to expect, dining at Jean-Louis and Catherine’s is never a small gathering. They’ve always had us over for a barbecue in their vineyard with a large group of their friends. This time our dinner was more intimate, and included Catherine’s sister, Martine, and brother-in-law, Pascal, from Marseille and another couple from Hong Kong, Anthony, an Australian, and his Chinese partner, Ernest. While waiting for another guest to arrive by train, we sat chatting in the garden under a beautifully moon-lit sky with appetizers and wine for almost two hours. The other guest finally could not make it, so at ten o’clock we began our meal with eggs and wild mushrooms, followed by a delicate fish stew over rice , and naturally a cheese course before having a clafoutis for dessert. It was well after midnight by the time we returned home.
A few days later, we drove to Juan-les-Pins to lunch with Alexandra and her mother, Célestine. (Alexandra was Melanie’s ESL student many years ago in California. She and her husband, Jean-Luc, and son, Victor, visited us this summer in South Bend. They produce champagne and were on a business trip to California to meet other producers and importers.) Alexandra flew down from Verzenay, to join us, a visit that pleasantly surprised her mother. Célestine prepared one of my favorite dishes, paella. What a feast!
On another wonderful day of dining, we grilled our food at the table at Natacha and Nicolas’ home. They too, with their daughter, Marie, will be in Sardinia later in the month. This evening we are going to their home, and over apéro, will share our Sardinian adventures with them. The family came to dine with us in Granger last year when Natacha was an exchange prof at IUSB.
Another new experience for us was participating in the weekend of celebrating the patrimoine, the annual celebration of France’s cultural heritage. In its thirty-seventh year, twelve million people visited over sixteen thousand monuments. With our friends, MariThé, Christian and Martine we visited two small villages St. Martin de Pallières and St. Julien Montagnier. At the former, we explored a twelfth century castle with a guide who grew up there. It was particularly fascinating to hear his boyhood adventures boating by torchlight in the castle’s underground cistern. In the latter village, we explored the narrow streets and the original windmill that is still standing.
Just over two years ago, we traveled to Corsica, and now with our friends, MariThé, Christian and Martine, we took the overnight ferry to Ajaccio. Once we settled into our cabins we all went to the dancing bar for drinks. Christian introduced us to Spritz, an orange flavored Italian liqueur, a bit sweet but refreshing. There a duo, a singer and guitarist, with programmed rhythm accompaniment, played wonderful ballroom dance music. Naturally, Melanie and I danced between the row of tables. We chatted with the singer, Mariella, But since the ferry crew and the musicians were Italian, we managed to communicate using French, English and gestures. Mariella told us that work for musicians in Italy is scarce. She’s from Milano and would like to come to America. We all laughed with her when she asked us in a deadpan voice to find her an American husband. She told me to show her picture to any interested men when I returned to the States. Later, I sent her a copy of the picture for which she thanked me, and in her note wondered if we had enjoyed our trip to her country.
Once we reached Ajaccio, we drove south to Bonifaccio for the one hour ferry ride to Santa Teresa di Gallura in Sardinia. Before boarding, we had lunch with our friends, Marie-Jeanne and Guy at their home in Porto Vecchio. Joining us were their son and daughter-in-law, Pascal and Catherine, a couple of their neighbors, and Marie-Jeanne’s brother, Dominique, whose basement apartment we rented two years ago. Dominique is celebrating his ninety-first birthday this month.
Marie-Jeanne and Guy live in Paris, but spend several months at their Corsican home. On a clear day, which it was, the coastline of Sardinia is visible from their patio.
My first impression of Sardinia was that it was similar to Corsica, but after several days I concluded that Sardinia was less mountainous. As we drove along the coast to Alghero where we would spend the next five days, I noticed patterns of slightly ascending and descending slopes. The serpentine curves were fewer and less sharp than in Corsica and the hills were not nearly as steep. The terrain was more open; expansive flatlands were bordered in the distance by low level mountains. I noticed many small farms with cows. Christian believes that many of these homes are not farms at all and he conjectured that homeowners have cows so that their property can be labeled farms in order to lower their taxes. Whether this tale is true or not, it is quite clever.
Culturally, I found Sardinia to be more closely linked to Italy than Corsica is to France. Corsicans have a strong emotional bond to their island culture that places it ahead of their French citizenship. And although there are Arabic and Catalan influences in Sardinian culture, I sensed little traces of a cultural conflict with Italy. To me, the cuisine was clearly Italian with touches of Sardinian flavor. And I did not sense from the locals a Sardinian vs Italian identity. But what was most fascinating to Melanie and me were the archeological sites of the Nuragic civilization dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages. In Alghero, we visited several Nuragic ruins, the most interesting of which was the Palmavera, one of the most intact archeological sites in the country. We gleaned what Nuraghic daily life night have been like as we ambled through narrow corridors examining living quarters and peering into storage rooms that housed grains and other provisions. Also near Alghero, we visited a pre-Nuragic burial place, the Necropolis Anghelu Ruju. Toward the east of Sardinia we visited in Arzachena, the Tomba Moru, known as the giants’ tomb, elongated burial chambers of stone slabs where dozens, even, hundreds of bodies were buried. At some sites we saw petroglyphs.
I enjoyed roaming around the old city in Alghero. In spite of the ubiquitous boutiques that cater to tourists, the old stone houses along the narrow streets retained the city’s medieval charm. Residents of this port city are extremely open and friendly. On our first day in search of the Office of Tourism, we were given five different directions, all with certainty and a smile. And we still got lost. Surely, our difficulty was not in properly understanding the directions; MariThé is multi-lingual. In our wanderings, we stumbled upon a newlywed couple from the Czech Republic who were paying for their honeymoon traveling throughout Europe by playing in the streets. She was a professional musician and he, a very capable amateur. We enjoyed our chat with them. I gave them some advice about a happy marriage and left them a good tip.
The city also has character. Colored photographic portraits celebrating the city’s centenarians along the walls of some buildings told more about the city’s values than any tourist brochure. One evening at San Miquel Church we attended a polyphonic concert of two choirs. The first choir sang secular and religious hymns. The harmony of their voices gave an orchestral sound that filled the church. The second choir was exclusively male that sang in a circle with the choir director in the center, a style of singing that I had never seen before. The effect was that of voices projecting upward before spilling outward over the audience. The consequent resonance of their voices gave me chills.
Alghero has roots in Arabic and Catalan culture, the historical influences of which still remain in its architecture, its food, its customs. Some residents still speak Catalan. Italian, of course, is the lingua franca. I loved listening to the locals speak. One afternoon seated on bench at the port, I listened to a gentleman during his phone conversation. The rise and fall of his voice coupled wth the expressiveness of his body gave an operatic quality to his speech. In this very Italian city, attached to the bench where I was seated, was a plaque in French with these words, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris. Mon âme a son secret; ma vie a son mystère.” (I have two loves, my country and Paris. My soul has its secrets, my life has its mysteries).
What I’ve come to appreciate traveling in Europe at this time of year is the paucity of tourists. The second most common language I heard was German. The Germans seemed to be everywhere, many with children in tow. I learned later that the German schools were on holiday. If I had’t heard them speak, I would have easily thought they were locals. They blended in with many of the Italian families I saw walking around in the late afternoon along the port and in the old city.
From Alghero, we took a boat trip to the Grotto di Nettuno, first explored in the 1740s. Our guided programmed tour took us through about 600 feet of the grotto’s 8,200 feet.
Since pictures were prohibited in the interior, my only picture of this beautiful space is at the entrance. Our boat trip over, we lunched in the old city at Al Tuguri, a restaurant that served authentic Sardinian cuisine with a Catalan touch. Recommended in our guide book, we had actually considered it the day before but for reasons which I do not remember, perhaps timing, we chose to eat elsewhere. But before leaving, the proprietor cautioned that other restaurants served food and in his restaurant we would find fine cuisine. We were not disappointed. It was the first time I had had black and white pasta. (The black side of the pasta had been dyed with squid ink. It didn’t change the taste.) Served with seafood, it was delectable. And generally, I would agree with the proprietor in his distinction between food and fine dining. Although we had tasty food during our stay in Sardinia, the only other time we had a fine dining experience was in the restaurant, SottoVento , on the island of La Maddalena. Two Sardinian wines that we enjoyed, and recommended by Melanie’s nephew, Mike, who spent four years in Sardinia with the U. S. Navy, were Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino di Gallura, red and white respectively.
Our five day stay in Alghero over, we headed eastward to Palau where we stayed another four days. On the way, we stopped for a visit to Sardinia’s most famous Romanesque church, Santissima Trinità di Saccargia. There in this simple and austere sanctuary, I prayed and lit a candle for two ailing friends in South Bend, Judy and John Charles. I learned later that Judy had died two days earlier.
Before reaching Palau, we spent the afternoon in Olbia, a more modern city than Alghero. We had lunch there, walked around the old city, visited the cathedral and window shopped, except for the fine linen Italian shirt with rolled up sleeves that Melanie bought for me. Palau was our home base for day trips to the islands of Maddalena and Caprera, the latter the home of Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose compound and gravesite we visited. This area of Sardinia is considered to be one of the most affluent on the island. We visited several towns along the coast, San Pantaleo, a charming village in the mountains, and Porto Redondo and Porto Cervo, chic, clearly upscale communities that attract the well-to-do and their yachts. The streets and public spaces were well-maintained and manicured. Four and five star restaurants adorned the coastline. Tony shops in Porto Cuervo like Gucci, Cartier, Versage, Hermès and Luis Vuitton were not in my price range. A mojito cost 23 euros, and I didn’t order one. I had one of the best ever in Alghero and it cost me 4 euros. I do confess to indulging in a gelato for 6 euros.
After nine splendid days in Sardinia, we traveled back to France in reverse. That is we took a one hour ferry ride to Corsica, drove north to Ajaccio. On the way, we stopped in Sartène at U Sirenu for a lunch of scrumptious Corsican cuisine including lamb brochettes cooked over wood coals in the fireplace beside our table. Fully satiated, we continued northward for the overnight ferry to Toulon. And yes, we did dance to the music of another swinging duo of a saxophonist and female singer. And no, she did not ask me to find her an American husband.
We returned to Le Pradet in time for the Annual Mussels Festival. What a feast! It’s one of the joys of living on the Mediterranean. Now it’s time to think about returning home. We have one week left and there is still time to indulge my epicurean tastes at one of the celebrated bistrots in the surrounding villages.
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL where four girls were killed in a bombing on September 15, 1963. Stained glass panel gift from the people of Wales.
In May, Melanie and I were invited to join IUSB (Indiana University South Bend) students, faculty and community members on a two-week Civil Rights Heritage tour. We journeyed throughout the South visiting historical sites and monuments and conversing with pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. For many, it would be their first encounter with the deep-seated hatred of the Old South. For me, I feared reliving painful memories.
I grew up in New Orleans, where the good times roll. Then, the city was not as rigorously segregated as other places in the deep South. In many neighborhoods whites and blacks lived in close proximity. Next to our shotgun home lived a childless white couple whom we addressed politely as Mr. Arthur and Miss Gladys. Nevertheless, Jim Crow prevailed. I remember as a little boy riding the bus with my maternal grandmother when a white man removed the Colored Only sign in front of us and placed it on the back of the seat behind us. As custom dictated, we were forced to stand behind the sign since no other seating was available. On another occasion, a white policeman motioned my dad to pull his car over; he demanded his driver’s license, addressing him as “boy. ” I felt shame and humiliation.
My Civil Rights journey began as a sixteen-year old in the summer of 1963, prior to my senior year at the all boys St. Augustine High School. The previous three years, I was a Josephite (Society of St. Joseph) seminarian in Newburgh, New York, where for the first time in my life I lived in a de jure desegregated society. My return to the segregated south of Colored Only and White Only was a rude re-awakening of racial inequalities and social injustices. No longer willing to accept this as a way of life, I participated with the civil rights activist, the Rev. Avery Alexander, in voter registration. With dozens of other teenagers, we marched door to door in sweltering heat teaching mostly elderly residents of a segregated housing project the preamble to the Constitution. Reciting it without fault was a requirement for voter registration. Predictably, many were turned away, but we persisted. Ultimately, because so few were allowed to register, we began to march and demonstrate in front of City Hall chanting freedom songs. One of my favorites that gives me goosebumps even today was Oh Freedom (Oh freedom over me, and before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free). We were arrested several times, held in a holding room and then released. My protest days ended abruptly the day I was fingerprinted and released to the custody of my parents. They were horrified and worried about my future.
That 1963 summer’s march toward freedom began anew on May 10 of this year with the Civil Rights Heritage tour. As we departed at 7:15 am, I had some trepidation. I wondered how I would handle emotionally an intellectual reentry into Jim Crow country — the separate restrooms, water fountains, waiting rooms, lunch counters, the segregated schools, churches and movie theaters. I did not expect how deeply moving this journey would be.
Our first stop was in Nashville where, in 1960, students followed the example of their peers in Greensboro, North Carolina in lunch counter sit-ins. Sit-ins and the Freedom Rides became central to the Civil Rights Movement throughout the South. On the evening of our arrival, we dined at Morrell’s on southern cuisine – roast, fried, chicken, meatloaf, collards, green beans, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, cornbread, biscuits, and peach cobbler – all served round table style. After dinner we heard from one of the original Freedom Riders, Ernest Rick Patton, who recounted harrowing adventures of his participation in the Freedom Rides. He explained the training that prepared students to participate mentally and physically, in civil disobedience, how to use their minds to remove themselves from hateful situations. The next morning our group reenacted a nonviolent protest march, walking in silence from the site of the Old First Baptist Church to the Municipal Courthouse. It was at this church that the Rev. James Lawson, who studied the teachings of Gandhi, taught workshops in non-violence. Our visit to Nashville included a stop at Fisk University where we learned of Diane Nash‘s and John Lewis’ leadership in organizing sit-ins and arranging for participants in the Freedom Rides.
From Nashville, we proceeded to Atlanta where our civil rights education began to take root. There we met Charles Person, another Freedom Rider, at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. His moving and inspirational story, like Mr. Patton’s, demonstrated the enormous capacity of the human will to endure indignities in the fight for social and economic justice. History frames the Civl Rights Movement around luminaries like Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Rosa Parks. But the Movement’s impact in effectuating and radicalizing change is owed to ordinary citizens, foot soldiers in the fight for justice, many of whom will remain unnamed. At the King Center, we learned of the critical importance of the church in galvanizing small groups of students in non-violent civil disobedience. Seeing Dr. King’s boyhood home was a curious artifact, but being present in the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, as his voice bellowed messages of hope, gave me goosebumps. I reflected on the enormity of his sacrificial journey and the strength of his convictions in pursuit of justice. In the otherwise nearly empty sanctuary, his powerful voice echoed all around us.
Among the many memorable moments of our tour was our stay at Highlander in the Tennessee Mountains. It was at this rustic lodge tucked away in the wilderness where Rev. James Lawson, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr learned the tools of non-violent resistance. For our group, it was a welcomed respite. In this serene and sacred space we had time to absorb what we were learning and think in practical ways about how we confront hate and prejudice. In one-on-one conversations we spoke about what we were experiencing. We gathered as a group in the great room to share personal stories about race and privilege. For some, this was an intimidating activity. Fearful of our vulnerabilities, our conversation about personal experiences of race began slowly. But as we listened to one another, trust began to build. There were painful revelations of personal failures in confronting racism; there was acknowledgement of white privilege; there were painful memories of social injustice; there was admission that heretofore little thought was given to economic inequities. There were tears, quivering voices, and yes, some laughter. In the end, our group became more confident and trusting. I imagine that those early civil rights activists, too, had to learn trust, and to overcome anxieties as they prepared for possibilities of personal bodily harm.
Reenergized by rest, and feeling enormous gratitude for the sacrifices of those pioneers in the civil rights movement, we boarded the bus and headed to Birmingham and the 16th Street Baptist Church. As we sat in the sanctuary, we listened attentively to the deacon who recounted the terrifying details of the September 15, 1963, bombing by white supremacists that killed four little girls. That moment became a pivotal call to action in the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham was at the epicenter of racial bigotry and resistance to integration. It was at the public square, just across the street from this church where schoolchildren marching in peaceful protest were pushed back forcefully with gushing water from fire hydrants and by attacking police dogs.
It is a horrific image seared indelibly into the American memory. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I watched the bedlam in disbelief that this was happening in my country. Many years have passed since then. Historical markers remind us of the horrors of that day. As I followed them, I walked in solidarity with the children as I retraced their steps, grateful for their courage. Unlike their march, mine was unimpeded. I left that square with a sorrowful heart, knowing their dreams have not yet come to full fruition.
After a visit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, we traveled to Montgomery and the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Civil Rights Memorial. Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall, designed the memorial upon which are inscribed the names of those who fought and died from 1955-1968 in the struggle for freedom. In memory of those sacrificed lives, Melanie and I, as did several students, added our names among thousands of others scrolling on the Wall of Tolerance inside the museum. In doing so, we committed ourselves to the following:
By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.
It was at the Civil Rights Memorial where we all had the experience of a lunch counter sit-in and what it felt like to endure the hateful jeers, the spitting in the face, the name calling, all without reacting in retaliation. We each sat at the counter with earphones. Having grown up in the South, I knew what to expect. For many the experience was jarring and emotionally upsetting. In her own words, Melanie tells her reactions:
Now to get back to the replica of the lunch counter in Montgomery. Visitors could sit on a stool with their hands on the counter in front of them as the activists were trained to do. We put on headsets and heard sounds simulating an actual sit-in. There were sounds of sirens, people yelling orders, screams, sounds of people being dragged from the stools and being hit, beaten and vilified. And there was a voice, a man’s voice, a nasty, oily, but somehow intimate voice that talked directly into your ear from behind saying, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. You aren’t welcome here. Do you hear what is going on behind you? Do you hear what they’re doing to your friend? Imagine what we’re going to do to you because you’re next.”
This experience was only two minutes long and I have edited out foul language and racial slurs. I felt those hateful words with gut-wrenching effect. My first reaction, however, was awe at the courage and commitment it took to stand up to this kind of hate while remaining non-violent. I doubted that I could ever have been that brave. I realized how unjust it was that the peaceful people were getting beaten and arrested while the violent, hateful ones went without punishment — with the full support of the authorities and the community around them.
Because I was a passionate activist in my teenage years, I believe that I could have withstood this verbal harassment. Now in my senior years, when I see injustice, I am determined in my resolve to heed Dr. King’s words not to remain silent as my silence is complicity. These words echoed in my mind as we visited the Equal Justice Initiative and Legacy Museum. The Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, seeks to undo the injustices against the rampant and unlawful incarceration of blacks in the penal system. His book Just Mercy, a New York Times bestseller, details this work. Walking through the museum we saw in strikingly harsh images the evolution of slavery and the legacy of lynching that still haunt the African American psyche. Holograms of enslaved men and women telling their stories gave me chills. I wondered what would have been my story had I lived during that time.
Our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative included a visit to the lynching museum. For me it was the most harrowing experience of the trip. I’ve struggled to understand the concept of human beings as property. Intellectually, I can trace how it came to be. Emotionally, I have trouble accepting it. The first thing seen upon entering the gates of this open air museum is a sculptural depiction of slaves in chains. That image haunted me as I walked slowly through the museum. Rusting metal pillars greeted me with the
the names of lynched men, women and children. Etched in these pillars are the name of the county and state where these hapless victims were hanged. Slowly moving through the exhibit, other pillars hung from the rafters like bodies swaying from tree limbs. These had the most terrifying effect on me.
I imagined my named inscribed on those pillars. What would I have been hung for? Speaking to a white man for not addressing him first with “sir’? for being perceived insolent in my behavior? for looking at his wife? As I continued walking through the pillars that hung overhead, the floor gradually sloped into a long cavern along whose walls were plaques with the names of the lynched and their purported crime. The reasons were inane, but to the rabid racist, serious and justified. For me, how could such thinking be rationalized among people who no doubt considered themselves good Christians!
Toward the end of the exhibit, I reached a black granite wall where water flowed over the names of the lynched. I imagined this water as a final act of purification, washing away the miseries of those who suffered the indignities to both body and spirit. I sat on the stone bench along the opposite wall to meditate. Seated to my far right was one of the students, an African American male, doing the same. In my meditation, I listened to the sounds of the flowing water, but I heard in my mind the wails of those tortured bodies. I wept.
My faith in the goodness of humanity was restored when we met Jennie Graetz at the National Center for Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. Pioneers in the civil rights struggle, she and her husband, Robert S. Graetz, Jr, a white pastor of a black church, participated actively in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Now in his nineties and in feeble health, Rev. Graetz, was not able to join Mrs. Graetz who told horrifying stories of the bombing of their home and the daily threats to the their lives.
In spite of the animus toward them by the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council, they persevered and stood with their black neighbors in their fight for justice. Our day continued with visits to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King began his ministry and to the parsonage where he lived. There we heard equally frightening stories similar to those told by Mrs. Graetz of the hardships the King family faced. Their home too was bombed. The examples of the Graetz and King families, who faced adversity and rejected fear, stand as testimony that justice will prevail.
Neat in appearance and simply appointed, the King home, with its furniture, curtains, kitchen appliances and wall decorations, was very similar to the home I grew up in. The difference was that his was a typical Craftsman home, mine was a New Orleans style shotgun. Standing in his kitchen, I was deeply moved by the rousing tone of his voice of the difficult days ahead, delivered in the preaching style of the black church.
Our trip to Selma brought us closer to the violence endured by those who sought the right to vote. We met Joanne Bland, a fierce and outspoken advocate for racial justice. With her we visited the church where the planning took place for the Selma to Montgomery March. Later we walked in silence over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in a reenactment of the Selma to Montgomery March, known now as Bloody Sunday.
Once across the bridge we visited the National Voting Rights Museum. We also visited the gravesite and memorial of Viola Liuzzio, the white woman from Detroit who was so aghast by what happened on Bloody Sunday that she came to Selma to work as a civil rights activist. Because she had the audacity to fight for justice against Jim Crow, and because she had the unspeakable gall to give a black man a ride in her car, she was chased at high speeds and murdered.
After Selma, our trip took us further into the deep South to Jackson, Mississippi. Becasue of obligations back home in South Bend, Melanie, unfortunately, had to leave us. Notwithstanding, the group missed her and the insights and observations she brought to our discussions. In Jackson, we met another 1960’s civil rights activist and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council, Hollis Watkins. While in jail for his many protest demonstrations, Mr. Watkins was an active leader in singing freedom songs. Mr. Watkins, as president of Southern Echo, continues his activist work helping others in their civil rights causes, particularly in the pernicious underfunding of black education. Our group listened intently as this soft spoken man spoke about his civil rights work.
After a brief visit to Jackson State University and a visit to the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute, we spent two hours at the newly constructed Civil Rights Museum. At this point in our journey, I was tiring of yet another civil rights museum. They all had similar stories of non-violent protests, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, the futile efforts of voter registration, etc. But for me, this one was different. It began with a history of the slave trade, but as I wandered throughout the rooms, I began to realize that this museum, more than the others, was for Mississippi an admission that their black citizens had been mistreated and that an honest and open portrayal of its shameful past was an initial step toward racial reconciliation. At odds with this effort are the conservative tenor of the state’s current political climate and the continuing gerrymandering of voting districts. Our visit to Medgar Evers’ home was a stark reminder of Mississippi’s past history in denying blacks the right to vote and its rejection of integration. For his efforts in seeking justice, Medgar Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his home. The bullet hole that passed through his body is still visible in the kitchen wall. It was that same violence that killed Emmett Till, a young boy visiting relatives in Money, MS, who was brutally maimed and killed because he whistled at a white woman. The store where this alleged incident occurred is now in tatters and covered with weeds. What remains is a roadside plaque as a historical marker.
Before leaving Mississippi we toured two historically black colleges, Itta Bena and Rust. We also stopped by the notorious state prison, Parchman, where many civil rights activists were jailed, and the graves of Fannie Lou Hamer and B. B. King. As we drove through the Mississippi Delta, I thought of the area’s extreme poverty and the hardships slaves faced as they picked cotton in the sweltering heat. I reminisced too on B. B. King’s sorrowful tunes of love lost and opportunity missed. But I could not forget the struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer, a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, who organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, a valiant mobilization in 1964 to register as many African Americans as possible.
Our Freedom Summer Tour ended in Memphis with a visit to the Lorraine Hotel, site of Dr. King’s murder, now the National Civil Rights Museum. We also spent time at the Clayborn Temple where Dr. King gave his memorable mountaintop speech. I stood on that same podium, looked at the hundreds of seats in front of me and imagined what it was like for him as he foresaw the end of his life on earth. His words resounded in my ears, “I may not get there with you, but I’ve been to the mountaintop…”
It has taken me four months to put on paper how this trip affected me. I had to reflect first on my own engagement with the Movement. The trip brought to the forefront things that I had placed in the recesses of my memory. The constant onslaught of images of the Civil Rights struggle alternatively brought pain and happiness. Pain for having lived through this horrific period in American history and happiness for having participated in the fight for justice and equality. I played a small part in that summer of 1963. So many others gave so much more, and some sacrificed their lives. Many gains have been made, lives have been bettered, progress has been made in many social and economic sectors, and yet, racial hatred, gender inequality and bias, inaccessibility to health care, housing discrimination, voter suppression still persist. The March Continues! This is particularly more imperative now under the current political climate that threatens our democracy.
In my administrative role at the university, I supported the development of this Civil Rights Heritage Tour course and was instrumental in the conversion of an abandoned public natatorium that once denied blacks the right to swim there, into the university’s Civil Rights Heritage Center. Now it’s a centerpiece for civil rights education, a gathering place for community activism and engagement, and a cultural center for lectures, art exhibits, music, poetry jams and films. Melanie and I were delighted to have been invited to join the students, faculty and community members on this Civil Rights Heritage Tour. We found the students to be particularly engaging and intellectually curious. We learned from them as each gave talks on the historical sites they were assigned to research beforehand. We thank them for treating these two septuagenarians as peers. And we thank George Garner of the Civil Rights Heritage Center for his careful planning, and of course, Professors Darryl Heller and Monica Tetzlaff for a once in a lifetime educational experience.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Art and the creative imagination of those who create it fascinate me. It was in the early sixties when I first became enthralled by art. As a thirteen-year old Josephite seminarian in Newburgh, New York, I routinely roamed the narrow library stacks, browsing art books. Then, I was particularly attracted to religious themes and natural landscapes. The grim images of the suffering Jesus or the facial expressions of devout men and women in angelic ecstasy enveloped me spiritually. I longed to imitate their unrestrained piety. Among the many religious depictions I most admired were those of the baby Jesus with his mother, Mary. But it was the dark and brooding landscape pantings that impressed me most. Their seductive allure beckoned me to discover hidden secrets within nature’s thick foliage. Beyond the fascination of landscapes, the female body intrigued me. I leafed through those pages, furtively glancing at nudes, my budding puberty awakened.
(Images from the National Galleries in Washington, D.C.)
Now in my seventh decade, I find less appealing the religious artwork of the Grand Old Masters. The posed frozen facial features of their subjects staring blandly from the canvasses are less enticing. Yet there are moments when their stares meet mine that I feel the eerie crawl of goosebumps. Are we subtly communicating with each other? Landscapes, particularly those of the Impressionists, still enthuse me. The artists’ artificial rendering of the natural world makes nature’s bounty and grace alive and tangible. And as for those nudes, I admire the artists’ dexterous and graceful portrayal of the human body.
In my travels, I never pass an opportunity to visit a museum. Even in the smallest village or town, I’ve found magnificent art. A few years ago in the Portland Museum of Art, I stumbled across a Picasso, clearly not a major piece, but nonetheless a Picasso. In the local museum in the small city of Utica, New York, there was a lovely Georgia O’Keeffe equal to any of her works on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, or so it appeared to my novice eyes. Many years ago, I remember being pleasantly surprised by an El Greco in the St. Louis Museum of Art. There are several paintings by John Singer Sargent, one of my most admired portraitists, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston that are amazingly photographic. Happily, since I spend extended periods in France, there is an abundance of museums for me to indulge my passion for art.
Within the last few weeks in visits first to Chicago and then D.C., Melanie and I spent afternoons at the Art Institute and the National Galleries. In Chicago, we met Melanie’s grand-niece who, taking a respite from her missionary duties in Costa Rica, was spending a few a days in Chicago with friends. Naturally, as we visited with her we strolled through the Impressionist wing, lingering long enough to observe with new eyes the canvasses we’ve seen dozens of time. Particularly interesting, and a singular reason why we all met at the Institute, was the special Rodin exhibit. Ultimately, we wound our way to the Modern Wing. Admittedly, I favor realism over abstraction, but there are many Modern Art canvasses that I find strikingly beautiful in their complexity. A Picasso or Matisse, even a Dali or Braque, can transport me. I have more difficulty though appreciating Rothko or Jackson Pollock. In each of the museums, we observed artists standing or sitting in front of unfinished canvasses imitating one of the masterpieces on display. Apparently, this is an important learning exercise for both neophytes and mature artists. In his book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCulough makes note that artists like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt did likewise in the Louvre.
(Images from the Art Institute in Chicago)
Primitive art also fascinates me. It is equally as important in my view, as the more sophisticated forms of art. Though it is deceptively simple, it still depicts deep common truths and perspectives. Great artists like Picasso and Gauguin have included primitive themes in their work. Being a native Louisianan, it is not surprising that I like Clementine Hunter’s art. Her work is highly copied and dishonestly promoted as originals. Haitian art with its vibrant colors, also appeals to me. Walking the streets of old San Juan, Puerto Rico, I stumbled across a gathering of Haitian artists in a dilapidated studio. Hearing a soft lyrical French sounding dialect — it was actually Creole — I entered a dimly lit room and began speaking French to them. Before leaving I had purchased a small painting. Many years later, I discovered that Haitian art can be purchased through the Vassar Haiti Project.
My tastes in art have been further nurtured by my university career. I’ve been fortunate to work at universities with first-rate faculty artists. At Xavier, I admired the work of John T. Scott, a sculptor now deceased, whose work is found in many public spaces in New Orleans. Scott’s tortured body of Jesus, twisted pieces of metal suspended on a wooden cross, hangs in our bedroom. There were fine artists on the faculty at Saint Louis and Humboldt universities, but none, in my estimation, equal to the remarkably gifted artists at Indiana University South Bend — Harold Zisla (now deceased), Anthony Droege, Alan Larkin, Ron Monsma, Tuck Langland and Dora Natella, the latter two sculptors. The work of each of these highly lauded artists is in museums and private collections regionally and nationally, and in my view, is of the quality that could be included among the world’s finest museum collections. The impact and importance of their work are chronicled in the book, Fine Arts of the South Bend Region: 1840-2000, by the Wolfson Press of Indiana University South Bend, 2014.
Through my son and daughter-in-law, both MFA graduates in photography from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I’ve learned to appreciate photography as a high form of artistic endeavor. When I visit museums, I now search for the photography collection. Because of them, I now look at photos and imagine seeing the subjects through the photographer’s eyes wondering what he or she wants the viewer to observe and know. Texture, light and tone have meaning. They are purposeful and not random abstractions. When Paul speaks about his creative process, I listen attentively, intrigued by his explanations of how he approaches photography. I may not fully grasp the complexities of his thought process or his technique, something he calls light chamber exposure, but what I am certain about is my admiration of his creative mind and the way he thinks about art. Found objects and memory play heavily in his manipulation of reality.
Sometimes I dream of what it would be like to have unlimited funds to purchase art. From time to time, I read a newspaper article about a collector who had an eye for a certain kind of art, or of a relatively unknown artist whose collection becomes valuable after several decades. I imagine what it would be like to be such a person. But for the moment, I am content to roam from room to room in our home, admiring the modest collection of art that Melanie and I have been fortunate to acquire.
What I enjoy most about art is discerning the artist’s intent, then surreptitiously harboring sentiments that are mine alone. Such an exercise is akin to an explication de texte of a poem or literary passage. No one can share the same interpretation of and reaction to Monet’s waterlilies or to Van Gogh’s myriad renditions of his bedroom. In that way, the power that art holds over the individual is uniquely personal.
So that I could better know what to look for in a painting, I audited a survey class of Western Art taught by the inimitable Professor Andrea Rusnock in the semester after my retirement. What a joy! In her class, I learned how to look intimately at a canvass, exploring its subtle details. In that regard, I now examine a Vermeer painting, looking for features that may amplify and elucidate the entire composition. And frankly, being a student without fear of a grade made the learning experience that much more enjoyable. I amused Andrea by chiming in occasionally with a comment or two!
Although I’ve written principally about painting and sculpture, the aesthetic appeal of architecture captivates me. I’m fortunate to live near Chicago, one of the most interesting cities architecturally. One of our favorite things to do is the architectural boat tour with visitors. I sense that my curiosity in art will never be satiated. Each viewing of a canvass, a sculpture, or ceramic brings new sentiments, new sensorial experiences. My journey to satisfy my artistic thirst continues. At the Art Institute in Chicago this summer, there are two exhibits I am eager to see, Charles White, and John Singer Sargent. Both of these artists had ties to Chicago. White, an African American born in Chicago, drew inspiration from his time in the city, and Sargent from his Chicago patrons and creative circle. Artistic discoveries await me every day!
“Gonna Lay Down My Burdens” (Traditional Negro Spiritual)
New Orleans is a land of many surprises. She never fails to amaze. Such was the case Sunday morning, January 7th during services at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue. Congregants from the three area Unitarian churches gathered for the annual enactment of a New Orleans-style jazz funeral to bury regrets from the previous year wth resolve to begin anew in the coming year. The host minister opened the service with an explanation of the traditions of a jazz funeral with alternating recitations by the visiting ministers. After the lighting of the Unitarian chalice, the wake service began with the brass band playing Negro spirituals as the congregation sang along: “Gonna Lay My Burden Down,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” ” Precious Lord Take My Hand,” “Nearer My God to Thee. ” The singing and the doleful brass sounds that enveloped the entire church emitted an emotionally charged feeling mixed with both sorrow and joy. The hymn that gave me goosebumps, and always does, was “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” a favorite of the Rev. Dr. King that was sung by Mahalia Jackson at the march on Washington in 1963. Although it was a Unitarian service, it had the feeling of being both a revival and a celebratory musical ode to life. The order of service with historical context of the meaning and purpose of jazz funerals is at this link.
At the minister’s invitation, we wrote our 2017 regrets on paper, and as the band played a soulful dirge, we marched in procession toward the sanctuary to place them in a coffin. My regrets were about the social and political angst endangering our country: President Trump’s tweets; the spewing of white supremacy hate; anti-immigration anger; racism; religious intolerance; gay bashing; congressional partisan stalemate and bickering. Melanie’s regrets were of a personal nature.
After the wake, the band played a mournful dirge as the coffin was wheeled out of the church by the pallbearers, a young mother and father and their four-year old son. The mourners followed solemnly behind. In the symbolic burial, the minister burned the regrets in the church’s courtyard. Then, as is the custom, the band led the departing mourners in a spirited Second Line dance in a celebration of life. Umbrellas opened and handkerchiefs waved as the mourners danced to the syncopated beat of the brass sounds: “Oh! When the Saints go Marching In, I want to be in that number!”
A jazz brunch followed the services, where we had the pleasure of meeting and dining with an ex-patriot from La Rochelle, France, a refugee from Honduras who told a horrifying story of his journey on foot to the United States in the early nineties, and a generations-old Louisiana French Creole. It was the latter who invited us to join him the next day for the monthly meeting of the Causeries du lundi, a French speaking group of ex-pats and local Francophones that sponsors activities to promote French language and culture. There, we heard an interesting lecture in French on Cajun culture by the cinematographer, Glen Pitre. And, not surprisedly, the lecture was followed by a light luncheon of wine and finger food.
The other grand surprise of the morning was the shock of seeing at the service Michele Lankford of Thyme of Grace, the owner and proprietor of one of our favorite restaurants in South Bend. We were dumbfounded to see her so far from home. There is obviously truth in the adage that the world is a small place, and a reminder that one must always be on one’s best behavior. Michele was in New Orleans with friends from South Bend and Houston to celebrate the Houstonian friend’s birthday. Unfortunately, they could not stay for the entire service because of lunch reservations. From their telling, Michele and her friends were having a grand time in my native city. As we natives say, “Love New Orleans and she’ll love you right back.”
While Michele and her friends are here to savor the city’s charm, we’re here to celebrate my mom’s 92nd birthday, January 11. The following Sunday my four siblings, nieces, nephews, and several friends celebrated the grand birthday with a New Orleans feast of pot roast, grilled salmon, jambalaya, sweet potatoes and pumpkin (topped with Louisiana pecans), mac and cheese, potato salad, green beans, yellow and green squash, and many diferent salads. Surely, I must be missing something. I stuffed myself and had little room for the ice cream and cake that followed. Home cooking is almost always an epicurean treat as any New Orleanian can attest. In every New Orleans home, family stories abound of gourmet cooking by a favorite aunt or grandmother.
The “pièce de résistance” was watching the Saints and Vikings football game. The first half was a disappointment, but the Saints came roaring back only to lose 29-24 in the waning seconds. Imagine the noisy elation in my mother’s house when the Saints took the lead and then the mournful woes of despair when they lost. If only that third and one running play had been successful! Oh well! We can follow the script of a jazz funeral by burying this game and keeping hope alive for next year.
Sunday family visits are long New Orleans traditions. Each Sunday, my siblings gather at my Mom’s home. Below are pictures of my brother and me with his grandsons and my niece with her three boys.
Whenever, I am in New Orleans I try to eat at least one po-boy and this visit was no exception. With friends, Tom and Judith Bonner, we lunched at the famous Rib Room of the Royal Orleans where I enjoyed a delicious turtle soup. After lunch we visited the Historic New Orleans Collection, a repository and museum of New Orleans historical artifacts, where Judith is a curator of art. Since I will be teaching a one-hour graduate seminar on Southern Louisiana Culture at IUSB this spring, I wanted to visit the museum. Tom is a scholar of Southern literature and he and Judith suggested resources that would be helpful for my course. While touring the museum, we unexpectedly came across a large painted portrait in one of the halls of the Rev. Theodore Clapp, the founder of the First Unitarian Church in New Orleans in 1833. What is significant about him he welcomed people of color as members of his congregation, something uncommon during that time in antebellum Louisiana.
Later in the week, we dined with friends Johnny and Anne Barron at a very popular neighborhood uptown café, Superior Seafood, There I enjoyed one of New Orleans’ traditional drinks, a Sazerac, rye bourbon with absinthe and bitters, followed by a flavorful crab and crawfish bisque.
After a week and half here in the Crescent City, we originally planned to leave today, but icy road conditions from a wintry storm across the Midwest delayed our return. Hopefully, road conditions will improve by tomorrow morning. We’ll be back in April for my nephew’s wedding, another occasion to “Let the good times roll.”
As we welcome in the New Year, there is much to celebrate. To many, including me, our national politics seems chaotic. Thankfully, there are the smiles and laughter of little children that remind us that life is full of joy and that people of goodwill still abound. Those little ones keep us anchored; their simple gestures bring light to the world and hope for the future.
The old adage that it is more fun to be a grandparent than a parent rings true on so many levels. First, we don’t have the primary responsibility of rearing and educating our precious little darlings. Second, when they are upset or moody, we are more than happy to hand them over to their parents. Having raised children of our own, we are wise in the ways of childrearing, at least we deceive ourselves in thinking so. As we observe our progeny in parenting their own, the temptation to offer advice lingers on the tip of our tongues, but we wisely refrain. However, if asked, we’ll gladly oblige.
Our wisdom, such as it is, is the product of raising four children, two each from separate marriages. All of our children are doing well in their chosen careers living in exciting places, Boston, Washington, DC, Portland, OR and Las Vegas. We love them dearly. But our heartstrings are pulled by four beautiful grandkids, Eliot a month shy of 5, Michelle 3, Theron and Juliette both 1. Unluckily, vast distances separate us as they live on both coasts. Two grandsons are in Portland, and two granddaughters in Washington, DC. Happily, FaceTime, Skype and Google Chat keep us connected. During the autumn and winter months, we had the happy occasion to see them in the flesh, a car trip to D.C. and a lovely train ride to Portland. Whenever we visit, we marvel at the parenting skills of our sons and daugthers-in-law. As parents, they are sensitive, caring, thoughtful, seemingly perfectly in tune with their children. They listen attentively, comfort them calmly in their distress, and assure them of their love. Melanie and I are amazed at their calm demeanor, even when everything appears in turmoil. As a young parent, I can recall my frustrations when little tempers flared or stubbornness surfaced. Sometimes we think our own children are handling parenthood more skillfully than we did. Or are they? Reflecting on our time as parents, we readily admit the mistakes we made. We shudder thinking back on some of them. In spite of our parenting errors, our kids have grown up to be responsible adults, pursuing interesting careers. We’d like to believe that they acquired the art of parenting totally from us. But obviously, that is not the case. We’re certain that as they reflect on their own upbringing they do not want to emulate all of our parenting techniques.
I remember as a new dad that I wanted to parent differently from my parents. I know now that my obstinacy blinded me from learning helpful parenting tips. In parenting, my dad was what you might call “old school.” He believed firmly that sparing the rod, spoiled the child and that there was a proper time when children should be heard. Once when I refused to spank my firstborn toddler, he and I became embroiled in a heated argument about the “proper” way to raise a child. I felt that his arcane ways were no longer relevant. Truthfully, I could have been a more receptive listener. At times when I tried to discipline, I overly compensated between being too harsh and too lenient resulting in total ineffectiveness. When I did not achieve the behaviors I expected of my children, frustration and anger gnawed within for not being the controlled disciplinarian my father was. Overall, I muddled through and like to think that my sons have forgiven my parenting shortcomings. And even as I have grown older, and wiser, I appreciate my dad’s disciplined parenting, understanding now his earnestness in protecting my siblings and me from lurking dangers in New Orleans’ segregated society. A misstep could be consequential. As “Negroes,” he did not want us to be labeled in stereotypical images falsely held by the majority.
Melanie and I reached adulthood in the sixties, she in the Northeast and I in the deep South. Those were turbulent and troubling times–the fight for Civil Rights, the war on poverty, the Women’s Movement, protests against the Vietnam War. Our grandkids live in a different world, full of opportunities, but the incidents of the last year from the Charlottesville protests to the #MeToo Movement teach us that the challenges of equality, fairness, and justice remain in their future. Because of the way our grandchildren are being raised, we, as grandparents are optimistic that they will prevail in overcoming these obstacles and be part of the solution for a more equitable and just society. Our children are already moving in that direction, and our grandchildren will build on that progress.
For the moment, we pause in the present and bathe in the happiness these four little ones give us. Their smiles and laughter and their cheerful playfulness in fanciful imaginings lighten our hearts. The beauty of grand-parenting is the thrill of rolling on the floor with them, running around the room as they chase us, or we them, in gleeful mirth, taking walks with them to the park or around the neighborhood. On the swings or slides their energy seems limitless. When they shout “Push me higher Papi” or “Read to me Mamie,” we gladly respond to these angelic voices. Grand-parenting gives new meaning to our lives, a supreme joy we treasure deep within our souls. We enjoy too watching our own children interact with theirs. They embrace their children with love and tenderness. It’s moving to see a little one give a spontaneous big hug to his/her mom or dad, to listen to the cooing sound of a baby nursing, to appreciate the calm voice of a parent comforting a child in distress. And there is unparalleled joy in watching comedy unfold as a little one struggles to put on his/her sock, or one of their younger siblings eating messily. And yes, there is the inevitable drama when a hungry one distressfully cries to be fed, or a scraped knee demands immediate attention, or pouting and shrill voices require a disciplined response. At such times, grand-parenting skills yield to the parent’s deft and appropriate handling. In grand-parenting lore, it’s called “time for the parent” to takeover.”
When we are home, our conversation often drifts toward the memory of those special moments of a sweet phrase uttered, a happy song cheerfully sung in play, a meaningless, but somehow magical, babble of repetitive sounds. Some of our favorites are: Eliot’s response as a two year old watching a train go by, “Train, heart boom-boom,” or when he placed a toy football on my legs in shorts, “Ball brown, Papi brown, what color is me?” And one of our gems is his response to Melanie calling him her sweetie pie, “I’m not your sweetie pie.” Then there is Michelle who used to attend a Spanish language daycare and now attends a bi-lingual pre-school, seeking help shouts out to Melanie, “Ayudame (Help me) Mamie. And Theron’s and Juliette’s singsong babbling are delightful treats, Theron’s chanting of ba-ba-ba-ba and Juliette’s dit-dit-dit-dit.
At the birth of our firstborns we imagined no greater happiness, that is until the birth of our second-borns. That immense joy and excitement has been repeated fourfold in the births of our four grandchildren. We are proud and grateful grandparents. A collage of photos follows.
The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors. Chief Plenty Coups, Crow
We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Native American Proverb
Several months have passed since our five-week-southwest journey with friends from southern France. Embedded in my nostalgic reveries are images of unparalleled beauty, lush ascending and descending valleys, graceful rolling mountains, and gigantic rock formations of multitudinous colors and shapes. We and our friends were in perpetual awe of Nature’s grandeur. In all my travels across the globe, this trip will remain as one of the most memorable. As a complement to our euphoria, we listened to the evocative western frontier American masterpieces of Antonin Dvorak and Aaron Copland. The sonorous strings of Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major,Op. 96 and the blaring horns of Copland’s Music of America (Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man) echoed the spiritual tranquility of these incredibly majestic landscapes.
Mesmerized, I imagined this rustic scenery as the backdrop of the galloping cowboys of my 1950s youth when shooting marbles and playing cowboys and Indians were king. In our fanciful play we imitated the wild west frontier on the silver screens of our family’s black and white Philco. Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid were our heroes. Like them, we chased the bad guys, cattle rustlers and Indians. But that was a distant time of innocent youth. That innocence quickly faded when I considered the Native Americans’ painful loss of this land to westward expansion. I imagined this territory inhabited by millions of Native tribal communities. Then, buffalo and other wildlife roamed freely on the range. Today, the buffalo, once nearly extinct, are contained on land preserves; Native homelands are isolated, barren flatlands. Our country’s historical treatment of Native populations has caused generational problems and suffering. A further examination of why is beyond the scope of this brief blog.
Prior to our trip, a friend visiting from Wisconsin suggested that I read Timothy Eagan’s book, Short Nights of the Spirit Catcher, about the famed early twentieth century photographer, Edward S. Curtis, who worked tirelessly and industriously to capture in photographs the rapidly fading culture of Native Americans. His images are haunting.
In posed profiles, he captured the sadness and suffering of vanishing Native American tribes. Other photographs depicted the daily activities of Indian life. Thanks to his interest in the new technologies of the camera and the recorder, he preserved in photographs and recordings disintegrating cultures and dying languages. Even today, the Native way of living struggles mightily against the tide of assimilation.
This became starkly evident when one afternoon during a refueling stop, I picked up a copy of the May 11, Navajo Times. Reading it was akin to peering into life on the reservation. Within its pages were a full-page congratulatory ad listing the names of all the graduates of Navajo Technical University, articles about family services on the reservation, the construction of a new high school, racial profiling, a heartfelt Happy Mother’s Day tribute to a deceased mother, a column on the Navajo Blessingway ceremony and other general interest stories pertinent to the local Indian community. Interestingly, there was a front page article about scientists and students from Notre Dame working with the local community to clean up an abandoned uranium mine site that had been an environmental hazard to the residents of the reservation. But the most intriguing story, a guest column, was written by a young Navajo woman about her tenacity to hold onto her Navajo heritage amidst the overwhelming majority American culture. I resonated with her struggle to maintain her Native identity. I, too, struggle to seek balance among the tensions among my multiple ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic identities. I wrote about it in an article that was re-published in an intercultural textbook (Among Us: Essays on Identity, Belonging, and Intercultural Competence).
When we returned from our trip, I vowed to learn more about the Native American experience in the United States. My desire to know more flows from my own cultural background. My paternal great-grandmother, known as Papoose, and deceased before my birth, was from a little known Louisiana tribe, the Houma Indians. I know her only from a family photograph in which she is dressed in tribal garb. I’ve always taken great pride in sharing this kinship with Native Americans.
My other, perhaps more intimate contact, dates to my time as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Humboldt State University. The campus, nestled among the redwoods and overlooking Humboldt Bay, was home to the Center for Indian Community Development. Several tribes reside in this northern, remote section of California – Hupa, Wiyot (HSU was once the land of the Wiyots), Karok, and Yurok. The Center’s director, a Hupa Indian woman, personally took me to meet with many tribal communities to discover how best the university and the respective tribes could align in partnership. During my time at HSU, I learned about the peculiar status of these tribal communities as sovereign and independent nations within the United States.
But it was through the reading of Benjamin Madley’s book, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe that I learned in more detail of the horrifying state and government sponsored slaughter of Native American tribal communities. Wanton killing of women, children and the elderly, enslavement of surviving men, total destruction of homes, livestock and agricultural fields. All of these were part of institutionalized annihilation of the Indian. Madley’s book details these gruesome killing campaigns in California from roughly 1846-1873. The Indian was defined by Anglo-Americans as sub-human and an enemy to western expansion. This demonization was sufficient justification for genocide. In 1845, the native populations of California stood at roughly 150,000. By 1880, they had shrunk to less than 20,000. Despite the constant onslaught of killing raids and death by disease, the resilience of Native Americans in this country is remarkable. America is soaked in blood, and even more so when the mutilation of black bodies in slavery and the needless spillage of blood during the Civil War are added. There has been talk nationally about reparations to the ancestors of enslaved African Americans. I would argue, too, that an equally strong case can be made for reparations to Native Americans. Their continued suffering is our nation’s shame.