I responded to an email from a man I had never met. Joe Lambert, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling, had sent an email to past participants of StoryCenter workshops promoting an upcoming session on civil rights that would commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. My response was simple; I said that I probably knew a few people in DC and other cities who would be interested in attending a workshop.
My family’s history and active involvement in the Civil Rights movement began four generations ago in Selma, Alabama where my great-grandparents and their children tended cotton fields. As a child, I heard their intergenerational stories about sharecropping, Jim Crowism, and “Daddy King” around the dinner table. My grandmother, who recently turned 92, participated in the Bloody Sunday March with John Lewis and Dr. King. In the 1970s, when Shirley Chisholm ran for president, years before there was Hilary Clinton, my mother and Ms. Shirley took me with them to voter registration events every Saturday. I don’t think I knew what voting was, but I knew Dr. King had given up his life for my right to vote. I also knew that Dr. King and his fight for black civil rights would, in many ways, define me.
As my sister was teaching me to read and write, my mother was in the background telling me that I would go to college, because Thurgood Marshall went all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington so I could attend school. At night, over dinner, my father would ask us what we learned during the day because we were to join DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” and “uplift our people.” On Sundays, at the First Shiloh Baptist Church, I learned that God gave me this life to serve and to build his “Beloved Community” – on Earth and in heaven. With time, I would follow this path; my dissertation evaluated Dr. King’s Beloved Community principles to faith-based community and economic development corporations.
Honestly, most of the time I had no idea what my family members were talking about. I was fairly certain that these conversations were not taking place in the homes next door and across the street in our predominately Jewish community in western New York.
But then I started to see and experience things. In music class, my teacher sent me to the principal's office when I would not sing Dixieland. At the roller skating rink, a boy called me a “Nigger.” In English class, my teacher didn’t want me to cite a poem by Langston Hughes.
On Saturdays, my Dad would drive me into the City where I went to Saturday school at the Center for Positive Thought. The children there didn’t have winter coats – one could barely survive the winter in Buffalo without a coat. The neighborhood parks had broken glass, broken swings, broken slides – broken people – broken dreams. Even as a child, these things were clear to me.
Dr. King was right; something was wrong with this American dream.
As a student at the University of Cincinnati, my response to what I was seeing and experiencing was to protest – protest economic disparity, protest racial and gender inequality, protest the lack of lack African American faculty on campus, protest Apartheid…and, of course, to register others to vote!
So, you see, when Joe sent his email, I thought I knew a thing or two about civil and human rights.
Usually, when we sit in story circle, I close my eyes when people share their stories. As a facilitator, you never really know what stories will reveal themselves in the circle. You just pray that love, grace, and wisdom will also show up. They usually do.
But, in Washington, Pratishtha also showed up – and she is fighting the good fight for immigration rights – a fight that her family also began generations ago. When Prathishtha began speaking, my eyes opened and I began to see the struggle for civil and human rights with new eyes – Listen Deeply to her story – because all together we can make a difference so she too can live an American dream.