The Thrill Is Gone

B.B. King, Ben E. King and Calvin Peete have taken their leave…

 

“We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders.”  That quote swims in the deep waters of my memory like a nearly forgotten creature pushed aside by the relentless advances of time and change. But it was a boilerplate axiom in the black community when I was growing up. Too bad you rarely — if ever — hear it these days.

Perhaps the solid sense of community it invokes is not as much a part of our lives in the “It’s your thing; do what you wanna do” attitude and culture that have seemed to rule us since, at least, the latter third of the twentieth century.

But the recent deaths of B.B. King, Ben E. King and Calvin Peete got me thinking about it again. They were three black men, outstanding in their fields, whose broad shoulders helped a whole lot of us have the courage and the belief we could rise above meager circumstances and low expectations to live accomplished and meaningful lives.

And it was not something they preached, but just how they lived. How they lived in the face of all that challenged them as black men in the scorching cauldron of white America.

They were not perfect, by any means. They didn’t have to be. They were talented, determined, and not afraid to blaze new trails, even at times when they weren’t fully conscious of their own significance. They were great examples of another old saw: “You can accomplish anything, if you put your mind to it.”

B.B. King emerged from the cotton fields near Itta Bena, Kilmichael and Indianola, Miss., where he was “a regular hand” picking cotton from the time he was seven, and where he would hear the blues played on the radio during the noon breaks the field workers would take.

When the weather was bad, and he couldn’t work the fields, he once said, he’d walk ten miles to a one-room school, before he finally dropped out in the 10th grade. It is said he got his first guitar around the age of 12, and knew right away that he wanted to play and sing like the blues performers he heard regularly on the local radio station: Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

With his steadfast devotion to learning the guitar and making it talk, he soon wound up playing on the local station. He later moved to Memphis and played wherever he could, including every juke joint on the Chitlin’ Circuit. His career took off, with him playing more than 250 dates a year around the world, and at the same time, re-defining the blues. His career lasted nearly 70 years, in which he recorded more than 50 albums; won 15 Grammy Awards; received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush; gave one of his guitars to Pope John Paul II; and once had President Barack Obama join him in singing “Sweet Home Chicago.”

He died recently, at the age of 89, from complications of diabetes. He was the undisputed king of the blues and a mentor to countless renowned guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

Another music legend, who took leave of us in the last few weeks, is Ben E. King. He first existed in my mind as “Ben E. King and The Drifters.” His passionate, but smooth baritone voice was all over the radio when I was a youngster. He was popular as the frontman for the Drifters and as a solo performer. His “Stand By Me,” to my mind, is one of the best singles of all time. And there was “Spanish  Harlem,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “There Goes My Baby.”

He had the right pedigree and the street-corner cred to step right into R&B stardom.  Before he was one of The Drifters, he was a member of a doo-wop group known as the Five Crowns, whose members later replaced the original Drifters and recorded a string of memorable hits.

According to Wikipedia, King’s single, “Stand By Me,” written by King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was voted one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition, “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Babby,” and “Spanish Harlem,” were named as three of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

King was born to humble surroundings in Henderson, N.C., in 1938 and moved to Harlem, in 1947, when he was nine. Like so many others, who achieve despite the odds, King didn’t let humble beginnings deter him, and he didn’t forget from whence he had come: For years, he was actively involved in his charitable foundation, The Stand By Me Foundation, which assists young people with their educational needs. He died April 30, at the Hackensack University Medical Center (New Jersey), at the age of 76.

And then there is Calvin Peete. When you talk about rising from meager beginnings, Peete — who grew up on the streets of Detroit before moving to rural Florida to live with his father, a vegetable picker — became the most successful and celebrated African-American golfer in the world: Before Tiger Woods took the golfing world by storm years later.

Peete, who — as a youth — suffered a fall that left him with a “crooked left arm,” and who did not take up golf until he was 23, and didn’t join the pro tour until he was in his 30s — eventually won 12 PGA Tour events, had two Ryder Cup appearances and, according to a New York Times obituary, was consistently one of the tour leaders in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation.

All this from a man who never had a golf lesson before he turned pro, and only a short time earlier was scraping a living from selling clothes and jewelry to migrant workers from the back of his car.

“I get my accuracy from my tempo and rhythm,” he once told the New York Times. “I never really worked for it. It is just something  that happened. I just seem to have a good tempo and good control as far as knowing just when to release the club.”

Calvin Peete was not the first black man to play on the pro golf tour. There were Pete Brown, a sharecropper’s son out of Port Gipson, Miss., Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent and Lee Elder before him. Elder was the first African American to play the Masters in Augusta, Ga., which is among the most hallowed — and the most  “exclusive” playgrounds in the world.

But no black man — before Tiger Woods — excelled at the sport the way Calvin Peeete did. Also, according to the New York Times: Peete was once asked, by a reporter, his opinion of the traditions of the Masters. “Until Lee Elder, ” he said, “the only blacks at the Masters were caddies and waiters. To ask a black man what he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers who were slaves.”

Peete died at the end of April, his body ravaged by cancer. He was 71. His broad shoulders had been a steady springboard for Tiger Woods’ emergence on the scene. Yet speaking of the notion of standing on others’ shoulders, and how it is an idea that is rarely mentioned these days, I think back to a conversation I had with Ed Dwight, who was one of the first African Americans in the U.S. Space Program.

Ed never got a mission into the reaches of outer space, but he soared anyway. He is the sculptor who was commissioned to create the statue of baseball legend Hank Aaron that now stands proudly at the ballpark in Atlanta.

Our conversation must have been thirty years ago. In trying to explain how he became an artist, Ed gave credit to others who had gone before him: “We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders,” he said.

Years later, while talking to James Alan McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, scholar and long-time teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, Big Mac said it, too: “We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders.”

They were right, and it’s still true now, even though nobody talks about it much anymore. And there are many shoulders. Thousands of them. The shoulders of women and men who did what they did because that was who they were. Most of them never saw their names in headlines, or in the bright lights of theater marquees.

But they stand, nevertheless, as part of that enduring human foundation upon which we continue to build.

Amen.

 

 

 

My First Mammogram — Part 3

Real Men And Pink

Mammograms, uh, Manograms

Biopsies And Breast Cancer

This is the latest in my ongoing adventure with pain, tenderness and “fullness” in my right breast. If you are just joining the “ride,” you can get up to speed on the details by checking out my earlier posts on this subject.

As it turns out, my doctor’s gratifying conclusions during my recent visit were a comfort that I sorely needed, but — unfortunately — the results from the last ultrasound scan came through later, and the joy and optimism were dampened quite a bit.

The abnormal growth in my right breast that was detailed on the mammogram and ultrasound tests in March, apparently was not due to an infection, since two rounds of antibiotics had not erased it. The growth was still there, and relatively unchanged since the earlier tests. Bummer Squared.

So, on to the next step.

Today, I called the office of the surgeon who removed “abnormal” tissue from my left breast in 2008, to schedule an appointment with him, since the radiologist handling my case said the only way to know if the abnormality is cancerous — or not — is to take it out and have it examined by a lab.

The earliest appointment I could get is for the end of May.

In 2008, several days after the surgery to remove the “suspect” tissue in my left breast, the lab results were negative; the rogue cells were not tumors.

I hold out hope the results this time — if the surgeon confirms that surgical removal is the best approach — will be the same. That would be a true blessing, given the history of cancer in my family, and my late mother’s battles with the  disease that finally took her from us.

Even so, I am trying to remain upbeat. God has been good to me before, on more occasions than I can count.

So, again, stay tuned, and pray for me — if you don’t mind.

 

 

 

 

 

A Nasty Little Secret About Race Riots

Baltimore, Ferguson, LA/Rodney King, Detroit, Watts … Violence, Riots, Uprisings, Lynchings, Oppression, Racism, Fear

 

I hate to say this, but here’s a nasty little secret about race riots in America:

They work.

Unfortunately.

They focus national  — if not global — attention on long-standing, systemic problems to the extent that our top officials are embarrassed so much, or angered so much — or both — that they pressure local leaders to stop turning their backs on the problems that lead to such violence — and start looking for answers.

I want to make it clear up front, that by saying what I’m saying, I am not encouraging or endorsing the use of violent protests as a means of solving problems. However, we need to understand that these less-than-desirable tactics often get results, which says as much about us as a nation as it does about the desperate people who resort to such tactics.

In most of the cases in which abusive policing and unjustified arrest practices lead to unnecessary injuries or deaths, there usually is also a long trail of citizen complaints about law enforcement abuses or brutality, which, unfortunately haven’t been taken seriously enough.

In Baltimore, for example, the city had previously paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits because of assorted abuses, which made its own citizens question whether the widely proclaimed notion that police officers are there to “protect” and “serve” was no more than a cruel cliche, a sick joke perpetrated on the poor and other marginalized residents.

I am not talking only about the recent uprisings and incendiary protests in Baltimore, Md., or Ferguson, Mo., Nor the explosive protests of the 1960’s that spawned the Kerner Commissioner and led then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson to make a passionate address to the nation in 1967, in which he declared:

“The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack — mounted at every level upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions — not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America …”

I am also referring to many of the wanton and deadly uprisings, or riots, by white Americans against black and brown residents of this nation going back to the early days of the twentieth century and even before: race riots in New York City, Harlem, New Orleans, Little Rock, Atlanta, East St. Louis, Ill., Philadelphia, Tulsa, Okla., Rosewood, Fla.,Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C.  Just to name a few.

These violent mob actions are in addition to scores of lynchings across the country — many of them in the South, some  of which drew large crowds of whites dressed and socializing as if they were attending the Kentucky Derby or some other fancy social event. According to reports I’ve read, some in attendance even brought their young children.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is often quoted as saying that “violence is the language of a desperate people.” Of course, he is right. But what doesn’t often get translated by those who use the quote is that everybody’s desperation is not the same. And all desperation is not egual.

Too often, people are referring only to the desperation felt by oppressed peoples, particularly this country’s African-American citizens, who have been worn down and worn out by the  conditions under which they have sought to survive for generations. The violent outbursts, or uprisings that we call “riots” are then explained as an understandable — albeit unfortunate response to severe oppression.

That is one side of the desperation we are discussing. But even in the face of strong, driving reasons for the use of violent outbursts, a civilized society must still condemn them, because they shatter the rule of law, and –many argue — can lead to retaliation and even more violence.

The other form of desperation, however, is much easier to condemn. It is not driven by oppression, nor generations of being treated as lesser humans, or worse.

Most often, it is driven by fear of another stripe, fear that rises out of — or is fueled by — racism and a belief in one’s superiority and privileged status. A fear that justifies, in the privileged one’s mind, hatred and oppression of the undeserving class — those who covet the rights, status and privileges, of which they are not worthy.

That mindset leads to the kind of anger and hatred that has transformed, say, a church-going, normally law-abiding, mild-mannered man, who owns the local grocery store or manages a clothing store, into the brazen leader who dons the white sheet and leads the charge, noose in hand.

Especially when the economy is in dire straits and it appears that the subhumans — the “blacks, browns, reds and yellows” — all unworthy of taking a seat in the front of the American bus, are snatching up good jobs, buying houses, putting their children into good schools, seeking public office, striving for the same things the “first-class” citizens believe are theirs by birthright.

To those born to privilege and might, that is certainly a frightening prospect.

For those who are oppressed, however, they fear that they, their children and their children’s children will continue to be dominated for generations to come, if they don’t do something!!!, even in the face of the risk to their safety,  their freedom, their very lives.

Riots ARE the language of desperate people. Unfortunately, they may be the only language that power brokers in this society hear loudly enough and clearly enough to move them to action. These violent actions galvanize national attention and get politicians, civic and church leaders, community activists and others concerned about their fellow men and women talking together, working together and doing what they can to make things better.

In Feguson, the “riots” brought so much white-hot attention to the city that the federal government got involved fairly quickly, investigations were launched, truths were unveiled about the operations of the police department, the district attorney’s office and the grand jury process that probably would not have come out otherwise. The unsavory national spotlight also had a dramatic effect on the recent elections, there, resulting in more black residents being voted into office.

In Baltimore, the unrelenting glare of the media lights, I believe, forced quicker action, ripping off the covers on what appears to be an orchestrated cover-up on the part of some in the police department, and led to the indictment of six officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.

Sad to say, but violent mob actions on the part of angry whites in the past, which killed thousands of black citizens, also worked to a point. They kept in place — and even strengthened — the claws of fear and domination that held many in the black community in check, afraid to challenge white dominance.

Without the courageous, self-sacrificing work of scores of black and white college students, volunteers, civil rights leaders, protest marchers, church leaders and others, who swallowed their fear to change the hearts and minds of this nation, things would be even worse.

Given the incredible degree of division, racial violence, intimidation, angry speech and uncivil discourse in this country right now, it would be difficult for many to imagine that things could be worse. But they certainly could be.

In fact, if we don’t get serious about addressing this monumental issue, things will get worse.

And just think, only a short time ago, so many politicians and others were proclaiming that we now live in a “post-racial America.”

One black president does not make a post-racial America. Especially a black president, who has to deal with a majority-white Congress, whose Republican- controlled leadership is intent on making him toothless and irrelevant.

 

 

 

 

Deer Business

Nature’s Creatures As Neighbors

And Doe-eyed Poetry

I live in a place that seemed a nature lover’s paradise when I first moved to it  nearly 24 years ago. It is not far off the interstate, but just distant enough that you don’t hear the big rigs blasting by at the speed of sound, or the occasional multiple-car pileup that cancels any chance of making an appointment, if you’ve got to use the super highway to get there.

In those days, it seemed an idyllic place; the road that meandered past my property was a winding country lane. On the other side of it, was a good-sized pond that was the year-round home of a clan of Canada Geese, who often acted as if they owned the whole neighborhood, especially the road.

In the Spring, I would frequently see them taking their young out for a stroll or to graze for worms in the grass of yards on the other side of the road. I would marvel at their sense of organization, as the older birds seemed to have clearly defined roles. The leader would bring the brood to the edge of the road, look in both directions, then begin to cross.

The little ones would waddle behind the elders, single file. Bringing up the rear would be another elder whose job seemed to be to make sure all of the “biddies” got across safely. Those of us who lived along the road would always keep a lookout for the geese, but visitors and passers-through often wouldn’t slow down when they came to the bend in the road near the pond — and sometimes, there were tragic results.

But for me, waiting patiently for the birds to cross was a relaxing treat after a grinding day in a busy newsroom where every deadline could feel like a lash from an overseer’s whip.

There were also horses who lived near the pond, and down the road a bit were cows in a pasture so large it seemed to stretch farther than the eye could see. From the road, the house of the landowner appeared to be a small box on the rolling landscape. But, in reality, it was a huge abode, with interior spaces that were well-appointed.

Less than half a mile from the cows were a llama or two, three goats and a couple more horses. I have fond memories of the geese in the mornings and early evenings, flying overhead in what resembled military formations, with the lead pilot barking out orders in a voice that sounded like my husky Labrador retriever, Diamond.

 In my yard alone, various species of animals added to the menagerie: A huge white owl, who camped out in the top of a tall pine tree and watched my neighbor’s four Yorkies as they ran about his yard; a majestic hawk, whom I watched train her baby to hunt and, after a few weeks, left the youngster to fin for his or herself; a multitude of squirrels, woodpeckers, gophers and stray cats; plenty of opossums; a raccoon or two; rabbits galore; an occasional black snake; every now and then, a gray fox or coyote, and at least on two or three occasions, a crane.

But the most interesting and social of the creatures were the deer. And they were beautiful, to boot, with their fluffy white tails and long, elegant necks.

In the beginning, however, we didn’t see as many deer, but after the 1996 Olympics, many suburban, and some exurban, areas around Atlanta — where The Games were headquartered — experienced a building boom like few before the international event, or since. In my area, where there few large apartment complexes, construction of sprawling complexes went into overdrive. And, in an area where many subdivisions had requirements that lots be two acres or more, denser subdivisions, with much smaller houses, joined the mix.

With that growth, we could see the effects on the animal populations. Habitats for many creatures were being consumed for apartments, subdivisions, big-box stores and strip malls. As a result, the deer came around in greater numbers and got more and more comfortable around us.

In the spring, the does would bring their babies to our yard, as if to show them off. On rainy spring nights, they would sleep under the trees in my front yard. On one occasion, as we drove down our long driveway, one of the does walked up to the car to peer inside, as if to ask, “Who’s that you got with you?”

They were so comfortable, they weren’t afraid of us anymore. We would have to make sudden hostile movements and shout, if we wanted to scare them off. And even if they ran away, they didn’t go far. Later that evening, or the next day, they would be back. This would go on until November, just before the start of hunting season, when they would become incredibly scarce.

I always wondered how they knew when it was time for hunting season. Although their presence annoyed other members of my family, I was drawn to them and would worry about them  — first through the bow season, then the rifle season. When hunting season was over, they would start their almost daily visits again.

I began to notice, though, that they were becoming more and confident while in my yard, eating my wild muscadines, various tall weeds and wildflowers — and, I suspect — even from the low limbs of the persimmon tree.

They would hang out closer and closer to the house, and often walk around as if they owned the place, not me and my family. They even befriended my golden retriever, Precious, who I would let out into the yard just to show them they didn’t run things.

One day, however, I was looking for Precious; went down into the basement and peeked out at the patio — and there was Precious and a huge doe standing within a foot of each other, and it looked like they were talking. As soon as I opened the door, Precious saw me and immediately started barking at the deer and chased her when she ran.

After several minutes, Precious came walking back near the patio where I was standing, looking back over shoulder and snorting, as if to say, “That ought to teach ’em.” But I wasn’t fooled. That made me seriously wonder who really was in charge.

I even started to have unnerving dreams about the deer, which led me to write the poem below. When I finished it, I sent it to the Chattahoochee Review, a  literary journal with a broad readership. It is sponsored by Georgia Perimeter College and draws contributors and readers from around the world. The poem was published in the journal’s spring edition that year, and is reprinted here with the permission of the editors:

Deer Business

I follow the suspicious star,

a straggler,

still winking in the early-morning sky.

It moves slowly

above the corner of the house,

up the winding drive.

It turns abruptly,

darts behind the sagging garage,

out of sight

My lungs complain

as I gallop in breathless pursuit.

Lights on in the old garage.

Shouldn’t be.

High-pitched voices,

Like the whir of hummingbird wings,

things summoned from a dream …

I peek inside:

Stags and doe-eyed sirens in bright clothing,

crowded around an ancient oak table

still homemade-fine.

They

don’t even look up,

house plans, maps spread out,

drinks discreetly by.

I strain to see and remain hidden.

My house, my rooms, my secret things …

My chest tightens, I cough.

Antlered heads turn in unison,

then silence.

It is only me, the large brown eyes seem to say,

lord of a borrowed manor.

A dirt-caked hoof

kicks the door closed.

Inside

 laughter all around …