It has been nine years since my daddy died. Nine years! I can’t believe it sometimes. There are mornings when I will wake up and reach for the phone to call him and then realize – he’s gone. Oh, I know all of the things we tell ourselves. ”He’s not really gone. He still lives in you.” I hear the words, but the bottom line is, sometimes I just want a hug from him. Sometimes I want to hear his wisdom. Sometimes I don’t want to be the one who has to have the answers. I actually remember when Daddy was my age. I was a little girl. He seemed so much older and wiser than I feel at this same age. He wasn’t without fault, but when it came to my questions, he seemed to know everything. Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, what does God’s voice sound like? Daddy, how far is it to the end of the universe?
Of course, he didn’t have answers to questions like those, but he had a way of explaining things to my young childish mind that I was satisfied to not wonder anymore about things that were not easily explained – at least for a time. I fear that I do not have that same ability he had. Sometimes, my sons will turn to me for wisdom and insight and all I want to do is ask my daddy to tell me what to say to them. Sometimes I think about my future grandchildren and I wonder, what life lessons can I impart to them to help them become stronger – braver? I don’t know. And that scares me at times. I want to be their rock. I want to be their guiding hand. I pray that when that day comes, instinctively, I will know what to do and say.
A few days ago I spoke to my Aunt Lenora on the phone, and she said she was the last living member of her side of the Jackson family. I heard within her voice the fear and the loneliness of being the last elder standing in a long line of amazing people. As the matriarch of our family, we expect Aunt Lenora to always be brave and fearless. We expect her to always be knowledgeable about every question we might have. Yet, we forget. Like the rest of us, she was a little girl once who looked up to the heroes and she-roes in our family. She ran around outside and played with her siblings and cousins. She sat in front of her mother, the woman we lovingly called Big Mama, and asked her all of the questions little girls ask their mamas. She ran behind her daddy, Daddy Red, and hung on to his every word. Now, she must be the elder of our family. I know at times it must be overwhelming to be the one everyone comes to for answers. My conversation with her allowed me to have a greater understanding of what it really means to be an elder. Elders are wise, but they are also vulnerable, just like the rest of us.
We sometimes take for granted that when we reach some magical age we will be wise and ready to face anything life might send our way. But the older I get, the more I realize, we are all still just babes. Our hair might show white strands of wisdom, but when it is all said and done, no matter what our ages, we still crave someone to be just a little wiser than we are. We want those loving arms of someone older to wrap us up in an embrace that says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” We want those things when we are seven and we want it when we are seventy-five.
I miss those days when my daddy was able to solve all of my problems with a reassuring look and a full-on loving hug. I pray my children and grandchildren will feel that safety I always felt in my daddy’s embrace. I hope that, in me, they will find some of the same traits I found in the the elders who helped to raise me to be the woman I have become.
Although I met many of my birth family nearly 13 years ago, my cousin Tracy and I have only “met” over the telephone, via Facebook, and through email exchanges. Yet, even though we have never had a face-to-face meeting, we have clicked just like cousins who had the good fortune to grow up together, sharing summer vacations filled with silly little secrets and long walks down Alabama dirt-filled roads.
Over time, my cousin, Tracy, has shared her story with me. Let me just say, Tracy’s story is phenomenal – just like her. I asked her would she be willing to share it with others on my blog. I am a firm believer, like Good Morning America’s host, Robin Roberts says, “Our mess can become our message.” Tracy has had to overcome a lot of “mess” over the last few years, but she has never lost hope or faith that her tomorrows will be better than her yesterdays. So, here is my Cousin Tracy’s story. May the readers of her journey be as positively touched and helped by her words as I have been.
Tracy English Butler is 41 years old and the married mother of six children. Her children range in age from 18 to 10 (the ten year olds are twins). Tracy says she never envisioned herself as having such a large family. Instead, she thought she would be a full time career woman. But Tracy is the first to say she has no regrets and loves every part of being the mom to her amazing, beautiful family.
As a child, Tracy grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood with two loving parents, Edward and Jean English. She has one sister, Kelly English Quirolo, and a whole host of loving aunts, uncles, and cousins. Tracy and her husband, Mario, have been married for 19 years, and when asked the secret of their long lasting relationship, Tracy says, “Running our household and raising six children has been a task requiring endurance, love, compromise, and understanding.”
All of their children are in school full-time and about a year and a half ago, Tracy returned to school herself to get a graduate degree in counseling. Tracy was accepted to a challenging program at her Alma mater, Oakland University in Michigan, and was breezing right along carrying a 3.9 grade point average when all of a sudden she was stopped in her tracks by some devastating news.
Here is the rest of Tracy’s story.
Hi, Tracy. Thank you for agreeing to take our private conversations public. I truly believe your story has the ability to change lives. If you don’t mind, will you tell my readers what happened to you nearly two years ago that brought you and all of your carefully laid plans for the future to a temporary, screeching halt?
Well, Angela, I found out that I had a brain tumor. The technical name for it is a Meningioma. Ninety plus percent of the time Meningiomas are benign which leads many people to think it is not that serious. Well, it is very serious, as the brain is a very delicate and complicated structure and any type of tumor that is pressing on it is therefore pressing on brain tissue or other delicate structures.
Wow, Tracy. So what were the particulars of the Meningioma you suffered from?
In my case, my Meningioma was on the left side of my skull. It was wrapped around my carotid artery and it pressed against my optic nerve. I went through a 10 hour craniotomy and I now have a titanium plate AND screws in my skull. Thank God my tumor is benign, but I have still endured the most difficult time of my life.
What are some of the effects you’ve experienced as a result of this brain tumor, and has there been anything positive to come out of this situation?
Everything about me is different. I have a right leg that slightly drags and it gets worse when I am fatigued. My speech is affected at times and I suffer from a fatigue that is indescribable. Cognitively I am not the same. I skip words when I talk and I forget that I have said things so I will often repeat myself. Yet, all of the changes in me have not been negative. I have conquered and faced many fears I never thought I would be able to. I am more vocal now and am in charge of my medical files and treatment. I realized quickly that doctors are blessings but they are not GODS. I am still healing even a year later as the tumor was removed in July of last year but I am here and able to tell my story and best of all, I am still blessed to be able to enjoy life with my husband Mario, my children, my family and my friends.
You’ve also conquered another great hurdle, Tracy. Every time I hear the story, I am amazed. Would you share with my readers what that great hurdle was?
Well Angela, as you know, over the past year I have lost over 147 pounds.
Cousin, no matter how many times I hear the story, I continue to be astounded that you battled a brain tumor and weight loss…all around the same time! If you don’t mind, please tell my readers how you did it?
Over the years I had tried diet plan after diet plan. Weight loss was constantly on my mind. I wanted to fit in and not loathe going shopping because nothing fit. I spent my younger years being told "you have such a pretty face, if you would just lose weight." The whole weight issue has been a very hurtful part of my life. In school, I was the last to get picked in gym, and through the years, people would not be-friend me because of my weight. Throughout my life, I have been bullied and teased.
Finally, I made the decision to have weight loss surgery called the Gastric Sleeve, whereby 85% of my stomach was removed. I had the surgery done about six months before I found out I had a brain tumor. In my surgery, there was no re-routing of my intestines or creation of a pouch or new stomach. I am now only able to eat about 1/4 of what I used to eat at one sitting. I am not promoting this surgery or encouraging anyone else to have it done, but I will say this about it. The surgery saved my life and I couldn't be happier in this department.
I still have about 40lbs to lose to be at what is considered a normal weight, but to tell you the truth I feel comfortable right now at the weight I am. Some people believe having weight loss surgery is taking the easy way out but I can say with all honesty, it is not! I still must choose healthy foods to eat and incorporate exercise into my daily routine.
Tracy, you are truly an inspiration. Although you haven’t mentioned it yet, you have other health issues that have slowed you down some. What are they?
I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, Chiari Malformation, and chronic anemia caused by a deficiency in the blood called G6PD. I also suffer from osteoarthritis and two bulging discs in my neck. I know it sounds like a lot of health issues but I am just trying to manage things one condition at a time.
And Tracy, let me just say, you are doing a phenomenal job managing everything, including, a new career. But Tracy, let’s be frank. A lot of people would have said, after dealing with just one of the things you have dealt with, "Okay, I give up." But you never did. What kept you motivated to not stop?
I have had many, many days when I have just wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out of it. But, I keep my mind busy by reading each day and speaking with and keeping in contact with friends and classmates from school. I gladly accept help from my family and others who offer. But most of all I hold my head high. On the days I am in a lot of pain I pray, spend quiet time outside in nature by walking slowly around my neighborhood and I pray some more. And, as you mentioned, I have even begun my own business. I am an Avon representative! Running the business is helping me in the cognitive areas that I am struggling with and it also allows me to stay engaged with others. Lastly, Avon is providing a secondary source of income for my family, despite my disabilities.
But why Avon? What drew you to that particular company?
Avon is a company that has successfully been in business for over 100 years, and Avon representatives have the flexibility of running a small side business or build something larger. I love that the prices are reasonable and I personally use many of the products myself. Also, I love working for a company that sells itself. Everyone knows Avon!
My memories of Avon representatives are those ladies who used to come door-to-door. Has Avon changed from that model at all?
There are still representatives who operate their business door-to-door only. But then there are those representatives who prefer to run their business online. Either way, running an Avon business requires getting the word out; whether it is through passing out brochures or establishing a web presence. I try to do both. Each campaign, I try to canvas my neighborhood with books and I try to reach new clients online. Recently, I began a Facebook Business Page called Avon Beauty. For example, even though you and I are in different states, separated by hundreds of miles, I am still able to be your “Avon Lady” through my website. The online component of Avon is what has taken it from being your grandmother’s Avon to what it is today, not to mention the fact that the products have also evolved over time. All in all, Avon is the same in some ways, but different in all the ways that count.
Well, I must confess, cousin. I do love getting those boxes with all of my neat Avon products every few weeks. Especially the products for my feet!
(Laughing) Yes, I know.
Well, Tracy, thank you for sharing your story with me again and with my readers. As I said before, your story is remarkable, and I would say that even if you weren't my cousin. I truly believe others will be as touched by your story as I was and continue to be.
Thank you, Angela.
Readers, if you would like a chance to win some incredible Avon products, leave a note for Tracy below and automatically, you will be entered into a drawing for a gift bag valued at $25. The winner of the gift bag will be announced on her Facebook Avon Beauty page on September 22, 2013. I will also announce the winner here on my blog. Click here to subscribe to her Facebook page. If you have additional questions about Avon or Tracy’s story, you can email her at email@example.com.
If you enjoyed this interview and would like to read more like it, please subscribe to my blog on the right side of the page! Take care.
In memory of Trayvon Martin
Today, as I think about Trayvon Martin, and young Black men all over this country like him who have been “counted out,” I realize I am fortunate. I am one of a few Black professors at a predominantly white university and over the last two semesters, I have had close to ten Black male students (all athletes) in my Freshman English classes, and thankfully, I see a future for them. I can close my eyes, and literally, I can imagine them in board rooms, clinics, hospitals, classrooms, and yes, football and basketball courts. Oh, I know what I’ve been told. Other teachers have warned me that these young men are not going to succeed. They’re dumb. They don’t try. They want something for nothing. They are intimidating and rude towards teachers, and all they want to do is play ball. Well, let me tell you this. ALL of my Black, male students these last two semesters passed my classes with Bs and better and not one (No not one) ever “sassed” me or acted in any way other than gentlemanly. How, might you ask, did these young “statistics” do so well in your class? Not because I didn’t grade them hard. Trust me on that. In fact, if you ask them, they would probably tell you I pushed them harder than any other student in the class. Maybe I did. Maybe I did because I was told by my daddy many, many years ago that black folks have to work harder than any other race of people just to receive half of the success. Is that argument still valid today? Depends on who you ask. But let’s just say, I teach my Black students (particularly my male students) to be prepared for anything—in the classroom or in “real life.” I try to impart to them my daddy’s wisdom that he shared with me and his grandsons. “Respect yourself.” “Respect your elders.” “Whatever you do, do it with a willing heart and a cheerful face.” And, of course, “go into a situation assuming you will have to PROVE you are worthy to be there (no matter where there is).”
So, yes, I demand excellence from them, just like I do any other student in my class, but with them, I know it is my duty to let them know things are going to be difficult – extremely difficult, in most cases. Therefore, I do not accept excuses. Period. I don’t care if they come from the Hood or Park Avenue. One semester, one of my Black male students emailed me his little girl didn’t have a babysitter so he couldn’t come to class. I emailed him back and told him to pack up all of her things: diapers, bottles, toys, etc. and get his butt to class on time. I also told him he better take good notes during class AND he better keep her quiet so she doesn’t disturb me or the other class members. I am proud to say, he accomplished all three things. Was I too tough on him? Should I have just been happy he was a young Black male trying to be a good dad? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I wanted this young man to know that yes, I was proud of him for taking care of his fatherly duties, but school was a duty as well, and it was up to him to make it work. I am proud to say this young man not only “made it work,” he will be graduating soon, and I am sure, there will be a smiling little girl in the audience clapping her hands for her daddy as he walks across the stage – the first in his family.
I try to Conference with all of my students in all of my classes near the beginning of the semester. I want to get to know them on a personal level, if possible. I always tell my Black male students I expect better than their best because they have a generation on their heels that will need their leadership and their counsel. But, don’t get me wrong. I also offer them my Mommy ears. Many of them are away from their Moms for the first time, so I often get treated like the surrogate mom. I don’t mind it. My prayer, always is, if I can’t be there for my sons, please allow there to be some other mama who can step up and offer them some motherly words of wisdom. So when these young men come to me, I listen to their fears, their concerns and their worries, because I know what it is like to be “one of the only Black students” at a predominantly White school. I know what it feels like to wonder, “Am I good enough?” or “Should I really be here?”
To my fellow teachers (regardless of your ethnicity, social and economic level, gender, sexual orientation, etc.): These young men might enter your classroom looking angry, bored, hostile, etc. Don’t buy it. They are only wearing that mask in order to protect themselves. They are afraid you are going to “punk them,” “make fun of them,” and/or “shame them.” So, before you can GET them, they try to GET you. Therefore, I challenge you – reach out to these young men and let them know they can remove their masks in your classroom, because in your classroom, masks are not required.
I am a child of the south. I have some very fond memories of growing up in the small town of Ariton, Alabama. I am a proud, southern writer and many of my family and friends reside there, so the south will always be home for me. But similar to Countee Cullen, in his poem, “Incident,” a great deal of my memories are clouded by the sting of racism. Perhaps the racism that hurt the most was from those “benevolent racist.” They were kind-acting. Wanted the best for everyone, even if it meant the continuation of segregation. In their minds, we all would be better off if we just kept things the way they were. But if you questioned them about their “attitudes,” they would insist that they “don't see color.” Many of their close friends, they would say, were “Colored, Negro, Black, African American, etc.” My short essay, “'Lost in 1993” is about my first day of college at Auburn University. As much as I knew I had overcome to get there, it took the actions of one student to spiral me downward into the rabbit hole of self-doubt. “Lost in 1993” is my story of falling, but it is also my story of getting back up.
Lost in 1993
“Are you lost?” he asked, smiling, with an almost tender concern on his face as I stood hesitantly at the door of the classroom. I had followed the sound of lighthearted conversation and banter; sure that one of those self-assured unknowns would know where I was supposed to be in the next ten minutes. I entered the room. The room had tables and chairs arranged in an awkward circle and the view from this room on the 9th floor of the Haley Center was breathtaking. I could see Jordan Hare Stadium from the windows. I imagined my son and me there watching ballgames together. I sighed. This was my dream deferred and in spite of everything that had seemed to sidestep me from this dream through the years, I had finally made it!
I smiled at the guy who stood there waiting for my response. I guess I was in such awe of actually being in the place I'd dreamed of for so long, that his questions flowed right through me without even registering in my psche. Plus, he had a Jesus-like look of patience on his face. Like if I never spoke, he would have still waited there looking welcoming and affirming. I was relieved for his concern. I had been circling the halls of the Haley Center for several minutes and I was afraid of being late for my first official graduate class.
I had approached getting into Auburn University’s graduate school like I had approached everything else in my life—with grit, determination and the tenacity of a pit bull. I had secured grants, scholarships, housing and daycare for my son, so, the first day of class had been a long time coming, but in spite of, or maybe because of all that I had gone through to get there, I just knew I was about to live out my greatest dream.
I reached out my hand to shake his. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. I even remember him looking at my hand in a strange manner, as if something was wrong with it, but before I could withdraw it, he grasped my hand firmly.
"Hi," he said. "I'm *Court."
Although concerned about being lost, my face could not contain its smile, particularly since the young man and his friends were behaving so friendly. I thought to myself, these are my fellow comrades and they are welcoming me. My smile threatened to split into halves, thirds, and into an unrecognizable mass of teeth and gums.
"Hello," I said, shaking his hand firmly. Just like my daddy had taught me. Always look people in their eyes when you shake their hand, he had told me. The mark of an educated person is one who is not afraid to look a man straight in his eyes.
I wanted to tell this smiling fellow that my first class was medieval literature and yes, I was lost. I wanted to tell him I liked Beowulf. I had read it in high school, and when I realized that we would be studying it in my graduate class, I pulled it out and reread it, making all of the intelligent sounding comments in the margins that I could think of. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to tell him all of those things, share with him my excitement, but before I could say another word, he quantified his question; still, with the same benevolent smile he’d had from the beginning.
“You know this section of the Haley Center is for graduate students? Right?”
He sounded so innocent. But the alarm system that people of color possess that alerts us to the fact that we have just been hit with an invisible racist hand slap started chiming in my head. Like the loud, ominous sound of church bells. Instead of the words I know he spoke, I instead heard: You know this section of the Haley Center is for White’s only? Right? I think at that moment I dropped my eyes to the floor, and tried to regain the composure that had surely slithered off of me into a limp pile by my feet.
To this day, Court does not know that his words took me back in time. If questioned about the incident, if he even remembered it, he would probably say he meant no harm. And you know, I would probably believe him. But it wouldn't change the sting I felt when he said it. In that moment, he violently tossed me into the rabbit hole that led back to the segregated south of my youth where I peed in Colored’s Only bathrooms and drank from my people’s very own personal drinking fountains that spewed out bitter streams of water.
Slowly, I looked back up at Court again. He was still smiling. I studied him. He was dashingly handsome. Like a young Dean Martin or Clark Gable. But in that moment he became ugly. Like a steely-eyed Bull Conner ordering water hoses to knock down innocent, brown faces whose only crime was the desire to partake in civil disobedience. His few words stripped me of the advances Colored people had made and I was once again reminded me that I was The Other—the story that existed outside of the margin.
Court was a benevolent racist. The kind who meant no harm. Later, he would "compliment" me by saying things like, "Well, one thing is for sure, Angela. You will always have a job" OR he'd say, still with a smile, "It's not easy getting a job if you are a white man."
When he said things like that, I would find my anger rise up inside of me like the dry bones that came to life again in the biblical story. I had run out of compassion’s milk to offer to the ignorant lips of the Court’s of the world. I had run out of prayers of forgiveness for their lack of understanding of how their words were the matches that caused invisible crosses to burn.
In that moment, I was no Jesus praying for his offenders. I was praying for that Old Testament God of vengeance to rear his head again and strike down those people like Court who continued to drape themselves in the covering of ignorance.
But on that monumental day when Court asked me if I was lost, I realized something important. That day wasn’t just for me but it was for my grandparents, my dad and mother, Miss Eveline who used to give me Wrigley’s Spearmint gum during church services, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and all those elders from my home town, alive and dead, who never even got a chance to sit at the welcome table because they were too busy serving at it.
Remembering that important fact allowed me to swallow hard and smile at Court and his merry band of men, and reply in a voice filled with confidence and pride,that even surprised my ears, “No, Court, I’m not lost. I’m where I belong. Would you mind helping me find my way?”
As late as the year 2000, according to Alabama law, my husband and I could not lawfully be married in that state because he is white and I am black. Of course, lawmakers reassured interracial couples from Alabama that we had nothing to worry about. No one would actually enforce such a law, but the bottom line was the law was on the books. Any racist cop with an agenda could have locked us up just for kicks. Since then, mercifully, the law has been changed.
Today, gays and lesbians await news about whether or not their love relationships will be recognized by the courts of the land. Through the years, just like with the interracial relationship issue, this civil rights issue has been made a religious issue. It should not be. In 2011, the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Kentucky voted not to allow interracial couples into their flock. You know, I don't have a problem with that. Any church that wouldn't allow my husband and me to worship with them is not paying homage to the same God that he and I do anyway, so our feelings would so not be hurt if the ushers did not welcome us in with open arms.Trust and believe, your congregations are "safe" from the likes of us.
Many of my gay and lesbian friends feel the same way. They don't want to “invade” the churches of those who don’t want them there. They don't seek to force you to marry them, if you speak hate against them. They have no desire for you to Baptize or Christen their children if you feel those children are somehow not as good or deserving of God's grace as say, a child raised by heterosexuals. In most cases, those gays and lesbians who believe in God already attend churches that are welcoming and affirming of their relationships and their families anyway. They simply want the same freedom that heterosexuals have which is to fall in love, get engaged, get married, have a family, retire, grow old together, and then, when the time comes, say goodbye to each other when it is their time to transition to the other side. They also want to be able to have children together and not worry about custody becoming an issue because they are not legally wed or one person in the union is not the biological parent. They want to be able to file their taxes together and receive the same write offs that heterosexual couples receive. They want to insure their loved ones because they work just as hard as heterosexuals do on the job and their loved ones should be entitled to their benefits. They want to die and know that their loved ones will be taken care of during a time when no loved one should have to worry about inheritance taxes or “eligibility to receive benefits” issues.
So, I write this not to change anyone’s mind. Instead, I write this post to simply urge people to love who you love and allow others to do the same. It really is that simple.