Monday, September 12, 2005

OPENING MY HEART TO MY STUDENTS: from Gloria Wade Gayles

I am guilty of doing what I have preached against all my years in college teaching: I fall asleep with the television screen flickering in the darkness of my room. More than once I have awakened in the middle of the morning to the sounds of a helicopter flying over my head. I have become addicted to CNN, so much do I want to know how the people are doing. Are they being rescued? Are they finding their children? Are families being reunited? Is this tragedy really happening?

Last night, the made-pretty anchor with skin that has no pores announced the station’s achievement with a smile: “And you will see it only on CNN.” She was referring to the daring rescue of mother and child that would be aired in the next hour. Of course I was angry that media marketing was alive and well in coverage of the tragedy, but an hour later I was sitting in front of the television, waiting to be transported by CNN cameras to the tragedy in New Orleans. I cannot sleep. Indeed, I dare not sleep for fear new waters will rush in again and the sky will fall again.

I have become a tangled mess of emotions: joy when someone is lifted from a rooftop; anger when Larry King introduces Dr. Phil as the expert who will explain why the people did not leave; rage when I see the water’s fury and our government’s neglect; and fear, always fear, because I am there with the people. I stand on top of a roof waving a garment or holding a sign that reads, “Help us.” I watch my children, one by one, rise in the air to a hovering helicopter, my prayer the force that keeps the rope from breaking. I shake my fist at uniformed men who do not understand there is no refuge in the refuge we have been given. I sit motionless in a wheelchair, my face a stare of vacancy or knowing silence.

I cannot separate myself from the people whose images are visual sound bites on America’s mass media not only because most of them are African American, but also because they wear the faces of people who framed my life happy for three years. You see, Memphis is the city of my biological birth, but New Orleans is the city of my spiritual rebirth. And when I say New Orleans, I do not mean Bourbon Street or Canal Street. Rather, I mean the black community that tourists, regardless of race, rarely see or want to see or even know exists.

I went to New Orleans in l998 to accept an offer from Dillard University that is every college professor’s dream: to hold an endowed chair. The offer was surely a gift from my guardian angels because, at the time, I needed healing and a new compass for my life. The waters of New Orleans gave me both, especially the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. This magnificent Lake that drinks from the Gulf of Mexico was fifteen minutes by car from my university apartment. I would go there frequently with student papers to grade, a book to read, and my writer’s journal to fill with images and metaphors.

But it was not in the waters of the Lake that I was baptized and healed. Rather, it was in the river of human kindness that flows in the Black community, deepest in the working class Black community. The generosity, optimism, gayety, sharing, laughter, and hard work of the people captured me in all the gathering places--at the Lake, at Winn-Dixie, at Mardi Gras parades, at the Zulu Ball in the Superdome, at Walmart in the East, at the drugstore in Gentilly, and in the spacious green that belonged to faculty and workers in the University complex. There we would gather just to gather as a community across lines of class and age. With the exception of late night parties, children always gathered with us. Always!

Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “I love myself,” come to mind when I think about the people I met and with whom I lived and danced in New Orleans. They love themselves, and they love others. They love their culture—their food, their music, their dance, their way of speaking. They love their trees and their waters. They love the beauty of their natural world. Even in the night dance of Louisiana termites around a New Orleans light post they find beauty. They love children and women and men and neighbors and elders! They love hard work. They love life.

At the neighborhood relief center, I move in and out of areas while evacuees stand on concrete in long lines, often in the sun, waiting for forms to be filled and handouts to be given, never knowing whether or not a volunteer will speak with impatience or disregard. I am uncomfortable with my freedom and with my privilege.

At the Red Cross Headquarters, I invade the very privacy of their lives as I read forms they completed with the assistance of a caseworker who does not know how people in New Orleans define family. I call the activation center; I read the information; I record confirmation numbers for credit cards evacuees will receive, the amount of which is so small, so very small for family. I imagine the pain they must have felt putting their entire lives on one sheet of paper with small lines and signing it, actually signing it, to verify, “This is truth.” I feel unclean about my participation in a system that hurts people even as it helps them.

I have ownership in the tragedy of New Orleans. To be sure, I did not summon Katrina from the Gulf and, unlike the federal government, I could not have responded in ways that would have saved lives. I have no buses or planes or helicopters--no power. And yet, there is no denying that my silence on the tragedy of poverty in this nation contributed to the day-to-day conditions that made masses of Black people in New Orleans victims of the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

All of us have ownership in this tragedy: rap artists, preachers, politicians, magazine publishers, athletes, celebrities, corporate executives, leaders in all fields, college students, and college professors. We have ownership because we have not screamed about the abuse, neglect and oppression of the working class poor in our communities. We have not screamed and we have not organized to effect change.

As a college professor, I feel compelled to confess my guilt to you, my students, who are also my teachers. I feel compelled to speak the truth about academia in our nation: it is a conservative institution. It programs us against thinking about, acting on behalf of, and connecting in any way to and with the poor. It teaches success, skipping over social action, but stopping for a fleeting second to talk up the significance of service. It programs us to run from poor people (with lightning speed if the people are Black) as surely as the waters rushed into the lives of the poor in New Orleans. That the working class poor in New Orleans are now scattered all across the nation without the comfort of kin, the foundation of their identity as a people, makes guilty players of us all.

I want to tell you again and again that I have ownership in the tragedy of New Orleans because I have been silent on what Eleanor Holmes Norton, in the l970’s, called the “cruelest fate of all.” I make this confession to you hoping that it will motivate you to think again about the paths you will travel after you turn your tassel and take your place in the world as leaders. You really can make a difference in the lives of people with whom you might not live, but to whom you are connected by virtue of your humanity and to whom you are indebted by virtue of your privilege. I am resolved to do what I can to make a difference because, you see, my young scholars, if this confession does not bring about a change in the way I think and act and live and on whose behalf I struggle, then it has not been good for my soul.

I write for friends in New Orleans whom I have not located, but who I am sure made it out of the city. To think otherwise would send me into a paroxysm of grief and deeper guilt. I write especially for Miss Doris and her family of three children; for Miss Corinne and her two daughters and their children; for Zena Ezeb and her daughter India; for Donna, her husband and their three young sons; and for my friend Carol, who gave me annual gifts of Zulu coconuts and Mardi Gras beads and daily gifts of loving kindness.

2 Comments:

Blogger ginger said...

To Know...

My father was born in New Orleans. The house in which he was born and spent his childhood years still stands. Now probably water logged if not completely destroyed. And I sadly realize that I do not have a picture of this structure.

I came to Spelman because of my father. I became a physician because of my father. I travel the world because of my father (a wanderlust that we both share). I am truly my father’s child.

Lord, am I depressed! Katrina was another disaster that came on the heels on what seems like “too many burdens to bear”. We are still burying 7,000 persons a day (yes, every day) who die from AIDS in Africa. The hallowed out eyes and iron deficient red hair of starving children still actively haunt me from Niger, Ethiopia and Darfur. And surely, we haven’t forgotten the tsumani (wasn’t I just in Indonesia celebrating cremation ceremonies with Bali healers)? And it seems that is was just yesterday morning in my New York office that I watched the plane strike the Twin Towers on television and looked out the window to see the smoke and ash that filled the air.

But, depression (the situational type) is both real and normal. I sat addicted to news reports for days, wallowing in this feeling of hopelessness and despair. I am a “live long and prosper” Star Trek fan. Although I love Spock (have you ever read Leonard Nimoy’s love poetry?), I resonate with the character who is the ship’s counselor – the empath. Although, in comparison to her, I fall significantly short. She is able to feel the other person’s pain, absorb it and make it better. I am able to feel the pain (lord, how it hurts), but feel pretty helpless in relieving the pain. And it seems like today there is so much pain throughout the world.

I am also a decisive person (another trait from my dad). My decision was to address this depression by doing something. I love the saying, “don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution”. So we (my office) decide to do something – to volunteer at a shelter which provides services to the victims of the Katrina hurricane. After the first day of assisting in the medical clinic, why did I come home at the end of the day very tired and somehow, more depressed? We, no doubt, provided needed and wanted services to men, women and children whose lives had been completely upturned, disrupted and forever changed by this natural disaster. We in our very small way, gave our gift of service.

What is the common denominator? What calls to our inner self that somehow eats away, constantly, at the very fiber of our humanity? Can we do everything that needs to be done? Can we make a difference that truly counts? Is our little gift, significant enough?

I often wish that I could close my mind to these situations. That I could move on with my world, as if they were not a part of it. I sometime wish I did not truly understand the basis and real impact of AIDS, the global strategy to continue an underclass, the facts of gender inequality, the whys of wars and the seeds of racism. To know, is the source of this discontent.

To know mandates action. To know mandates dialogue. To know mandates service….. to know…..to know….

ginger

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 10:59:00 PM  
Blogger ginger said...

To Know...

My father was born in New Orleans. The house in which he was born and spent his childhood years still stands. Now probably water logged if not completely destroyed. And I sadly realize that I do not have a picture of this structure.

I came to Spelman because of my father. I became a physician because of my father. I travel the world because of my father (a wanderlust that we both share). I am truly my father’s child.

Lord, am I depressed! Katrina was another disaster that came on the heels on what seems like “too many burdens to bear”. We are still burying 7,000 persons a day (yes, every day) who die from AIDS in Africa. The hallowed out eyes and iron deficient red hair of starving children still actively haunt me from Niger, Ethiopia and Darfur. And surely, we haven’t forgotten the tsumani (wasn’t I just in Indonesia celebrating cremation ceremonies with Bali healers)? And it seems that is was just yesterday morning in my New York office that I watched the plane strike the Twin Towers on television and looked out the window to see the smoke and ash that filled the air.

But, depression (the situational type) is both real and normal. I sat addicted to news reports for days, wallowing in this feeling of hopelessness and despair. I am a “live long and prosper” Star Trek fan. Although I love Spock (have you ever read Leonard Nimoy’s love poetry?), I resonate with the character who is the ship’s counselor – the empath. Although, in comparison to her, I fall significantly short. She is able to feel the other person’s pain, absorb it and make it better. I am able to feel the pain (lord, how it hurts), but feel pretty helpless in relieving the pain. And it seems like today there is so much pain throughout the world.

I am also a decisive person (another trait from my dad). My decision was to address this depression by doing something. I love the saying, “don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution”. So we (my office) decide to do something – to volunteer at a shelter which provides services to the victims of the Katrina hurricane. After the first day of assisting in the medical clinic, why did I come home at the end of the day very tired and somehow, more depressed? We, no doubt, provided needed and wanted services to men, women and children whose lives had been completely upturned, disrupted and forever changed by this natural disaster. We in our very small way, gave our gift of service.

What is the common denominator? What calls to our inner self that somehow eats away, constantly, at the very fiber of our humanity? Can we do everything that needs to be done? Can we make a difference that truly counts? Is our little gift, significant enough?

I often wish that I could close my mind to these situations. That I could move on with my world, as if they were not a part of it. I sometime wish I did not truly understand the basis and real impact of AIDS, the global strategy to continue an underclass, the facts of gender inequality, the whys of wars and the seeds of racism. To know, is the source of this discontent.

To know mandates action. To know mandates dialogue. To know mandates service….. to know…..to know….

ginger

Wednesday, September 14, 2005 10:59:00 PM  

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