From Africa to Hawai’i and the World

Why is everybody crying?

This morning, as I watched Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States, I cried. I saw images of many other people crying, men and women, of many different races.

Could it be that we are so moved by the unbelievable specter of a man of African heritage becoming the leader of the most powerful country in the world? Or perhaps we are all so relieved to finally see the end of a painful and embarrassing chapter of our history?

Or is it just that for the first time, many of us felt that we truly do belong in this country?

When I reflect on the journey of so many of our ancestors and honored elders of all nations who worked so hard to build this country, defend this country, and yes, to take a stand against racism and bigotry at great personal risk, I am in awe. I am in awe of their courage and their fidelity.

I was a little girl living in Washington, D. C. during the March on Washington of August, 1963. I was way too young to fully understand what was taking place, but I remember walking hand in hand down many city blocks singing “We Shall Overcome”.

I remember the day my brother and I got dressed up for a visit to the nearby Glen Echo Amusement Park. I remember that our mom, having been told that we would not be welcome inside because of our brown skins, took us back home.

I remember wondering why we couldn’t go to the local swimming pool.

I remember the first time one of my classmates in grade school called me “a nigger”.

I remember all the times in Hawai’i that I was told that I was “very pretty for a colored girl”.

I remember all the times in Honolulu that I arrived to see an apartment, available only a few minutes before, only to be told that it was “just rented”.

I remember feeling that the inequities and problems I dealt with weren’t even recognized by most other people.

I remember being made to feel as if this country were not my home.

And today we see a man, the son of an immigrant from Kenya and a white woman, born in Hawai’i, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, who has a sister who is half Asian-American, being recognized as the leader of this country. He ran a campaign not as an African-American candidate, not as a mixed-race American candidate, but as a highly intelligent, articulate visionary. He brings with him a beautiful, strong and highly educated wife and two darling children.

We share African and Hawaiian roots.

I didn’t realize until the night of the election what it would feel like to have people of every race under the sun vote for a presidential candidate of African descent. I cried then as I did this day, for all those times I felt invisible in this country. And because I am finally at home.

I, Too, Sing America
by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.


When you eat the fruit of a large tree, do not forget to thank the wind.
Bariba oral tradition

We have so much to be thankful for here in this day and time.
But although many of us perceive of ourselves as a spiritual
people, how often do we really stop to give thanks?

We have clean water to drink, cook and bathe with. Do we give
thanks to the rain and the snow?

When we sit down to our meal, do we recognize that the
vegetables, the grain, and the chicken have given up their life
force in order to sustain us?

When we write out a grocery list, play a musical instrument or
read a blog on a computer, do we remember all of the teachers
who helped us?

Or do we instead spend much of our time in want of something we
don’t yet have?

Let us remember to thank the wind.

Quiet Secrets

A song I used to dream to…

I remember the first time that I became aware that something I held dear to me was considered downright weird by others around me. But first let me backtrack to the early 1960’s, when my parents owned a nightclub.

I have memories of being there in the early evening, probably as they were getting ready for opening, and peering out of the back window to watch the glow of the sunset and the neighboring neon lights. Jukebox music poured in from the front of the building; Shep and the Limelights were “A Thousand Miles Away”, Mary Wells assured us that “What’s Easy for Two is Too Hard to be Done By One”, Gene Chantler bragged about being the “Duke of Earl”, and night after night, Billy Stewart was “Sitting in the Park Waiting for You”.

Later, after my sitter took me home and tucked me into bed, I fell asleep to the sound of young men singing tight harmonies late at night somewhere nearby.

Music greeted me in the morning; the radio was on in the kitchen as I ate my Cheerios. When walking, my friends seemed to move to an internal rhythm. When we played outside there was music providing accompaniment from an open window down the block. It seemed that everyone around me moved to the sound, and the sound was everywhere. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had us all “Dancing in the Streets”.

This was the soundtrack of my early childhood, sweet soul music. Rhythm as steady as a heartbeat, and vocals infused with the passion and urgency of a gospel choir. The stars themselves seemed to shimmer to the melodies.

Upon entering the fifth grade, I switched schools to one on the other side of town. Unlike my first school, which was comprised of all African American kids, in this one, I was now the only black child. Although I developed deep friendships with some of my new school mates, It was during that first year that I heard my classmates making fun of soul music. They mocked it, saying they couldn’t tell the difference between an “oooo” and an “ow”. To my new peer group, the real music came from groups like Chad and Jeremy, and the Cowsills. At first, this music seemed odd to my ear … but I kept listening. Soon, to my surprise, I developed a liking for the kind of music they preferred. But I also remained painfully aware that they continued to ridicule the music I continued to dream to.

This experience would become the first of many such opportunities to choose whether or not to turn away from that which grounded me with a sense of beauty and comfort in exchange for something more “mainstream”.

Fortunately, I was never tempted to give up Smokey Robinson and the MIracles for the Monkeys. But I also learned that it is indeed possible to encounter something unfamiliar and with time, develop an understanding and appreciation for it. I understood that doing so need not lesson my love and appreciation of what I had before. It in fact only enhanced it, and widened my world view.

Sadly, though, this experience was also my first instance of learning to keep things uniquely African American a quiet secret. The journey of un-learning that has been arduous but worthwhile.