A daybreak that’s wondrously clear

Just enough clouds to break the monotonous blue.  The Yukon Territory, June 2000

Just enough clouds to break the monotonous blue. The Yukon Territory, June 2000

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

I join millions in saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Maya Angelou, for these ever-inspiring words, that light up the darkness for so many of us!” I’ve often said that Angelou’s writing does for my spirit what spinach did for Popeye. She has a gift for empowering others through what she writes.

To be extra-candid here, I’ve always had the feeling that some of my friends don’t understand my abiding interest in black history.  It’s not that they say so in words; they don’t have to. And I’ve never felt the need to explain.

Still, it’s like the elephant in the living room.  Sooner or later, anyone who knows me well, knows that I feel a deep unspoken connection with the African-American details of U.S. history.  It’s partly that I’m from the South, where both transracial unity and lingering racism continue to flourish.  Jeff often remarks, in some northern places we visit, how strange it seems to see that there are so few black people around.  Both of us feel more at home when we’re not in an all-Caucasian crowd.  Both of us have been most happy in churches where everyone belongs, regardless of age, ethnicity, disability or good old-fashioned eccentricity.  It might seem odd or pretentious to admit that, but that’s just how it is.

But I can’t pretend to have the slightest idea what it’s like to be an African American today, much less twenty or fifty or two hundred years ago.  I have, however, learned a few things I never wanted to know.

I’ve learned that invisible chains can be almost as restrictive and damaging as literal ones, and far more insidious.

I’ve learned that prejudice is something one can often sense and pick up on inner radar…and that such radar is sometimes inaccurate, skewed unfairly by past outrageous injustices.

I’ve learned that many cruelties and hurts are perpetrated by people who mean well, and have not the slightest intention of hurting someone else…and who sometimes are unwilling to see their own guilt in the matter, even if it is pointed out.

Most importantly, though, I have been blessed to know so many African American people who have lived out before my eyes the daily tasks I find so difficult: forgiveness, patience, fortitude, courage, humor, humility and never, ever giving up.

All of us struggle, of course.  African-Americans have no corner on the suffering market; indeed, as Angelou herself points out in the clip below, no minority or majority does.  Life is mostly a tremendous struggle, and ultimately, none of us gets out of this world alive.

Which brings me to another reason I love black history: its unmistakable link between faith and endurance; hope in God and trust in people, no matter how many times people may fail us and disappoint us, and no matter how hard it may be to see God pulling for us, working for our good in the harshest circumstances.

The gift Angelou refers to, the one her ancestors gave, is not just for black people or other minorities.  It’s for all of us.  The dream of the slave is the dream of us all: freedom from the pain and suffering and injustice of this world.  Her final words in this poem, meaningful to all of humanity, have a special resonance for those of us who are Christians, because intentionally or not, they echo for us the theme that is at the heart of our faith, the greatest story ever told: that the victory of Jesus is our victory as well. We rise!

27 Comments

  1. Tying in Jeff’s observation regarding the complexion of many isolated northern locales with the meaning of prejudice, I would like to offer my own observation. By far, the greaterest prejudice I have encountered is between people of the same race. I will never forget the black woman, from Mississippi, who moved to the Atlanta area for a federal job, and took the public transportation to work and shopping. We developed a close relationship during the (cumulative) hours during our family’s rides to worship services. It was with sincere regret she asked us not to pick her up one following week – you see, her mother would be arriving for a visit, and it was felt that “she just wouldn’t understand my going to church with white people.”

    • Based on what I saw growing up, I think a lot of racism is the result of peer pressure. That’s why it’s so important to learn early how to be different, not for the sake of being different, but when it means going against the crowd doing something insensitive or even wrong. It can be really hard to feel misunderstood or taunted for not going along, but it’s harder to look back on those times and wish we had had the guts to stand up for what we knew to be right.

      • Here’s to Guts!

        • πŸ™‚

  2. Sheila

    “Hope in God and trust in people!” What a wonderful statement that I want to remember. Thank you, Julia.

    • Thank you, Sheila! I hope you have had a nice weekend.

  3. Nancy

    As the parent of 3 African American sons, Julia, I appreciate you reminding all of us of our universal connection with each other. Just this week, we finished watching Roots together. I must admit, it was so very hard watching it again, but this time through the eyes of my children. Perhaps true unity, of all races and all people, will only be known in the context of heaven and God calls us all to that “common love for each other” we sing of as we worship the God who made all peoples, just as He made the autumnal colors we revel in now.

    • Thank you, Nancy. One of the few times I ever saw my mother cry was at the ending of the first episode of Roots, when Kunta Kinte finally (after the vicious beating) said his name was Toby. For some reason, when he gave up and quit saying his real name, it broke Mama’s heart. I do think true unity from all the various ways we are divided from one another – race being just one of those ways — will only be known in heaven, but like so much else that we hope to experience there someday, we must strive here on earth to be fit for such things in heaven, and in my mind, that includes the yearning for it. Thanks for being here!

  4. Maggie Clure

    I love Maya’s poems!! She is an amazing lady!

    • Yes she is! A friend gave me a sort of flip calendar-style collection of her quotes, and they’re all good. Some of them will probably show up here on this blog eventually.

  5. When I was around 5, I started going to Des Moines, Ia to stay with my Mom’s parents for a month. I got to meet a lot of people of color, and my reaction was they were just darkly tanned or had darker skin. Otherwise they were like me. I liked them. When I was 6, we had a opening for a hired man on are dairy farm. One of the applicants came from Oklahoma and was a black man, biggest person I have ever seen at that time. He would stand looking out of one of the barn doors, checking things out and he filled the door. He was very qualified and was our first choice. But living in a small town in northern Iowa, people heard that we might be hiring a black man. Where we sold our milk, they said if we hired him, we would not have a place to sell milk. My Dad was not happy and it is one of the few times I heard my Grandmother swear. So he did not get hired. I really liked the guy. I just did not understand.
    I still do not like the racism. I hate the federal forms you have to fill out that ask for what race or get questions on the phone. I want to always say I am human, like everyone else is.
    A friend of mine, who is black, says there is racism even between blacks, because someone is darker or lighter than the other person. In my opinion, we are all people of color,

    • Yes, we are all one color or another! That must have been so hard to experience what you describe. I appreciate your sharing it with us, because I’ve found that people who have never seen firsthand evidence of such things have a hard time believing it can really happen. I have had black friends who have shared with me about issues of light or dark skin; in fact, once a stunningly beautiful professional actress told me that she had been denied parts that called for African-Americans because they told her frankly that they wanted a lighter-skinned actress. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, my friends and I spent countless hours lying out in the sun, trying to get darker (which we now know put us at risk for skin cancer). Aren’t humans strange? As with most other forms of injustice, I do see signs of progress in many ways, but we still have quite a ways to go. I will say that my son’s generation seems much less affected by it than ours was. His college roommate of 4 years, with whom he went on to share an apartment for 4 more years (until he married) is black. When they first chose to room together I asked him whether anyone gave him a hard time about it or thought it was strange. He said “Mama, people don’t even think that way anymore.” I thought it was naive of him, but perhaps he was right. I hope so.

  6. Mike Bertoglio

    Interesting comment from Italian soccer player Mario Balatelli in Sport’s Illustrated. Adopted by white parent s in Sicily at age two-born in Ghana Africa- he is now no.1 soccer player in Europe and sometimes the victim of racist chants at soccer matches. He says-” Racism is like smoking- you want to quit, but you can’t.”

    • Mike, that is PERFECT. Racism is part of living in a fallen world, and the first step to overcoming it, is admitting that it exists in most if not all of us. I’ve come to believe in something I think of as “secondary racism.” By that I mean, that for many of us, race (or for that matter, looks or age or whatever) is not an issue UNTIL a person makes us mad or gets on our nerves. It’s then that we think “that stupid _____” (insert racial slur here, depending on the person’s ethnicity) or “that fat slob” or “that guy is a (r-word for intellectual deficit)” or “that old hag.” It’s when we get angry that our biases get smoked out, and they are many. In California, I once had a very sophisticated social worker (whom I really liked, and still do) ask me “do you find that people assume you are less intelligent than you are, because of your southern accent?” To which I replied, honestly, that I had never even thought of it, as I considered a southern accent a rather desirable trait :-). But it was a real eye-opener.

  7. Mike Bertoglio

    Good point and I think we northerners-do sometimes have an unspoken bias against “southern accents.” Visiting the Confederate cemetery in Marietta last month is again an eye opener to me with Confederate flags flying proudly and adorning many of the tombstones.
    When people say to me'” you don’t look Italian,” I try to point out that is kind of a racist statement. A black person told me once,” you are Italian ;kind of a white person but not totally. “So I did not know what to make out of that. I have a friend who types in Eastern European heritage on the race forms.
    Of course in my own way I have racist leanings and agree it is part of our fallen heritage.By the way my son says, “you all” and is developing a slight accent after six years in Atlanta.
    My dad also told stories how he got beat up as a kid for not knowing English. This was in a white Northern city. He immigrated at age 12. The whole thing-” racism” is just a mess.
    i.e. yesterday an interesting blip on NPR about a mother- June Stensgard- with two mixed heritage- Black /Norwegian sons. The boys last name is Stensgard. She is tall- blond and Norwegian. She wishes Obama would define self as “Mixed race” and not black. Sorry to ramble on.

    • Mike I agree (re: our President and others of biracial or multi-racial heritage) that labels have become more a chosen or assigned ethnic identity or political point than a true description of one’s heritage. When all the flap about “Fauxcahontas” emerged surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee, I did find it a little disgusting that she would make that claim, possibly because no one in my family has ever attempted to enroll ourselves among the Cherokee or Chiricahua nations (as far as I know), despite having significantly more Native blood than Warren even claimed to have (and when her claims were challenged by Cherokee people, such claims were never substantiated). It’s not that we do not feel a deep sympathy and identification with our native ancestry, but we grew up in decidedly middle class Caucasian circumstances, and for me, it would feel false to claim otherwise. Re: your son’s accent – when you hear him saying “y’all” to 2 or a few people (NEVER, EVER is y’all directed to one person by a true southerner, a common misunderstanding of outsiders) or “all y’all” to larger groups of people, you will know he’s really getting there. Also watch for him to tell you that he’s “fixing” to do something, as in “I’m fixing to eat supper, are you hungry?” or “I’m fixing to go outside and rake pine straw.” If someone ever told me I was “kind of white but not totally” I would reply that the same could be said of most Americans, from the youngest child all the way up to the President. Most of us are “kind of” something or other. I have met very few people who claimed to be 100% anything. I love that about America. Incidentally – while we are on accents and ethnicity – I have always assumed your last name would be pronounced “bertollyo” (silent G) – is this correct?

  8. Thanks for this enlightening post this morning Julia and for including the video. Somehow, hearing the writer, adding her inflections,… well, I get one of those Oprah ‘uh-huh’ moments. Maya Angelou is a great communicator, when she talks, it’s easy to listen. Not everyone has the gift. You do though. Have a wonder day Julia.

    • Wow, thanks for mentioning me in the same paragraph with Maya Angelou! The word “awesome” is far too overused; it has lost all meaning, but I think Angelou’s skill with words is truly awesome.

  9. PS, I’m also Elizabeth Bennett. That was a fun little link πŸ˜€

    • Hee-hee! I am not surprised. Since she’s perhaps my favorite fictional character of all time (except for Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Bonnie Green of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) I was tickled when I took the quiz and found out that was my character. A little surprised, too – my answers were not the obvious ones I would have expected Elizabeth’s to be.

      • Re: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I hadn’t actually read it, but knew of it. So I went to Wikipedia to read the whole outline. Francie (My husbands middle name is Francis after his mom, we call her Franny instead of granny, ha) deals with the same issues in 1911 as many young do today. Isn’t it great how good literature is so timeless?

        • Yes, it really is. I have sometimes told people, if you want a shortcut to knowing me, read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I have never identified more with any character in fiction, despite the very different circumstances of my childhood. The author, Betty Smith, wrote of receiving countless letters over the years, from young women who felt the same. I highly recommend the book; it’s full of life in all its tragedy, comedy and tenacious will to survive.

  10. oops Bennet…dah!

    • Really? As many times as I’ve read that book, I always thought her last name had two t’s. That shows you how much I notice things, even things posted on my own page!

  11. Mike Bertoglio

    Thanks for clarification on usage of -“ya-ll.” I ‘m fixin to try it out on my next visit down there.
    Yes the g is silent. It is like Bertolli olive oil- no relation. My son’s nickname in college was Silent G. Also I am about 80% Irish by the way.

    • That’s an interesting combination! Do you find that having an Italian surname has caused you to feel more Italian than Irish? Just remember: if it’s more than three people, “all y’all” is probably more appropriate than “y’all.” Other tips: “Hey” = “hello” and “coke” = any kind of soft drink. Soda is used for making biscuits and is not something that you drink. πŸ™‚ But you might have a hard time catching a true southern accent in some parts of Atlanta, since so many people there came from somewhere else. Almost like L.A. in that respect, as in some others (such as a huge metropolitan area that extends many miles beyond the actual city, and legendary ATC delays).

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