eji benefit 6apr2016 cropped

On Tuesday night, I had the honor of attending the annual benefit in New York for the Equal Justice Initiative, EJI.org  with friends from work. Based in Montgomery, AL with offices that occupy a former warehouse for slaves, EJI exists to fight for people wrongly accused and serving life sentences (including those convicted as minors). EJI also seeks to broaden the conversation about race and injustice in this country. Among other projects, EJI has done extensive research to document the 4,000+ names of all those lynched in 12 southern states between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1950. Their vision is to help the US remember these terrible acts of violence as a way of bringing about healing, truth and ultimately reconciliation. They have begun to place markers at a few of the sites where lynchings occurred with a goal of placing one at every site. They are also in the early stages of creating a national memorial in Montgomery to honor these victims of racial terror.

EJI was founded 27 years ago by public interest attorney and MacArthur award recipient, Bryan Stevenson. Since the publication of Stevenson’s book,  Just Mercy, in 2014, the work of EJI, the untold stories of terror, and the connection of this legacy to contemporary manifestations of racism has been catapulted to a national stage.

To describe the event on April 5 as moving would be a huge understatement. Multiple times I found myself choking up, overwhelmed by the stories we heard, humbled by the vision and efforts of one man who has committed his life to seeking justice for those who’ve been unjustly treated and condemned. (It’s a tangible example of seeing that which is more than one could ask or imagine….) To kick off the evening, Kathleen Battle gave a stirring performance singing several spirituals, followed by Serena and Juliana Wong who hrilled us with a violin and piano duet. Throughout the night, there were numerous short videos show casing EJI’s work and vision.  At the end, Stevenson gave a short talk thanking us for already contributing to the work of EJI and encouraging us to give further so as to make the national memorial a reality. His deep humility and repeated words of appreciation were striking.

The highlight for me was hearing from Anthony Ray Hinton who spent 30 years on death row – most of it in a 5′ x 7′ cell – for a crime he didn’t commit. (Let that sink in for a moment: that’s 3 years longer than Nelson Mandela served!) During those years, he watched 53 men walk past his cell to be executed. Hinton has just celebrated his first year of freedom which came after more than 12 years of litigation. Not bitter or angry, he exuded a deep sense of peace and joy. Explaining his rationale for forgiveness, he said: “I’ve not forgiven them for them, but I’ve forgiven them for me.” Hinton has now committed his life to sharing his story and doing what he to can to confront the injustice of wrongful incarceration.

As if Hinton’s story and posture weren’t convicting enough, Stevenson followed that by explaining to us that Lester Bailey, Hinton’s best friend, had visited him in prison every week for all of those 30 years…. (That would be over 1560 weeks in a row!) If that isn’t a picture of a long obedience in the same direction, I don’t know what is. I’m convinced that this friend’s faithfulness, besides the dogged persistence of Stevenson and his legal team, is a key reason why Hinton survived that terrible ordeal as well as he seems to have. And emboldened him to come out determined to make his remaining years count for the sake of others.

Bailey’s exemplary commitment to his incarcerated friend reminds us that there’s no underestimating the power of community, friendship, and taking the long view… It’s a visual demonstration of clinging to hope and living by the conviction of things not seen.

The other honoree that evening was 107  (!) year old, Mrs. Maimie Kirkland, a lynching survivor born in Ellisville, Mississippi and now living in Buffalo,  NY. Last year, 100 years after her father fled for his life with his wife and children, she returned to the house where she grew up, after vowing she would never go back there. The other man, John Harfield, targeted for lynching along with her father, also fled in 1915, but when he returned to Ellisville, he was subsequently lynched in full view of a large crowd. The work of EJI ensures his death won’t be forgotten and a marker will be placed where he was murdered. By God’s grace, Mrs. Kirkland’s family includes children, grand-children, great grand-children and great, great grand-children. Another take on a long view. Another (very) long life well lived.

***

On a related note, I’m involved with the Grace & Race group at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and we’re hosting Bryan Stevenson & Tim Keller on Friday, May 20 @ 7.30pm. If you live in New York City, I would urge you to get your tickets soon. We expect it to be a sold out event. Register here. It promises to be an engaging and convicting evening; it may even alter your life’s calling!

genocide memorial sign

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sign on graves

The first week of April…

  • On this day (4/4) in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, shot on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
  • (On this day in 1959, my parents, Gally Brown-Peterside & Elizabeth James were married in a registry office in South London.)
  • On April 7, 3 days from now, the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. It was the Thursday after Easter that year.

This summer I had the privilege of visiting Rwanda. I was flying from Lagos to Entebbe and since we had to make a stopover in Kigali, I decided to pay a little extra to spend 48 hours there. My main purpose for this was to visit the National Genocide Memorial. I was intrigued by the effort of this nation to remember the terrible events over those 100 days in 1994 when up to a million Rwandans killed each other, many with ordinary garden machetes and clubs. Never before in the history of the world had so many people been murdered in such a short space of time by people who were essentially their neighbors. I wasn’t prepared to see the rows and rows of skulls and bones. I wasn’t prepared to see the walls of remembrance still incomplete and being added to as more names of the deceased become known. I wasn’t prepared for the final exhibit: huge color photos of vibrant, smiling children senselessly murdered, listing their names, ages, exactly how they died, and what they had wanted to become when they “grew up” – the horror, the wasted potential was unimaginable.

However, I think what struck me most were the mass graves, the entombed coffins, and the notations from family members who survived about the significance of having a place to come and grieve and remember. It had never occurred to me that given the brutal way in which loved ones were murdered and the context of genocide, there were often no bodies found, few if any proper burials, and a dearth of resting places to visit on anniversaries. Hardly any sacred physical places to pause, be still in, and remember.

So today, I pause to remember: Dr King’s incredible life and passing and that of the slain Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda. May their legacies live on. May we never forget.

wiley college logoDr. Thomas Winston Cole, Sr. changed the course of my father’s life. In the early 1950’s, he took a chance by offering a Nigerian high school graduate of King’s College, Lagos, a scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, TX, where Dr. Cole was the registrar. Wiley was a relatively small African-American university (<1500 students) which had ties to the Methodist Church. Though my father didn’t stay at Wiley College long enough to graduate from there, he did stay long enough to appear in two of the Wiley Wildcats yearbooks, which graced the shelves of our living room in Jos, Nigeria when I was growing up.

My father spoke fondly of Dr. Cole and repeatedly told us the story of how this man’s kindness gave him the rare opportunity to attend university in the States. I knew that Dr. Cole had gone onto become President of Wiley and then moved to the University of Florida where he was the third highest ranking administrator (and the first African-American), with a position in Academic Affairs and as University Ombudsman. However, there were many things about Dr. Cole I was not aware of – and perhaps neither was my father – until I recently discovered a lengthy interview with him on line.

Dr. Cole had attended Wiley himself and graduated in 1934. He claimed the highlight of his time there was serving on the debate team led by Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson’s debate team excelled, despite the climate of Jim Crow, winning the national championship in 1935, a story captured in the 2007 movie,  The Great Debaters, in which Denzel Washington starred as Mr. Tolson. (Prior to this film, apart from Papa, I’d never heard anyone speak of Wiley nor met anyone who’d heard of it.) After graduation, despite a degree in the natural sciences, Dr. Cole became a principal which subsequently propelled him into a higher education career. In 1950, he returned to Wiley, first as registrar and later as dean of the college. While working he managed to obtain a MSc in Educational Administration from the Univ of Wisconsin and then completed a doctorate in education at the University of Texas, the first African-American to do so. In 1958, he became the 10th President of Wiley and at the time he was installed, he became the first alumni and the first non-minister to be President. While at Wiley as the chief executive of a historically black college & university (HBCU), Dr. Cole heard Dr. King give his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington. He stayed at Wiley until the early 1970s, dramatically increasing student enrollment, raising $100 million in funds for the fledgling university, and overseeing the construction of a number of buildings. Today, a library is named there in his honor.

dr cole library wileyPhoto credit: Wiley College

Long after he’d moved on to study at other colleges in the US, Papa stayed in touch with Dr. Cole, faithfully sending him a Christmas card every December. He also talked often about his dream of flying Dr. Cole out to Nigeria as a way to say thank you. And more than 25 years after they first met, he actually did this. To show his appreciation for Dr. Cole’s generosity to him all those years before, Papa invited Dr. Cole and his wife Eva to visit Nigeria. He put them up in their own chalet in arguably the poshest hotel in town, showed them around, and even hosted a cocktail party for them to meet other Nigerian friends and colleagues. I believe it was Dr. Cole’s only visit to Africa and he never  forgot it. In the interview I came across recently, this is what Dr. Cole shared:

 As president of Wiley College, I had a few gifted African students… We had several African students on our campus; they were all on scholarship.  Since I have been in Florida, one of the students who is a barrister, a lawyer, now in Nigeria, invited me to come over at his expense to visit his home country, Africa, because I was responsible for his education.  In fact, he included my wife [in the trip] to Africa.  We went at his expense.  We brought back several things from Africa.  That is what made me think about it (p36).

I recall the Coles’ trip to Jos back in 1979. They were an elegant and gracious couple. Though I was only an adolescent, I wish I’d been able to realize how significant this visit was and more importantly what a tremendous influence Dr. Cole had had on so many lives and not just my father’s.

Forget the great debaters, Dr. Cole was a great educator.

MRC Max feb2016

I first encountered Clive Staples Lewis at the age of 9. In 4th grade at the American missionary school I attended in Nigeria, our teacher, Miss P (all single women were really called Miss in those days) who was from New Zealand, began reading The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to us every afternoon from 3:00-3:15. Just before we were dismissed for the day, as we listened to this story, we were whisked through an inviting door into an imaginary world bursting with possibility and hope. However, joy and contentment were being held captive in a land that was “always winter, never Christmas,” until Aslan, a Christ-like figure, broke the white witch’s spell and restored Narnia to its glory days. After we finished this first story, Miss P went on to expose us to the rest of the 6 books in the Narnia Chronicles, the only children’s books that CS Lewis ever published.

These stories began for me a life long fascination with Lewis. I became not only concerned with what he wrote but more importantly for me was discovering who he was, how he’d lived, and what were the events – and who were the significant people – that had shaped him. I learned Lewis was from Northern Ireland, called himself Jack from a young age which stuck, grew up in Belfast in a loving home, lost his mother at age 10, and was then sent away to an English board school in the aftermath of his father’s debilitating grief.  He went on to become a brilliant student at Oxford, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a professor at both Oxford and then Cambridge. Along the way, his views on God underwent a gradual but radical shift. As he repeatedly learned that more and more friends and colleagues at Oxford whom he respected for their sharp intellect were also people of faith, he underwent a process from being a staunch atheist to believing that there was a God, to eventually encountering the God of the Bible in a personal way. Much to his surprise and dare I say even horror, he became in his own words the “most reluctant convert in all of England.” He died on November 22, 1963, the same day that JFK was assassinated which meant that the US President’s death overshadowed that of Lewis.

Now, the Fellowship fo the Performing Arts, has put together a stellar one actor production of Lewis’ journey to faith, starring Max McLean. Aptly called “Most Reluctant Convert,” virtually  of the words in the 90 minute single act drama come from Lewis’ own writings and letters. (As he became more well-known, he received hundreds of hand-written letters to which he replied to each one – by hand.) I saw this show several weeks ago while it was still in development and was incredibly moved at how persistently God appears to have pursued Lewis. Regardless of what you personally believe, Seeing this show is worth insight into that process alone. There’s a run of Most Reluctant Convert in Washington, DC, from April 20 – May 8. Check it out if you get the chance! And if you’re not in DC, pick up an autobiography of Lewis from your local library, or one of his many non-fiction books, and discover this genius for yourself.

 

familiar feb2016It may be the first time that 10 black female actors are appearing on Broadway (Eclipsed @ the Golden Theatre on 45th) or off Broadway (Familiar @ Playwrights Horizons on 42nd) at the same time in the space of 3 blocks. We have the award-winning Zimbabwean American actor (The Walking Dead) and playwright Danai Gurira to thank for that. I had the privilege of seeing Familiar last weekend and then hearing Ms. Gurira talk about the play after the show. In broad strokes, the play is a window into the tensions that are exposed in a Zimbabwean American family living in wintery Minnesota on the eve of the older daughter Tendi’s wedding to a “white boy” who works in international development. Like any wedding – not to talk of an interracial/intercultural one – family stresses that have remained contained bubble up to the surface when the joining of two people/two families is at stake.

The first act had me and my (Nigerian) friend Ruth howling through much of it and I’m talking belly aching laughter. Picture an African version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and then add the complexities of trying to please Aunt Annie from Zim who’s flown in and insists that Tendi’s fiance pay a bride price, involving cows. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, a fiercely proud MIT-educated college professor and Annie’s younger sister, is vehemently opposed to anything Zimbabwean having raised her two daughters to be as American as McDonalds. Throw in the daughters’ father, a successful lawyer, pining for home and his younger artsy daughter, Nyasha, who’s just returned from Zim, jazzed about having had a chance to be exposed to the Shona language and who’s brought back a stunning mbira (thumb piano). If that weren’t enough, the couple getting married are both Christians and virgins – facts that become relevant to the plot as well.

The themes are not just familiar, but it’s a hugely ambitious play. The second act turns far more serious than the first when tensions reach a breaking point and we come to learn the hidden reason for so much (though not all) of the tension in this family… And then we discover that the character that has been largely overshadowed in the run up to the wedding, Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha – who’s name aptly means grace – is the one through whom redemption comes. The final scene with the daughters’ parents tentatively dancing to the sound to Nyasha playing Shona music on the mbira almost made me cry.

A review I heard on wnyc this morning criticized the play for having too many extraneous, undeveloped characters which meant Gurira “missed an opportunity to connect audiences with their point of view.” I disagree. At the speakout after the show, Gurira – before this particular review was aired – spoke about her intentionality in creating meaty, substantial parts for each character. A playwright who feels called to tell the stories of women of African descent, she’s committed to developing roles that an actor can really “sink their teeth into.” Bravo Gurira! It showed. The acting was first rate and the Zim accents and intermittent use of Shona was convincing. Familiar is not just funny but fantastic!

(Photo credit: www.playwrightshorizons.org)

12angrymen feb2016I came across a chilling piece of data last night while reading last week’s Sunday NY Times (2/14/16) in an article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson: according to FBI statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every 3 1/2 days. Not shot, but actually killed.

That statistic –while horrifying — is more credible to me after watching a play this weekend based on the book (not the movie), 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America. Using 3 actors who took on different characters, we heard how black men across the country, from New York to Washington, DC to LAX airport to Asheville, NC were stopped by the police on suspicion of “being black” and questioned, harassed, insulted and often beaten. In several instances, the men had their pants and underwear pulled down and were left naked, exposed to the public. For others, they told of feeling the cold butt of a gun on their bodies or seeing an officer place his/her hand on their gun during the encounter.  The men were both young and old, professional and working class, driving and walking. One was a former baseball MVP. Several were on the phone. One was at a playground watching his daughter and her friends playing and was approached because someone had called the police concerned that “a black man was in the park watching kids.”

The common threads in these stories were the fact that the men were black, not doing anything out of the ordinary, and they were approached by the police – who, shall we say, were less than friendly or helpful. The men weren’t angry when the police picked them out, though sometimes, but not always, they became angry during the course of the exchange. And lest you think these were one-off encounters, some of these men had been stopped multiple times.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but wish the top brass in the NYPD and police departments around the country would spend 90 minutes of their weekend hearing these stories. Would it change the way they lead their police departments? How might it impact the ways they view and use racial profiling? The play’s run ended this weekend, but they’re hoping to raise funds to take it on tour. Perhaps until then, the book could be made mandatory reading for every new class of police officers. How might that spark some provocative conversations and perhaps even some soul searching?

Cringing through the production, I also thought of the psychological impact that such harassment has on all of us: those who are harassed, those who do the harassing (some of whom were women and/or black too), and those of us who love the harassed and/or the harassers. Dr. King reminds us that none of us are free until all of us are free. Furthermore, he warns: “if we succumb to the temptation to use violence…, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of terror.”  That is never more true now in America than it was 50 years ago when he uttered those words.

Lord, have mercy on us.

cherie color 14feb2016Yesterday, I took my friend Cherie to lunch at the local diner. I first met Cherie 3 or 4 years ago when she began to appear on the benches in the mezzanine level of my subway station. One morning I sat down beside her and instead of dropping a dollar into her palm, I decided to offer her a conversation. Over a few weeks, we became “subway buddies.” She’d comment on my clothes, I’d ask how she was doing, and from time to time, I offered her food I was carrying — until one day after leaving her with the remains of my (very spicy) Thai dinner, she let me know very defiantly that she no longer wanted my leftover food. Fair enough. From then on, I occasionally gave her money but mostly just smiled, chatted, and even shook her hand at times, being mindful that folks with no home rarely experience physical touch. Cherie tends to disappear in the spring, summer, and fall, and several winters ago, she dropped out of sight all together. Late last year, she re-appeared, in the same spot where I first met her.

Recently I began to think about trying to get to know her a bit better by having a meal with her. On Saturday night, as I was heading out for the evening, I gave her $5 and encouraged her to get some soup. It was the coldest day of the year and I was concerned for her, and wondered what she planned to do to keep warm in the sub terrain of the station. I should have known better. The hot soup idea seemed intriguing but I could tell she had no intention of going to a diner. And since she had nowhere else to go, she planned to stay right there on her bench. I shuddered thinking about that, but as I ran for my train, I decided that if she was there when I came home from church the next day, I’d invite her to lunch.

When I asked her, she immediately shot back, “What’s the occasion?” Without hesitating, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day.” She put her just-lit cigarette out, grabbed her bag, and declared, “OK, let’s go.”

We settled ourselves into a corner table @ the Hudson View Diner. She chose french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese. I had a farmer’s omelette with home fries. At first I asked her questions about her family and learned a few interesting facts: she was born in Cypress Hills, Queens, the 4th of 8 children; she doesn’t get along with her mother who now lives in East New York; her father’s birthday is Feb 15 (today); and she has a 37-year-old son who has a restaurant in Harlem which we talked about going to check out. “On me,” she insisted, “On me.” But she didn’t seem to want to continue making conversation so I stopped the questions and we ate the rest of our meal in silence.

When she was done, she looked around and said, “It’s really cozy in here. If I had a job and worked in here, it’s so cozy, I’d just want to go to sleep.” We laughed about that. She also thanked me heartily for lunch. After she’d ordered a second cup of coffee – as much to warm her up as to heat up her hands I suspect – we headed back out into the frigid afternoon. She tried unsuccessfully at two stores to buy loose filter cigarettes (“lucies”), and then I walked down back into the subway with her. She was heading to 42nd street to take care of something there — I couldn’t quite catch what and gave up after asking her 3 times. As I swiped her in, she slid up toward the turnstile, turned and kissed me (!), and then hurried off to catch her train.

Still stunned by her affection, I walked 10 brisk blocks home, musing about my most unexpected valentine’s day gift…

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