On Planet Earth, we have a problem with love. But the problem is not due to a lack of love in the world. It’s due to a lack of belief. The problem is unwillingness and deep-seated fear. We’re afraid to trust, to let go and to receive the abundant love all around us, flowing to us, though us and from us. We get overwhelmed. We get mired in duress. We contract and don’t expand. We forget to breathe in the beautiful rhythms of life and ride its welcoming waves. Sometimes they’re turbulent. Sometimes, they’re gentle. Either way, they are messengers, and they are always inviting us to float, to relax into the ebb and the flow and to swim on and on and on into an infinite sea of love.
(published in the Detroit News, February 28, 2022)
My grandmother lived in a tattered, old house with stairs that sometimes creaked when it rained. She was poor and, some might say, downright “country.” She said “yestidid” for yesterday, “chillen” instead of children and had never made it past the fourth grade.
None of it fazed me. Every chance I’d get, I would spend the night at her place, eating warm tea cakes or chunks of the hot water corn bread she baked once a week. We would talk for hours, my grandmother and me, and I’d try not to giggle whenever she repeated the same old story about the time she was so ill she had to rely on a cane or, as she put it, “hop on a stick.”
I loved her down-home dialect, her deep spirituality and to this day, I still recall almost every biblical scripture I ever heard her recite. But I do have one big regret. I wish I had known that, like most elders, my grandmother was a veritable library and when she died, as the African proverb goes, that library would burn to the ground.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked far more questions of the woman who was respectfully addressed in her community as Evangelist Willie Mae Flennory from the Usher Board of East Lake Missionary Baptist Church. Back then, when she was rubbing olive oil on the palms of nearly everyone who visited her, prophesizing about their future and joining them in solemn prayer, I would have dug deeper into her past.
What was it like for her as a little colored child getting her sun-chapped fingers bloody, picking cotton all day on a Mississippi plantation? How did her family cope when gun-toting plantation owners evicted them from the land to avoid paying her sharecropping father what he was owed?
More important, I would have inquired about my humble grandmother’s “second family” – the white Grosse Pointe residents who depended on her to cook, babysit and tidy up their home. I guess I sort of knew about them. How could I not notice the photo on her dresser, the teenager with the dishwater blonde hair smiling from a silver frame? In my defense, I did broach the subject once. My grandmother told me her name (which I quickly forgot) and explained that she loved the girl in the picture and the girl loved her. Of course, I was puzzled. But, for some reason, I didn’t feel the need to probe.
So, that aspect of my grandmother’s life remained a mystery. Until I saw the movie, “The Help.” The moment Cicely Tyson made her slow stride onto the screen, I noticed she wore thick, white socks and had them rolled all the way down to her ankles. One arm was tucked securely behind her back. Immediately, I burst into tears. This was a facsimile of my grandmother. That was her walk, her style of socks, her carefully-positioned elbow. And this was the other world she had inhabited for years.
“The Help,” which was a brief journey through one segment of Black History, offered me insight into the alternate reality of the revered matriarch I’d admired since I was a child. It showed me that although I thought I knew her well, I hadn’t had so much as a glimpse at the subservience she had silently endured, the submissiveness that I would have found degrading. I learned, while sitting and sobbing in the back of a suburban movie theater, that all my grandmother had ever known was servitude. It had shaped her outlook, her demeanor, her docile ways. Her compliant behavior, along with her body language (slightly bent and only displaying one hand) were a form of servant etiquette that had eventually become ingrained habits and a testament to her quiet strength.
If she were here with me now, we’d have a lot to talk about, and I’d understand why she didn’t always understand some of the pettiness I called problems. I had more education than my grandmother ever thought possible and I traveled to parts of the world she didn’t know existed. But if I live to be 100, I can only hope to have an ounce of the patience she demonstrated, the unwavering faith she lived by and the wisdom that shone from her countenance like the sun. Willie Mae Flennory was far from worldly, but she had a generous heart and not a single trace of bitterness.
So, as Black History Month comes to a close and Women’s History Month begins, I’m paying a long-overdue tribute to a simple, kind, bible-quoting domestic who didn’t have much book learning but taught me all I needed to know about the power of love.
The memory still clings to me. It’s been 34 years since I resided for 12 months in Harare, Zimbabwe. Yet, whenever I’m asked about the experience, I always reflect on the same phenomenon: the women of Africa and their uncanny “center of gravity.” During my sojourn, I spent one night in a thatched roof hut, watched lions roam the dusty savannah and canoed down a crocodile-infested river. But nothing captivated me as much as the graceful strut of my African sisters. I can still picture them — their eyes distant, their rhythms subtle — gliding like gazelles across vast stretches of terrain, oblivious to the massive bundles perched on the crowns of their heads.
These are the women the world will never understand. These are women who can tap into the strength and depth in the center of their being.
How can they tote loads three times their body weight? How do they move with such ease, without tipping their heavy cargo?. Again, their center. Western scientists, including a team of Harvard scholars, have studied their technique. The US military tried to learn it. And a host of cultures have attempted to copy and perfect it. But very few have been able figure out the hands-free form of transport that is the domain of African women.
Is it a special spiritual awareness, a rare alignment with the heavens? Is it the hue of melanin-saturated skin downloading the UV rays of the sun? Is it wooly tufts of tightly coiled hair, standing erect, defiantly saluting the sky? Are these coils electromagnetic antennae? Or does the secret lie in an elevated faith and a pure connection with the forces of nature?
Whatever it is, the overworked, underestimated, marginalized women dwelling in villages all across The Motherland have mastered it. Ignore them if you will, but theirs is a powerful, wondrous mystique. In honor of unsung women everywhere, I would like to publicly acknowledge their remarkable gifts and remind the rest of the planet that they deserve our utmost respect. Namaste, Black goddesses! Namaste!
Do you know the true story behind the label “The Real McCoy?”
It’s a sad but intriguing saga that began in the mind of a bespectacled young Black boy named Elijah. A budding genius, Elijah McCoy was the son of fugitive slaves who escaped the cotton fields of Kentucky and fled to Canada in the mid-1800s. After a short stay, they decided to farm plots of land in Michigan. Elijah, who was three years old at the time, journeyed across the Detroit River with his parents and 11 siblings and settled in Ypsilanti before moving to a burgeoning metropolis that would later become The Motor City.
Between the two cities, the family focused on growing tobacco and making cigars. With the exception of little Elijah. Fueled by a passion for anything mechanical, Elijah was a devout bookworm and his parents eventually saved enough money to send him to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A few years later, he returned home with an engineering certificate only to discover that Blacks weren’t allowed skilled jobs. All he could find was hard labor shoveling coal into train locomotives and constantly oiling their axels.
The work left him exhausted and perplexed. He couldn’t understand why the engine’s mechanisms had to be lubricated manually. And why the process had to be carried out so often. Compelled by curiosity and necessity, Elijah invented a solution — an automated lubricating cup that allowed trains to run longer and faster without stopping.
By now it was 1872 and his creation was a major breakthrough. Because it made engines more efficient, the lubrication cup revolutionized the railroad industry and should have opened doors for the young whippersnapper who envisioned it.
It did not. Society has a habit of minimizing, distorting and often hiding the accomplishments of African Americans. And this case of an eccentric young Black man with wire-rimmed glasses was no different. Elijah’s invention made millions of dollars, but very little money trickled back to his pockets.
Although he continued to upgrade his original device and mastermind new ones, he was repeatedly denied profits – despite acquiring more than 57 patents. Meanwhile, his products were so dependable that versions made by competitors were deemed inadequate. To avoid getting stuck with inferior imitations, railroad purchasing agents always asked if the gadgets they were buying were “The Real McCoy.”
Gradually, Elijah’s name faded into obscurity and the term “The Real McCoy” (meaning the real thing) embedded itself in the American psyche and vernacular. It was even the title of a corny, 1960’s TV sitcom featuring a crotchety old man dubbed “Grandpappy Amos McCoy.” It had become a catchy phrase that no longer had much to do with the person who had made it popular.
Elijah never secured the funds to manufacture and market his innovations. He was just another Black man trampled by the racist power structure of a country still recovering from Civil War. With no rights and no legal means to fight the system, he lost ownership of the very equipment he had worked so hard to build.
During subsequent years of struggle, his health declined and he spiraled through cycles of poverty and despair. He spent the final months of his life in Eloise Mental Asylum in the woods of Westland, Michigan, suffering from hypertension and dementia. In some accounts, it is said his attending physicians believed he was having “delusions of grandeur” about being a great inventor.
He died in 1929 at the age of 85. His modest gravesite is located in the historic Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren.
Her behavior was unthinkable.
The daughter of former slaves, Lillian Harris traveled from the Mississippi Delta to New York City in 1901 with pennies in her pocket and a vow not to “work in White folks’ kitchens.”
Vows like that simply weren’t made by poor, illiterate Black women. But it’s a vow she broke only once.
In need of quick cash, Harris, who later became Harris Dean, took a job as a domestic just long enough to earn five dollars for food and a used baby buggy. After loading up the buggy with pig feet and hog maws – boiled and fried up just the way she’d been taught back home ‒ she parked herself on 60th street in Harlem, near businesses that hired workers from the deep South.
Harris Dean figured the droves who had migrated to the North had a hankering for their mama’s style of cooking. She was there to meet that need and make money in the process. Every day at noon, customers flocked to her corner, eager for another hot meal from the woman they called “Pig Foot Mary.”
Before long, she became one of the city’s most sought out street vendors and, eventually, invested in real estate. By 1929, she had amassed $375.00, an amount that would equal more than two million in today’s economy. Not bad by any standards, particularly for an uneducated Black woman who grew up in a shack. Please join me in celebrating Pig Foot Mary – one of the countless hidden figures of Black History.