Did you know that the pharaohs who resided in the Valley of the Kings actually suffered from a body-swelling malady known as elephantiasis disease?
That’s the strange rumor some misguided scholars have been circulating for years. They rely on it to explain why the dark-hued people dwelling in a land once known as Kemet drew pictures, molded statues and created hieroglyphic images of themselves with “exaggerated features.”
Their absurd reasoning is exhausting and, frankly, not worthy of debate. But, in light of the recent Cleopatra controversy, I’m jumping into the discussion anyway.
For the record, I’m not an expert on ancient civilizations. However, I made a pilgrimage to Egypt years ago and my eyes cannot deny what I saw.
I observed nappy dreadlocks cut from the heads of mummies. (They were behind glass in the museum in Cairo where no photos are allowed.)
I stared at midnight black stone figurines carved in the image of African warriors.
I gazed at the mighty Sphinx and other defaced monuments whose blatantly Negroid noses were missing (allegedly shot off by Napolean’s army).
I beheld the sarcophagus of the handsome King Tut who, clearly, was a brother. Look at the image below and check out the trademark full lips of a black man.
Contemporary Egyptians can argue all they want. They can conjure up one ridiculous explanation after another. Still, facts are facts. Egypt is located in Africa. The Arab invasion occurred in 639 AD (more than two thousand years after the pyramids were constructed). And, according to historians, there is a genealogic connection between the native people of Ethiopia and Greece — the land that has been claimed as the birthplace of Cleopatra.
I could ask why none of this seemed to matter when Elizabeth Taylor starred as Cleopatra in 1963. I could wonder about all the blonde, blue-eyed thespians cast as Jesus Christ. I could inquire why race only becomes an issue when it’s announced that a Black actor or actress is assuming a cherished role.
I could ask why a lawsuit is being filed against Netflix for its upcoming series featuring a woman of color as Queen of the Nile. Yes, I could ask these questions, but I won’t.
They were called “human hives.” Cramped and overcrowded, the dilapidated tenements lacked basics like heat and hot running water. There were no private bathrooms. The ceilings leaked. Rooms were infested with pests.
Yet, nearly 5,000 mostly Black residents were crammed into the tight quarters — a neighborhood known as the Tenderloin District of New York City.
Enter Philip A. Payton. Often considered the “Father of Harlem,” Payton is credited with transforming living conditions for African Americans in the early 1900s.
The son of a barber, Payton was a self-taught businessman on a mission to break into the real estate market and fight against the trend of relegating Black renters to slums. At the time, certain New York landlords were beginning to offer better apartments to a few “respectable Colored families,” who were able and willing to pay higher rents than Whites paid for the same units. Meanwhile, bigoted Whites began moving out.
But where some saw discrimination, Payton saw opportunity. He secured a job managing a rundown rental property for Coloreds, then convinced one of the landlords to award him the contract to lease some of the nicer flats to Colored tenants. Soon, Payton had enough revenue to acquire his own buildings at a discount.
Then along came a twist in fate. In 1904, the first subway line in New York City opened, turning the blocks between lower Manhattan and 145th street into prime real estate. Declaring that the vicinity had become upscale and off-limits to non-Whites, the company that owned buildings in that area evicted its four Black occupants.
Immediately, Payton sprang into action. He acquired two nearby buildings and ordered the White tenants to vacate by the end of the month. He then offered those units to the displaced Black tenants. The rival company responded by offering to buy Payton’s Company. He refused, and the company sold off its holdings.
A triumphant Payton purchased the property they had attempted to gentrify. As a result, their disgruntled tenants moved out in droves, making room for Black families migrating from The South and the Caribbean. Instead of squalor, the newcomers ended up with comfortable housing, improved lives and a culturally vibrant community. Because of his vision and tenacity, Payton had single-handedly created a Black mecca — the Roaring 20s’ grandeur of Harlem. In the process, he sparked the greatest explosion of African American art, music, theater and literature in history – the infamous Harlem Renaissance.
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!