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The Truth About “The Real McCoy”

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.  

THE LEGACY OF PIG FOOT MARY

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.   

The Strange and Somber Vocabulary of 2020

Grief held us in its grip. But words are what fueled our fears.

A Super Spreader? KN95Masks? Shelter in Place? Nothing about the jargon of 2020 felt appropriate or seemed to make any sense. Yet it crawled into our minds, made itself at home on our lips. And, as the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 slowly sank in, it became our agonizing new normal.

The world was in crisis. We had to adjust. That meant altering our behavior and navigating a maze of confusing psychobabble. It meant playing a waiting game. While scientists and researchers retreated to laboratories to synthesize a vaccine, they sent mixed messages about a virus that had them baffled. In the process, they dredged up loads of hifalutin terminology and introduced us to elaborate new ways to redefine our reality.

This guidance was presented in the form of special lingo. Some of it was unfamiliar — like “Asymptomatic Carrier.” Other phrases were common and catchy: Make sure you “Mask Up!” We had to learn the nuances of “Social Distancing” and understand just how much alcohol was needed in a bottle of hand sanitizer to ensure effective protection from the Novel Coronavirus-19. Those who tired of hard data and long labels, got all cozy and nicknamed it “The Rona.” Meanwhile, many of us picked up another statement that was simple and easy to repeat: “I Can’t Breathe.” Yes, breathe. While the virus circulated and millennials infused it into the lyrics of rap songs, protests were raging. We said his name, George Floyd, over and over again and, for a moment, we felt as if our own lungs would collapse. If breathe was a buzz word for Floyd and for the virus, then so was brutality and so was the very real dread of bad cops.

Add a megalomaniac POTUS to the mix and our woes seemed to be straight out of a low-budget sci-fi movie. He suggested bleach as a remedy for COVID-19, scoffed at masks as “silly,” lashed out at hospitals that demanded more respirators, and called his critics “losers.” 

For more than ten months, he enabled pandemic deniers. In the midst of this circus, broadcasts about food shortages and a tic-tac-toe of medical advice blazed around us like cyclones, keeping us up late at night watching the news or reading just enough to get us through the next day.

The ordeal is by no means over but, thank God, we’re close. As we prepare to turn the page to what will, hopefully, be a better chapter, now seems like a good time to review the vernacular that will remain on our tongues for years to come.

So here it is, the verbal progeny of 2020:

Novel Coronavirus-19 – A new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was originally detected in China in 2019 and had not been identified in previous years.

Super Spreader – An individual with COVID-19 who frequents public places, knowingly or unknowingly spreading the virus. The term also applies to parties, rallies and other large gatherings where many of the attendees become infected. 

Shelter in Place – A decision or order to remain in the home or another safe place to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. Individuals asked to shelter in place are expected to avoid going out in public unless it is absolutely necessary. 

Quarantine – Anyone who has the virus or has been exposed to the virus is required to separate themselves from others and remain in insolation for up to 14 days or longer depending on the region. Quarantine violations will result in prison sentences in certain countries with strict quarantine laws. 

Pandemic – The outbreak of an infectious disease that spreads quickly across continents and affects a significant portion of the world’s population.

Asymptomatic Carriers – Individuals who have the virus but do not display any symptoms. Despite their asymptomatic status, they can infect the people they encounter.

Empathy – Both Michele Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci implored the nation to contribute to the evolution and healing of society by cultivating the emotion of empathy. Empaths feel and understand the suffering of others. 

Social Distancing – Remaining at least six feet away from anyone who is not part of your household.

Respirator – A medical device used to assist COVID-19 patients and others who are experiencing difficulty breathing on their own. The machine pushes oxygen into the lungs. 

Anti-Maskers – Individuals who refuse to wear masks. They also stage protests against requirements to wear them in public places.

Demagogue – A fanatical leader who manipulates his followers by feeding into their fears and prejudices.

Megalomaniac – A self-absorbed individual who craves extreme power and constant adulation, even if it comes at the expense of others.

I Can’t Breathe –  A slogan that was the focal point of the nationwide 2020 uprisings. The massive protests erupted after an unarmed black man, George Floyd, died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer following his arrest for an alleged counterfeit bill. The officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes.  

Defund the Police – In the wake of repeated police shootings of unarmed Black men and women, civic leaders and community activists advanced the idea of reducing police department budgets and investing more funds in public health and social services.

Stop the Count – A surprise election request issued by the 45th president of the United States in a failed attempt to prevent all of the votes from being tallied.  As more votes began pouring in for his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, the chant was shouted by Trump supporters standing outside of polling places and government offices. Trump also suggested stopping the count  when he learned an increasing number of Americans were dying of COVID-19. This expression is now being hijacked by people on diets who weigh themselves then watch the scales and yell: “Stop the Count.” It doesn’t work for them any better than it did for Trump. 

Covidiot – Someone who isn’t taking the virus seriously and tends to refer to it as a hoax.

Coronacation – A slang term coined by Generation Z to describe their leisurely approach to staying home and attending school online.

Karen – The name used for any white woman who deliberately abuses her societal privilege by launching racist attacks on people of color or calling the police on strangers (particularly Black people) engaged in simple acts like sitting in a park. Karening is not a new practice. However, a wider number of incidents were caught on video in 2020, leading to the passage of an anti-Karen law in the state of New York last August.

Stimulus Checks – Payments that bolster the economy by assisting individuals across the planet who are underemployed, have lost jobs or face layoffs due to COVID-19 related business shutdowns. So far, US stimulus payments rank lower than any in the world.

Black Lives Matter – Organized in 2013, the BLM movement was sparked by the death of unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of a George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain responsible for his murder. The movement picked up steam and garnered international support during the 2020 protests on behalf of George Floyd.  

White Privilege – Although not a new concept, the notion of White privilege was pushed to the forefront during 2020. The term refers to the social, legal and economic advantages afforded to Whites and the difference between the treatment experienced by Whites and people of color when it comes to housing, law enforcement, education and overall perception.

White Allies – A term used to describe Caucasians who support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, advocate for equal rights, participate in protests and express a genuine interest in Black causes.

AS DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIA RISES, POLICE MISCONDUCT SOARS

In early October, a pregnant black woman was tossed around like a rag doll and nearly crushed under the knees of a violent Kansas City Police officer. When I read about the ordeal, I was gripped by waves of despair. I also had a flashback.

Between 1994 and 1996, I worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper. Back then, KC was sort of a small, quaint town and some of the police officers reminded me of the bumbling-yet-cocky Barney Fife from Mayberry. One of those overzealous cops stopped me one night because my license plate was positioned in my back window instead of its proper place above the rear bumper. As the officer flashed his piercing light directly into my eyes, I tried to explain I had just moved to the city and was still in the process of adjusting and tying up loose ends. He was unmoved. Instead of listening, he proceeded to focus his flashlight on the seats of my Toyota and conduct a quick search.

Meanwhile, I nervously pulled out my license and he happened to notice my Kansas City Star ID card with the bold letters REPORTER. His hands literally shook, and his tone changed. Suddenly, everything was okay, and I was given permission to keep driving. Of course, I arrived at home that night a bit shaken and confused.

When word about the incident made it back to my assignment editor at the paper, Evie Rapport, and the executive editor, Art Brisbane, they were visibly flabbergasted. There was even talk of them visiting the station or writing a letter to the Kansas City Police. This was the third time I’d experienced their harassment. I moved back to Detroit before it could happen a fourth time.

I wish the pregnant woman had been that lucky. You see, when I lived in that part of the Midwest, the region was best known for widespread pastures and an abundance of beautiful, summer fountains. The community was fairly low key, and police misconduct was rare or hush hush. If something drastic occurred within their ranks, every reporter I know would have been eager to expose it. In those not so long-ago days, the Kansas City Star was king. No one questioned it. No one maligned it. It was the go-to news source on Sunday and most days of the week.

That attitude extended beyond the rolling prairies of Kansas. Across the country, newspapers had tremendous clout and nearly everyone perceived them as purveyors of truth. That heralded status was enough to force at least one surly cop to leave me be and, if it existed today, would have been enough to protect that terrified woman and her unborn child.

But sadly, the Trump administration’s “fake news” propaganda has done irreparable damage. Since his election, he has lambasted every media outlet that has reported on his misconduct – from small tabloids to major metropolitan dailies, including the revered New York Times. No publication is safe from his constant onslaught of allegations and the outcry of his misinformed base.

That along with the dominance of the internet has drowned out viable journalistic voices and diluted their ability to champion just causes, monitor fraud, and act as Big Brother at the first sign of corruption. It appears that the pen is no longer mightier than the sword and the press is no longer viewed as the nation’s conscience.

Without a conscience, what do we have left? A soulless climate of hatred that has taken the lives of Jonathan Price, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McCain, Philando Casteel, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many more unarmed black people who died at the hands of the police. This week an evil version of the incompetent Barney Fife waded into that climate and brutalized a helpless, pregnant woman on a dark Kansas City street.

As I pray for her, I realize that could have been me.

My Brother Was the “Other.” This Is His Story.

When my youngest brother died our family had to print two separate obituaries. On the cover of one, he wore a tie. Long, rope-like dreadlocks framed his smiling face.  But he wasn’t smiling on the second obit. In fact, he was not a “he” at all. The pensive eyes of a young woman stared from the page.  Tendrils of long black hair were swept back, away from her delicate forehead and cheeks.

Raymond was undergoing a sex change but not everyone knew it until that rainy morning in January 1996 when we all walked into an ornate, Buddhist temple to pay our final respects. That’s when select friends, co-workers and even some family members learned the truth about this sensitive soul who was born way ahead of his times.

Raymond read encyclopedias like they were storybooks, meditated in a lotus position and became vegetarian — all before the age of 13. So, my family shouldn’t have been surprised when we discovered something else about him was startlingly different.  His body was producing more estrogen than testosterone.  According to Raymond, a new “strain of humanity” was being created.

I was closer to him than anyone and the first to discover his secret.  It confused me for a while, and I worried about him constantly. When he drowned at the age of 40 in the San Francisco Bay, I became more determined to understand his need to cross over to another gender.  I recalled that he had once compared himself to a platypus, a mammal with the bill and webbed feet of a duck and the body of a beaver. He explained that transsexuals were hybrids who needed help becoming their true selves.

Society has a tough time classifying hybrids like my brother.  Case in point:  A South African female runner faced a gender challenge that disqualified her from the 2009 World Championships in London. Though she was born a female, blood tests revealed her testosterone levels were as high as a man’s. The dilemma left many unanswered questions.  Was she cheating? Or was she another example of that “strain of humanity” Raymond referred to years ago?

At the time of his announcement, Raymond was already morphing. His voice, which was never loud or husky to being with, had dropped a few octaves and he was speaking in a tone so soft people often remarked that he sounded like me, his older sister.  I loved my brilliant baby brother and had no reason to read anything into the way he talked. I took as much pride in our similar voice inflections as I did in our shared cheekbones and smiles. I saw us as shadows of one another, the two musketeers who used to stay up extra late on Saturday nights, watching low-budget sci-fi movies or giggling when absolutely no one else seemed amused.

Raymond was the person I went to with many of my concerns, a child guru who knew more about life and death than anyone I’d ever met. I suppose that’s why one of our babysitters gave him the label “the prophet.” Or why his friends referred to him as their spiritual teacher.  Admittedly, I, too, was one of his students, following his guidance and reading books he’d recommend. Our special bond was unshakable — even after he unveiled the identity he had spent years trying to mask.

But one thing was altered. My awareness. For the first time, I found myself pondering the limitations and demands of gender role playing. After a lengthy discussion with Raymond, I developed a better grasp on the inherently free state of our spirits, and I lost respect for a society that told people that their bodies, more specifically, their genitalia had the final word over how they should think and feel.

Then Raymond died and, as my family bore the pain of his loss, we also continued our struggle to come to terms with his unusual orientation. We saw it as a misunderstood phenomenon. A social taboo not to be shared with anyone.  A mysterious mountain we had to climb all alone.

So, when Bruce Jenner made his 2015 declaration, I was underwhelmed.  I didn’t bother to read the news stories, the zinging commentary, the potpourri of Facebook memes. The journey of a man becoming a woman yet still professing a romantic interest in women was old news to me.  My brother/sister Raymond had a girlfriend and planned to continue to have girlfriends. It was his physical form that made him feel imprisoned. He had no yearning to be intimate with a man.

My goal is to one day tell his full story and offer deeper insight into what is, perhaps, the most perplexing stigma in our society. This blog is the first step.  It was a long time coming, a revelation I considered making public 22 years ago, began to write more than a decade ago and didn’t have the courage to finish until now – March 2019.

That’s how difficult it’s been to sort through my fears and expose the quiet turmoil of an introspective man named Raymond Crittendon who evolved into a warm, deeply-intuitive woman known as Malaika Lawshea. It’s also how long it has taken me to remove my impenetrable shield. Opening up takes guts. Facing torpedoes of ugly criticism takes thick skin.

But I have conquered those insecurities now, and all I can say to the skeptics is: Bring it! I’m no longer vulnerable to childish name calling and bigoted, homophobic attacks.  I live in an inner world of peace, and I celebrate the right of all consenting adults to express themselves openly, lovingly and through the light in which they were intended to shine.  I’m not the least bit worried about what others think. For no matter how many negative remarks are made and how many insults are hurled, one thing cannot be denied:

Raymond/Malaika was brave enough to open the door and pave the way for others destined to walk the same path. He/she was a trailblazer who I am proud to call my sibling.