What My GrandMother taught me about black history

(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!

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.  


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.