What I learned from Simon Biles, Dr. Mary Frances Berry and a snowboarding daughter
I’m writing a play about Harriet Tubman, and this is who comes to mind: Gymnast Simone Biles, who has Tubman’s crazy, electric, tiny-body strength, without Tubman’s temporal lobe epilepsy. Also historian, former US Civil Rights Commissioner and university chancellor Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a tiny power house of fearlessness, moral vision, and brilliant action. Think Harriet Tubman, with Howard University and U. Michigan Law School. No kind of writing has ever made me quite as wobbly as this play-writing, workshopping, revising deal, so I’m hanging onto Harriet for strength. She, of course, hung onto God. My Wonder Woman Tubman would definitely be a Bile-Berry clone. For strength and courage, yes, and also for the joy in living super large that each of them communicates so powerfully.
Even without the play, the time we are living in should send us all back to Berry’s books, including Long Memory: The Black Experience in America [co-author, John W. Blassingame]. The Wiki quote from that book is this: “Although most historians have dismissed the claims of Afro-Americans that the United States had inaugurated a campaign of genocide against black people in the 1960s as unfounded, hysterical charges, the threat of genocide was real. It was roughly comparable to the threat faced by Jews in the 1930s.”
Yeah, she talks like that in person, too.
At one gathering, former Civil Rights Commissioner Berry spoke to incoming students in the University of Penn’s Africana Studies Summer Institute about a book she’d written with former student, Josh Gottheimer, who worked as speechwriter and special assistant to President Bill Clinton. Power in Words: The Stories behind Barak Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House analyzes 18 addresses from the President’s time in the Illinois State Senate to his election night speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. It’s about speech as action. Booklist praised the authors’ examination of Obama’s “consistency of message — one of unity, responsibility, and change.”
Berry talked about the nature of power, politics, and Washington, among other topics. Her own experience put her in the position of government “watchdog,” for leaders who should not have been surprised, she said, but were, when she bit them for wrongdoing. It was a primer on how the world works; how power seduces; and how to choose integrity again and again over expediency, convention, and self-protection. It was a dynamic picture of freedom, a graph, moving through time. I wondered how many of Berry’s many layers of meaning these intelligent and attractive young people were able to take in. They had the book, and I’m sure that many of them had read it already— and would re-read it as a guide in years to come.
On that Sunday, she used the book and her experience to challenge the black and brown young people to claim a worthwhile ambition. Don’t just go to college to get paid, yo. Like the social, intellecctual, career, and spiritual spiritual equivalent of Biles’ double-double dismount. Fly. Hit the ground. Stick it.
The day before, at the Harlem Book Fair, I’d meditated throughout the 100-degree afternoon, on ambition and all the variations I saw: from independent young publishers to the accomplished poet who put his volume into my hands and said: “$10”; to Omar Tyree publishing a new e-book at $1/chapter, to Amiri Baraka, who got smacked upside the head by a woman who tried to take over a panel discussion in Thurgood Marshall College. Writers brought their ambitions to the day. Some grandiose, some trivial.
On the drive back to Philadelphia, at Sunday School on the morning before Berry’s talk, I’d been mulling the stories I’d seen represented out on the street; mulling the stereotypes that writer Veronica Chambers once said she felt she was either debunking or confirming; the great black satirists; street fiction. Have we bought what we’ve been sold here in America? Are we reselling it, because selling is what we’ve been sold? As our younger daughter Zoë jokes when we speak of purpose: “Is this why our ancestors died in the cane fields?”
The young folk waited in line to meet Dr. Berry at the end of the luncheon. She sheathed her sharp with and spoke to them gently. Some of them talked, in this summer before entering college, as if they had to decide everything that week, before they let slip great opportunities. She listened and nodded her head, encouraging a greater ambition. Not just what should you do, but what can you do well, brilliantly, with your whole spirit? Not just where is power, but in what ways are you your most powerful. How can you use your life well, joyfully, and for the good of the many?
I thought of our older daughter, who had gone to Penn herself, traveled to Africa on a documentary film crew, and then landed a promising magazine appointment in New York. On weekends, she led adjudicated youth in a hiking-climbing program that works, she once said, because “the mountain doesn’t lie” to kids who’ve been living the stories of urban street fiction. Laura had always loved the outdoors; she was an athlete caged in a publication’s modular work environment during the week, and set free for two days to help hurt kids a few years younger than she hang onto the earth, to feel and defy gravity, to convince themselves that their black bodies mattered, one handhold at a time. Then, one December she packed up the dog, subletted the perfect Brooklyn starter apartment, and went to Vermont to teach snowboarding. She teaches with enthusiasm and soul. (See “Lessons on a Board.”) On the second or third day in Vermont, she rang to tell me that she was driving up the mountain. The sun was rising gold and pink over the snow, and she said that she had almost forgotten that she could be this happy.
That, too, is an ambition we forget to teach young people about. We forget to urge them to find joy. Tubman would call it glory.
Lorene Cary founded SafeKidsStories.com. Her newest book is Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century.