Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Beloved Community of Tomorrow

April 12, 2010

Ralph D. Abernathy Auditorium – Alabama State University

Naomi Tutu strides to the stage. She wears her African dress. Bright colors. The colors of courage, the colors of the Earth.

Naomi Tutu is the keynote speaker of the 4th Robert and Jean Graetz Symposium on Human Rights and Reconciliation presented by the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture and hosted at Alabama State University.

“The Beloved Community: Yesterday a Dream, Today a Hope, Tomorrow a Reality” is the theme of this year’s event. Tutu immediately points out that the last part (to make the dream that today is a hope a reality tomorrow) relies on us. And she talks about the possibility of the reality of a “beloved community,” an idea so dear to Martin Luther King Jr., his dream of love and solidarity, the dream of Heaven on Earth.

“We won’t answer hate with hate,” she firmly says. Tutu’s message is also one of love. Raised in apartheid South Africa, daughter of activist, Nobel Peace Prize Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tutu shares with the audience memories of childhood and hard-earned lessons.

“My parents had us children pray for our government every night,” she says emphasizing every single word in a way (as I will soon find out) characteristically hers.

Then, to further emphasize her point, Tutu shares an African proverb with us. First, she says it in her specific African language, then she translates it into English: “a person is a person only through other people.”

“Those who oppress, oppress themselves, the Tutus kept repeatedly to their offspring.

And Naomi, admittedly, couldn’t help but being skeptical. “Growing up,” she repeats, “I just could not see it. What I was seeing was… the whites were having a wonderful life! They had big houses, pools, their neighborhoods were nice and clean…But then my parents would say. ‘Believe you me: they are oppressed.’”

Their oppression was fear. They didn’t have much time to enjoy the privilege, she claims.

“We Black South Africans fought our oppression. White South Africans fought to maintain their oppression…with repression, killings, imprisonments. So, in a sense, they were doubly oppressed.”

That’s also why, she continues, the ones who have withstood abuse (like Black South Africans) “have been called to stand up to the voices of hate (…) to use our actions, our gifts, to stand for justice. To be those who remind our country, and the world, that a person is a person only through other people.”

She also acknowledges the inevitability of the beloved community, of living together in a pluralistic society. Because a community based on exclusion and discrimination, like the one the Tea Party people are advocating cannot last.

During the Q&A session, Tutu answers a few questions, grounding once again her beliefs in traditional wisdom.

In reference to personal attacks, she mentions the teachings of her grandfather who used to say: ‘raise the level of your argument instead of the level of your voice.”

She also reclaims the importance and beauty of diversity and the necessity of acknowledging it.

“I can’t stand when people say ‘I don’t see difference,’” Naomi says referring to people of different complexions. (…) “My mother is an avid gardener…Try to tell her that ‘you don’t see difference’ after she has worked on her yard for hours, planting new flowers, adjusting the flowers to make them look pretty.”

People in the audience appreciate the amusing metaphor and smile.

“We have to be the ones that show that true communities, strong communities, lasting communities are the ones that recognize differences as gifts.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

My Journey: Reflections, Regrets, & Roadblocks – Judge McPherson: An encounter

A few years ago Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson decided it was time for her to retire. She was 59 and she wanted to dedicate the rest of her life to doing all those things she had to leave behind while serving as a United States Magistrate. One of this was writing.

The other one was fully enjoying her senior years with her husband Thomas.

“Since we are on a college campus," she started off, “I speak to the students, especially the women among them.”

Actually, not too many students were sitting at the round tables that had been set up for the occasion. I, myself, felt that an email to my Communication and Gender students was not going to bring them over during lunch time on a gorgeous Spring day: I should have known better. I regretted not having resorted to the trick of the extra credit.

Admittedly, Judge McPherson struck me right away as the type of woman I would have liked my students to hear talk.

And talk she did. For over an hour she diligently went over the three parts of the title assigned to her presentation by the AUM Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, as a good student who does not shy away from a challenging essay topic.

Judge McPherson talked about her reflections, her regrets and her roadblocks.

This is what you do, or, rather, you are asked to do, when you are in your sixties and have accomplished a lot in your life. But Judge McPherson made sure from the beginning that her was not going to be a speech on how to achieve notoriety or personal happiness.

Values, she talked about. Because, as she said, “your value system is what people will remember you for.” (…) “My knowledge and values often discuss but I compel them to reach the same conclusions,” her piercing eyes and austere demeanor softened by an azure-blue set of jewelry.

Judge McPherson is the kind of person that doesn’t pretend to be what she is not. She immediately spoke of the necessity of a two-parent household, made up of a mother and a father because she had been there, raising her son by herself, and it wasn’t easy. She never claimed to have been poor, she added later on, because her family was not.

Judge McPherson reflected upon her upbringing, how she came up, as people say here in Alabama.

Her grandparents have taught her a lot of what she still holds as true today. What it means to have a husband and what a husband is supposed to do.

And that knowledge is power. She grew up, she said, in an atmosphere of academic excellence. She was raised in the church during the 1950s and 1960s when the church was “literally the social annex of the home.” Learned to appreciate the arts so you know what to do when you’re bored, she joked. Learned to appreciate the value of a story. A good reason why I don’t like reality television, she claimed. “Because stories force you to synthesize, to listen and remember.”

“Stories are good for academic and psychological development whereas with reality TV you can tune in any time and know what is going on.”

She then talked about the importance of having a creed (for her it has always been I also “What I Live For”) and of getting out of yourself (which she did thanks to the presence in her life of two genetically retarded ants, who were the reason why, she admitted, she initially decided to pursue a career in speech pathology).

Regrets. “I abhor regrets and I don’t have many. “Reason is,” she said scanning the audience with her unyielding eyes, “I tend to say what’s on my mind when it’s there.”

“Rent and watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ if you wanna know about regrets,” she added.

She wisely praised the importance of participating in organized sports. She traced back her deficiency in managing failure to not having participated in any team sports when she was in school, “in those pre-Title IX years.” “If I had, I am sure I would be able today to measure success in increments instead of by its final product.”

“I regret being a deficient student of the Bible, which actually contradicts my academic approach to knowledge.”

“I regret not having had a second child.”

“And I regret not having big calves!” she jokingly repeated more than once.

She encouraged the audience to embrace resilience but also change sometimes because “in relationships as well as in careers, when the track record doesn’t change, it’s time to move on, she said implicitly referring both to her decision to retire from the bench after not having obtained the Art 3 status (read, lifetime assignment) as a judge, and to her other decision to divorce from her first husband.

Roadblocks. “I look at racism as an earthquake and at sexism as a hurricane. Earthquakes destroy the foundation, while hurricanes destroy the order.” When you are black and a woman, you learn to cope with abuse, Judge McPherson suggested. However, she warns the audience never to use either racism or sexism as a crutch.

“In celebration” of Women’s History Month, she then focused on sexism

Men are afraid of women, especially the ones they love, she said. “So you engage in this continuous dance of assuring them that we mean no harm.” Contrary to the dominant idea, men are highly dependable on women because we constantly outwork them.

“I had a coworker who was very tall. He would always stand up every time I would walk into his office. He would, albeit unconsciously, use his height to show me he was in power. I said ‘unconsciously’ because men are socialized to be in charge.”

At the end of her speech, Judge McPherson took a seat between her husband and her longtime girlfriend. She shed a tear leaving to the audience the interpretation of that gesture—she had just talked about women and half-jokingly encouraged their strategic deployment of tears.

“Race and gender are not caterpillars”, she said in response to a comment coming from the audience, “but you also have to give other people the chance to accept difference. Without partnership and collaboration, change just doesn’t occur.”

At the end of the Q&A session, she gave the last commonsensical yet disarming piece of advice. “In the end, try to be good people. That’s how you will honor your parents’ wishes and set the examples for your children,” she concluded.

Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson visited Auburn University Montgomery to share her life experiences with the AUM Community as part of the Journeys in Common: Women's Empowerment Series.

Judge McPherson is a former U.S. Magistrate Judge, former Assistant Attorney General (AL), former President of the Montgomery’s Federal Bar Association and former President & Vice President of the Alabama Lawyers Association. Judge McPherson is currently a guest columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser; her socio-political, even controversial articles often ignite robust discussion throughout Montgomery.