Praising the Baby Genius

Mommy, where’s my vertebrae?”

I actually looked around the room to see who spoke those words.  There just had to be a ventriloquist with a tiny little voice somewhere under the bed.   No part of my mind could grasp the idea that my 18 month old daughter just asked:  “Mommy, where’s my vertebrae?”  The words were so clear, and the concept so fully formed, it was obvious to me she’d been able to think in highly developed terms for a while.  She’d just waited until I could handle it.

I didn’t answer.  Maybe if I pretended not to hear, she’d pretend to be a ‘normal’ baby-girl and we could fake it until…  “MOMMY, Where’s my VERTEBRAE?”  “Justine, where did you learn that word?”  I asked.  “I heard it on tv.”  “Oh.  Your vertebra are in your back.”  I playfully rolled her onto her side and tickled her spine to emphasize the location of each vertebra.  Although she laughed,  the balance of power in our relationship changed right then and there.  By demanding instruction so early in life, she challenged us to provide intellectually stimulating experiences on a consistent basis. 

My older child, 22 months her senior, is also gifted.  His ability to sculpt objects from any material stopped many a bystander  when he was a tiny boy, and his eye for form, color and movement allowed him to distinguish the work of Lautrec from that of Degas, or Monet or Vincent VanGoh by age 7.  He could sight read and identify the continents and planets in the solar system by age 4.  Growing up in Washington, D.C. allowed me to spend countless hours in the free museums, and eventually take my kids there too. 

Part of the joy of motherhood has been watching my babies grow into very interesting people.  Sometimes I wonder if I did enough for them.  Other times I feel that I sheltered and fussed over them too much.  At times I wonder if creating a deep well of knowledge for them set them apart from others in a bad way.  After all, I too had been that kid in the ‘hood who always had their hand up in class, and who “tried to talk white.”  Sigh…

As for Justine, she began to max out in the public school system, getting all As and occasionally rankling teachers who themselves did not have perfect recall or full mastery of a particular subject.  To honor our commitment to her, we enrolled her into a private college preparatory academy.  She performed well and she’s a now a college student.

The pain of being ridiculed by classmates has faded for me, but my son had to hide his intellect for years in order to fit in with his friends.  When Justine went to a private high school, her old classmates all dropped her friendship, and the mothers and some school faculty gave me such a hard time.  When did a high IQ disqualify someone from being ‘down?’  What rule said you can’t have a challenging school experience and still have ‘flavor?’ 

The achievement gap between  urban schools and suburban schools is alarming, and parents should not be forced to resort to private school education in order to find a challenging curriculum for their children.  Instead of improving schools, Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative created new nationwide graduation requirements without funding for instructional support.  In that context, the requirements have become penalities that may prevent scores of children from receiving diplomas.  We must push the new administration to reverse this trend immediately, and whether Barack Obama wins the election on Tuesday or not, his education and achievement, and that of his wife must serve as an inspiration to us to push our babies to succeed.

Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

The pain of losing a friend or loved one can be traumatic, even debilitating if the death is unexpected. In the wake of a sudden loss, mourners often retreat from society and contemplate what the deceased person meant to them, and eventually, ask the ultimate question: “Why did they have to leave?”

I recently read: Messages from the Masters, Tapping into the Power of Love, by Brian Weiss, M.D. (Warner Books) Dr. Weiss, a psychiatrist, has developed a body of written work documenting the controversial topic of past life regression. His essential premise is that Earth has been created by God as a learning environment and each human soul lives numerous times, acquiring knowledge that brings us closer to true enlightenment. His technique, spiritual psychotherapy, involves inducing each subject into a state of deep hypnosis during which they purportedly recount experiences from past lives. Invariably, the subjects return to waking consciousness with deep insight as to a problem or issue in their current existence. Dr. Weiss’ discussion also encompasses the idea that the capacity to love is in our nature as human beings, and that love is a universal energy which unites all things. I believe him.

On the other hand, life’s tragedies challenge that belief. Hugh Johnson was a wonderful a man. He was my son’s Godfather. In August 1989, he left Washington with Congressman Mickey Leland to go on a mission to an Ethiopian refugee camp. Before he was to leave for the airport, we stopped by to say goodbye and to give him some money to purchase African artifacts. Just before we got into the car to leave, Hugh asked me: “When is that baby due again?” (I was pregnant with my second child) I thought to myself: “Hugh we just talked about that” but I said: “November.” He said: “We’ll be looking out for that.” I remember taking an extra good look at him, and having a vague feeling of dread, but being a worrier by nature, I discounted it. The plane he was on disappeared in Ethiopia before reaching its destination.

After an agonizing week of praying and watching CNN around the clock, Patricia called to say that the wreckage of the plane had been found and that there were no survivors. Hugh, and 13 other people died in the plane crash that killed Congressman Leland. The babies he left behind lost something no one could ever replace. What was the deeper meaning of his death? What lesson did we all take from that loss? Even 20 years later, the ‘why?’ just escapes me.

In September 1992, my husband and I enrolled our then 4 year old son into a Washington D.C. pre-school. Our little boy appeared to enjoy the learning and socialization process well enough. The only other black child in Donald’s class became a special friend. DeVaughn was with Donald constantly. He was bright, bubbly, handsome and completely adorable. I loved him. Donald, DeVaughn, and my 2 year-old daughter Justine had marvelous play dates, spending hours talking, singing, role playing and all the other things little people do.

Then DeVaughn was murdered.

On a Sunday morning before I was to take Donald and Justine to see Dance Theater of Harlem, my husband came in the room looking stricken. Alarmed, I turned off the television and felt my mind break as he told me what happened and that the headmistress of the school called to alert him before he saw it on tv. There is no way to reclaim the piece of my psyche that I lost in the aftermath. I cried every day for weeks afterward. I cried for DeVaughn, that he was hurt and that he suffered. I cried for his Mom, who was also hurt in the attack. I cried for Donald and Justine’s lost innocence, knowing that they would always remember their friend and his loss.

I was angry at myself for not understanding that the life of a black child can be at risk even when it is sheltered in the coccoon of white privilege. In an attempt to sheild my son from the rugged truths in our world, we wound up bringing him to an ultimate truth: the life of an African-American male can be extinguished at any time and for no reason at all. The killer murdered more than DeVaughn’s body, he erased his future. There will be no football, or girlfriends, or college career for him. We will never get to meet his children or his wife. All we have are memories of his smile and delightful laughter. The memories really don’t satisfy or bring true comfort.

I still struggle with this loss. My son still struggles with this loss. He had DeVaughn’s birth and death dates tatooed on his arm on his 18th birthday. Unlike the subjects of Dr. Weiss’ book, I really can’t make sense of DeVaughn’s death. Maybe if I hadn’t loved him so deeply, I would have long ago put this memory away. Does that mean the answer is to love others less to avoid the pain of loss when they are gone? I don’t think so. But the pain and the questions persist. They always will.

My prayers are with Jennifer Hudson and her sister.

Faith of Our Fathers

I feel afraid.

I want to write about the fact that Barack Obama’s candidacy for President is an opportunity to honor the very last message uttered publicly by Dr. Martin Luther King:

“Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mason Temple Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968

Dr. King was assassinated approximately 24 hours after he uttered these words.

I want to write about Americas’ promise and the ripeness of this moment to fullfill part of our human destiny and ascend beyond divisions and group differences. I want to write about each person’s love for their fellow man and the inherent goodness that God has bestowed on each of us. I want to expound on the creative solutions to the economic crisis that America will devise in the future. Unfortunately, creeping nihilism, mixed with my usual angst have conspired to force me to confront a monstrous truth. There is still a deep, long vein of racial hatred in this country.

America sells itself as a meritocracy. The idea of pulling oneself up from the bootstraps and being rewarded for talent and hard work are central themes in our belief system. No problem. If the current Presidential race were based on pure merit, however, the right would not resort to conjecture about Obama’s religion, or his parentage or any other issue than his ability. Hatred is the origin of that line of inquiry.

WOL Radio has the sad duty to announce that at 6:01 p.m., Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. We repeat, today at approximately 6:00 p.m., Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shout outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.”

In my 7 year old world, at 7:00 p.m. April 4, 1968, I felt that hate. Hatred reached into my living room, stopped me from doing homework, and hit me in the face. Hard. It was personal, and I could envision the shooter gloating and bragging to his friends about what he had just done. I felt as if He’d shot me and every other person in my community. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the graphic coverage of the Vietnam War, and visions of the Civil Rights struggle, grief, loss, anger, and confusion all worked in unison to derail my belief in the opportunities of tomorrow…at least for a while. For years, I was wracked by fear that the country would change and that the government would cease to exist. When I discussed these fears with my Dad, he looked at me and said: “Don’t be afraid, everything will be allright.”

I don’t believe that America will have another day like April 4, 1968, but I do see the storm clouds of division tearing at the fringes of the country. The difference between 1968 and today, among other things, is that Barack Obama is not a black candidate for President, he is the duly selected nominee of a major party who is black. His candidacy alone perhaps fullfills part of King’s dream.

The Presidential race is becoming more hotly contested as we speak, and candidates and pundits alike have made some startling statements. America has or should have moved beyond hateful rhetoric. None of us should be exposed to ‘leaders’ talking about who is “un-American” or who is “patriotic”. It is irresponsible and insulting. The economic crisis of this time requires Americans to unite behind the best candidate and forge ahead with unity, regardless of race, or class or gender.

The Morning After

I have been surfing the blogs written by the members of the conservative community.  They are angry in anticipation of John McCain’s loss in the Presidential election.  Several posts discuss the need to accumulate food, clean water and “ammo” in the event that the election of an African-American results in a complete breakdown of civil society.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chris Rock has made great fun of the prospect that ‘anything that requires a Black person to do something’ on the day after the election (assuming Barack Obama wins) will not happen.  His standup routine:  “Don’t Kill the Messenger” evokes the image of black people not going to work, being irresponsible, acting crazy…the typical stereotype. Wow.

So, we have armed rural whites cowering in their bunkers waiting for the crazy, drunk, irresponsible blacks to come and…what? Take over their homes and businesses? Commit horrible crimes and ruin their way of life? The pundits and the talkers on both sides will paint a picture of the Apocalypse and plant the face of the enemy squarely on the front. Fear mongering is at a fever pitch.

The truth is, our way of life is about to change because the U.S. GNP/capita, or national income per person, is in decline. The rate of growth of the U.S. economy is slowing. The recently released IMF Report stated that the U.S. economy, which grew by 2 percent last year, is projected to slow to 1.6 percent this year. The IMF projects that growth will screech to a virtual halt in 2009. That would mark the worst showing since 1991, when the country was pulling out of a recession. By contrast, China and India will see growth at 9.7 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively. Russia’s economy should grow by 7 percent this year, down from 8.1 percent last year. 1

Gross National Product is the total value added from domestic and foreign sources claimed by residents of a country. In other words it is GDP (Gross Domestic Product, the value of goods and services produced within a country) plus net income received by residents from non-resident sources. GNP/capita is the total divided by the number of people in the country. As the country has shifted from the industrial to the information age, blue collar manufacturing jobs have been exported to developing nations and white collar office jobs as clerks in stores, office workers, teachers, and nurses, are limited to people with the skills and education to fill them. The U.S. has shifted to a service economy.

Conservatives have decried the advent of ‘socialism’ in America without admitting that “free market” excesses resulted in price gouging among the nation’s oil and other energy companies. While Rush Limbaugh blames blacks for the subprime mortgage crisis, oil company executives are laughing all the way to the bank. Does anyone see a connection between the shocking increases in gasoline, food and electricity prices and homeowners’ inability to keep up with mortgage payments? Hello!!!!!

Americans’ ideological belief in freedom has historically resulted in blind acceptance that companies should be free to raise prices on goods and services, and that competitive forces in the market will restrain them from price gouging. In a ‘mature’ economy, however, it’s not clear that competition between companies has had that result. What is clear is that many Americans are suffering and more will suffer in the future. Eight years of Enrons, Worldcoms, derivatives futures trading, and other loose financial dealings have brought us to this time in history. Now, while Ken Lay relaxes in Dubai at the newly constructed Halliburton Headquarters, the right wants us to wallow in hate and fight over a shrinking pool of resources. I say: we won’t fall for it because we’re better than that.

The government’s bailout package is aimed at thawing lending by buying bad mortgage-related debt from troubled financial institutions. The idea is that the banks’ books would then be cleaner, putting them in a better position to lend and get the economy moving. With this package in place, the next President, whoever he is, will guide America to economic stability. Our job, on the day after the election, is to recognize each others’ humanity and respect the process we are all required to adhere to whether we like the outcome or not.


1. Jeannine Aversa ASSOCIATED PRESS

Facing the Music

I went to a dance performance with my little girl last night. There was great diversity in the dance styles presented. From flamenco to hip hop, the music evoked powerful emotions which were translated to the movements of each dancer. The new Joy of Motion dance facility on H street in Washington, D.C. is a sparkling example of urban renewal.

I was impressed by the skill in the execution of all the dances, but I was moved by the hip hop music and the accompanying performances. At 48, I can only dream of being able to ‘bust a move’ like they did on stage. However, the profound commentary made by the dancers was unmistakeable. 18 year old Erica Hart used thought provoking music by Citizen Cope, mixed with some old school Herman Kelly and her own beats to display her artistic vision. In a performance entitled ‘5 to 9’, choreographer Aysha Upchurch used the dancers as a paintbrush and made it clear that hip hop and rap music are expressive art forms that tell an American story as valid as that in the music of Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein.

Rap and hip hop have evolved from the days of The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. When Grandmaster Flash released “The Message” in 1982, it became clear that every ugly reality of life in the ‘hood’ could be set to a beat played over the airwaves. At that point, Black America’s pain became a musical vehicle and music became another tool to vent and inform the rest of the world. I actually cried the first time I heard it. Crime, hopelessness, economic hardship and all the social dysfunction that goes with them were exposed for the world to hear. It was at that point that the music should have created a new dialogue between political leaders, business and financial interests and the community. After all, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Black Nationalist movement and the anti-war movement, we were all ready to implement the ideals expressed by Dr. King and change the society, right?

What happened instead is that lucrative recording contracts, record sales and instant fame for the chosen few became the incentive for creating the music. Many artists continued to speak the truth of their own life experiences, but increasing numbers of posers simply channeled horrible thoughts and hateful words into their rhymes to feed into the gangster rap machine. Dr. Dre has admitted that he at one time tried to write rhymes without describing women as “Bitches and Hos”, but he just couldn’t find the inspiration. As he returned to the use of those terms, he influenced a generation of Black children to do the same. Black mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters all got branded and diminished in stature because of the American music industry’s profit motive. The words ‘virture’ and ‘Black female’ so infrequently occur in the same sentence that when Robert Sylvester (R. Kelly) is accused of abusing scores of underage females, it is often Black females themselves who vigorously defend him. I don’t believe that R. Kelly and Dr. Dre or their product are representative of all rap and hip hop music, it’s that the community embraced them and amplified their message without shutting down the hatred inherent in their words and behavior. We needed Don Imus to use those words before we examined what they really mean in popular culture.

Music has an influential relationship to the soul and the psyche of the listener. Just as listening to the blues can make us feel melancholy, listening to gangster rap can subliminally fill us with rage. The frequent ‘beefs’ between artists are proof of that. On the other hand, the music I heard last night and the dances that interpreted it made me feel uplifted. I was encouraged to see that hip hop and rap have not killed our children’s souls, but that young people are adaptive and able to make life-affirming choices about the complex challenges they face in the future.

Really Rush?

Rush, we know you’re appealing to the right wing fringe, and that you long ago opted out of the ranks of the objective and the credible, but your hysterical, desperate rant laying the mortagage and financial crisis at the feet of Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers and ACORN is incendiary and irresponsible.

You seem to believe that the Black community focuses on hating this country. The Black community is diverse, and contains as many apologists, sellouts and appeasers as it has revolutionary militants. Barack Obama is no revolutionary militant. Having taught Constitutional Law at one of the nation’s most conservative universities, the University of Chicago, Barack Obama has trained legions of lawyers to uphold the law, not overthrow it. Additionally, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, made from the sanctity of the pulpit, have been twisted to smear and distort. Why? The truth of America’s history and the reactions of people and nations around it are self-evident. The emotional outcroppings left from the enslavement of Africans are part of our heritage, and you will never know the burden of teaching a child to proceed through life with dignity in spite of that horrific legacy.

The Black community, and our children are a vibrant and unique part of the American collective. Our future is inextricably intertwined with America’s destiny. Perhaps your rhetoric is aimed at a final solution, Rush. Perhaps, like Adolph Hitler in the 1930’s, you would have America believe that the current financial crisis is the result of a vast Black conspiracy to reap what we have not worked for and take from “good, hard-working” Americans (thanks Hillary).

…And to think, all these years that Black mothers have been cooking, cleaning, helping children with homework, earning money, supporting their husbands, getting their own educations and careers off the ground…that we have all been party to the secret underground Black Hate Network. All of the social, scientific, military, intellectual and cultural contributions made to America by African-Americans were really just a cover. Our real purpose has been to promote, with Christopher Dodd, Barney Frank, and cadres of Black Liberation theologists, an anti-american, anti-capitalist movement. Really? Wow!

In spite of the hurtful legacy of slavery, people of African descent have stood firm and resolute on this continent. We have fought with valor, we live and raise families, and we educate and love our children, just like you. Consistent attacks on Black people based on their race are demeaning to all Americans, and they threaten to unravel any gains we make on the international stage. Does your hate run so deep that you seek to undermine the stature of the entire country rather than see an African American President? What makes you hate that deeply Rush?

The dysfunctional aspects of the Black community, like those of any other group, are reflective of social ills that affect everyone. It is true that the social engineering efforts of the 1960’s had a disastrous effect on the Black family. Poverty has a disastrous effect on the Black family. The lynchings of the period between 1870-1920 had a disastrous effect on the Black family; job displacement and illegal immigration have had a disastrous effect on the Black family. The point is, in spite of our history, no one has trained Black children to: “Hate, Hate, Hate this country”. Black kids play in little league, go to Halloween parties and proms, and have the same abilities, goals and dreams that White kids have. Its only when power hungry hatemongerers lie to misinform the public that people become alarmed. Charles Manson sought to incite a race war by the Sharon Tate/ LoBianco killings. You know good and well that corporate mismanagement is at the root of the current global financial crisis. Rush, would you really have your lie be the cause of anyone’s pain? Really?

Oil in the Garden of Eden

While decision makers declare wars, ordinary people must try to live in the midst of destruction. Wars are about land acquisition, political power or strategic resources, and a declaration of war includes detailed assessments of the opponent’s land mass, and its access to the resources required to make and sustain a standing army. Soldiers never consider the well being of the noncombatants, the ordinary people of a remote location. That is our mandate as caring, concerned citizens. The decision to invade Iraq had everything to do with acquiring control of its vast petroleum reserves. Since that has been accomplished, how do we make the Iraqi people whole and get on with the business of healing and recociliation?

Mesopotamia, site of modern-day Iraq, has been the site of armed conflict throughout the duration of human history. Known as the Cradle of Civilization, this area at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was also the site of the Babylonian empire. Scholars have long marveled at the well-document contributions of the Babylonians, and their descendants, the Iraqis, in the fields of literature, medicine, mathematics, architecture and philosophy. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for instance, known as one of the ancient wonders of the world, was a manifestation of human creativity and ingenuity in its highest form. Hammurabi’s Code was the world’s first codification of national laws.

There is ample precedent for hatred between the West and the people of the Midlle East. Pope Urban II in 1095, on the eve of the First Crusade, wrote:

“For this land which you now inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife. Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.”

The discovery of oil by the British in 1908 ushered in the current trend toward international involvement in the area now known as Iraq. Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a 1919 account of his part in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I, called War in the Garden of Eden. He stated:

We steamed up past the Island of Abadan, where stand the refineries of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It is hard to overestimate the important part that company has played in the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign.

In the current conflict, military objectives were set against the backdrop of a perceived expansion of Al Qaeda, and were hardly questioned by the American public. In fact, for a time, to initiate dialogue or questions about the military objectives in Iraq was considered unpatriotic. However, the primary questions faced by any society contemplating war should be: What are the actual motives for deployment of troops, and conventional weapons to a distant military theater? What does the United States stand to gain by fighting to establish a new political regime in a foreign land? Who are the combatants and what do they stand for?

The American public has never been allowed to fully contemplate these questions in relation to the Iraqi conflict. If we are to have an honest discussion of why we are in Iraq, we have to ask the question: Are we justified in killing Iraqi people to gain control of their oil, and if so, what are the possible historical and spiritual repercussions of that choice? By waging war, we have separated the human family into groups of “us” and “them.” As it relates to American dependence on petroleum, have we projected our fears, our failures and our faults onto “them?” Aren’t we now attempting to wrest their resources from them under the guise of “fixing” them? America’s decision to declare war to obtain oil has been obscured by political rhetoric. Instead of descriptive terms, like ‘women’, ‘children’, or ‘the elderly’, citizens of the attacked country have been referred to simply as insurgents, Al Qaeda , or ‘terrorists.” By not thinking of these individuals as people, we inject suffering and death into their lives without compassion.

In September 2008 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified as to the current status of the war in Iraq and the need for continued assessment of need for assets in Afghanistan. Ranking member Rep. Ike Skelton, D-MO, opened the proceedings with an acknowledgement that the strategy in Iraq has to change:

“First and foremost, let us remember that the idea behind this series of hearings has been to provide Members with a range of insights from former senior policy officials and academics because the impending transfer of administrations offers a potential opportunity to reexamine the nation’s grand strategy, and perhaps make some needed adjustments. ”

Congressman Skelton also acknowledged that the reasons for entering Iraq were possibly contrived, or at best mistaken:

I’m glad to see you both and believe that our nation is well served by your leadership. We should not begin this hearing without recalling how we got here. Iraq was invaded on incorrect information. The turbulent aftermath following the initial military victory was not considered, despite warnings of the aftermath, including two such warnings from me. Now we’re in our sixth year of attempting to quell this horrendous aftermath.

Testimony from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates enumerated the factions involved in the conflict and explored a variety of possible endgames and exit strategies for the war in Iraq, along with the need for allocation of military assets (troops) in Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: Well, Congressman, as I mentioned in my statement, the stand-down of insurgent groups — or actually, more importantly, the awakening of some insurgent groups to actually actively oppose Al Qaida Iraq and the extremist ideology and violence that they had brought to these local communities has been a very important factor, as has, certainly, the stand-down of the Sadr militia, although we did continue to go after the “special group” elements throughout that time and, in fact, have detained a number of them along with substantial quantities of weapons and documents and so forth that very clearly lay out the role that Iran has played, the contribution that Lebanese Hezbollah has played as well with the Quds force.

Not once did Petraeus depict the military situation in terms of the people affected or the human tragedy involved. That aspect was lost in words like: “extremist, and insurgent.
Perhaps the angels of our better nature will compel us to begin to speak and think of the people of the Middle East as people. The terms we use to describe others dictate our behavior toward them. If America is a nation of believers, and if American might is based on adherence to the rule of moral and Biblical laws, then we have to want the same fate for Iraqi children as we want for our own. Real Christians will speak out clearly and vote for healing and reconciliation in the upcoming election.