applique, Beckman Award, Brenda Watkins, Census, Channel2 Actions News Atlanta, Civil rights, Dinah Ratliff, diversity, DNC 2008, DNC 2016, Dr. B-A Building Bridges Award, Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Foundation, exercise, Gale Pinson, gardening, love, ML4 Foundation, National Museum of African American History and Culture, NLRB, quilting, Rep. John Lewis, Richard Parsons, slavery, Smithsonian, TED Talk, UGA, weight loss, WSBTV
I just realized that my last blog post was 15 months ago, just after the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. I knew it had been a while, but I didn’t realize it had been that long. Life. It’s what happens while you’re making other plans. I know by the date that I was taken away because of writing a book on slavery. I am glad to say I finished it, and love it, but in the end I realized it wasn’t the book I actually wanted or needed to write. I’ll still let it go out, but I have to do the others now too.
I always feel like people forget when writing a blog that not everyone follows it like a journal. That means that many who see your entries may have come upon them because of doing a search, so they don’t see your work from the beginning, but just whatever they fished for. That means that saying you haven’t written in a while is meaningless to them because they weren’t looking at everything, but only the entry they happened upon in their search. So, I rarely do this. But, I will this time. I also do not treat my entries as journal entries. I tend to write about bigger, more overarching issues. This time, since it’s been so long, maybe not so much.
So incredibly much has happened until I can’t believe I haven’t written about it. Not just the usual, “my daughter and I went on an awesome trip to Aruba,” which we did, or “I went to DC for the 15th anniversary of my brother’s church founding and pastorship (Good Success Christian Ministries in Washington, DC),” which my daughter and I did after Aruba, before returning home, or “I’ve now lost 92 pounds since beginning my weight loss journey 3 years ago,” which I have, or even, an “I still get up at 3:30 am each morning to exercise and go to the gym 3 days a week from 5-7 am,” which I do. All this and more has taken place and each is really neat, but there are other issues and things that have been so colossal that each would be an entry unto itself.
For instance, I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past July from Georgia’s 10th Congressional District.
Not bad for someone who could not have told you she even lived in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District before that. For me, it was about the historic nature of the event and wanting my descendants to know that black folks were there. I get so tired of looking at photos of significant events and wondering if black folks were there. They must have been, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the photos or reading about the event. It’s like we did’t exist. I hate that. And it can be said of other “out” groups also. Take pretty much any significant event you can think of, and we’re simply not in the picture. Both literally, as well as figuratively.
This was starkly brought to my attention in 1976 as the country was preparing for the Bicentennial of the US. Sources called for memorabilia and photos and anything else that could be dated to 1876 or 1776. Even though we’d been here by the millions, nothing I saw reflected it. I knew then, at age 25, with no children and not yet even married, though I would be in 2 months, that I would let that end with me and my descendants. I already had a sense of history from a very young age and did things like write my name in my books because I LOVED reading and I knew that one day I wanted my children to see my books and see that I read books, and I wanted them to read and read my books also. My oldest daughter, the only one with children, has commandeered my entire collection for her own two children, my grandchildren, just as I knew would happen when I was 10 and wrote my name in them. If my other two daughters have children, the three of them will just have to work out the issue of who gets what. “My name is Bennett and I ain’t in it,” as we say in our house.
In 1976, I brought tons (16 cases, if memory serves…) of Bicentennial commemorative Mason jars with the Liberty Bell on them (yes, I still can my own tomatoes today and put up 36 jars just this summer), many of which I still have today, 40 years later. I no longer use them because they are for my descendants, for when the Tricentennial comes around 60 years from now, so they won’t feel the exclusion I did in 1976. I bought so many because I knew that once they were gone there would be no more and I knew that if they had to last for 100 years, I’d better stock up. Folks see you can your own goodies and have no compunction about asking for them and they rarely bother bring back the jars. Out of all those jars 12 in each of the 16 boxes), I only have less than a dozen left today. But, I digress….as I usually do…. 🙂
My descendants will also have my quilt commemorating the trip my sister, Brenda Watkins, and I took to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 to just be in the same place as history if the first black presidential nominee was selected to represent a major party. We were blessed enough to actually get tickets to get in to see Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. Not bad for going to Denver only knowing two things: 1) the Convention was being held there, and 2) we wanted to breathe the air of the place where such an historic event took place. To get there and discover I knew at least four people there (three of them delegates), one a former student, another a law school mentor, and end up in the enviable position of obtaining not one, but two sets of tickets to get in to see the acceptance speech, was beyond blessed. My quilt includes digital documents and photos printed to fabric, including photos of my sister and me, those who got the tickets for us, buttons, napkins and T-shirts of the event, and even the daily emails I sent to my family about our adventures each day. Now, having seen that process up close for this year’s DNC, I realize even more how extraordinarily lucky we were to be able to get tickets, then, once there, seats for the extraordinarily historic event. It added to it that Obama’s acceptance was on August 28, 2008, exactly 40 years, to the day, that Bren and I, along with others of our family, attended the historic March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. I had been only 12 at the time.
This time around I did real-time Facebook entries everyone could follow instead. (https://www.facebook.com/dawndba) And this time around, I was a delegate, not just someone who came to breathe the air. And this time, while my sister, Bren was once again with me, from Glenn Dale, MD, we were also joined by my sister Gale Harris Pinson, who came from Houston, TX for the event. We had a blast. We ended up doing the neatest TV interview about being at both events, that ran on the 4 and 6:00 news in Atlanta, with interspersed clips of the 1963 March. http://www.wsbtv.com/video/local-video/dnc-convention-heads-into-second-day_20160819182033/426604972
Not only did I get to, for my descendant’s sake, cast a vote for the first female to be nominated for president of the US by a major political party, but I got to feel the most comfortable I have ever felt in a public space. I got to actually feel what the world could feel like if people just loved and accepted each other for who they were—my lifelong goal and what I work for each and every minute of each and every day in some way, shape or form. I got to feel what it was like to sit in a room where important folks of all kinds for one reason or another were on a stage talking to the entire world, and they talked about the importance of love. I got to feel what it was like to be interviewed by a Chinese news station, National Public Radio’s Marketplace program, my own state’s Atlanta’s WSB Channel 2 Action News, and show up on CNN, ABC, NBC, and CNBC—none of which I would know or see except for people calling, emailing or texting to let me know what they had seen, and even screen capturing it for me and sending it to me. I got to spend a few very precious moments with my all-time favorite hero, Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon—a word I rarely use. It was truly, truly awesome. My descendants are and will be, for the ones I will not live to see, proud. They will feel included. Unlike me, they will know black folks were there, somewhere in the frame.
I also had the unbelievable pleasure of being presented with the Faculty of the Year Award two weeks ago during the annual Women’s Faculty Reception put on by UGA’s Institute for Women’s Studies. The introduction, by Dr. Nichole Ray, who I had known since she was a student, was such an unbelievably realistic picture of my life and work that it just took my breath away. As Nichole gave her intro there was a slide show of me being shown. It was all I could do to keep my composure. It was like being at a funeral and having your life review—-without the sadness, of course. The standing ovation after Nichole’s introduction began before I could even get up from my seat and continued until I arrived at the podium and said “Y’all really need to sit down.” You can imagine what this must have been like for someone who, at 65, is still embarrassed to have her family sing happy birthday to her. Even though I know it was all sincere, and if I were able to step outside myself and be objective, or if they were talking about anyone else with my record, I’d know it would be very well deserved, it is hard to accept when it is just for me doing what I do every day. It was a tremendous honor and I do so appreciate it.
That same evening I was blessed to host in my home the first gathering of the University of Georgia’s black female faculty. Amazing gathering!!!! I can’t believe we’ve never done it before! There was only one I can think of when I came 28 years ago, and now there are over 50!!!
Since my last entry, last fall I had the truly unbelievable pleasure (not that the above wasn’t…) of being one of only ten recipients of the national Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman teaching award. It comes with $25,000 to do with as you please. Far more exciting to me is the fact that the Beckman award comes from having a student you’ve had who has done something truly significant in the world attributing their success, at least in part, to what they learned from you. My former student of 20 years before, developed the ML4 foundation that does genetic testing for families all over the world (http://ml4.org). He said I taught him the importance of standing up for those who didn’t have a voice. Amazing. The money? I didn’t spend a penny. I gave some to his foundation, and the rest I used to fund an endowed scholarship for students at the University of Georgia who engage in diversity and inclusion efforts across the traditional boundaries. (http://gail.uga.edu/DrB-ABuildingBridgesScholarship). Please donate!! 🙂
I was also totally taken by surprise when, in May, in support of students, I attended the Student Government Association’s faculty dinner. I hadn’t looked at the program I received when I walked in and did not realize that I had been chosen as one of their ten Outstanding Faculty of the year awardees. I was shocked. Then, again embarrassed, because the recommender, who happened to be president of the SGA and one of my students, had to read the essay he had submitted to the awards committee when he nominated me. Again, it was all true, but I was floored and embarrassed as I sat here between the university’s president and provost. He began by telling everyone that since I read a poem at the beginning of each class, he had written one for me: “Roses are red, violets are blue. If I could have anyone be my advisor and guide for life, Dr. B-A, it would be you.” The crowd was blown away. So was I. And that was before he even read the essay that got me chosen. Unbelievable.
I am also tremendously excited that the new Smithsonian will be opening in two weeks! The National Museum of African American History and Culture is finally here! (https://nmaahc.si.edu) It is my icon, Rep. John Lewis, who pushed for it and got it up and running again after it had been on the books for a hundred years or so. I’ve been a charter member and supporter from the start (not the 100 year ago start 🙂 ) and when I received the invitation in the mail for charter members to attend the opening, I knew that despite my crowded schedule and the fact that I would have flown to DC just two weeks before, I had to go. Once again, I want my descendants to know that we were there when this began. So, once again, my sister Brenda and I are off to the races. I can’t wait. I even saw on the invitation that my old boss from the White House, Richard Parsons, was on the steering committee for the museum!
And last, another highlight between my last entry and now is that on Wednesday I had the absolutely distinct pleasure of being invited to come to the National Labor Relations Board to deliver the keynote for their annual Cultural Enhancement Program event. The program committee had seen my TED Talk on Practical Diversity (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExcDNly1DbI) and were so impressed that they wanted me in person. This spoke volumes coming from an agency that by its very nature and what they do, is adversarial. So, even though the only realistic time was sandwiched between my teaching days, which begin with office hours at 7 a.m and I wouldn’t get back home until very late (remember, I am in bed by 8:30 because I arise at 3:30…) I did it. And I am so glad I did. It was awesome and I so admire the leadership and employees for what they are doing in this area. While the feedback was that it was tremendously enriching and inspiring for them, being with them was enriching and inspiring for me!
I told you that I had missed writing about all sorts of things that could be entries in and of themselves. This is one of them. This summer also saw, once again, the incredibly sad and maddening police killings of unarmed black and brown folks, and then the killing of police officers by the gunman in Dallas. I felt like the world was on fire. It was a really scary time. We absolutely have to do better.
And then there is the issue of this year’s presidential election. I can’t even go here. Suffice it to say for now that, even with politics aside, Donald Trump has brought the process of running for president to a new place that I am sorry to see it inhabit. The negative tone, bullying tactics, the seeming inability to be gracious or professional, not to mention his polarizing statements that have the impact of empowering extremist groups to take their message mainstream, have all worked to, in some ways, set us back, just when we were in the most need of furthering inclusiveness. It is such a sad, sad thing that this attracted in excess of 14 million folks. How do we get along together? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. I have to just continue to process it.
In the midst of all of this, I have also been quilting, which I have come to realize is like a type of meditation for me. I teasingly say that “quilting keeps me sane,” but with all the turmoil going on, I have come to realize that this may have more truth than I realized. Sometimes I feel like the woman knitting in War and Peace. Quilting helps to create a sense of centeredness and peace for me. There are times when I simply have to do it to settle my mind and bring me back to the center. Since my last entry I have done beautiful work and managed to finish a couple of quilts that I like very much. As always is the case when I am done, I wonder how it happened. I cannot believe that I did it. Every single stitch done by hand, and each stitch made with absolute love and gratitude. It is sewn right into the quilt and never leaves it. And people feel it.
One I did in memory of my Ancestors who were enslaved. The backing flannel even has “I love my Grandma” as the design on it. The oldest relative I have been able to find in the Census is the 1900 Census entry for my grandma’s grandma, Dinah Ratliff, who was born in Alabama in 1816 and had 11 children sold away. This was for Dinah and the rest of my Ancestors and everyone else’s whose lives were bought and sold as if they were cows. Seeing Dinah in the Census was like magic. It made me understand how important it is for us, as black folks, to show up, to participate.
It still takes my breath away to know that the piece of paper I am looking at when I see that Census page I first saw decades before, was written by someone who saw my Great-Great Grandmother who was born in slavery and wrote down her information. It makes me revere my Grandmother, who did not die until I was 17, even more, to know she knew her.
I was so grateful that I promised myself that I would one day work the Census myself. In the 2010 Census, when I was 59, I figured I wasn’t getting any younger so if I was serious about keeping my promise, this was probably going to be the year to do it. So, I signed up and got a job in the 2010 Census. It was awesome. One of my duties was to set up a table at places like schools, the library, and the local bookstore, passing out information and answering questions people had about the Census. I began this quilt as a tribute to my Ancestors and I worked on it while I worked those tables. I can’t describe how fulfilling it was to sit there stitching together those tiny pieces while I waited for folks to stop by, knowing these little pieces would one day form a beautiful quilt that my Ancestors would never see, but I knew that every single stitch was made with them in mind as a tribute to the sacrifices they went through for me to be here, in the world, at that moment. It was one of the most time-consuming quilts I have ever done. Lots and lots of little pieces. Each flower had 4 pieces and there were 4 flowers in each block. Each piece had to traced, cut out, and appliquéd on. And that was just the flowers, not the block itself. I created each block, put them all together and basted the quilt together, ready to be quilted. Life took over and there it sat on the shelf in my sewing room until I realized that it was now 2015 and 5 years had passed. I also realized that Dinah was born in 1816 and 2016 would be her 200th birthday. I was not going to let 2016 go by without finishing it. So, I got started on it in 2015, and finally finished it earlier this year.
It was a real feat. The purple quilting, much of it hearts, matches the deep purple paisley of the main fabric. I chose the fabric because it was so rich and beautiful that when I bought it, I knew I wanted to do something truly special with it. Purple is the color of royalty and they are the royalty of my life. The appliqued flowers represent my Ancestors’ agricultural roots which I still commemorate by gardening myself today. I heavily and beautifully quilted it because they deserve each and every stitch of it.
So, it’s been a full 15 months, with lots and lots happening–much of which I did not even write about, but I promise to try to do better as life lets me!