The US Flag Must Earn The Respect Of Those It Disrespected

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This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – October 10, 2017

“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

I wish that I had penned those words, but they belong to the Nobel Laureate, William Faulkner. I will, however, use them to administer proper weight to the notion that we are the sum of all that has come before us. From this, we cannot hide. Although sometimes, when it serves our purpose, we try with all our might.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time during the national anthem, he did so to bring attention to, in his mind, an epidemic of police brutality. I believe he knew that although it was a peaceful attempt at protest, it was indeed a quiet riot destined to be met by a legion of misunderstanding. A hurricane of hatred and bigotry. A history driven need not to see the forest for the trees.

Now, “the knee” seems to have nothing to do with the death of Philando Castile and others. Now, much of white America is screaming that Kaepernick and those who have followed his lead are unpatriotic. That they are spoiled, rich, black men who are disrespectful of an anthem, which if read in its entirety, spins a sinister rhyme scheme of black slavery, black death and white supremacy.

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave…”

Now, much of white America is demanding that a wave of African-American bended knees recant and stand for the flag that has provided them with the care free lives that they now enjoy. Demanding that they stand in recognition of the men and women of the American military who have sacrificed for them. On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Rich Lowry of The National Review, lectured African-American journalist Stephen Henderson. “People have died under that flag,” he said before adding. “You can have opinions about policing and what not, but don’t disrespect the flag.”

Yet, I wonder. Will Lowry and his like muster an iota of respect for the lives of black men who have died under the flag, choked and shot to death on camera. Lives that should not be reduced to what nots. How can he and others stand in front of African-Americans and demand anything from them with regard to the flag of the United States of America? Black Americans who have sacrificed as much as any other race in this nation, including a legacy of doing so for centuries while laboring in brutal bondage. Can you not recognize this sacrifice?

Lest it be forgotten, let us remember who sacrificed first. Crispus Attucks, a black man was the first to die as the American Revolution began. The first martyr to American freedom. And African-Americans have fought and died in every war since. Because there are movies to prove it, maybe you will remember the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which suffered a casualty rate of forty percent, wounded, missing or killed as they assaulted Fort Wagner during the Civil War. Or the Tuskegee Airmen, who had to vigorously lobby to assume their right to fly in defense of their own country. They knew sacrifice.

I have not served in the military, but military service is well represented on both sides of my family, including my father. My family members served with distinction and returned home, suffering from wounds of the body and mind. Wounds acquired as members of the United States Army, the United States Marines, the Coast Guard and the United States Navy.

“No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.”

Sacrifice that earned the charred, chained and mutilated bodies of black civilians as well.

Sacrifice that earned a society represented by the United States flag, under which those men who served their country bravely, were not allowed to march alongside white soldiers in victory parades. Those men who came home to states and towns where they couldn’t vote, where they had to use colored only bathrooms and sit in the back of the bus. Where they suffered from discrimination in housing and from universities. Where their children received a separate but unequal education.

Remember, when it served your purpose, you refused African-Americans the honor of being respected by or showing respect for the flag. Now, when it serves your purpose, you demand we stand up and without acknowledging our history, pay homage to a flag that took its time recognizing that we were even Americans. Sorry to disappoint.

Even today, Colin Kaepernick wants you to know that African-Americans lag behind in income, home ownership and quality healthcare. African-American school children perform at substantially lower levels than the national average. And 12-year old black boys, like Tamir Rice, playing with toys are shot dead by police officers even as we remember a murdered 14-year-old named Emmett Till, about whom, Mr. Faulkner had this to say.

“If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, then we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”

When I was young, I saw a picture. In it, hundreds of Ku Klux Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC without shame, their faces exposed. Almost every Klansman carried The Stars and Stripes, Red, White and Blue, Old Glory, The American Flag, The Star-Spangled Banner. In the background, the grand dome of the United States Capitol, rose into the sky. Years later, when I first heard the phrase “state sponsored terrorism”, this is the picture that filled my mind.

This is my perspective and that of many other African-Americans. Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest cannot be sincerely, thoughtfully or open-mindedly considered without the benefit of said perspective. It is my hope that, in due time, those raging against the knee, those who see a completely different flag than I do, will recognize all that Mr. Kaepernick has sacrificed by attempting to move us all toward a more perfect union.

 

Dear Gov. McAuliffe: Racism And Bigotry Are Indeed Virginia Natives

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This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – August 15, 2017

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe did what our president would not. He named the beast. For that I am truly thankful. He called it a white supremacist. He called it a Nazi. He called it hate and bigotry. With great passion, he delivered his directive. “Go home. You are not wanted in this commonwealth.”

I should have been happy with everything I heard from the governor, Charlottesville’s mayor and the city manager who said, “Hate came to our town today.” Sadly, I was not. Because even as they called for unity, they refused to come clean, pulling a veil of misdirection over our eyes and pointing sharply to reasons why, as a nation, we have not overcome the evil of racism. Too many white Americans refuse to see the entire, gritty truth, and the many painful microaggressions pay an unfortunate tribute to that blindness. As Ralph Ellison wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Governor McAuliffe, Mayor Signer and City Manager Jones would have us believe that Charlottesville is an oasis in the desert of racism. It is not. I am Virginian, born and raised. And I know better. This commonwealth is home to racism which, of course, includes Charlottesville. Ask Martese Johnson, an African-American student leader at the University of Virginia. He was beaten bloody by law enforcement for trying to peacefully enter a bar. He’d done nothing illegal. Nothing different from white students who were also present. Does the mayor remember the days of protests that followed? Should all three men remember that Charlottesville created this problem in the first place? They erected a statue to a man who committed treason against our nation. They erected a statue to bigotry in the likeness of a man who fought to maintain the evil of slavery. You must own your wrongdoings if you are going to call out others and do not belittle the intelligence of African-Americans who have suffered and continue to suffer in the commonwealth by asking us to join you in pretending.

The governor admonished the beast. “You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.” As he stood asking us to come together across the racial divide, he holds up before black people two men who enslaved their ancestors as the perfect ideal. The African-American deputy mayor, standing behind the governor, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming himself to be a Menace II Supremacy, stops nodding in agreement at this point. He understands. I am not sorry if my characterizations of our former presidents anger you. If you want to truly bridge the divide, you must hear and bear witness to facts. To the truth and all of its complicated heritage. If White America won’t acknowledge these facts and share in the pain, there can be no healing.

The governor called us a nation of immigrants. I understand the strict definition of the word, but somehow people chained together in the hold of a ship, lying in the filth of each other’s excrement and vomit, raped and killed along the tortured journey to this country, don’t fit the spirit of the word immigrant. See us, Mr. McAuliffe. See us.

By the end of the day, a bevy of state and national leaders joined the governor, speaking out about the evil of neo-Nazism. I grew weary of them asking us to come together. To get along. We are all one people, they said. If the beast is unequivocally evil, as so many politicians have tweeted, why should I have to get along with it? Shouldn’t we eliminate the beast? In Germany, Criminal Code 86a makes it illegal to “use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations,” aka the Nazis. If what Orrin Hatch, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio say is true – that the KKK, white supremacists and Nazis are truly evil and a danger to our society, then we should outlaw them. If free speech is limited by the notion of inciting violence or threats of violence, then the beast should not be allowed a voice in the great and thoughtful society they claim we live in.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. I am woeful and emotionally spent. If this country and its leaders believe that Dr. King was correct in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, when he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” then they must understand that as long as the beast is allowed to freely roam our lands, we all will continue to suffer. People of color and white people alike. Tragically, this is why my patriot, Heather Heyer, is dead.

Slavery is the straw in the American brick. This unfortunate union cannot be undone and its legacy of brutality and inequality is and forever will be a part of us. If we want to get past the empty platitudes and make a sincere attempt to curtail this evil, then we must be bold, take a bold stand and make bold, nation altering changes. Otherwise, my fellow Americans, we’re just whistling Dixie.

Dysfunction-merica! Not A DC problem.

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This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – March 23, 2017

February 28, 2017. For the first time as President, Mr. Trump stood before a joint session of Congress. The networks’ TV pool director brought us grand, sweeping shots of the House Chamber. Shots that laid bare the stubborn divide that leaves so many Americans brimming with anger and confusion.

The Republicans stood. The Democrats sat.

The democratic women wore suffragette white and turned down their thumbs. Vice-President Pence and Speaker Ryan sat behind the leader of the free world, with the righteous smirks of victory stapled upon their faces.

America was not surprised by the imagery of gridlock. It’s what they say they’ve come to expect from those who populate the swamp, the Hill, the DC bubble, inside the beltway. After President Obama took office, Senate Majority Leader McConnell vowed obstruction at all cost. Representative Joe Wilson called him a liar from the House floor. Now we have a new President and Senator Schumer says Dump Trump. New DNC Chairman Perez called for a resistance to make sure that Mr. Trump becomes a one term president.

And America is still angry.

Why can’t our politicians sit down together and work things out? Who planted these seeds of dysfunction in DC? What is wrong with our capital city? Why are they talking past each other on health care, the national budget and so many other issues? Why are they leaving parts of the country where real people live in the lurch? I have the answer, but first I have to get something off my chest.

As a resident of DC, I am tired of it being said that Washington is the problem. Some people take it too far and decide that just because we populate the swamp, we suffer from, support and help create the maladjusted communication that permeates the Capitol and the White House. Some people think that there is some kind of airborne pathogen that only exists within the beltway that causes those who come here to forget the real world from which they came. Neither is true.

First of all, without a senator or representatives, DC citizens have little power to influence what happens on the hill. Or in our own city for that matter. In fact, 600,000 plus of us can vote and agree on an issue like the right to die only to have our collective agreement placed in jeopardy at the hands of some would-be kings from Capitol Hill like Sen. James Langford of Oklahoma and Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio. Extra emphasis on the fact that they don’t even live here. Which leads me nicely to my point.

The dysfunction is not Washington based. It’s not home grown or learned in my city. It travels here, like the bubonic plague, from other cities and states around the country. The crisis in communication going on in the nation’s capital belongs to those beyond the mythical DC swamp. When we read in articles about the Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate, or see headlines like Republicans and Democrats Won’t Negotiate to Stop Shutdown, we aren’t reading about folks from DC. The rest of the country voted for and sent these people here. Voters knew they didn’t have a compromising bone in their bodies, yet they voted them into office, sent them to Washington and then cried foul when they did exactly what they said they would do.

You want the dysfunction to end? Vote for reasonable people who might be inclined to listen to another point of view because the fate of the people is at stake. Send them to DC instead of the ideologues who besmirch our good city and our name. Own your problems and fix them. Good manners begin at home.

 

The Hatemongers Call For Unity, And Why I Cannot…

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – November 14, 2016

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Recently I was asked to recall the moment that I first encountered racism. How about this answer? The moment I was born. It has to be so, because I know that before I learned to keep my bike upright, I knew to stay away from white people. Because by the time that I began to lose my baby teeth, I knew who I shouldn’t stare at and where I could not walk. Because by the time I could remember having a substantive thought in my head, I already knew that the color of my skin could get me badly hurt or killed. So it must have been hereditary. In the blood. Because I never remember being without the affliction of race in my life.

However, it was different for my daughter and my son. My wife, Jeanne, who is white, and I purposely kept race out of the conversation because their lives didn’t depend on their being aware at such an early age. They spent their early years looking at a black father and white mother, running from one to the other without ever considering the difference. Without understanding the negatives that accompanied our marriage and their existence. It wasn’t until our daughter was in first grade that the specter of race entered her life. Jeanne and I met her on the school playground one day and a white classmate looked at her and at us and then said to her, “Oh, so that’s why you’re that color.” When our daughter seemed confused by what her friend meant, Jeanne gave her the first lesson in understanding her race. “You see,” she said. “If you take a cup of coffee like Daddy and cream like me and mix them together, you get you.”

We did not have our heads in the sand. We understood that sooner or later the monster would come from under the bed. We began to do what we could. We enrolled them in a school created specifically to teach black and white kids together. A school that was dedicated to the discussion of race and its impact on our society. Between school and home, we began the conversation in earnest. We taught them the worth of every human life. We used our love as an example of how the bridge to understanding could be crossed. We attempted to fill their lives with people who loved them for them, but we did not shelter them from the real world and the unfortunate curse of being brown.

And I am glad that we opened their eyes, because our son was prepared when after Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, he was accosted by an older white male and asked why he was in the neighborhood. Our neighborhood, that is. The one that my son had called home for all of his life. My son explained that he was in search of Skittles and iced tea. His would-be intimidator grunted and left him alone. And so what had been up until then micro-aggressions of racism had become bigotry – fully developed.

Our children marched and shouted in the streets of our cities and on campus after Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. They published their hurt and confusion about the inequities of race in America. And although they battled, they didn’t do so in vain. Or so it seemed. It looked like better times were on the horizon. A black man was still president. The nation seemed to be moving, though not without pain, toward freedom to marry whomever you chose, toward women being free to make their own choices regarding their bodies, and for families like ours to be represented throughout our media, becoming something less… different.

But then we elected Donald Trump.

For 18 months, he filled our lives with a kind of public bigotry that I hadn’t experienced since I was born into it. He became ground zero, the host for a sudden epidemic of bullying and racial vitriol that people seemed to take as funny until it was too late. Now, he is the president of the United States of America. And now that he is president, he and his surrogates are telling us that we have to come together with him. That we have to, I guess, forgive and forget. That we have to provide unity.

But my daughter is newly engaged and I think about her and any children that may come along. As people are attacked in the streets of our country for their religious beliefs, for being gay, for having a vagina and for being black, I now believe that it is quite possible that my grandchildren, like me, will be born infected by the plague of racial hatred. I don’t want this to happen. And so President-elect Trump, I cannot help you unify the country if it means the new normal is to be like the campaign environment that you created in your own image.

I cannot.

I will not join you in your racism.

I will not join you in your homophobia.

I will not join you in your misogyny.

I will not join you in your ethnic intolerance.

I will not join you in your anti-Semitism.

I will not join you in your mass deportation of people.

I cannot all of a sudden give approval to ideals that go against everything that I am and that I have taught my children. I will not change my soul for your unity. I cannot pretend that those who voted for you did so without the “-isms” in mind. I will not meet you in the hate-mongering world of Trumpland.

I will, however, join with any who believe in the strength of our nation’s diversity. I will join with those who believe in acts of kindness rather than mountains of hostility, degradation and self-glorification. I will meet with like minds at the phrase, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 

Here At Last, Here At Last. Thank God Almighty, It’s Here At Last. Visiting The New Home For Black History On The National Mall

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – November 1, 2016

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I am standing on the National Mall where the ancestry of my people has built a home. The National Museum of African American History and Culture rises, gracious and majestic before me. As I move toward the doors, I can’t help reflecting upon the fact I am in the land of the free and the brave which is at the moment burdened by and shrouded in the specter of unadulterated bigotry, hatred and intolerance. Even so, and strangely enough to some, I find my safe zone and I smile. As an African American son of the south, I am practiced at living the best I can amid such contempt.

But it is finally here. After all the years of raising two children in this city, trying to help them find themselves in the treasured museums of the Smithsonian, it is here. Not a museum about Africa or piecemeal exhibits about us. But something full, real and as complete as a good Sunday supper. Once inside, I am stunned by this building and all that it holds. It’s like someone laid out the strands of my DNA all around me. I think about what this building would have meant to me as a child.

I follow along with my wife, Jeanne, and our friends Dabney and Joe. Joe’s company has created several of the films on display and many of the interactive exhibits. He knows his way around and we follow our personal docent. And there is so much to see. Some pleasing. Much of it painful. Somewhere between Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and Emmett Till’s coffin, I get filled up. Somewhere between the shackles of shameful bondage and a display celebrating our first family, I get proud. At the end of one hallway, Muhammad Ali is shouting, “I shook up the world!”

At one point, we pass a group of people standing by a window, pointing outside toward the stage and grounds where the opening ceremonies took place. For a moment, I think that would have been nice, but then I change my mind. After decades in the journalism business, I have learned to look beyond the obvious. I think that while the celebrities and the president helped to bring appropriate attention to the creation and opening of this museum, the real story was unveiling itself before me in the eyes of the regular folk making their way through the exhibits.

There, on the ramp, an old man in a wheel chair is being pushed by a loved one. The ramp is crowded but he doesn’t notice. He has on a ball cap with what looks to be some kind of faded military emblem on it. He stares up at the training plane once flown by Tuskegee Airmen, hanging high above him. Maybe the look on his face is full of memories. Maybe just full of being so close to the men who fought for the chance to fly and fight for their country. A country that did not welcome them home. As he’s pushed closer to me, I have the urge to reach out and touch his hand. I want to just smile at him and share the moment, but in the end, I decide not to disturb him. Somehow, I don’t feel worthy.

Joe stops before one of the films he’s made. It’s a massive work projected on a wall across from the landing on which we stand. The video is impacted by the graininess of the cement wall. Like wrinkles on a face, adding depth and texture to the heroes on display. As pictures dissolve from one to another I overhear two women standing close to me, loudly and proudly identifying the people represented. I think they are together until one leaves and the other stays behind, speaking aloud to herself the names of people like James Baldwin, Fredrick Douglass, and more. Finally, she gets to Sojourner Truth. And when she says the name her voice cracks. I can’t look at her. It’s enough to feel what’s in the sound of her voice. Sista to Sista. Across time.

Finally, we end up in a room looking at a film in 360 degrees. All around me black people are huge and living their lives amid the contempt. And it isn’t just famous people but everyday people doing everyday things. People who look amazing and exceptionally powerful. They just look bold, confident and free. Finally, I am overcome. I say, “I have never seen us – black people – on a scale like this. I don’t know how to put it, except to say it’s like our Mt. Rushmore.” I try to explain it better by asking them to imagine people, from another planet even, who didn’t know our country or its history. I imagine that after seeing this museum and this film they would walk outside and see a rich and proud people and point at us in awe. They would never expect a people like that could be shot down unarmed in a city street.

I look at Dabney, who is white, to see if she understands. She puts her hand on my arm and tells me that she understands slavery and its legacy. She understands the unfairness of systemic racism. She knows it wrong. She feels like she understands the importance of the museum. Still she says, “Jeffrey, I could never see or feel what you are explaining to me now. I couldn’t have reached what you are feeling right now. That’s why I’m glad I’m here with you today.”

In the cab, I’m still thinking about the visit. I’m thinking about the absolute sea of black faces which makes me smile. I’m thinking about the black woman who collided with Dabney in the movement of the crowd. They both reached out, holding onto each other’s arms, steadying each other, laughing and chatting for a quick moment. A vision of hope in the company of slavery’s pain. And exactly the image I want to carry in my heart to remember the day that I entered my people’s home on the National Mall.

Hey, WNBA! What’s a guy gotta do to get a Diana Taurasi jersey?

This essay was first published on Medium.com – September 4, 2016

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I discovered Diana Taurasi in her second season at the University of Connecticut. I am not a person who believes that an athlete should be labeled a hero or proclaimed a role model simply because she has mastered the craft of her sport. However, I wholeheartedly appreciate the fierce competitiveness, the smarts, the power, and the grace of a world class athlete. I became a dedicated Taurasi fan after just one game.

My daughter, Julia, was eleven years old and looking for a sport to fulfill her middle school athletic requirement. So I invited her to watch a UConn game and, like me, she was hooked. Although she would go on to play volleyball through high school, we remained fans of Taurasi. When DT turned pro, Julia quickly requested and received her very own Taurasi Phoenix Mercury jersey which she wore proudly. When the Mercury flew into DC to play the Mystics, we went to see Taurasi play. Watching this amazing athlete made for some wonderful father-daughter moments.

During the first week of the Rio Olympics, I got a text from Julia, who is now 26 and living on her own. She asked if I was watching the US women’s basketball team. I was and we shared some thoughts about the game. She then asked if I had any pictures of “little Julia” in her Taurasi jersey. “I would totally tweet it at her.” I promised to look.

In the meantime, I began to think about all of the time I’d spent being a fan. It might be pretty cool if I got my own Taurasi jersey. Julia and I could get a shot of the two of us in our jerseys to tweet. But that’s when the problem began.

I went to the WNBA website, credit card in hand, to buy my jersey. But I couldn’t. There were no jerseys available for men. This couldn’t be. I went directly to the Mercury site which led me back to the WNBA. Could it be that the WNBA didn’t believe their sport and players were credible enough to be worthy of marketing them to a male audience? To be fair, there were hoodies and t-shirts but they have to know that none of those items rise to the level of wearing the jersey of your favorite player.

For comparison’s sake, I went to NBA.com. There I found an entire section where women could buy the jerseys of many male stars.

I tried a different sport. At DallasCowboys.com I found merchandise for women. Not only did they have jerseys for the women, they had them especially cut for the female figure.

I found this all incredibly disappointing, but I had one more avenue to try.

The US women’s basketball team, led by Taurasi, was handling its competition with relative ease. They were a team of superstars and surely TeamUSA.org would have their jerseys on sale — even for men. But I am sad to say that they didn’t.

But the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that this was in the category of more of the same. The same sexism. The same minimizing of the female athlete and her accomplishments. My jersey issue is surely the bottom rung of a skyscraper height ladder of disrespect. Maybe this is why NBA players sign contracts that take our breath away while Taurasi and her teammate Brittney Griner end up in Russia during the WNBA offseason playing for real money. Maybe this is why NBA star Derrick Rose’s wearing of a t-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe”, in support of African-American Eric Garner who died in police custody, brought a mild refresher about the dress code, but also respect from the commissioner. However, when WNBA players wore plain black shirts during the warm up period to raise awareness about rising tensions between some African-Americans and police, they were quickly fined. The players publicly questioned the discrepancy and stood their ground. Said fines were eventually withdrawn, but wait…not until after NBA star Carmelo Anthony joined the chorus of protests, publicly stating his support for the women.

Since I didn’t have Carmelo to run interference for me, I decided to call the WNBA and raise the issue. On August 18, I spoke with a press officer who seemed genuinely taken aback by my question of why there were no jerseys available for men. She responded by stating that I was raising “a valid question.” She promised to get back to me with an answer.

Three days later, the website had been changed. The label “women’s jersey” had been removed. Now there was no label, leading one to think that what was a women’s jersey three days ago was supposed to be, I guess, unisex. There was even a men’s section in which the same unisex jerseys were copied and pasted, but they don’t look like any jersey I’ve ever seen a male wearing. That section has since been removed. I suppose there’s some progress here and I should be satisfied, but I’m not. This was a hasty and not very smooth or permanent fix to a problem that is deeper than the jerseys and they know it. The WNBA should believe that its players are worthy of being marketed to both men and women. It seems a gross failure to ignore the huge male sports market. Maybe they don’t think any self-respecting guy would lower himself enough to put a female athlete’s name on his back. Maybe they’re wrong. I want to support the WNBA and its amazing players and I want my Diana Taurasi jersey.

A Common Man

Daddy & Me

Many years ago, I asked my father to save my life, though at the time I didn’t understand what I was asking or what his response would mean for the rest of my life. I still dream about it today. I am very young. I stand in the kitchen and the sunlight streaming through the screen door is so bright that it hurts my eyes. But before I can turn away, the door opens and a figure begins to fill the doorway without introduction or a knock on the door. I know where everyone in my family is at this moment, and even in a less safety conscious, early 60’s Smithfield, I know something very wrong is happening. I run. I run for my father. In my dreams, I hear myself call out in a voice trembling with fear. “Daddy,” I yell. “Somebody is coming in the house.”

He was reading the paper on his bed. He never asked me what I saw. I guess he could just see the fear in my eyes. He rose from the bed, the paper falling next to my mother as he moved with purpose and speed. I saw that his face showed no hesitation…no fear. He brushed by me, his hand landing softly on my shoulder, as he passed by me to meet the unknown.

These days, I often wake up after that dream. I think about the meaning of that moment in time. How basically, I challenged my father. I asked him to show me how much I meant to him. I asked him if he would endanger his life to save mine. I asked him to show me how much he loved me. I asked him to save my life. Even though the threat was not to be a real one, he proved everything to me that day. Even if I was too young to really understand it.

Now that I’ve lived a few years and witnessed life on my own, I realize that not everyone is as lucky as my brothers and me. Not every father steps up to the plate like mine did.

When he would come home from a hard day of tending the farm and I would want him to help me fix my bike, I asked him to show me how much I meant to him. Don’t you know as tired as he was, he helped me fix the bike? Every time we asked him to do homework with us, when we knew there were a thousand other things that needed to be done, we wanted to know how much we meant to him. Don’t you know he always did the homework? When he had worked hard all year long and he had his three weeks of vacation coming and we asked him to take it all with us – to drive us here and there and do what we wanted, we asked him to show that he loved us. Don’t you know that he always took his vacation to be with us? When he didn’t have to, he added working/surviving in the meat packing plant to his life as a farmer to give us a better life and prepare to send us to college. We asked him to go to this place where I would later find out, people regularly were injured and lost body parts, got strange sicknesses like hog fever and over time, simply broke down mentally and physically. We asked him if he would endanger his life for our future. Don’t you know he went to work there every day and saw all three of us through college? He stretched himself physically, emotionally and financially for his sons. But in the end it wasn’t the things he did with us or for us that made the biggest difference. His greatest influence on our lives was a quiet one. It was just in how he lived. It was about strength of character, dedication, work ethic, treatment of your fellow man, common decency and finally and most importantly, it was about the ability to dream that even in the shadow of Jim Crow we could all be something special in this life. By the time I reached my teens, I knew the dream was possible because he had already achieved it. On an overnight at my grandparents, in a room he slept in as a child, I lay in the dark talking to two of my cousins. One of them talked at length about his life and at some point got around to his father…or the lack thereof. He said to me, “Man, you’re lucky. You’ve got Uncle Ed. I wish he was my father.” Or when I would be introduced to someone and they would say with a certain tone, “This is one of Edward Blount’s sons.”

I would be so proud and I knew how special you had become in your own life. How could the three of us lose with your example, with other people wishing you were theirs to tuck them in at night?

A common man – of uncommon grace.
A common man – of uncommon dignity.
A common man – of uncommon strength.
A common man – with an uncommon ability to love.
A common man – of uncommon faith.
A common man – of uncommon devotion to family.

I have found myself in many places that a farm boy should rightly never expect to be. And I have met many men that I would have never expected to meet. Powerful and famous with worldly influence. Role models to many. But in my life, I have had only one role model as a man, a husband and a father. He is, in my opinion, the greatest man I have ever known. And my brothers and I are lucky because we get to call him….Daddy.

Happy 90th Birthday, Daddy from the 7 year-old you saved so long ago and the 56 year-old who is proudly walking the road you have already paved.

With love.
-Jeffrey