“You can’t fight the revolution in stilettos.”
— Phyllis Brown (sister of Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock 9)
Each evening, the team came together to discuss the day’s events and their effect on each of us. We were asked to share the “roses and thorns” of the first day.
The rose for me was a pair of drawings at the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center. When I first walked in, the painting struck me as being packed with an urgent message. But I couldn’t figure out how to decode it. The head of the museum gave us a tour. Her first stop was this pair of drawings. She gently and expertly helped us to pull the meaning out of our own minds! I’ve been chewing on the wisdom in that artwork all day.
She had us study the paintings for a little while and look for the differences. The meaning is mostly in the differences. What’s missing in the first painting? Is it missing in the second? How does the missing content line up with the situation we know we are looking at. Are we sure we know what we are looking at?
Due to my passion for the Gye Nyame Adinkra symbol, I noticed that the backgrounds are composed of other Adinkra symbols. With a little research here and here, I figured out that #1 shows the Dwennimmen symbol, or “ram’s horns,” as the background. This symbol represents humility and strength. The background is more faded and washed out in the painting where her identity is that of a slave (painting on the left). Also, the pattern on her dress is prominent when her identity is slave. It displays the Adinkra symbol Bese Saka or “sack of cola nuts.” It symbolizes affluence, abundance, unity. But that pattern is draped over her baby when she is inhumanly prevented from being a mother to her child. Perhaps this lets us know that the baby’s father is the slave master.
The background Adinkra symbols in #2 are Adinkrahene (the 3 circles) and Nyame Biribi Wo Soro. Adinkrahene is the chief of all Adinkra symbols and represents greatness, charisma, and leadership. Nyame Biribi Wo Soro means “God is in the heavens.” It represents hope and is a reminder that “God’s dwelling place is in heaven, where he can listen to all prayers.” Notice that these symbols are not bold and prominent in both pictures, or at the same time. Also, they are not erased in either painting. They are still present, just seemingly farther from reach.One thorn was learning the story of John Carter. It was a horrible, gruesome event. The details are below the warning at the bottom of this post. White perpetrators of crime against black victims are too seldom punished today. What’s worse is that they were never punished for centuries. The other thorn was one that was unique to me. And, in hindsight, I see it more as a rose. After the museum, we had the opportunity to interview, Phyllis Brown, the younger sister of Minnijean Brown. Minnijean was one of the Little Rock 9 (the group of 9 students who met with extreme hatred when they were first to integrate Central High School in 1957). I clumsily asked Ms. Brown what her parents did to help protect the self esteem of their daughters during such a hard time.
I don’t think I phrased my question well. And Ms. Brown seemed to think I was criticizing her parents handling of event, maybe even that I was blaming them partly for the atrocious violence that ensued in Little Rock. That was definitely not my intention or thought. So, I explained that my son is African American and attends a mostly white school. I think of his situation as a far less severe 2015 version of initial school integration in the 50’s and 60’s. My hope was that she could teach me how to help my son, and other kids in similar circumstances. In hindsight, I get that it was a naive question. And, with the help of one of the leaders, I can see that I was lost in a desperate, unrealistic search for the magical method for protecting my son, and other young boys, from something inevitable: how hard and painful it is to be a black man in America.
Ms. Brown asked why I have an African American child. At first, I assumed that she was scolding me for adopting a black child. Or maybe scolding the black community for allowing the crisis to escalate to a point where something so dire could occur as a black child being adopted into a white family.
Looking at the exchange with racial reconciliation lenses, I can now see that both Ms. Brown and I were re-experiencing the sea of previous personal attacks we had both endured over the years. Though our circumstances were worlds apart, both varieties of criticism resulted in our constructing solid, thick, protective, defensive walls around our hearts. These walls prevented us from really hearing each other. I felt hurt, mad, embarrassed, and basically like I wanted to crawl under a rock. Perhaps Ms. Brown felt hurt as well.
After the event, I made it my business to shake her hand and thank her for her time and honesty. She turned to me, sighed, and said, “You have a big job ahead of you.” I blurted out, “Don’t I know it.” But then I pulled my Gye Nyame Adinkra charm out of my pocket (it means “except God” as in nothing is possible except with God). And I said, “Except God is with us. So, I know that God will see all of us through this.” Then Ms. Brown’s face softened noticeably. It was as if she had discovered that I had my head straight enough to hand my life to God. She seemed comforted to know that the situation was in good hands, God’s hands.
Then she thanked me for adopting and saving a child. It breaks my heart every time somebody tells me that. I still struggle with putting it into words. All I know is that I don’t want anyone to think of my son as a charity project. If people aren’t going to thank a birth mother, I don’t want them to thank me. (I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when one lady told me how lucky I was to get to be Luc’s mom. And even better, she said it right in front of him!)
I summoned all of my courage, and told Ms. Brown with enormous respect that it hurt my heart when people thanked me for being my son’s mom. She listened, and she really heard me, and then she apologized. I told her I didn’t think there was anything to be sorry for, but I wanted to try to communicate with her, even though it’s not a logic that I’ve ever figured out how to verbalize well. And then we hugged. We had connected.
Ms. Brown and I didn’t fully understand each other at first. But I listened intently to what she had to say during our interview with her. Then, she listened to what I had to say as we said good-bye. In the end, we were able to see each other’s perspective a little better. It was a taste of racial reconciliation. It was a taste of the goal.
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Other notes from the day…
Notes from Ms. Brown:
The Little Rock 9 were NOT chosen, they had volunteered, and they were not from middle class families.
Some were self-employed, some were business owners. Their names were known and they began to lose customers and business. Minnijean’s and Collatta Walls’ fathers stopped getting work.
Newspaper published the names and the addresses of the Little Rock 9 in order to intimidate them into withdrawing.
Phyllis and Minnijean’s parents fully supported them. They thought their girls “could fly.” And they never said no to them. They supported Minnijean when she decided to be a part of integration, and they supported Phyllis when she decided to protect herself from the violence.
Ms. Brown was the first person we heard use the word “terrorism” to describe the treatment of African Americans, especially in the 50’s and 60’s. She mentioned the treatment of victims in Hurricane Katrina as “terrorism at it’s best.”
The kids never came home and told their parents about their experiences, parents could only learn of what happened if they saw it firsthand
IMPORTANT! Toward the end of our interview, the white owner of the restaurant asked our white leader (we had two leaders, one white, one black) what we were talking about. All the white people were excited that he was interested. All the black people were terrified that he was going to call some friends to follow us and punish us. The trauma of the terrorism is so alive today. Ms. Brown was visibly shaken. It took her into a flashback state.
Dog Whistle Politics (politicians use language to demean and identify: “thugs,” “riots,” “violence,” “looters”
Without Sanctuary (pictorial of lynchings)
The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown (documentary)
The New Jim Crow (speaks of the 3 Strikes law as punitive and aligned with slave owner mentality)
The Half That’s Never Been Told
Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson (he also did an 18 min. TED talk) (represents minors around the country who are being tried as adults; recalculating actual lynching numbers and exposing that lynching happened outside of the South as well
Devil in a Grove (book about Thurgood Marshall)
WARNING: This story is very graphic and may not be appropriate for children or even some adults. But, unfortunately, it is completely true.
A man who was volunteering at the museum told us “the real story” behind John Carter, a black man who was falsely accused of a crime in 1927. Earlier in the day, a different black man who had been falsely accused of murdering two white women, had been taken into police custody before the gathered crowd could lynch him. As the mob made its way back from the jail, a white woman and her child parked their horse and cart on 9th Street. Just as they stepped off the cart, their horse got spooked, and sprinted down the street with the cart. John Carter jumped into the cart and was able to stop the horse. Unfortunately, the crowd arrived on the scene and decided that he had tried to steal the cart. As Mr. Carter’s “victim” tried to explain that he was helping her and begged the mob to stop, he was beaten severely. Next, the mob gathered wood and built a bonfire. After he was burned, John Carter’s body was tied to the back of the cart and dragged up and down 9th Street repeatedly. Finally, his body was hung from a light pole where some in the crowd riddled it with bullets. No one was arrested. Mr. Carter was 38.