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Reading Sample – Introduction

Reading, the Divine Gift

My maternal grandmother, Mrs. Mary Jane Smith, was born in 1876 in Camden, South Carolina, and her mother (my great-grandmother) was an American slave.

My grandmother never learned to read, and I suspect the same of my great-grandmother. Most slaves were not permitted to read or to practice any form of religion, which led to clandestine movements of reading combined with worship. Interviews, as well as transcripts of conversations with actual slaves, taken by historians suggest that worship served as a mechanism for survival. Reading gave slaves the ability to study the Bible, which offered ongoing learning and hope in the midst of despair.

I was born and raised in Elmira, New York, where my education was markedly different from my grandmother’s. By age three I had learned to read at the All Saints Home Church of God in Christ, an African-American church founded in Memphis in 1907. Reading was a symbol of the highest achievement, offering the reader dignity and recognition. It was vital that a parishioner read before the congregation with the artistry of a skilled orator.

My parents were active, visible members of the church, so I felt added pressure to perform as eloquently as the adults. I practiced often because my parents required me to read aloud at home. The better you read, the more you were asked to read at church, a source of attention I embraced as a child.

Often my classmates and I left our Bible-study room in the church basement and climbed the stairs to the sanctu- ary, where we were asked, in turn, to read Scripture before the congregation, an audience that could swell to more than two hundred. After my reading I’d hear the applause and spot my parents’ smiles. My ability to read and speak well at a young age grabbed the attention of my public school teachers. They appreciated my zest for learning and sought to reinforce it by giving me more to read, especially children’s biographies of famous figures in US history, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. I was intrigued by these leaders, especially educa- tor and inventor George Washington Carver and President Abraham Lincoln, who both had gone from humble begin- nings to great achievements because they had spent much of their lives thinking about how to help others.

Teachers challenged me to tackle extra vocabulary and spelling quizzes, which increased my reading comprehension. Because I read well, I tested at a high level, a fact that in the early 1960s could determine one’s educational destiny. It was even more critical for black students to read well, or they would be placed in special education classes with children who had genuine learning disabilities. Often these misplaced black children became disenchanted by the time they reached junior high, reading at the first- or second-grade level, on course to become early dropouts.

Learning to read early led to my lifelong thirst for knowledge. Each day I searched for new information in class, at the library, or inside the bookmobile that roamed our neighborhoods. My companion was knowledge; my Internet was reading books. I traveled the globe through my eyes on the page. Because of my church—in effect my nursery school or Head Start class—by the time I com- pleted the ninth grade, I was taking honors classes and had finished geometry, advanced algebra, high school chemis- try and biology, and many of the English requirements.

Not to the Swift

The church not only engaged me on a decades-long educational journey but also taught me emotional lessons, ones I continue to observe to this day. One of my favorite Sunday school teachers, Mrs. Susan Ellison, suggested I should never worry about what I can’t do today but rather do what God has planned for me tomorrow.

Mrs. Ellison watched as kids teased me about my poor athletic ability, lack of social skills, and husky physique. She was the first black female I’d met who had earned a college degree, and she recognized my intellectual talents.

One morning after my Sunday school class, while the other children scurried into the halls and dashed up the stairs, she shared a passage with me from Ecclesiastes 9:11.

I returned, and saw under the sun,
that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Mrs. Ellison helped me interpret the passage by stat- ing the popular paraphrase that “the race is not given to the swift, nor the strong, but the one who endureth to the end.” She was introducing me to a real-world complexity I’d not encountered in my third-grade curriculum.

“Working hard and having faith are only part of life’s equation,” she once told me. “Humans need patience and time to reflect to allow real success to occur.”

I must have looked puzzled, because she asked, “You know about farming, right?”

I nodded, having visited farms during our school field trips and on summer vacations at my grandmother’s home in South Carolina. I had watched people plant seeds, nur- ture the soil, await the plantings to grow, and then reap the harvest.

“Your life is like that seed growing, Hubert. One day you’ll be ready to harvest your gifts.”

Like most of my young peers, I had absolutely no patience. I was ready to go now. I wanted to get somewhere exciting. I’d witnessed how the popular and attractive kids got attention and rewards without working, without waiting.

Mrs. Ellison’s comparison gave me a simple framework to connect what I was learning in church with what I was learning at elementary school. Soon I understood the virtue of patience, which helped me have more complex dreams, ones with structure and long-term horizons, like licking an ice cream cone only after finishing my chores or buying a bicycle with money I’d earned from my paper route.

Patience became an effective tool that guided me through the K–12 childhood. Mrs. Ellison preached that you need to see the gold in the ore before it goes through the furnace. Great talent or ideas never will be discovered if they’re dismissed rather than encouraged. Most great inventions are created through trial and error. Patience adds structure and enables learning and growth. Patience is the fuel to see dreams realized, and dreaming was a way to see tomorrow beyond the realities of today. Mrs. Ellison’s gift became a way not only to survive but also to thrive through optimism about my American future.

At night my parents watched over me to make sure I said my prayers and read my scripture. They guided our family using two familiar verses. Psalm 23 is the famous prayer by King David—important to Jews and Christians—that casts God in the role of protector and provider. It’s a statement of David’s faith and a proclamation of his reliance on God.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

We also read the following classic eighteenth-century children’s prayer.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

An essential part of our household, prayer was per- formed in the morning, evening, and before each meal. It highlighted a recurring theme of being thankful to have the fruits of labor such as a home and food; it was a reitera- tion of a message of hope for tomorrow. My parents asked for the safety of our family and for their children to have what they needed. When someone was sick, they asked for healing during their evening prayers. The morning prayer in essence gave thanks for being awakened and for the hope of a good day.

The physical way we prayed also was important. We bowed our heads and knelt humbly as though we were approaching God. The lowering gesture indicated that no matter who we were, young or old, whatever demographic, we were the same—on the same playing field.

The work ethic of the community also was embodied in our prayers; we never prayed for anything lavish such as more money to make life easier—just the basics: health, shelter, and strength to continue to fulfill our obligations. The community was made up of Southern black migrants like my parents, or immigrants from far away. Their meager, simple existence in our small town was paradise compared to where they were born, and they focused on modesty, humility, and hard work.

My father told us that when he was a child his daily lunch was corn bread with sugar on top and, if he were lucky, maple syrup. My mother shared similar stories of how her mother had to spread simple meals to feed eight children while often not having enough food for dinner. I also heard similar stories from classmates whose parents had come from Poland or the Ukraine. While on this earth, we would work hard without expecting any grandiose out- come of riches that would relieve us of our daily toil.

While our daily prayers were important, the church building itself also had symbolic value. Our early church was ragged, although the tired building was where blacks in my community could do anything they wished. It was a critical meeting place for learning and friendship, growth and success. It was so valued that the congregation took risks to improve it, such as when my mother led a brigade of women in a fund-raising effort with the distant goal of building a new church. Every Friday through Sunday, the congregation’s women cooked fish and chicken dinners in the upstairs kitchen of the old church. Sometimes they also used the Do Drop Inn next door to barbecue. The dinners were a major source of fund raising because the women sold them to the local manufacturing plants.

Soon the dinners were in high demand from people of all backgrounds because the meals weren’t sold as “soul food” but rather meat and vegetables seasoned with a Southern influence. The churchwomen also baked cakes and pies, which provided desserts for the dinners and increased the time and labor they gave to raise funds.

Through these activities I witnessed tangible examples of what hard work combined with faith would yield. The women labored all day at strenuous domestic jobs, washing and cleaning homes, cooking meals, and serving as laborers in the foundry, where they poured hot iron into molds to make fire hydrants or fire engines. Then, each weekend, they cheerfully volunteered to cook and sell dinners to the community.

Green Pastures—and other local pubs—became a rich source of new customers who would leave their watering holes to enjoy home-cooked meals. As a child I helped serve customers, cut potatoes, and box meals for delivery or pickup, always in awe of the tireless commitment of these women.

One day an architect arrived at our house to show us a rendition of what the new church would look like. This was the first time I had seen the building at the conception phase. It was a simple brick structure, modest by today’s standards, with a steeple and two entrances. The pastor’s office and dining hall were located on the first floor. The sanctuary would seat three hundred people at full capac- ity, and the building would have offices, a kitchen, and bathrooms in the basement. The purchase price was nearly $100,000—expensive in the 1960s. After years of selling chicken dinners at three to five dollars apiece, the church made a down payment of $10,000.

This fund-raising effort dominated my life until I was eight years old. When the new church opened its doors in 1965, it became the talk of our town because other black churches often bought an old church from a white congre- gation that had outgrown the facility. Ours was the first black church in the city to design a building from scratch with a professional architect, and the first service was recorded by WENY, the local NBC affiliate, which showed scenes on its evening news.

I witnessed women as entrepreneurs—another example of patience that spurred creativity and led to concrete, long-term success. I was proud of the women of our church, including my mother, knowing most had completed a journey from the Deep South to Elmira, New York, laboring as domestics and eventually owning homes in better neighborhoods. Now they worshiped in a solid, all-brick church they’d helped to finance, design, and build.

Those Were the Days

My hometown of Elmira was a typical Northern industrial community where a strong work ethic existed among residents. The city had low unemployment in the 1960s and a vibrant economy based on manufacturing, with companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, American Bridge, and various specialty manufactures. Elmira was one of the Northern target cities where people from the South migrated to find higher-paying positions rather than the agriculture-based jobs provided in rural towns from South Carolina to Mississippi. The city was also a major destination for immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Ireland.

In our community, owning a home, taking care of one’s children, and being a responsible person were highly valued. The theme song “Those Were the Days” that introduced the popular 1970s television show All in the Family could have been Elmira’s theme song when I was growing up.

Boy, the way Glen Miller played. Songs that made the Hit Parade.
Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.
Didn’t need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight. Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

Elmira was a Rust Belt town with a population of fifty thousand, built in a valley along the Chemung River, part of the Erie Canal that flowed from Buffalo through Elmira. The river and railroad provided access to the city, which fostered the growth of industry and cultivated a community value in which charity wasn’t simply pity but rather a com- munity act of compassion and sharing. Back then charity was a positive word, implying that you cared and were con- cerned about outcomes—not just getting something done. Charity was basic. It was a tangible act of love that distin- guished us from animals. Early on I learned that charity is a vital characteristic of leadership. Whether you’re a teacher or lawyer or CEO, outcomes are driven by this timeless trait.

We faced the same complex issues as any other town of the era. There were challenges in terms of race relations, especially between whites and blacks. In 1957, when I was born, the town was essentially segregated. The Irish, Italian, and Polish often lived in separate neighborhoods. Blacks lived in one section of town, away from whites. Integration existed at work and in schools but not socially at places such as the church, neighborhood bar, or meeting spots sprinkled throughout the city.

In the fall of 1956, my father chose to move our fam- ily from The Bottom, a predominately black community behind the railroad tracks near the river, to the white neighborhood of Pigeon Point, named after the pigeons that clustered around Victorian homes in the northeast corridor of town. My mother was pregnant with me, her last child, so my father planned to rent a duplex in The Bottom and eventually buy a larger home, where later I was born and raised.

One of the short-term results of my father’s prescient act was that during the first three years of my life our white neighbors resented our presence in the neighborhood. They were not shy about their expressions. Our house and car windows repeatedly were shattered; my brothers often were attacked while walking to school or playing in the yard; and our neighbors refused to speak to us. Yet, stubbornly, my father trusted that the area was a better place for his family to live. The larger homes had porches and spacious yards. The neighborhood had parks and better schools. Our block surrounded a pond where the community went fishing and ice-skating.

In the late 1930s, my parents journeyed north after the Depression and before America joined in World War II. They were in their early twenties and had grown up in the rural South with the region’s lingering Jim Crow laws of separate schools, parks, restaurants, and public bathrooms. They knew how to be humble, to be “seen but not heard” yet still thrive. In Elmira they went to work, instructing us to attend school and not to worry about how the neigh- bors treated us. For my parents, owning a home in a good neighborhood was a “dream deferred,” and not being read- ily accepted by neighbors was worth the progress.

As a young child in our new neighborhood, I enjoyed living with my older brothers, Gilbert and Raymond, thir- teen and eleven years my senior respectively. I cherished them because they could drive a car and go to parties, and they had loads of friends.

Once, when Gilbert was returning home from school, I spotted him stepping off the city bus. I leapt off our front porch and sprinted to greet him. As I ran across the road, a van struck me, knocking me to the asphalt.

My parents were at work, but Mrs. DeAngelou, our white neighbor, witnessed the accident and was the first to reach me. With my brother’s help, she carried me to her car and rushed me to the emergency room at Saint Joseph Hospital. She called my parents while I was frightened and crying, and she gently held and comforted me until they arrived.

When my parents learned from the doctors that I would be fine, Mrs. DeAngelou pulled my mother aside and apol- ogized for how our neighbors had treated us. She told my mother that when the van had hit me, all she had seen was a child in danger who needed to be rescued, and she had reacted without consideration of my race.

The accident changed our relationship with our neigh- bors in Pigeon Point. Other women had seen me get hit, and even though they hadn’t acted, they were moved. That ice was broken. Neighborly conversations began, and in time my brothers and I played with other children and eventually were invited to play inside their homes.

The neighborhood mothers played a key role in my family’s assimilation. Their bond was responsible for taming the racist lion’s ongoing attacks. The accident stimulated the push to help the fathers in the neighborhood see our humanity too. Mrs. DeAngelou knew I was human; she saw blood on my knees—just as she had seen on her own children.