Regular reporting and commentary on the interplay of race, class and power in the civic, business and cultural spaces of NEO from the inner rings of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
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Saturday, October 29, 2016
Growing Up Black in Cleveland • Around Town Tomorrow: Sunday on Tap
Cultural Anthropology, Part I: Growing up Black in America
learned from my Sunday School teachers
I used to think Protestants did a pretty terrible
job teaching children what religion was all about. My opinion was largely based
on a narrow sample size: my own experience. I was still in junior high school,
and we spent a lot of time in my Sunday School classes on the Old Testament, reading
about people with weird names who lived a very long time ago in places no
longer on current maps of the world. [I loved geography.]
Many of those Biblical folk behaved very badly
and often paid a terrible price for their misconduct and disobedience. Violence
seemed a regular part of their lives, from sacrificing animals to endless wars
fought between tribes that no longer existed, except for one group that seemed
to keep meticulous oral records of who begat whom in what order through an
endless Hebraic lineage that was somehow related to the people around today who
were known as Jews, whom I understood to be a distinct and significant branch
of white people. Mixed in with all of this was a great deal of climate change,
except in biblical times and through at least the 1950s it was called
pestilence. Locusts and floods and drought occurred with generally unpredictable
frequency, wreaking havoc on the world.
The New Testament was different. It was a lot
more accessible. It was shorter, only 27 books compared to the OT's 39. (There
was a whole lot of memory associated with all this Sunday School, which was
tough because it was only once a week for an hour or so, and it was basically
about a whole 'nother
Mt. Zion Congregational Church
10723 Magnolia Dr., Cleveland OH 44106
world that had no easy translation to my world, whose
epicenter was the Northeast side of this big city called Cleveland that had a
gigantic downtown. And I knew that New York City and its Empire State Building
dwarfed Cleveland itself. (I was there once as a kid with my family: we were at
someplace called Radio City Music Hall, where I froze when a live mike was
thrust upon my supposedly precocious self. The experience left a scar, but
that's another story.)
The New Testament seemed totally unrelated to
the old one, except the two were bound together. Literally. I liked the New
Testament better. Jesus was special, a man like no other, though it was hard to
comprehend exactly how.
I probably had about seven or eight teachers in
my Sunday School career. Three in in particular stood out. One was Mrs.
Harding, a kind but extraordinarily serious small woman who seemed to talk
without ever moving her teeth or lips. She doubled during the week as the
librarian and typing teacher at my school, Empire Jr. High, where our paths seldom
crossed. It wasn't until I was much older that I learned she actually had a
smile, kind of a minuscule shift of a couple of lip muscles accompanied by a nearly
imperceptible twinkle. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it. I don't
know if she developed her humor in later life or if I just became a more
Mrs. Harding's self-control stood in stark
relief to her sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Moore, a rapid talking nonstop torrent of
energy. A world traveler way before that was common, Mrs. Moore stood out
because she was a black woman (medium brown, actually) with a 1950s head full
of totally white Big Hair. Had I known the words I would have said she was
Betty Moore started the church Gift Shop as a
way to raise money for the coffers. Her fondness for jewelry, her keen eye for
trinkets, many selected during her world travels, when combined with her
indefatigable energy and ebullience, made the Gift Shop a destination. Out of
town visitors and even people from other congregations would come to Mt. Zion's
Gift Shop. Originally open only after worship, the space devoted to her
enterprise was soon expanded, and the shop was opened before service as well.
It became a great place for a procrastinating absent-minded kid of my ken to
find a last-minute Mother’s Day notion or Christmas present.
Back to Sunday School and the two teachers I
most had in mind when I started this piece. I can't say much about Gertrude Cobbs
except she was sweet. Really sweet.
Probably had Job's patience squared because she had a class of mostly 13-year
old boys with boundless energy and raging hormones. Whatever she persevered in
trying to teach us, whatever she did in the rest of her life, Mrs. Cobbs surely earned
a place in Heaven just showing up every Sunday to try and deal with us.
I may consign myself to perdition with this
admission: the class was taught in the minister's office. Our minister was a tireless
worker, much beloved for his devotion to the Church and his even more beloved
wife. He had an inimical preaching style that was rooted in deep faith,
explicated by reason and supported by scholarship. He knew the name and
circumstances of every one of his members, nearly 800 at peak. When he was home
I called him Dad. Yeah, the PK was the leader of Mrs. Cobbs' bad boys.
The teacher I remember most was Wanda Dickey.
She was a slight, compact woman, extraordinarily neat and totally self-contained.
An insurance agent during the week, Mrs. Dickey was a model of rectitude, very detail-oriented,
and wholly intolerant of nonsense. We could not dither on her watch. She held
us accountable. I don't recall her being any more successful with that approach
in terms of our learning, but she did keep us knuckleheads in check.
Later in life, I came to share with her, her
husband, and a wonderful lawyer named Dick Gunn the 900 square feet of office
space that housed two legal offices and the insurance agency her husband had
founded. Also a lawyer, Roosevelt Dickey was a courtly, Georgia-born gentleman who
was one of my father’s best friends, and an early Negro member of Cleveland's
Community Relations Board. I spent many odd hours talking with one or both of
the Dickeys during the workweek. A teacher at heart, Mrs. Dickey taught me a
few life lessons during the roughly five-year period we were office mates.
I recall most vividly her insistence upon
separating the act from the perpetrator. She would judge a deed coldly and
without compassion but she would not demonize the perpetrator. In refusing to
label the miscreant she seemed perhaps to be allowing for the possibilities of
atonement, forgiveness, redemption.
Mrs. Dickey is just one of the three hundred or
so reasons I despair at the possibility of Donald Trump as US president. This
candidate, who makes the Beverly Hillbillies seem cultured, sees the world
totally in terms of himself, casts everything in the world in personal terms,
assigns or denies value to every individual he encounters, and is judgmental in
the extreme. I’m quite sure all of my Sunday School teachers would be reviled
by his behavior.
Trump's candidacy, like Bernie Sanders', has
highlighted structural problems with our economy and our politics. But that
result comes at great cost to our civility and our society.
The man who indiscriminately shouts fire in a
crowded theatre is seldom the person you would trust to direct the evacuation,
especially when he also claims the sole capacity to heal the afflicted, rebuild
the temple in gold, and do so at a bargain. Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?
• • • # • • •
Sunday on tap
I realized a while ago that you could learn a lot about someone if
you understand where and how they worship. As a preacher’s kid for most of my
life, I was usually bound to my home church. We didn’t really participate much
in the preacher and choir exchange and visiting that occurs among many black
churches. Since we were for more than a century the only black Congregational
Church in the area, perhaps the whole state, any sort of denominational exchange we had with
other churches was perforce with white congregations. I remember visiting suburban congregational churches in Lakewood, Middleburg Heights, Chagrin Falls, and
Brecksville, for instance. These were all lily-white parishes, some of which
liked to see themselves as broadminded; they loved any exchange they could have
with us on such designated days as “Race Relations” Sunday. Before long
my father stopped participating in such events with any pastor or congregation
that favored such exchanges only on
such artificial occasions.
My larger point is that in my youth I seldom visited other
black churches during their normal Sunday morning worship unless our family was
out of town. So I really had little idea of what my non-Mt. Zion friends
experienced on Sunday mornings.
Perhaps for that reason, I've relished attending Sunday mornings at unfamiliar churches when they have special programming. This week we
received notice of two such occasions. Tomorrow, the eminent Marian Wright
Edelman, longtime fighter for civil rights and a forceful, tireless, and
articulate advocate for children, will be speaking at two area churches with a
message on the importance of voting. She will be at The Word Church, 18909
South Miles Road at 10:30AM and then later at South Euclid United Church of
Christ, 4217 Bluestone Road at noon.
We also received notice that Minister Louis Farrakhan will appear
via satellite at First Cleveland Mosque, 3790 East 131 Street. Doors will open
at 10:30AM and the program will begin at 11:00AM. The program will be
streamed online at www.noi.org. We understand
that First Cleveland may be the oldest continuous African American masjid in
the United States.
Also on tap tomorrow is a Community Forum on “Clean Drinking
Water: Myths, Realities and the Future”. The program is a part of the excellent
“Forums that Matter” series sponsored by First Unitarian Church of Cleveland,
21600 Shaker Blvd. The guest speaker will be Julius Ciacci, executive director
of the Northeast Regional Sewer District.
Forums begin at 9:30AM and end at 10:45AM, leaving you enough time
to get to your own church, or find a seat upstairs at First Unitarian if you
wish. The church is located at 21600 Shaker Blvd.
Savings Time Ends at 2:00AMnext Sunday, November 6.