Celebrating MLK Day: James Brown, Walt Whitman, and I
By ROEETHYLL LUNN
I was born in 1949. I will be 64 years old next month. Therefore, I remember Jim Crow and having to grow up in a segregated or racially separated South. I remember being relegated to improperly attended public restrooms, water fountains, and doctor office waiting rooms reserved for “coloreds.”
My mother and father were sharecroppers—which was considered fortunate for them at that time because they had ten children. They had two boys, one at the beginning and one at the end, and then eight girls sandwiched in between. My mother had me when she was forty years old. I was her seventh child, but I was first of her children who was allow to attend a public school.
Black children before my age group had to walk or were driven on mule drawn wagons to a “one room, one teacher teach all,” school that was being held in their local churches. Black people were not allowed to attend public schools nor ride public, county owned buses.
There were no school lunch programs. The one lady from the community who accepted the job as school cook had to prepare meals based on whatever the local farmers left on the school’s back step each morning. There was always a healthy supply of items because parents wanted their children to have an education.
It is difficult to form a sense of identity or a positive self-image when elements in your world consistently tell you that you are physically ugly, ignorant, and cannot ever possibly produce anything that will be ever be of any value.
In the early part of the 1960’s, people, like Jesse Jackson, began to stand on elevated stages in large crowds, sporting gigantic afro hairstyles, and encouraging Black people to say repeatedly, “I am somebody.”
Entertainers like James Brown told us to lose our concerns in a dancing flurry while we “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” And ministers like Martin Luther King asked us to dream of a better day.
What influenced me the most in my search for a positive self-image, however, were written words, learned from the Bible, that I was “Black, but comely.”
And when I was sixteen years old, I fell in love with the words of a poet whose name was Walt Whitman. His “Leaves of Grass” taught me that no one thing was no greater than another when he said, “ I believe a leaf of grass is no greater than the journey work of the stars.”
This ingrained into my spirit that something as small as a leaf of grass which people stepped on daily was just as majestic in its makeup as something which the world holds in high esteem like the orbiting of massive planets.
Thank you, O Ancient of Days, Thank you, Jesse Jackson. Thank you, Freedom Riders. Thank you, James Brown. Thank you, Walt and other poets and writers, Thank you, teachers, and parents. And above all within that earthly assemblage, thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King. Thank you.
Roeethyll Lunn is a lifelong educator, learner, and writer. For many years she has been a Developmental Writing Instructor at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC. She declares herself to be "an experimental writer" of essays, short stories, poetry, and articles about people living in the "Pee Dee" area of rural South Carolina just before desegregation. She was Born in Darlington, South Carolina, has a BFA in Broadcast Media from Morris College, Sumter, SC, and an MFA in English and writing from Southampton College, LIU in New York
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