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Cleveland, Ohio 44110
|Kumbaya on the Shore
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|Dreamweaver's Lessons Lyrics & Litanies
|Mittie Imani Dreamweaver
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The first time I was told “go back!”
July 19, 2019 / Revised July 29, 2019
Salivating, spit spewing from his half barren mouth.
My sister clutched my hand tighter and pulled me closer to her as we braced ourselves to rush by.
Short in stature, grungy face. I don’t recall if it was bearded or not. I just remember his piercing eyes, rotten teeth and the hatred that lashed out at
us from behind his gated front yard.
I took Wanda’s lead and said nothing as we picked up speed, walking as fast as our little legs would take us. I was five years old on my way to
kindergarten at Sowinski Elementary School following my family’s moving into an all-white, eastern European neighborhood on the border of
Cleveland’s Hough and Superior-St. Clair communities in 1954.
The high court had ruled. If he understood it, he clearly did not care.
“You not belong here! Go back where you come from, Nigger!” Vehemently delivered as best he could with his limited and broken English, this
immigrant – obviously not long off the boat, had the ugly audacity to tell two babies born in America, descendants in part of people indigenous to this
land, to “go back!”
My sister had nightmares about him for a long time, even though he was not the only one to spit at us and call us out of name along the way. There
was the woman who would run down her steps swishing her broom at us “like we were little mice” as Wanda reminisced.
Thinking back, I have surmised that it would have not been our first day of school, because my mother – then a stay-at-home mom, would have been
with us even if she had to have my three-year old brother in tow.
In recalling this indelible moment in our lives, I asked Wanda who was nine at the time, if our parents had instructed her as to what to do when
racially accosted. She said they had not. The truth of the matter is that they’d kept many of those early acts of racism against us, from us. It would
be years later that we would learn of my father having to rise before dawn to hose down the racist rants squirted in ketchup on the sidewalk in front
of our house before heading off to work.
The second recollection of hearing the refrain eventually became a joke amongst the half-dozen or so black families who then resided on our
street because it came specifying means of transportation by which we should return! Each time we moved in, another white family moved out, and
another black family moved in. By mid-sixties, the neighborhood was predominantly black. But four white families still flanked our home, including
our immediate next-door neighbors who stayed for the remainder of their lives.
A widow of Welsh descent and a German marriage, Edith and her daughter Evelyn had always been kind to us. In fact, it is said that Edith and her
eldest son who bore the same first name as my father, welcomed the sale of the house that her father built, to us. Evelyn often told the story of how
the previous owner had been a wife abusing, “fowl mouth drunkard” whom her mother regarded with much disdain. When she learned that the
“colored man” who was buying the house was a deacon in his church, she felt a sense of great relief that there would finally be “good and decent
people” moving in next door.
Having graduated our neighborhood high school in 1938, Evelyn was a dutiful and doting daughter caring for her mother while working as a secretary
at a publishing company in downtown Cleveland. Every morning, sophisticatedly dressed in her appropriate workplace attire, she would confidently
walk to the corner of our street to catch the bus that delivered her straight to her office building door. After putting in her nine to five, she would
return by the same route.
On one particular day as she returned from work, she seemed agitated as she passed by a group of us children playing in the driveway of the house
adjacent hers to the north. We were having a blast! It may have been hop-scotch, or jump-rope, or maybe one of my favorite games, shooting
marbles or butter-knife chubby. Y’all don’t know nothing about that.
She glared at us as she passed and uttered a few inaudible but clearly angry words beneath her breath. We paid her no mind. It was summer-time,
school was out, and we were having fun!
I doubt that she had been in the house five minutes before we heard the rhythmic beat of her broad-heeled pumps pounding across her porch to the
banister above us followed by a lashing cry of “I just wish you all would get on a slow boat and go back to Africa!”
Before the stun could set in, we burst out laughing! “Go back to Africa!” We roared. We were children knowing nothing of Africa other than the child-
chasing cannibals predicted on the popular “Little Rascals” television series, running around with a bone sticking through his nose while chanting
“yum, yum eat ‘em up!” The offense finally kicked in.
“I ain’t no African!” Standing tall, Rosalind put her hand on her hip as she quipped back at Evelyn, something surely my mother would have
admonished us not to do. Edith called to Evelyn, and in the same steam with which she had come out, she marched back inside.
The word traveled fast, and one-by-one our parents called us all inside. The next day, Edith baked an extra-large batch of her famous orange-rind
glazed muffins for all of us. God, they were delicious! My mother suggested that perhaps Evelyn had a hard day at work. Even so, she had no right
to say what she did, but we were to ignore it, because as “good and decent neighbors” that’s what we were supposed to do.
And we were, good and decent neighbors on which Evelyn – a spinster, would learn to trust and rely throughout her life as one-by-one her family
died off or moved far away. First Edith, then her brothers Harold and Ralph, the eldest of the two nephews, and the younger deciding to move far, far
away. But even long before then, Miss Evelyn had become one of our most ardent supporters, championing our causes and celebrating our
accomplishments, quick to share our stories with friends at work and church. In the end we, the good and decent colored people – along with her
church members and a cousin became her family. She lived to be 95.
A “slow boat.” Yeah, that’s what most Africans in America arrived on – as did her Welsh and German ancestors. But reflecting back on that moment
when she strutted across her front porch and blurted it out, still makes us crack-up!
The third time came during my first year of high school when I was placed in the “Major Work” program which transplanted high
academically achieving black students into the predominantly white Collinwood High. Yes, the same Collinwood community in which Kumbaya sits
today. Not an option in 1967.
With the history making election of Carl Stokes as the first black mayor, it was not just our presence that left the residents of Collinwood feeling
threatened, it was also the perception that we were “taking over” in places where we did not belong. “Go back!”
At the time, Collinwood’s black residential population consisted primarily of a few streets at the end of a long bridge, literally wedged between the
railroad tracks and the highway. Those were their Negros. They did not need this influx of “uppity” black students arriving daily by public busses for
classes that earned them an extra half grade point just because they were college preparatory placed. Some made no bones about the displeasure of
our presence and would periodically lay in wait for our arrival or departure to physically attack us.
There were days when we knew to not even get off the bus. When it rounded the curve toward the 152nd turn station, if we did not see any black
students customarily sitting on “the rail” waiting for the bell to ring, we knew to just stay on the bus. It was going to be a bad day for black folk at
Then it was announced that Tony Morton would become Collinwood’s first black Valedictorian. All hell broke loose. The litany of offenses is just too
long to review, including racially and profanity-laced shouts of “go back to your own schools!”
At the end of my first year of high school in the sought-after Major Work program, I begged my parents to please, just let me transfer to the high
school in our community. So indeed, I went back to where I came from, and enjoyed my high school days at East, engaged in activities and leadership
roles which would not have been open to me at Collinwood. Even so, thwarted in participatory options while there, many black leaders emerged from
that Collinwood experience including the late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, and Marcia Mockabee, the Executive Director of the Cleveland
branch of the Urban League. And, many others in their own ways, in their own fields.
While certainly not the last time, my Smith College freshwoman year experience will end these recollections for the purpose of this
writing. Still taking my lead from Wanda some thirteen years after that fateful walk to Sowinski School, I followed her to Smith, entering as she
exited in 1970. When she graduated in May she was one of five black women in her class, two of whom not only did not associate with being black, but
who were physically capable of passing for white, and did.
All total, there were 19 black women at Smith, and in the age of “Black Pride and Power” they joined the nationwide movement of actually “taking
over” college administrative buildings, making demands for a more inclusive black presence in curriculum, faculty and staff, and student enrollment.
Taking their lead from the “Freedom Riders” who came together from around the nation to move as “one body” through the southern segregated
states, the Smith women joined forces with their counterparts at Mt. Holyoke, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, rotating
from campus to campus until their “demands” were heard, negotiated and implemented.
I remember my sister calling home on the night before their “sit in” to inform my parents that she might not graduate, but rather be expelled for
what they were about to do. She had no dissent from my mother who had helped organize the housekeepers at Case Western Reserve University to
join a union. My father was much less of a risk-taker, but he gave his blessing as well.
When I entered in the fall of 1970, just four months after my sister’s graduation, I did so with 68 other black women who were the beneficiaries of
those 19 “sisters” before us. Not only had they succeeded in getting more black students admitted, we were also the first to enroll in classes in the
newly formed department of “Afro-American Studies” (no Africana Studies), to invite black scholars to dinner on Thursday night when our houses
hosted faculty, and to bask in the art and safe space of a new cultural center named for the first African graduate of Smith, Ng’endo Florence Mwangi,
who went on to become the first woman doctor in her native Kenya. It was there that we came together as celebrants of the work and legacy of all
those who had labored historically throughout time on our behalf. But some of the Anglo-American women at Smith were unhappy about all of it.
Nineteen of us was fine, just as long as we stayed in our place. But 69 more with Afros, a cultural center and van, an academic department… it was
just too much!
I can visual my door as clearly today as I could then. We all decorated the doors to our rooms with something, but in November 1970, mine proudly
bore a small red, black and green flag representing African liberation around the world, tucked atop a poster announcing: “National Black Solidarity
Day – November 19, 1970.”
I had been at the library most of the afternoon and was returning for dinner at my residence, Laura Scales House. Adjoining Franklin King, the grand
houses formed a half-circle overlooking Paradise Road above the pond, and emptied onto a lovely courtyard that descended to “The Quad” hosting
the most stately student residential mansions on our campus, and the site for the culmination of the ceremonial end of year alumnae Ivy Day parade
and the following day Commencement. When I walked through the door, I was greeted by most of the black women of Scales and King, then nearly a
third of Smith’s black student enrollment.
“Somebody tried to burn down your door!” The cacophony of warnings for what Iwas about to see and what should be done about it followed me up
the three flights of stairs, through the hallway doors, down the hall to my room overlooking the courtyard. I stopped cold at the sight of my fire-
singed door. When I could finally turn to ask if anyone knew what happened, I came face to face with my tearful next room neighbor holding the
remnants of the symbol of liberation.
“They burned your flag. I couldn’t save the poster.” Of Jewish ancestry and faith, Nan and I often swapped stories of our people’s oppression. While
some of my friends were suspect of her holding the remnants, I knew that she would have never taken part in such an act of racial hatred. She gave
me what was left of the flag, hugged me and went back into her room.
The dean of students told my mother that I “provoked the action” by mounting the poster and flag on my door. My mother, in turn, reminded the
dean that President Nixon - whoes daughter had just graduated Smith with my sister’s class, had deemed any burnings on college campuses to be a
Federal offence. This was the year of the Kent State massacre – four student Vietnam war protesters dead at the hands of the National Guard.
American flags were being burned on campuses across the land – Nixon made flag burning a Federal offense. I’m sure he did not have the Black
Liberation flag in mind, in doing so.
My mother made it clear that she was expecting an investigation into what she considered a threat on mine and other students lives. “What if Mittie
had been in that room! The house is a hundred years old and could go up in flames in a flash!” The solid brick façade would have surely held its’
ground, but Momma made her point.
The college president formed a committee, instituted an investigation, engaged “dialogues” in every house attended by students, faculty and staff,
invited Andrew Young to speak at the College, followed by his intimate “fireside chat” at Laura Scales. Mid-semester, students “voluntarily”
transferred houses including seven who moved out of Scales, purportedly to cover the culprit who set my door ablaze.
Forty-eight years later, a white Smith College campus center employee called the police on Oumou Kanoute, a Smith student and summer program
teaching assistant eating her lunch, because the staffer felt that she “did not look like he belong.” She was “sitting while black!”
So, I say all this to say what? Black folk – including those we refer to as Brown, are always going be told to “go back” by ignorant, racist white
folk. Even those closely tied to their own immigration.
He could barely speak English, and called a five-year old kindergartener “Nigger,” telling me to “go back to where I came from.” Just like the
occupant of the White House, with his children by immigrant mothers speaking in broken English. Ignorant, and yes, all evidence points to his being
Good and decent American people of all races, ethnicities, cultures and religions will defeat this ignorance. I am sure of that. Just as surely as I was in
my 2016 warning of what candidate Trump was going to do if given the chance. He would drive us to hell! I’ve never removed the missive from our
National Institute of Restorative Justice website. Selective Amnesia: Channeling Gil Scott Heron in the Age of Trumped-up Gods. www.
Destroy free speech, compromise the judiciary, control law enforcement, shut down borders while invoking nationalism and race purity, unjustifiably
concentrate and detain human beings – including ID card carrying United States Citizens by racial profiling, start a world war – we’ve seen this movie
Here’s the good news: First, those who rule by the “dictator’s playbook” are always defeated. Some, as in the case of Mussolini, by their own
ignorant base – shot by firing squad and strung upside down in the town square to rot.
Last, “How long, not long… because truth crushed to the earth will rise again.” (1) It’s all flushing out. The truth is being flushed out every day by
“good and decent” human beings who are sick and tired of the racist, ignorant rantings of an evil dictator “wannabe”, and the silence of his political
henchmen who have sold their souls, entering their eternal death by denial and dollar.
Truth will not remain silent as freedom seekers are rebuked, righteous women blasphemed, and babies being snatched from their mother’s breast all
in the name of nation first! They may rule the high court, but there is no Godly justification for what they are doing, and there lies the final judgment
– “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
This is a critical and clarion call. We have repeatedly heard politicians and other celebrated voices say that we are in the battle “for the soul of
America.” To that I say: yes, but it’s not the first time.
This nation was established on racism. The moment Columbus and his lost crew stepped off their slow boat and onto land that they thought was
India, renamed a people, and determined that those people were not worthy of the stewardship of the land on which God had placed them. So, make
no mistake about it, we have always been fighting “for the soul of America,” for the good and best of our nation over the evil and worst.
So, the critical clarion call is this: Stand! Get off your apathy and do something! Talk to each other. Talk about human rights – rights
lost in the detention of freedom seekers – children caged in deplorable conditions. Talk about the missing babies. Where are the babies that
were snatched by the dragon from their mother’s breasts? (2) How can any woman who has bore down to deliver life from her body condone the
actions of this administration and stand behind them or in front of them at rallies, shouting “send them back!” Shame on each and every one of you!
Yes, for the dignity of the office, the non-people elected Resident probably needs to be impeached, but in the words of a wise old man in my
neighborhood, “then what you got?” The option that protocol puts in place is not attractive. Unlike “if Agnew, Nixon knew, but Ag didn’t knew
enough to stay out of jail,” (3) we still have the “torchbearer” for moving America to Amerikkka, whose response to seeing those children with not
even enough room to lay on a concrete floor was “we knew the system would be overwhelmed!” (4) He blamed the victims to justify their lies and evil
divisive intentions to destroy even the noble notion of America, “the home of the brave and land of the free”
Prepare to protest against any war. This administration is itching for war! Not just because it makes them money, but because it is their
makeup – “steal, kill and destroy.” (5)
Talk about the threat of voter disenfranchisement. Call for #handcountthevote. Why do we keep crying foul play about computerized
election results? In the simple wisdom of our elders, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but if you know it’s jacked up, get our franchise out of the darn
computer! Not only demand a free and fair election by #handcountthevote, register somebody. #freethefelonfranchise.
Make it your mission to help ensure that every available voice is counted in November 2020 so that we can rid ourselves of the whole
damn lot of them in one fell swoop!
Ask everyone with whom you come in contact, are you registered! Get your personal stash of ACLU hot cards and miniature pamphlets on voting
rights. Hook up with a local voting rights advocacy campaign. Do your homework, though! There will be lots of snakes in the mix –
gathering registrations in the name of freedom, just to toss them in the lake. Folk won’t find out until they show up at the polls that they were never
registered to vote. Oh, yeah, he’s an evil trickster!
Once registered, pound the pavement to make sure they vote! Work towards a true mandate! Because despite all the lies about what
“the American people” elected them to do, this administration never had a mandate from the American people. What was that Gil? “Mandate my
ass! We want to act like 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, create a mandate!”
Add your voice to the calling out the elected legislators of our lives in city halls, state halls, congressional halls – make it clear that
their jobs are on the line if they are not acting in the best interest of all of America, heck of America itself! Fix the freaking Constitution that
allowed for someone who lost the popular election by over 10 million votes. We just keep talking about the three million he lost to
Secretary Clinton! He lost another 7 million to “anybody but!” Just think what will happen if we can just double the actual voters! Never
forget that his base is the minority! And his 42 months are up! (6)
So, choose you this day, on which side you will serve. As for me and my house we will seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our
God, that we might serve and dwell in the goodness, mercy and blessings of our Lord. (7)
Finally, you all thought I was going to give you those (footnotes.) “Let those who have ears hear.” (8) And, let the rest of you start reading!
I look forward to seeing you on the shore.
~ Mittie Imani
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