by the good people.”
― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is easy to get so caught up in the rigmarole and routine of life that we miss and ignore human suffering all around us. Many of us have become desensitized to horrific events because we are inundated with them on a daily basis through our smart phone news feeds, social media and 30-second sound bites on the evening news. We are so surrounded by negativity, that it can be appealing to tune it all out. In some instances, ignoring it may feel like an act of self-preservation.
I am a proponent of boundaries and mental wellness, but we have to know when and where to really tune in to what is happening (or what has happened) around us. Every so often I will have a moment when the gravity of the suffering of other humans stops me in my tracks. I had several of those such moments during a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina.
While I was there, I learned that between 40 to 55% of Africans who were brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade were brought through the Port of Charleston. At the recently opened International African American Museum, my family and I viewed an exhibit that demonstrated how the bodies of the captured Africans who were being transported to the Americas were subhumanly arranged in the bowels of ships during the Middle Passage.
While I was there, I was also able to see and touch the forever-immortalized fingerprint impressions made by enslaved toddlers, who were forced to turn freshly formed bricks in the hot southern sun, so that they would dry properly, while their mothers labored alongside them.
I was able to visit auction blocks where countless ancestors of African American people were bought and sold like horses, mules and other chattel.
I was able to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the United States, long known as a center for civil rights organizing, which was the location of a 2015 mass shooting by a White supremacist who killed nine African American parishioners.
On an intellectual level, I am well aware of the existence of slavery, racism, race-based hatred and oppression in the United States. I grew up with the awareness that my great-grandparents were born into slavery, and that the condition of their slavery had long-term generational repercussions on our family. My own father, who was born in 1950 in Arkansas under the heavy thumb of Jim Crow laws and policies, grew up picking cotton along with his mother and siblings to make ends meet.
I knew all of this, but when I experienced and visited the locations where many of our ancestors were forcibly arranged side by side, shackled together while lying in human excrement and breathing in the stench of death, the places where enslaved toddlers were forced to form and turn bricks in the heat, and the church where nine innocent people were killed while studying the Bible and engaging in worship--essentially places and circumstances where human beings were subjected to tremendous suffering, all because they were Black--it felt different. My heart broke (again) for what my people had been through. The emotions that I knew they had to have experienced felt palpable. Fear, bewilderment, intense anger and helplessness, all ran through me at different points during my time in Charleston.
After all of the stirring I felt in my soul settled down, I realized a quiet truth: those people, my people, had never lost hope. They kept fighting. They kept standing. They continued to live their lives with resilience and determination. After surviving unimaginable atrocities, they continued to soldier on. They did not stop. They did not lie down. And because of their resistance and defiant will to survive in the hopes of a brighter day for their descendants, their stories and their legacies live on through those of us who benefit from their sacrifice.
Our World Changer of the Month, Septima Clark, a native of Charleston, whose father had been born into slavery, is the quintessential example of that resilient defiance. Despite growing up in abject poverty, and being actively prevented from accessing an education for herself and from educating others, she not only secured her own high school, baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate degrees, she created opportunities and schools for African Americans so that they would not only have access to education, but would be able to access their right to vote. She did all of this with minimal resources while navigating racism, sexism and oppression with grace; never with anger. Known for her perseverance and steadfast nature, she was quoted as saying,“I never felt that getting angry would do you any good other than hurt your own digestion, keep you from eating, which I liked to do.”
So what now for us when we see human suffering, oppression and injustice happening all around us? How are we charged with responding?
Do we close our eyes and try to ignore it? Do we steel our hearts and intentionally desensitize ourselves to it? Do we create a story in our minds to justify the behavior? Or do we take action in a way that is true to ourselves, honors our history and calls us higher?
I know in my heart what the right answer is for me. The right answer for you is a personal matter, but I will leave you with this quote from Septima Clark as final food for thought:
“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”
Everybody dies, but not everyone has lived."
― C.S. Lewis
High achievers tend to be risk averse rule followers. To be fair, this is usually for good reason. Following the rules and staying within pre-set boundaries tends to pay off, or at least that is what we are socialized to believe. I agree that we owe it to the other humans with whom we share space to engage in prosocial and cooperative behavior. Society would not function properly if we did not. However, being a good citizen and living life in a manner that pushes past artificial limitations are not mutually exclusive.
We must be willing to take risks that are consistent with our purpose and/or calling. As an anonymous philosopher once said, “Your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers.” In other words, someone had to do it first. Someone had to invent a mechanism with four wheels and a motor that could carry people from one place to another at a time when most people were traveling by foot or horse. Someone had to invent a machine that could keep itself in the air and propel itself thousands of miles at a time when automobile production was in its nascent stages. Someone had to become the first female medical doctor at a time when women were generally not permitted to be educated. In short, someone has to both have the vision to see what others do not, as well as the courage to act upon it.
I challenge you to ask yourself if there is something in your heart that you feel called to do, but haven’t because of fear—fear of failure, judgment, disappointment, embarrassment or shame. I dare say that we all have a dream that we have buried in the recesses of our hearts and have tried to ignore because we are afraid of where the journey of exploration of that dream will take us.
What if the people who invented the first car and the first airplane abandoned their invention efforts because they were afraid of failure or other people’s judgment? It is probable that eventually someone would have developed a prototype for their invention, but their specific contributions and unique insights would be lost and their legacy would be omitted from the annals of history.
There is a time for everything under the sun: a time to study fastidiously, a time to diligently labor, and a time to quietly prepare, but if your heart is telling you that it is time to stand up, step out and do more, do not ignore that message. In trying to convince yourself that you are satisfied with the status quo, you may be limiting yourself from realizing your fullest potential and depriving the world of the blessing of who you truly are.
Dorothy Donegan was born in Chicago on April 6, 1922. Her father, Donazell Donegan, was a cook, and her mother, Ella Donegan, rented out rooms in the family’s large apartment. Donegan’s mother used the rent money to support her daughter’s music studies. Donegan readily admitted that it was her mother who truly appreciated her talent, listened to her, and encouraged her to put feeling into her music. Her mother even served as her first business manager.
With her mother’s encouragement, Donegan began taking piano lessons when she was five years old and obtained her musical education in Chicago’s public schools. By the age of ten, she was already performing as a church organist, and began playing jazz professionally in local nightclubs during her high-school years. At 14 years old, she became the first African American to perform at Costello’s Grill in Chicago. At the age of 17, she graduated from Chicago's DuSable High School, and was hired to play jazz piano with The Bob Tinsley Band.
In 1942, Donegan recorded her first album of blues and boogie-woogie on the Bluebird label. However, despite her early jazz success, she still aspired to be a classical pianist. Consequently, she continued her classical music education, studying piano at the Chicago Musical College and later attending the University of Southern California. One year after releasing her first jazz album, Donegan became the first African-American performer and first jazz pianist to perform in concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The concert earned Donegan a frontpage review in the Chicago Tribune and caught the attention of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum. Blessed with an enormous orchestral capacity at the keyboard, Donegan was fluent in several styles of jazz, as well as with European classical music.
In the 1950s, she developed her flamboyant performance style, which at times tended to obscure her extraordinary piano playing, deep sense of swing, and wide-ranging repertoire. She would often spice her performances with uncanny impressions of other pianists and singers, skills that enhanced her abilities as an entertainer. She spent the bulk of her career performing in trios with bass and drums. Her appearance at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in 1980 broke all previous attendance records.
Unfortunately, her first six albums proved to be obscure compared to her successes in performance. In 1987, a recorded appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival and her live albums from 1991 were met with acclaim. Even so, she remained best known for her live performances. Ben Ratliff argued in The New York Times that "her flamboyance helped her find work in a field that was largely hostile to women.
Donegan was often referred to as “the wild one,” “the triumphantly unfettered, “the shoulder-shaking, finger-popping, hip-slapping lioness of piano rooms.” At the same time, however, critics also were quick to add that Donegan was, “wild but polished,” “possessor of enormous technical skill,” and “brilliant, ridiculously talented.” Donegan was outspoken about her view that sexism, along with her insistence on being paid the same rates as male musicians, had limited her career.
As Donegan entered the last decade of her life, she finally seemed to be earning recognition commensurate with her talent. She was awarded a Jazz Masters fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 and played at the White House in 1993. The following year she received an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University, and in 1995 she made a guest appearance on Sesame Street, playing the blues with Hoots the Owl. During this period Donegan also lectured at several universities, including Harvard, Northeastern, and the Manhattan School of Music. Her last big show was in 1997 at the Concord Jazz Festival in the Bay Area.
Despite being underrated during her lifetime, Donegan was an exceptional pianist with a rich harmonic sense who broke race and gender barriers. She was a musical genius who was ahead of her time.
This text is excerpted from: https://www.arts.gov/honors/jazz/dorothy-donegan, https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/donegan-dorothy-1922-1998, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Donegan, and https://chicagoreader.com/music/the-secret-history-of-chicago-music/pianist-dorothy-donegan-gave-zero-fucks/.
To view footage of her performances, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcocX_mzWmw, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkH5LAaGf0E, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Bhebd9Wbkk&list=RDEMu3xfQ36RDQmLAYqIkwi5nA&start_radio=1&rv=CkH5LAaGf0E.