Black Americans’ Great Gifts to Me, Personally, to American Culture, and to World Culture

I don’t like labels, particularly as they describe or categorize people. When I was a child in the 1950s and early 60s, black people were known in white society as Negroes. In the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and development of federal laws requiring inclusion of black people and other minorities into the mainstream of society, the label “Negro” yielded to an English word meaning the same thing: “Black.” About the time of the movie, Roots, the description, “Afro-American,” came into vogue. Whatever the labels that may be applied, there arose in the United States, from a culture of slavery, through the Emancipation Proclamation, through the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, through segregation, and through affirmative-action a unique history and culture of black people. These next series of posts will acknowledge and celebrate those contributions of blacks in America to religious music.

Speaking of affirmative-action, it has had mixed reviews in American society from the time that the courts developed its concepts and ordered its application throughout society. Over those years to the very present, many conservative commentators have accused that it forces whites to play on a field heavily tilted toward minorities, more specifically, I suspect, blacks. But criticism of civil rights and affirmative action is not limited to whites. James Meredith, after great opposition in the courts and then from the governor of Mississippi, broke the “color barrier” as the first black person to attend the University of Mississippi, at great risk and costs to himself. He went on to obtain his advanced law degree at Columbia University. He was interviewed by National Public Radio in the early 1990s. To my surprise, he stated that he opposed affirmative action and civil rights as perpetuating the position of black people as second-class citizens. He said all he wanted was a level playing field.

Frankly, I was the beneficiary of affirmative-action in 1977 when vocal cord surgery ended my career as a singer and as a teacher. Following surgery and resultant disability from teaching and singing, I was surprised to discover that I had a disability insurance policy with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. It was an automatic benefit of employment with the Omaha Public Schools, which, to my knowledge, I did not request, and certainly I was not then aware that I had it.

That spring I received a telephone call from the administration of Omaha Public Schools, telling me of the policy, and requesting that I contact them to schedule career counseling, as a benefit of that policy. Through that process, it was suggested that I might consider one of three options that were indicated as good fits for me: occupational therapy, physical therapy, and the law. The first two, occupational therapy and physical therapy, would require that I go back to undergraduate school and get certain prerequisites for admission to graduate school in that area, and even then, I was not assured of admittance. The third suggested option was law school. To my knowledge, there is no history of lawyers in my family. But, with my bachelors degree in music education and vocal performance it would be sufficient, without other prerequisites, for admittance to a law school, and Northwestern would pay the tuition for that training, at least for the policy term of two years. Without prior application, I walked into and took the LSAT’s and applied to the University of Nebraska Law School. I was accepted on the day of orientation of that year’s law school class. My career counselor, provided by Northwestern, told me that I was accepted at that late date because I was categorized as a “disabled person” because of my vocal cord surgery and disability from teaching and singing; taking nothing from the law school and its benefits to me, admitting me as a disabled person entitled it to affirmative-action funding.

Frankly, my score on the LSAT’s barely met the schools requirements for admission. My career counselor told me that those tests were an indication of how well the student would likely do in law school. I went to law school without expectations, and without any concerns about paying tuition or earning an income. Nonetheless, I graduated With Distinction as the Best Oral Advocate of my senior class and I, with my partner, won the law school’s Moot Court and Client Counseling competitions, and we went on to national competitions in each of those areas. I never expected that success. I simply had been brought up to believe that if I do good work, something good will come of it. From college days to the present, I have simply assumed that I have to work hard, perhaps harder than others.  Only recently did I discover that I had from childhood compensated for damage done by the polio virus and paralysis to my cognitive functioning.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company paid my tuition in full for law school plus benefits of 60% of my former salary, tax free, during the first two years of law school, including summer schools. Without my request, it extended those same benefits an additional semester to see me through to graduation. Not only am I the beneficiary of affirmative-action, but I am also the beneficiary of Northwestern’s generosity, and of many more opportunities and gifts that I never anticipated, let alone deserved. As a lawyer, I have represented insurance companies and claims against them, and I have never found one that would extend benefits beyond that which was set out clearly in the policy. I am grateful for Northwestern’s support and generosity. This blog is one of the ways that I have chosen to “pay back” a little of the debts that I owe so many.

I have truly been blessed, including in ways that I am sure I can neither recognize nor articulate.

But I have a more primal connection with blacks which I did not internalize until this last year of my 64 years. I have preverbal, subconscious memories as an infant of the devotion of many black women who became mothers to me in my six months at Charity Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana during the polio epidemic of 1949. When approximately a decade ago I was uncovering some of the emotional scars from that experience, I asked my mother of her and Dad’s experiences of that time. She noted the special significance that black women had for me during my hospitalization. These women were especially courageous in that there was no inoculation against polio at that time to protect those who came in contact with its victims. For that same reason, there was great danger that they would bring the virus home to infect their own family. They selflessly demonstrated great love, patience and commitment to eighteen crying babies on that hospital ward. That service required exceptional courage, devotion, loving, praying, and hoping for the sake of a patient that she would not likely know or maintain contact with in the future; and yet they did it for me.

Here is my mother’s reply to my request:

Robert, I will tell you more about our feelings when you went to the hospital. You were never as visibly sick as Annita had been but you walked to me with arms up and I sat down and rocked you a while then stood you down on the floor only to have you limp in both legs. I had a Dr. appt. with my OB Dr. that day so took you along and she sent me to the ER where they sent me to the “Charity” Hospital ER. Charity had the only Polio Hosp. in the entire state. It was just that no charges and absolutely NO information once you were in. Only Nursing Aids visible no nurses even and they would not tell you a Doctor’s name. Guess you had many doctors and medical students, maybe mostly med students hence no charges at all. It was a heavy price on child and also parent. Polio was such a mystery and caused such panic that people did not want to even speak the name to ask how you were doing or to say they were sorry. Dad and I were both in camp (Southwestern Association Camp) in New Orleans. We could not visit you for two weeks then only Wednes. eve. for 2 hours and Sunday afternoon for two hours. We could call any time we were concerned. I called once and did not believe one thing they told me I was sure they were pat answers they told each parent. I ended up crying in Dad’s arms and we both knew we could not go on this way and it was not helping you any so we must honestly trust God to be where you were and to put it on the heart of someone there to love you and fill your immediate needs. During this time we learned to pray without ceasing and commune with God all our waking moments. Annita insisted on putting your plate on the table every single meal all those 6 months and we prayed for you every meal. I have wondered if you have felt a special closeness to colored people that you might not understand for most of the Aids we ever saw were black and really they were our best source of information all those months as to how you were doing really.

I am convinced that God did use many loving mothers during those months to love and comfort you when we were not there. You survived the infectious diarrhea that took many of your room mates. There at one time were 18 of you babies under one year in the same room in baby beds. We survived as our trust and confidence in God’s presence and involvement in not only our lives but your life deepened and our love, compassion and concern about others in trauma situations grew also. These experiences have impacted all our ministry through the years since and continue to do so. Yes, this was a humbling helpless experience but the worst for us was leaving you there and knowing you did not understand why and might forget us and think we had abandoned you.

I was in my early 50s when I asked for and received that email. It was yet another 10 years before I was able to confront and begin to resolve the pain of that experience. During that time, I became more aware of my natural attraction to, and feeling of familial relationship with, black people. Only in the last six months have I been able to read aloud and internalize my mother’s description of those powerful, subconscious memories without breaking down emotionally. Those subconscious memories have not only influenced my thinking and living for over sixty years, but even, at points, have controlled my life.

And so, this endeavor, I hope, will not only convey my gratitude to those women who courageously and lovingly cared for me as an infant at the risk of themselves and their families, but, also, my great appreciation for black people’s contributions to society and the arts.

One last comment, an apology: I recognize that peoples of Central America, of South America, and of Canada in North America are sensitive to the United States referring to itself as “America,” as though it were exclusive of them. I use “American” simply because it has been a natural description by my country, the United States, of itself throughout my lifetime. But I do NOT intend that it be exclusive of any other peoples or countries in the Americas, North, Central, or South. I welcome any comments on sensitivity or offense, and any suggestions on ways that I might better handle that matter.

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