Friday, December 6, 2013

Under the Branches of a Mighty Tree: A Baobab among the Redwoods

Under the Branches of a Mighty Tree: A Baobab among the Redwoods
     Nelson Mandela, Revered Ancestor (1918-2013)
By Daphne Muse
His path from Mvezo, a village near Mthatha in the Transkei on the Eastern Cape, to speaking to an absolutely thunderous and amazed assembly of more than 58,000 people in Oakland, California in 1990 was a Long Walk to Freedom*.  It is a remarkable story made even more so in that Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela was inaugurated as President of a democratic South Africa on May 10, 1994 and served until 1999.  Mandela was given the name Rolihlahla on his first day of school; it is a Xhosa term that means "pulling the branch of the tree.”
The day he was released from the Victor Verster Correctional Center in Paarl where he was transferred to in 1989, my brother Vincent Muse was in Capetown engineering the feed for journalist Renee Montagne who was covering this historical moment for NPR.  He called me from Capetown breathless, excited beyond belief and fighting back waves of tears that mixed with the sweat pouring from his body.  He so wanted to dance with the hundreds of thousands gathered on the plaza.  Vince told me it felt like the energy in that moment could have fueled the nation for decades to come.  But faced with an endless series of technical challenges (rescued by duct tape), he had to do everything possible to ensure the feed made it across the pond and on the air.  His stories of engineering the feed while listening to Mandela speak in Capetown’s public square on February 11, 1990 and being invited to Bishop Tutu’s home charged my own excitement about Mandela speaking and being honored in Oakland.
Aware of the roles that many Bay Area activists played in unshackling the chains of apartheid, mandating divestment and securing his freedom, Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela accepted the invitation to speak in Oakland, California.  On June 30, 1990 he spoke at the Oakland  Coliseum to an audience 58,000 people.  Among them were longshoremen, union organizers, elected officials, diplomats, cultural icons and school children to witness one of the most amazing moments in the city’s history:  Nelson Mandela, free and standing with his then wife Winnie Mandela.  Not since August 6, 1977 with the visit of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to San Francisco had an African leader been honored in the Bay Area.
Comprised of liberation movements, foundations, faith-based organizations, cultural groups, those living in exile and members of anti-apartheid initiatives throughout the Bay Area, the Northern California Mandela Reception Coalition produced and coordinated the celebration.  Among those present and instrumental in getting him to speak were long-time activist and architect Ken Simmons.  Simmons also was instrumental in leading the faculty divestment movement at UC Berkeley.   Mandela and his wife were greeted by a host of Bay Area leaders including Maudelle Shirek, the godmother of East Bay progressive politics and California Democrat and Representative Ronald V. Dellums.  For years, Dellums pushed legislation for sanctions against the South African Government.   Like Berkeley and San Francisco, Oakland had an ordinance calling for the divestment of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa and longshoremen throughout the region refused to unload South African goods.  Mandela noted that he personally wanted to thank the hundreds of thousands representing liberation movements, unions and South Africans in exile in the Bay Area who were instrumental in helping to secure his freedom.  
The thousands gathered stood in the power of the victory of this tree of a man who never bent, standing just as tall and majestically as many of the historic Redwoods surrounding backyards, parks and forests in Oakland.  Under a sea of green, black, red, yellow and blue banners representing the colors of the ANC, we gathered together in his name and growing South Africa into a “one person, one vote, and democratic, non-racial, nonsexist society.”  Like millions of people in South Africa, Cuba, France, Tanzania, Canada and Sweden, we joined in raising our voices and funds to impose sanctions and develop other strategic organizing tools to end the fetid stench and brutal rule of apartheid.  Although the movement was global, it also took place at kitchen tables in East Oakland, board rooms at the Port of Oakland, classrooms across the city and in the streets of East, West and North Oakland.
So many of us were struck by how his vision always went far beyond his own people and at the Coliseum he apologized to the First Nation people’s for a logistical mix up that made it impossible for them to publically present him with ceremonial robes.  It really was a moment that the audience and world should have witnessed.  He also was so unequivocally disciplined, a bold visionary and a man with some of the same kind of human frailties we all carry.  He made it crystal clear that apartheid had no future. The steady flow of my tears and non-stop quaking of my body let me know how much it meant to be sharing this surreal moment with thousands of others from my community.  That night, the stars cast a an even brighter glow across the skies of Oakland and the evening air reverberated from the powerful performances by Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who opened the tribute, Harry Belafonte,  Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker, John Santos and the Machete Ensemble, Vukani Mawethu Choir and Oakland activist Lakiba Pittman.
Mandela’s trajectory from his village of Mvezo to one of the most revered visionaries and leaders of the 20th century is such a lesson in the power of liberation and building a nation.  In order to avoid arranged marriages, Mandela and his cousin Justice ran away to Johannesburg, where he initially worked as a mine policeman before being introduced to Walter Sisulu in 1941.  Sisulu, son of a black domestic worker and white public servant who never acknowledged him, was one of the primary architects and master strategists of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.   In 1944, together with Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, he founded the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League setting the trajectory of his life on an irreversible course.
 In 1919, the year after his birth, a delegation of the South African Native National Conference attended the Versailles Peace Conference to put the voices and grievances of the African people of South Africa on the table.  He went on to become a lawyer and strategic visionary for the ANC.  Arrested repeatedly and charged with sedition, in 1962 he was arrested for the third time and convicted of sabotage, and conspiracy to overthrow the government.  Sentenced of life imprisonment, for twenty-seven years, Mandela navigated his life beyond the brutality of being imprisoned on Robben Island.  His sanity was grounded in gardening on the prison grounds, writing and corresponding with the family and comrades for whom he was their very heartbeat.   His hard won release from prison in 1990 precipitated political changes that would bring blacks and coloreds to the ballot box, uproot a ruthless government and uplift a people who had been under the spiked boot of white rule for more than three centuries. In 2008, Congresswoman Barbara Lee co-sponsored H.R. 5690 legislation to remove Nelson Mandela and other current and former ANC members from US travel and terrorism watch lists.
In 2009, I got to see the results of this revered statesman’s leadership and the relentless fight against Apartheid.   At museums, shopping malls, clubs, community centers and in townships, the new South Africa was reflected politically, socially and culturally.  Its citizens were some of the fiercest people I’ve ever met.  From Graça Machel (his current wife) and groups of grandmothers with whom I met to early members of the ANC to folks I spoke with on airplanes and busses, and children who sang to us in Soweto, it is crystal clear that this is a nation forged by fires that burn deeply in the bellies, hearts and souls of its people.  Machel was trained as freedom fighter who went on to become an advocate for children and the only woman to have served as first lady of two African nations:  She is the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel.   In 2012, she was appointed President of the SOAS Institute at the University of London.  
On my visit to Robben Island where he spent eighteen years of his incarceration, I also got to retrace the steps from his cell, with a man who was imprisoned with him, out onto the grounds where he gardened, dreamed up and strategized about freedom(s) beyond his own.  In the “time of Mandela,” leaves of vision, justice and wisdom tumbled from the branches of this tree of a man and were woven into crowns of liberation.  The winds of change also blew some of the leaves across the landscape of Oakland into the hearts and minds of generations coming up the ranks.  We must continue to share the stories of resistance with our children and grandchildren.  Holding men like Mandela in our hearts, minds and daily practice means the difference between returning to living under Tsunami’s of oppression or swimming upstream in seas of freedom.
 History has proven that more and more people refuse to allow the boots of oppression to rest on our necks.  His own words “… to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” embedded a kind of strength in me that encourages me to make decisions that turn the world on the “Axis of Affirmation.”   Mandela never met racism with racism, hate with hate or wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and unbridled possibilities for the future.  The legacy of Mandela can never be destroyed, because truth blooms through concrete and is deeply encoded in the cultural and historical DNA of millions of the citizens of SA and people all over the world.  His life was also strengthened by bold, fierce and visionary women who stood with him including Winnie Mandela his second wife, Graça Machel his current wife and millions of South African blacks, coloreds and whites who stood with him in historical solidarity. 
I remain eternally grateful to have been born at a time that allowed me to witness and engage in this transformational nexus in history.  As a beacon of civility, compassion and honor, Mandela was the “Godfather” for many an activist.  This Nobel Peace Prize award-winner also got to experience the awe and magic of life, attending concerts in his honor, holding his grandchildren on his lap and witnessing a new generation of young black and colored South Africans become scholars, tech pioneers, cutting-edge researchers and future leaders. 
  I thank his family for sharing him with the world, for I know that came at a great cost to them personally.  But so many of us got to create inheritances from his vision, legacy and practices to our children, grandchildren, students and young people we mentor.  While some of these “twigs” will grow into sturdy branches and even trees themselves, they can cling to this tree of a man who turned dreams of liberation into historical realities and taught millions how to climb, along the way.  May the verdant landscape of his smile, and depth of his soul, continue to shine an eternal light on the mounting injustices attempting to eviscerate our humanity.
*Mandela’s Autobiography published by Little Brown and Company (1994).
Daphne Muse is a writer, poet and social commentator.  Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post and aired on NPR. 
©Daphne Muse Oakland, CA 2013
Links to Mandela speaking in Oakland!/video/nelson-mandela/10643-5033/1008527

Monday, October 14, 2013

Can you lead me beyond the nightmare to the shoals of clarity and shores of reassurance?

Can you lead me beyond the nightmare to the shoals of clarity and shores of reassurance?
By Daphne Muse
 All morning despite a great swim, I’ve been trying to gain my footing, secure my spirit and release the terror within.  I feel like I’m drowning in the murky rip tides of 21st Century Fascism and there is no clear shore in sight.  With every passing minute, I’m more and more terrified by the debt default deadline and the two-hundred and thirty-two Republicans in the House of Representatives controlled, and forty-nine domestic terrorists in the Tea Party, holding our country of more than three hundred and nineteen million people hostage.  They also are about to take billions around the world hostage as well, if they take the country into default.
The Civil War, which has been on simmer for well over a century, has now been brought to a boil and like Gettysburg and Chickamauga, these 21st century battles are brutal. From changing standing rules to up ending laws, the storm trooping Tea Party and Right Wing Republicans have extorted their way into power: are immune to any name calling, attempts to bring well reasoned mindsets to the seats they hold or look past tomorrow at what the take down of the country by their own hands really means.
While continuing to refer to the president as a Muslim to demanding he be impeached, they would rather take it all down than be told what to do by any black man, but especially President Obama.  Even the Koch Brothers, the money and architects behind the TeaPubs are now reversing their strategies and pleading to shut down the shut down. The Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skits now grate against the rawness of my nerves. The shutdown of sane voices, seeking to prevail, is deafened by silence, which has become a deadly weapon of mass destruction.  There is no poem, piece of art or person in this moment that seemingly can reassure me.  Despair looms large in the air I’m trying desperately to breathe.  
Transformation of any sort can be painful, but the mass assault on this social order is eviscerating the soul, spirit and vision of a country that by decree but not sustainable policies and leadership could have been an inclusive and viable Democracy.  Though founded in treachery and structured on the bones of colonialism, there were so many components from which a real Democracy could have been forged and sustained.  For the sake of my grandchildren, your grandchildren and all these young people working their way into the future, I don’t want to be locked down by this terror.  I entered struggle as a social activist in high school and joined with millions of others across the decades to invest in creating an amazing future for them.  This is not the inheritance I wanted to leave the children pushing back from tables where plates are empty, black and brown teenagers being frisked out of their freedoms and girls being rendered in cauldrons brimming with sexism and exploitation.  I ask to be lead to the shoals of clarity and shores of reassurance, so I can engage in struggle and conduct resistance beyond the lockdown of fear. This is not the world I dreamed, but the nightmare I’ve felt coming on for a spell now.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Portside and Atlantic Magazine, and aired on NPR. You can read her blog at

Friday, October 4, 2013

Might you know where I can find a rehab center for our country? (Originally posted in 2010)

Might you know where I can find a rehab center for our country?
By Daphne Muse
As a result of Democracy being eviscerated, the country known since 1776 as the United States of America is now steeped in the throes of a political, social and moral nervous breakdown.  As a country, we’ve barely broken the barriers of adolescence.  China (a country to whom we appear to be abdicating ourselves through outsourcing and the US Chamber of Congress), Nigeria and Chile can trace their national lineage back multiple dynasties, kingdoms and centuries.  As we grapple with the infancy of our nationhood, some days I think maybe we’re having a serious case of the terrible twos:  Congressional tantrums, the mayhem of mid-term elections, pandemic foreclosures and mind boggling phobias based on people’s racial, ethnic, gender and class identities continue to demonstrate just how underdeveloped we are.
Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell campaigns on tectonic plates of lies, representing herself as a Constitutional scholar, while remaining delusional and incapable of discussing even one amendment to the Constitution. With thousands of intelligent and well-informed women who are Democrats, Green Party members, Republicans and Independents, shrewd Sarah Palin (with some real McCainsian muscle behind her), continues positioning herself to wear the “imperial presidential crown” in 2012.  Women like O’Donell and Palin so fit the stereotypical paradigm of pretty but not necessarily intellectually substantive or historically informed.  I’ve yet to see even one interview with Grace Anne Baltich of Hanover, Minnesota, Lynna Lan Tien Nguyen Do of Fremont, California or Tara Andrews of Baltimore, Maryland.  These women have studied diligently, devoted serious time to civic engagement and are preparing themselves to become the next generation of presidential candidates. All meet the age qualification to run in 2012.   Their work and aspirations are documented in She’s out There! Essays by 35 Young women Who Aspire to Lead the Nation, a book and film by Amy Sewell and Heather L. Ogilvie.
In concert with the billionaire Koch brothers who continue the legacy of their father Fred Koch, founder of the John Birch Society, Political Analyst Karl Rove and US Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donahue have sunk their talons into our electoral system and clawed the life out of it.  Groups many naively thought extinct, including the John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan and the Traditional Values Coalition are being fueled by infusions of money and personnel to reignite protracted conflicts based on people’s racial, ethnic, religious, class and gender identities. We’re being marketed into supporting the surgical industrial complex, altering our bodies molecule by molecule and fighting aging with a vengeance, placing way more attention to our VQ’s (Vanity Quotients) than or IQ’s.
An MTV reality crew tapes a full throttle domestic violence incident involving reality show star Amber Portwood.  She pummels her boyfriend Gary Shirley, as their two-year-old daughter sits only a few feet away.  Not one member of the crew stepped up to stop the violence. The moral anchor has been wobbly for a spell, but now it almost seems to have corroded, totally.  People also have no problem killing someone over tennis shoes or, positioning themselves for high hair pulling drama by displaying multiple levels of egomaniacal dysfunction in the media.  Humiliation has become a national sport leading to untold numbers of young people choosing suicide, snuffing out their futures on an almost daily basis.  The stress of American Exceptionalism, a two centuries long, unsustainable practice, has taken the country to the brink and kept us from focusing on the hearts and souls of our own citizens.  As Toronto Star Columnist Richard Gywn notes, “It’s (America) exhausted its quota, a very large one indeed, of bright, confident mornings.” 
We’ve bombed millions of others, as well as ourselves, into a psychotic state and evidence of the walking wounded surround us daily: maimed and homeless vets, many of whom are women trying to raise babies while still dancing on the remains of their adolescence; banks hiring hairdressers, teenagers and Walmart greeters to sign-off on loan modifications for mortgages; unemployed college graduates saddled with six-figure debt.  With rare exceptions, the voices of progressives are barely audible in the blast of the media.  And the ongoing stupefying demonization of President Barack Obama ricochets like the “Theatre of the Absurd” plays of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Tom Stoppard.
In Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, by Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi, a brutal portrayal of the financial industry services is rolled out on a canvas that paints a neo realistic image of the fiscal dysfunction of the country.  While I have my own long-held concerns about the size and function of government, their deep reach into my privacy and layers of incompetence (with the exception of the efficient employees at Social Security), social orders need governments to implement laws and policies that make them possible to get food on the table safely, provide necessary maintenance of infrastructure and provide essential services that get us water to drink and paid for our work.  But the jockeying for running the country like a corporation has taken hold withwe the people being fired at will by empire builders committed to clearing the landscape of the growth of Democracy.

So, where do you take a country for rehab?  Certainly not the Jersey Shore; Nor is this work that falls under the purview of media therapist Dr. Phil or celebrity rehab Guru Dr. Drew Pinsky.  While Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity is an invitation to engage in civility, everyday across the centuries Americans have organized, fiercely fought for social justice and worked right at the dinner table to rehabilitate our country.  These efforts are now minimized and overshadowed by the drama and madness of the racial, ethnic, gender, class warfare and religious vilification.  They are also being derailed by strategically forged policies to use debt and foreclosure as tools to suffocate millions of Americans who were called abominable if they didn’t “buy” into the American Dream. Along with humiliation, demonizing the poor by religious leaders and politicians has created a real societal disconnect reducing us to random acts of compassion.  But acts of oppression have been far from random.
Children around the rest of the world may soon read a “Once Upon a Time” tale about a country that died before its time because “Dr. Biggy Greedlove” and a select cadre of corporate troops dismantled the Democracy millions of workers on assembly lines, poets and artists, surgeons and teachers across the United States once worked diligently to try and build.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her blog is or email

Copyright Oakland, CA 2010

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How Servitude Fed, Housed, Clothed
and Introduced Us to the Realities of Power
By Daphne Muse
Although people aspire to serve their countries, communities and callings, they don’t necessarily aspire to engage in servitude.  While servitude is not unique to African American culture and continues to be practiced in societies around the world, it is brutally and systemically situated in black life and culture, as a result of the European slave trade that began in the 15th century.  As black men who came “Up South” to Washington, DC in 1944 and to be warmed by other suns, they housed, fed and clothed us through servitude.  As someone who learned how some of the ways in which privilege and power drove the Beltway, and turned the world, for me “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is deeply personal.  But I entered the theater with historical fatigue and tremendous trepidation.
Opening with a sweeping arc of history that takes us from a contemporary scene inside the White House, the film segues two centuries back to the murderous brutality of slavery.  In a riveting scene played out in a plantation cotton field, we see a young boy witness the point blank murder of his father at the hands of a plantation owner who has just raped his mother.  In this moment, I’m transfixed by the remarkable performance of Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl).  Her eyes and body language powerfully convey the pain of that history.
 That boy Cecil Gaines would go from the field to the house serving the mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) to becoming a waiter at a fancy country club and eventually Cecil Gaines a White House butler who serves seven presidents across the twentieth century in what was then arguably one of the most powerful ten powerful square miles in the world.
  As butlers at the White House and at cocktail parties for the "Emperors of K Street,” dinners and soirees in private homes, elite clubs, embassies and cultural venues along the Eastern Seaboard, my uncle George Y. Muse (Unc) and father Fletcher H. Muse, Sr., themselves two generations out of slavery, were two of the “invisible” men who heard and saw how the architects of 20th century power and opulence bridged the Beltway and branded the Empire.  Unc served as a contract butler at the White House from the late 1950s through the first Clinton administration and worked under Eugene Allen, the head butler.  Contract butlers were brought on board to augment staff for state dinners, inaugurations and other grand scale events at the White House. Though not a biopic, the film is based around Allen’s life.  
 Their work took them both into the bowels of politics and power, as they heard, overheard and often did not want to hear decisions sealing the fate of their families, friends and the future of the country, including the planning of coups, sabotaging of civil rights legislation and the aborting of people’s personal dreams.  Often dad and Unc knew what was going to be in the Washington Post, Evening Star or New York Times even before the president.  But the job came with a protocol and requirement of discretion that mostly sealed their tongues and prevented them from speaking about what they heard, saw or were asked to do.
My dreams of what I thought my parents should have been materialized for my mother as the textile artist she is and late in life for my father.  Despite the working class jobs they held, they brought the world home to us through books and periodicals we otherwise would not have known about, access to an array of very interesting resources and at the dinner table where a bottle of Rothschild’s Champagne was paired with a pot of amazing curry or a 1957 Dom Perignon was offered up with collard greens cooked in smoked pig knuckles, accompanied by candied sweet potatoes, fried corn with okra and my dad’s infamous and silky light biscuits.  Daddy really knew how to put on the “dawg” and make it bark.
During the day my father worked as an administrative assistant at the Department of Defense and Unc worked in the print shop at the Library of Congress.  Both had toiled on the railroad and relished getting off the rails.  At night and on weekends they were transformed into butlers by a black tuxedo, hand-tied bow tie and practice of protocol. Whatever we think of these men from our remove, the Beltway Butlers were not “yessa boss, shoe shufflin’ servants”; they carried themselves with a professional poise and dignity often teaching members of the ruling class a thing or two, while schooling them on the idiosyncrasies and social proclivities of world leaders.
In the film, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) make the demanding work of servitude look effortless, as was required by the demands of the job. And the brother man bond is so evident from the kitchen to the card table where they find rare respite from the demands of the day.  I felt as though director Lee Daniels’, the crew and actors came right up in one of those Monday night poker games in our basement, as Diana Washington’s soul poured from the Hi-fi.  They sat with dad, Unc, Mr. Lynch, and the other butlers around the table, right there in the cut of the cards, hanging on to their every word as they jive talked and brought on the same kind of poker faces that were required to navigate their invisibility as butlers. Almost to a person, these are bone marrow deep performances, where Daniels extracts every ounce of detail to the craft possible.  The wives of the butlers are also authentically portrayed across the periods reflected in the film, including the era just as they are poised on the cusp of the whirlwind of the Women’s Movement. 
In the butler’s world, some of the most hilarious moments came when they would joke about what it would be like to have a “spook” in the White House.  Along with jazz, hard bop and soul piping into the sound system, collard greens would replace asparagus, barbecue sauce Hollandaise, a cure for racism would be found and Africa would be front and center in ways it never had been.  Along with the normal hazards that come with carving meat with the precision of a surgeon, carrying heavy trays and synchronizing the removal of plates from the table, these men also had to damn up their bodies against the advances of white women whose eyes and hands wandered across borders and boundaries not theirs to claim.  According to stories passed along very late in life by some of the butlers, there were dinner parties held in socially safe houses where men who legislated against debauchery by day deeply engaged in it at night.  At intersections like this, butlers really had to render themselves invisible, excusing themselves to cleanup duty or time served for the evening. We harvested many back stories of history, from my father and uncle’s experiences.
But servitude was an economic decision borne out of necessity; options and access for jobs as teachers, doctors and politicians were limited by the strict codes and policies of race.  Some of them had sixth grade educations, while others like former White House Chief Butler Alonzo Fields (1933-1953) studied at the New England Conservatory of Music to become a concert singer.  In a fashion uncharacteristic to most, Fields kept a journal which can be found in the archives of President Harry S. Truman.  That journal served as a field research for his 1961 book My 21 Years at the White House.
Like Lucille Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), arguments ensued around how their lives were being taken over and away from them.  My mother went real deep on the matter, when dad informed her that a Mrs. Marshall, one of the women for whom he worked, asked him to Miss Daisy her to her summer home in Alabama.  I was also quite perplexed as to why Cold War Hawks and men like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg called to book parties with dad.  My brother Vincent and I wondered if these men did not want their wives talking on the phone with black men and that’s why they instead their wives called.  Some also maintained tony pied-à-terres specifically designated for entertaining, unbeknownst to their wives, at places like the Woodner and Watergate Towers.
My cousin Lydia Muse Clemons, a retired Student Accounts Assistant at the National Labor College, AFL-CIO, carries forward a tender set of memories about her father.  “During my during my lunch break one day, I took a walk through Lafayette Park (across from White House).  My dad was there with his co-workers, waiting to report to work.  They had on their white shirts, tuxedo pants and tie (untied around their necks).”  Tuxedos were expensive and Georgetown thrift stores were the primary source for their elegant uniforms.  “These men, especially my dad, looked so handsome and stately,” notes Lydia. 
Unc served at the weddings for Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter’s Luci Baines and Lynda Bird Johnson, and Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia. And it must have been mind blowing in 1963, when he navigated a sea of black people who had been invited by President John F. Kennedy to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.  While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. strategically declined the controversial invitation, in the mix were politicians, members of the black leadership and cultural icons including Urban League Director Whitney Young, Dean of the Black Press corps Simeon Booker, poet Langston Hughes and writer James Baldwin. There also were some powerful black women in attendance including publisher Eunice Johnson, and civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley who would go on to be appointed a Federal Judge by President Johnson in 1966.
One of the highlights in Unc’s life occurred while serving a luncheon in the early 90s.  Over the rims of the crystal wine glasses arose the distinct voice of a black man calling out “Unc.”  As he looked up, one of our childhood friends Clement Price was in attendance at the luncheon. Price, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History and Director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers gave him the ubiquitous “gimme some skin bro’” as they embraced. As more blacks began to attend state dinners and other events at the White House, cocktail parties and embassy soirees, the pride quotient lifted as they witnessed blacks sourcing and ascending to their own power.
  I remember dad coming home so excited about the fact that the Modern Jazz Quartet had played at a cocktail party; being in the moment when Joe Zawinul brought the house down at the Newport Jazz Festival where dad served a series of parties held at the summer home of heiress Oatsie Leiter; or an opening for Lyrical Abstractionist Sam Gilliam.  My father was beside himself, when he learned what white folk were paying for a black man’s art.  During one of the parties he served at Mrs. Lieter’s Georgetown home, Leontyne Price was in attendance.  Price presented my father with a copy of the program from the opening of the Met at Lincoln Center in 1966.  Printed on silk, the program notes Price’s performance as Cleopatra and the choreographic debut for Alvin Ailey.  My father gave it to me in 1966 and it now hangs in my home among the more than twelve thousand rare black books, posters, ephemera and art works I’ve collected since being given that piece.
My cousin Sadie Muse Hall, a retiree from DC Parks and Recreation, maintains a collection of memorabilia including place setting cards from state dinners and Christmas cards.  Staff and contract butlers often received Christmas cards from presidents.  Unc gave me a menu card from a luncheon commemorating First Lady and women’s rights pioneer Eleanor Roosevelt 100th birth and a 1967 Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s Christmas card painted by Robert Laessig. 
Both Unc and daddy were members of the Private Butlers Association (PBA), an organization cofounded by Leon Thompson in the early 30’s.  Thompson served as President Herbert Hoover’s steward in charge of personal affairs.  The PBA set the pay scale for the contract butlers and in 1967, they were paid $10.00 an hour for the first three hours and $20.00 an hour thereafter. According to San Francisco City College professor of economics Dr. Marc Kitchel “In today’s economy that $10.00 would equate to an hourly wage of $65.81.”  While not the norm, one-hundred dollar tips were not uncommon.  While I don’t know what his salary was for his job as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense, it required him to take on a second job to support our family.  In two scenes that simply infuriated me, Gaines takes his unwavering politeness to Chief Usher and overseer RD Warner (Jim Gleason).  Gaines goes to him with a request for an increase in wages based on the fact that the butlers, who were all black, made 40% less than any of the white staff overseeing duties related to the preparation and serving of meals. The Chief Usher’s indignant smirk of a “no” to both requests seethes with the hostility catapulted upon black men.  But according to William Hamilton who served as the storeroom manager for 55 years, the butlers refusal to serve a state dinner if they did not get a raise, resulted in President Johnson giving the raise.
 One reason dad may not have worked at the WH may well have had to do with the pay scale and the fact that white staff were paid more than blacks and there were no tips.  At other venues, along with twenty-five to one hundred dollar tips, bottles of premium spirits also were offered up to butlers like my father and uncle for they knew how to rescue a potential culinary disaster or recover a breech in protocol.  Rich white folk were not serving soul food at these parties.  On more than one occasion dad had to rescue a turtle soup, prepare a Beef Wellington or reconstruct a Lobster Newburg because the cook was drunk or simply did not show.  Many of the butlers also were master carvers who could turn a watermelon into a basket of fruit or peel the skin back on a turkey, carve the meat into thin slices and replace the skin, making it appear as though the meat wasn’t even carved.   My father also had the kind of palate where he could taste something once and replicate it.  I’ll never forget my first ever experience with curry; he made it for my eleventh birthday.  He served it with every condiment imaginable including kumquats and Major Grey Chutney.  The bliss of that dish still lingers on my palate.
My father leveraged his work quite strategically, but also raised the five of us to question the American dream and the role of black people in it.  In 1967, my father called in a favor from California Republican Congressman William Mailliard, a friend of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren.  Within six months of making the request, my brother Lowell Vincent Muse (now a sound engineer with NPR) was appointed as a page at the Supreme Court.  Warren would go on to be appointed Chief Justice in 1969.  There Vincent was mentored by Lyndon Johnson appointee Thurgood Marshall, the first known black appointed to the court.  My brother Fletcher was fulfilling his passion for aviation by serving in the Air Force as an Electric Power Production Technician. The youngest, David Russell, was still in school.
Both my parents made it clear that racism was the pathology of white people and becoming them was not a goal.  The narrative on race was super charged in our home, because dad was as staunch an integrationist, as mom was a segregationist.  My mother still washes the colored clothes before the whites.  During the summer of 64, I was the help working for Congressman Millard.  My mother was livid; but I just wanted to earn enough money to return to college and graduate. At the end of summer, I got a job running data sorting machines and computers at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company and was able to save enough money to finish my last two years at Fisk.
Just as Gaines was caught off guard by his son’s turn towards activism, my father was not prepared for the reality of the results of us challenging the American dream.  In 1965, I became deeply entrenched in movement politics, like Gaines son Louis (David Oyelowo).  As a student at Fisk University in Nashville, epicenter for sit-ins, I combined my scholarship with activism and attended meetings and workshops led by Diane Nash, Reverend Jim Lawson and foot soldiers from SNCC.  While others were freedom riding, I was building my courage to step in the bolder arena running mimeograph machines to reproduce flyers announcing SNCC-related events on campus and in Nashville.  Lawson and Nash also conducted riveting workshops which introduced me to the incendiary policies fueling the War on Vietnam.
While the butler is not a civil rights film, the arc of the movement comes front and center through the son who is portrayed as a freedom rider, confidant of Dr. King, black panther, candidate for congress in Tennessee and then as an anti-apartheid activist.  Here we get to see how the anti-apartheid policies of Ronald Regan whose wife Nancy (Jane Fonda) invites Cecil and Lucille to a state dinner.  At one point, Reagan says to Gaines, “You’re just like family,” one of those patronizing remarks that sends me into a tailspin and to which I always want to holla, “Does that translate into an inheritance?”  Cecil and his son reunite shortly after he bears witness to Reagan’s horrific policies against South Africa.
What I needed the film to do was make it resounding clear that these holders of power simply did not have a change of heart, when it came to the legislative shifts in racial policies.  The leadership and foot soldiers of SNCC, bold strategists including Bayard Rustin, relentless women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, the Black Panthers and countless unnamed community organizers across the country inherently made that possible.  But those relationships with presidents and other policy makers in some instances had influence as well. 
 A couple of years after graduating from Fisk University in 1967, I became deeply involved with Drum and Spear Bookstore founded by SNCC legends including Ralph Featherstone, Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox and Judy Richardson.  There my commitment to struggle deepened as I studied and digested the canon of black life and culture.  As a result of my work at Drum and Spear, I was assigned my own FBI agent, Jim South. South used to follow me from Drum and Spear to my apartment in Adams Morgan in his unmarked car.  What I came to appreciate about being escorted to and from work was that I was often carrying thousands of dollars in receipts from the store through a neighborhood rife with drug dealing, robberies and assaults.  
Things were growing increasing frightening and heady for my parents and their job security, when my brother Leonard’s name showed up in a 1969 report from the House on Un-American Activities.  My parents’ fright and fury continued to ricochet off the walls, when I was summoned in 1970 to testify before the Grand Jury.  Jail and the idea of raising my bail were pounding against their skulls like chain gang hammers. Two agents showed up to question dad about my activities. After moving to Arizona in late 1970, a white hippie mail man, not in uniform, delivered my diploma and Scrabble set to my parents’ home.  The FBI failed to return my books on Marcus Garvey and WEB Dubois, but not my letters from Shirley Graham Dubois, Mrs. Amy Jacques Garvey or Helga Rodgers, the wife of J.A. Rogers.
Like Eugene Allen, Unc and daddy stood in some of history’s most compelling and gut wrenching moments observing it being made, distorted and destroyed by the “stench” of the tides rising from the Potomac, the Pentagon and corridors of K Street. In 1980, when Grover Norquist’s hand was all up in the mix in Nicaragua and Angola, and without going into specifics, my father told me that a young upstart would come to wreak havoc on the political landscape.  While protocol and discretion were practiced, it came at a high cost:  Dickel, Jack Daniel’s and when he could get it Georgia Moonshine tortured and consumed him. But not before he got to strike his own thunder.
Whether you want to call it a twist of historical irony or long range strategy, in 1981 dad fled DC.  After Ronald Reagan was elected the stench of the Potomac increased exponentially and the growing visibility of Henry Kissinger, for whom he adamantly refused to serve parties, was overpowering. He returned to Cuthbert, Georgia where he was born and in the early 90s was elected to his own seat of power, as a commissioner for Randolph County and a board member for the Georgia Preservation Society. There he removed the mask and was able to place his unbridled tongue, with a magnitude of forthrightness, on the direct descendants of the white folks who had enslaved our family.
            Unc, others who served at the White House, my father, other members of the Private Butlers Association and Jack Valenti may well have thought highly of this riveting and superbly acted film that pays tribute to black men who toiled to make servitude appear effortless and casts the arc of the Civil Rights Movements, through the lens of a tumultuous father-son relationship.  For several years, Valenti, confidant of Lyndon Johnson, arch enemy of J. Edgar Hoover and former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hosted an annual film screening and dinner party for the members of the Private Butlers Association and their wives at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters in DC.
It is clear to me that there are people within this team who have the vision and capacity for bringing us films that present the passion, brilliance and range of dimensions with which black people live life.  I so hope that Wil Haygood’s book on Thurgood Marshall makes its way onto the screen, just as his Washington Post article on Eugene Allen did.  We also have to see more from Ava DuVernay (The Middle of Nowhere), Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).  This fall, Dave Talbert’s “Baggage Claim,” Neil Drumming’s “Big Words” and “12 Years a Slave” by Steven McQueen will hit the big screen.  I’m also eager to see what filmmakers who are now establishing themselves like Ryan Cooger, Kahlil Joseph and L. Onye Anyanwu are going to bring to the table.  Since the seventies I’ve wanted to buy a ticket to see a feature film on the incredible life of poet Langston Hughes; compelling historical and contemporary love stories (especially one set during the movement that then progresses into the generations born of those parents); and a quirky comedy about a black woman who started out as a dancer and literally takes a quantum leap into becoming a Theoretical Physicist, where she makes even bolder discoveries about the universe in which we live.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her commentaries have aired on NPR, appeared at Portside, in the Washington Post and Black Scholar.  She spent six years writing for Breaking Barriers, a collaborative project between Scholastic and the Office of Education at Major League Baseball.  For several decades she served on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College.  During her service at Mills, a daughter of the family where she was the help was a student.  She blogs at

©Daphne Muse 2013

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Homage to Helen of Washington

Homage to Helen of Washington
While some people camped out over night to get tickets to a Michael Jackson concert, the opening of “Star Wars” or worship at the Cathedral of Saint Tennis Shoe, I stood in the “line of history” for almost five decades to meet Senior White House Reporter Helen Thomas.  Growing up in our home in Washington, DC, my dad appointed her our kind of “royalty.” Her columns became decrees, with some of them contributing to the mission statement for my social activism. 
When my dad would come home from serving parties at private clubs, in the homes of Beltway elites and K Street cocktail parties, he would note with great excitement that there was a woman in the press corps who was “wrecking their nerves.”  Her historical acumen, political savvy and journalistic integrity were proving to be a bane to their existence.  The Beltway Boys and K Street lobbyist tried everything to discredit and dishonor her including trying “to boil her in vats of sexism.” But despite their decades-long efforts, she continued to crash the glass ceiling with the cape of tenacity draped across her shoulders.
In 1961, Thomas became the first female member of the White House Press Corp and from that point forward unbolted every door slammed in her face. She segued seamlessly from covering celebrity profiles and social issues, to foreign policy, the encroaching tentacles of K Street and the tenures of ten presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. Prior to joining the White House Press Corps, she covered the Department of Justice, FBI and Capitol Hill.  Fierce and factual, her goal was to get relevant and straight forward answers to tough questions and translate them into how the country was being run, who was running it as well as insisting upon clarification applied to the policies and laws by which it was being run. While many inside the Beltway continued to bend the bough of ethics and operate without even a molecule of a conscience, she maintained an insistence upon integrity that made the “Thank you, Mr. President” with which she closed out each press conference more than a salute to etiquette. 
In September of 2009, I moved to the front of that line in which I’d waited since 1962 and met her.  She and Congresswoman Barbara Lee came to Mills College where they engaged in a riveting conversation focused on President Obama’s promises and agenda brimming with hope and new possibilities.  Her book Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do had just been released and served as part of the focus for the conversation as well. I arrived early to the event to ensure that I would get a seat and upon arriving, sat out in the lobby across from a woman who engaged me in conversation rather quickly.  It turned out that the woman, Abby Johollo, was her travel companion and attendant.  We quickly found ourselves immersed in a conversation about her homeland of Sierra Leone and discussing her country’s comeback from the ravages of civil war.  She ended up escorting me into the reception and introducing me to Ms. Thomas, who spent the next fifteen minutes attentively talking to me, when I told her the story of how long I’d stood in the line of history waiting to meet her.  We talked about my “invisible” father hearing denigrating remarks uttered, as he served cocktails and canapés, some of her most memorable moments covering ten US presidents and Mama Ayesha’s iconic restaurant in Washington, DC; a favorite for us both. 
Awed by the presidency, but not the presidents, her fierceness, intelligence and precise knowledge of US policy made it possible to navigate through the quagmire of presidential politics like no reporter had before.  Lyndon Johnson, whose relationship with the press came with a serious tension, could not believe that in addition to heady challenges from Civil Rights leaders and the enormous opposition to the War on Vietnam, the likes of Helen Thomas was one of the contending forces in his life.  Eventually she would find herself declaring Johnson one of the best presidents ever for his work on the “War on Poverty.”  From President Johnson and “Bush the Younger” to Obama, she saw how bills and legislation were misapplied under the guise of wars we were told were essential to Democracy.  Thousands of those battered and barely breathing men and women have come home from wars, only to be “discharged” by policies that did nothing to help them keep their homes from being foreclosed upon or faced with the utter treachery of navigating the terrain of health benefits entwined in Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
After the conversation there was a book signing.  I purchased multiple copies and invited her to join me in the coming months at my brother’s home in DC, where I often held dinner parties when I went home.  In 2010, when I came I invited her to have tea, for my brother was ill and hosting a dinner party at his home was not an option.  She said, “Oh, no my dear, no tea.  You are joining me for dinner at the Press Club to listen to the State of the Union Address.”  There I sat next to this living textbook in what truly was an historically and socially surreal moment.  She deftly navigated me through the nuances of every statement the president uttered and clarified the relationship between the reality of the related policies and the rhetorical cushioning used to position and align himself with his then hope-filled message.

 After the speech, several people spoke to me and commented on how they had not seen me in such a long time.  Well, I didn’t know any of these people and was absolutely perplexed by their claims of knowing me.  Later my brother Vincent commented that they had to know me, because I was at the table with Helen Thomas. 
She insisted that I call her Helen and the protocol of my strict black southern upbringing made that difficult.  We were not allowed to call anyone a generation or more above us by their first names.  But she would not accept anything else.  So Helen it became, and friends we did as well.  On subsequent trips, we shared lunch at her apartment and drank tea infused with Meyer Lemons I brought her from my garden in Oakland.  Upon being condemned and subsequently terminated for making remarks critical of Israel, she told me that some who had bestowed awards and honors upon her, asked that she return them; I was appalled and infuriated.
          Every couple of months, I’d call and she continued to introduce me to new chapters in the “textbook.”  The last time I visited, I took her to dinner at DC’s renowned Eatonville.  She was enthralled by how creatively appointed this iconic culinary and literary tribute to 20th century writer Zora Neale Hurston was and talked at length about the deep regard and respect she had for owner Andy Shallal. 
During the months that followed, our conversations were brief, for I could hear her struggling to muster the energy to discuss our mutually held outrages about American exceptionalism and the steady rise of the waves of Fascism licking at the shores of the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific.  But her mind nor spine were never fractured or crushed by the boots of power attempting to rest on her neck. We also fantasized about ideas for forging peace, in Congress and the Middle East, at a time when we both felt the bottom had fallen out of hell. 
She also loved to hear about what I’d planted in my garden, a place where I will honor her during my next season of planting by naming the growing enclave of rescued orchids after her.  On each visit to her apartment, there was a fresh orchid on the table.  To have been a part of Helen’s life and witness this incredibly brilliant and fierce seasoned elder has given me the courage to face more daunting days.  She and her legacy will remain my teacher and mentor, as I continue to stand on the shoulders of her fierceness observing the landscape being racially torn asunder, fracked and droned by some of those same men who tried to boil her in those vats of sexism.
 From ancestral roots in Tripoli to her birthplace in Winchester, Kentucky to growing up in Detroit and navigating her way as an author and journalist through the congressional and presidential corridors of Washington, DC, her life reflected an unrelenting desire to see America realize the real Democracy it was once on the threshold to becoming.  I’m just so fortunate to have lived at a time when hers was a voice that unhinged so many doors that shut out women. She stood among the tall trees in a stand where she neither bowed nor bent.  Even from the back row, where she had been relegated by the Bush Administration for challenging the war mongering of the Bush-Cheney Cabal, she had such a strategic way of docking words on her tongue before launching them through the titanium walls of power.  Whether it is declared by presidential decree or not, I will honor and celebrate August 4th as Helen Thomas Day for the rest of my days.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  You can read her blogs at

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Today, I had to school a squirrel named Leroy

Today, I had to school a squirrel named Leroy

There is this squirrel that runs the fence and arbors in my orchard, in order to get up in the plum tree and take a bite out of every plum he can. Communicating with Leroy comes with challenges, because I don’t speak Squirrel and he doesn’t speak English. He just might comprehend it though. Either way, I had to have a talk with him the other day to school Leroy on the protocol of my garden, how it grows and its multiple purposes.  I started by calling out his name and probably waking everyone within a ten block radius.  I got hecka pipes.  It also helps for some of my neighbors to think I’m just a little cray, cray.  The boom in my voice sure caught his attention, as he stopped mid fence when I said squirrel.  Leroy perked up on his hind legs locked onto my eyes and listened up, before scurrying away.

I know his species is born toothless and blind, and probably there is this instinct is to play catch up once the teeth and sight arrive.  In a behavior parallel to Leroy’s, there are children who pull fruit from my trees and use it to pitch at the windows of the houses behind me.  The destruction of other people’s property seemingly has become fair game.  They also don’t recognize that this fruit growing in our yards is food that you bring to the table.  I went on to explain that this is real food, just like the kind you find at the grocery store and asked if they would pitch the food from their tables at somebody’s windows. The last time I caught the gang of three, I recommended they make lemonade and enjoy it.  I’m also going to give their family some recipes for making lemon bars, cookies and popsicles.

Like gophers and humans, squirrels can be very invasive.  While I don’t want to disrupt Leroy’s cycle and right to life, I’ve got to come up with a strategy to prevent him from destroying this fruit from which I make plum juice, nectar of the gods plum mojitos and sauce for my vanilla bean ice cream. I’m also clear that “hood rodents” have very different survival instincts.  While I don’t want the PETA people demonstrating outside my home, short of calling in UN Peace Keepers, I’m hoping to come up with a strategy for détente that allows for Leroy and me to coexist respecting the fact that we both maintain residency in the same space and love the plums.  I’m going to ask my neighbor if I can coat the top of the fence with oil to prevent Leory from scurrying across it and getting up in my tree. 

A friend told me that while in Holland attending a film festival, her husband took a side trip to purchase tulip bulbs.  When he returned home, he proudly got on his knees and planted them in the yard only to watch the squirrels dig them up before they’d rooted in the comfort of the soil.  The apple tree I planted last year now has fruit on it about to ripen.  If Leroy or his chipmunk and marmot cousins, or any other members of his clan, take to biting up my apples, then all bets may well be off the table.  While I’m unequivocally opposed to Squirrel Wars or calling on the drones, Leroy and his crew simply can’t invade the nation of my garden. They are more than welcome to cross the borders, enjoy the fruits that fall to the ground while basking in the sun and meditating beyond the sounds of urban gunfire piercing the otherwise stillness of the night air. 

Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator, poet and urban gardener.  Her orchard and garden are filled with citrus plum and apple trees, herbs, orchids rescued from dumpsters and heritage roses.  She spent more than thirty years in higher education, serving on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College and as an administrator.  Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, This Week in Palestine and in several curriculum projects including Breaking Barriers for the Commission on Major League Baseball. She blogs at
©Daphne Muse, Oakland, CA 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Daddy Mattered

Why Daddy Mattered:  A Father’s Day Ode to the Commish
My daddy mattered as more than a symbol or memory.  He was so there for me in ways that guided me through heady challenges and gave his unyielding support to make it possible for me to claim some of my life’s major victories.  By the time I was seven-years-old, I really understood the power of words, language and the ability to communicate with others.  It turned into a behavioral problem though, when in second grade, I just could not stop talking.  I talked to strangers (and still do), imaginary friends, classmates and my brothers who were younger than me and still grappling with forming words and ideas into language.  But my second grade teacher was not interested in the power of my words and as a real “Queenie Meany,” she struck holy terror in the classroom with a scowl and yard stick that ruled supreme; but obviously not supremely enough for me to shut my mouth.
As responsible teachers did at that time, she placed a call to our home requesting that my parents come up to the school and conquer my speak out demons.  Daddy came and called me out in front of the entire class for lacking the ability to obey Ms. Hughes imperious command to shut up.  Under my breath and in between my clinched teeth, I was saying all kind of defiant things, while being issued a cease and desist order to stop talking in class. Recently, my mom told me my dad was kicked out of Masons for being loquacious and challenging their practices.
 That visit to my class would be the beginning of a series of visits my dad would make over the decades to speak with my teachers about my errant behavior and achievements as well.  I would later find out that while he was growing up, he was rather challenging in his own right taking on my switch whuppin’ grandmother Johnny Clyde Muse, who would beat all up on you without batting an eye or issuing one iota of empathy.  As her favored child, he was spared many a switch waging moment and her unyielding brutality.
          One fire fly filled DC summer evening when I was all of twelve, Daddy called me to the porch front steps to deliver a very poignant biology lesson.  As I sat on our front steps listening, he was instructing me on my pending womanhood.  Three weeks later, my period showed up while I was riding my brother Fletcher’s bike. As an adult, he would give a similar set of instructions about pursuing a healthy sexual life, when in the course of a conversation we were having about my one college boyfriend; he realized that at twenty-two I was still a virgin.  
Throughout my schooling he intervened to put me on a corrective course when I strayed morally or academically.  In sixth grade, I stole a bag of potato chips, which fell from under my coat.  The store owner reported the theft to my teacher and not the cops, thus preventing me from entering a school to prison pipeline.  My teacher called the house to report the incident and the discovery of a journal he found which clearly detailed joining a girls’ gang.  Mr. Brown was adamant that becoming a juvenile delinquent was not in my stars, as he guided me towards my passion for geography and cartography, both of which also were encouraged by my father through subscriptions to National Geographic, maps he brought home for his job and a globe that I kept in the room I shared with one of my brothers.  Mr. Brown made it clear that prison was not in my future.  My father showed up to gather the details and address the matters.  He was furious with me and pointed out that I wasn’t a competent thief, nor was the gang life on my path.
In junior high he put the Algebra teacher on notice regarding her inability to teach me the subject comprehensively, because previous indicators through grades and tests indicated that I had solid math skills. He hired Mr. Guthrie, a graduate student at Howard University, to tutor me. Holding down two jobs, Dad was a clerk at the Defense Department by day and a private butler at night and on the weekends, serving parties in embassies, private clubs, museums and homes along the Eastern Seaboard.  I now know he must have had to take on extra work to afford those fees.  While my dad couldn’t make the plays I was in, my induction into the Honor Society or track meets, when called up to the school on matters of urgency, he was there. After telling him that my high school chemistry teacher “hit on me” (old school terms for sexual harassment), my father marched up to the school to meet with and inform him that he would put the Bunsen Burner up his ass, if that thought even entered his mind. I felt so protected by my dad. 
          In 1962 as I went off to Fisk University to go to college, my dad drove me from DC to Nashville.  It was the road trip of a life time, for I had him all to myself as we navigated the treacherous unlit and especially racially inconvenient roads of the South.  When I had to leave school for a year, because the scholarship promised in writing was given to someone else, he got me job as a maid with a family for whom he worked.  After my mother expressed indignation and outrage at her daughter working as a maid, he called in another chit and I got very interesting job working at the C&P Telephone Company running IBM main frame computers for the telephone company.  That job enabled me to save enough money in a year to complete my remaining two years of college.
When I graduated from college and stated I did not want to march, he was adamant that if he had to walk me across the stage himself he would.  I was incensed that our speaker was some major or general in the army and refused to keep my mouth shut about it. But I marched, on my father’s orders.  As I matured into an adult, my father stood with me during many a crisis.  When I got my first apartment he was dumbfounded that I insisted on getting a single bed.  Often slow on the social uptake, I couldn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t, until I got a boyfriend.
When I became a single parent at age twenty-six, we almost parted ways.  He proclaimed he could have dealt with this if it had happened when I was fifteen.  I doubt that, seriously.  He stood with me at my wedding and couldn’t stop laughing when I told him I was about to marry a Mississippi born white boy.  After all, I was still reeling through the headiness of the times I spent as a Black Nationalist.  He came to cherish my husband and in-laws dearly and prepared a series of sumptuous dishes, including his legendary potato salad, for Art and Margaret’s 50th wedding anniversary in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  He said he would have come to California more often, but always thought it would fall in the ocean.  He also had a major disdain for Ronald Reagan, who was governor during some of times he and mom visited. 
During an especially heady period where my parenting skills and daughter’s life were in real turmoil, he stood with me firmly and clearly demonstrated how he truly believed in me.  Though not an affectionate man, he knew how to comfort me.  His wit, worldliness and intellect served as reassuring stepping stones out of many an emotional quagmire.
 When my parents moved from Washington, DC back to rural Georgia in 1980, dad got involved in local politics and became a county commissioner.  We bestowed the title of “The Commish” upon him, as he challenged white folk hell bent on keeping the good ol’ boys club at full membership and took on black people who refused to challenge policies dismembering their humanity.  He unnerved many a white man and upset too many colored people who just wanted to remain locked down in fear. The protocol that most often “filtered” his public tongue earlier in life, because of the work he did as a civil servant and private butler, was dismissed completely and the stark forthrightness of his manner reigned supreme, as he became a seasoned elder. 
 Witty, intellectually crisp and at times scandalous, I witnessed and understood his flaws and watched him navigate moral breeches that brought us to the brink of falling out, but never severing our ties.  I’ve spent the last fifteen years, communicating with him through photographs, dreams and memories; some brutal and others endearing. Whatever his flaws and failures may have been, he taught me to address mine head on and helped shape my character is ways for which I am eternally grateful.  He protected me in a Papa Bear kind of way and stood with me through so many of my life’s butt bruising, soul-crushing and spirit tossing lessons.  I am partly the woman I am, because “Daddy Really Mattered.”
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  She spent more than thirty years in higher education, serving on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College and as an administrator.  Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, This Week in Palestine and in several curriculum projects including Breaking Barriers for the Commission on Major League Baseball. She blogs at
©Daphne Muse 2013, Oakland, CA