The Wisdom of Our Elders

I delivered this message for Acts Community Baptist Church’s commemoration of National Children’s Sunday on June 8, 2014.

Please bow your heads. Lord, thank you for providing us with the opportunity to convene together in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are grateful for the angels that you have bestowed upon us that we call children. May we always honor, cherish and uplift them as you have commissioned us to do in your Holy Word. Now, as we approach the preaching moment, I humbly ask that you decrease Andrew and increase your presence so that a powerful message can be conveyed today. This I pray in your mighty son’s name. Amen.

Good morning. First, I must give honor to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am thankful for the mercy, compassion and grace that exceed human understanding. Next, I thank my pastor, mentor, advisor, friend and father, Dr. Daryl Hairston, for allowing me to speak on such a momentous occasion – National Children’s Sunday 2014. Last, and certainly not least, I express my sincerest gratitude to the congregation of the Acts Community Baptist Church. For nearly two years, you all have steadfastly supported my father, mother, sister and me, and I love each of you.

Our scripture for today, which was read so eloquently earlier, comes from the fourteenth chapter of the book of Proverbs. I shall begin reading at verse one from the New International Version. Please stand if you are able.

1)   The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down

2)   He whose walk is upright fears the Lord, but he whose ways are devious despises him

3)   A fool’s talk brings a rod to his back, but the lips of the wise protect them

4)   Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest.

5)   A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies

6)   The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning

7)   Stay away from a foolish man, for you will not find knowledge on his lips.

8)   The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception.

You may be seated. In honor of today’s special commemoration of children and their significance, today’s message is entitled the Wisdom of Our Elders. As I begin, I feel the need to incorporate a small anecdote into this speech. After reading a book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Professor Michelle Alexander – which I highly recommend – I decided to write an article about it for my law school’s newspaper. I worked on this project during the few weeks between the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester. The editorial board selected it for publication in the February 2014 edition of the periodical, and I used social media to post the piece in its printed form. As you can imagine, the text was difficult to read as a picture on Facebook, so I contemplated sending copies of the newspaper via mail.

However, the requests continued to grow, and I can personally attest to the fact that a law student’s financial resources are limited. Suddenly, the idea dawned on me to start a blog where I could publish the article, as well as write posts on other subjects. You may be starting to wonder – what does this story have to do with the message? I will tell you now. For the past two weeks, I’ve been contemplating writing a post about the passing of the renowned international figures Nelson Mandela, Amiri Baraka and Dr. Maya Angelou. The aim of the post was going to be to inform the reader of how important it is for us to preserve and strengthen the legacies of these literary and political giants. I finalized my decision to start working on it last Sunday, and that’s when Dad informed me that I would be delivering the Children’s Day speech this year. The Lord spoke to me and led me to the decision to merge the two ideas. I’m excited to present the finished product.

For nearly two weeks, the world has mourned the death of the esteemed poet Dr. Maya Angelou. Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, MO, this scholar’s career extended over six decades. Some of her titles included dancer, singer, artist, writer, university professor, and actress – just to name several. Dr. Angelou wrote a six-volume autobiography during her life, and, arguably, her most popular installment was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book details her impoverished childhood and the experiences that she underwent during her childhood stay with her grandmother in rural Arkansas.

From the foundation she received as a child, she went on to accomplish many remarkable achievements. She acted in the famous television series Roots. She directed the film Down in the Delta. She led the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked for a renowned English language magazine in Cairo, Egypt.

Temporarily put yourself in the shoes of the young Marguerite Johnson, who was undoubtedly similar to many of the young faces I see in front of me. She played with her siblings, attended church with her family and frequently contemplated her future. Do you think that the young Marguerite Johnson ever imagined that she would eventually become a GRAMMY-award winning artist, advisor to Malcolm X or the second poet in history to present his or her work at a presidential inauguration?[1] As a young girl playing in her grandmother’s home, she certainly couldn’t have guessed that she would be the recipient of 50 honorary doctorates in her lifetime, nor that she would be the author of the last powerful lines of Still I Rise:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Dr. Maya Angelou diligently practiced and perfected her various crafts. Her life manifests the first point of today’s message – it is important to study history to fully understand your rich legacy. Just like the woman in verse one of today’s scripture, Dr. Angelou built her house by being an avid reader and a humble learner. She established her presence in art, music and literature by examining the contributions of her ancestors to the various fields that garnered her interest. I look out in the congregation today and see future doctors, lawyers, artists, writers and ministers. All of you will undoubtedly reach heights attained by Dr. Angelou and soar even higher. This feat will be achieved by using your faith in the Lord to tap into the full extent of your wisdom.

The life of another great storyteller warrants reflection as we delve deeper into today’s scripture. Amiri Baraka was born LeRoi Jones on October 7, 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. The year of his birth occurred only several years after the birth of Dr. Angelou, and the United States faced widespread economic deprivation in the form of the Great Depression. He likely faced the same destitution that most American families experienced during this difficult era in history. He attended Howard and Columbia universities before settling in Harlem. It was there that he became an integral part of the Black Arts Movement.

Amiri Baraka fostered the development of other poets and writers who were embroiled in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. He did this by establishing the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem. He used his literary work to take a stand against the rampant forces of oppression and discrimination. One of his early works that exemplified this spirit was his Black nationalist collection of poetry, Black Magic. The Black Arts Movement has been described as a dynamic and effective revolution that was characterized by its advocacy of political and artistic freedom.[2] Amiri Baraka courageously voiced his message of Black empowerment during a time when leaders – such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – were being killed for expressing such views. He passed in January 2014, nine months shy of his eightieth birthday, and he unashamedly continued his message until his death.

The life of Amiri Baraka brings forth the second point of today’s message – it is critical to persevere through adversity by using one’s creativity. Each person in this room is incredibly unique, and God has bestowed each of us with specific talents. Like Amiri Baraka, we must be unafraid to fully utilize these talents to uplift the kingdom of the Lord and to fight for justice and equality. Let us reflect on his poignant words by examining this excerpt from his famous poem – Ka’Ba:

Our world is full of sound

Our world is more lovely than anyone’s

Tho we suffer, and kill each other

And sometimes fail to walk the air.

We are beautiful people

With African imaginations

full of masks and dances and swelling chants

with African eyes, and noses, and arms

tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place

full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We will face challenges, but they may be subtler than the ones that were presented to our ancestors. They might be  bad grades or discouraging remarks. They could be carefully crafted denials or unexpected failures.

When adversity inevitably enters our lives, we can return to verse three of today’s scripture passage. Our wise words will protect us from the rods with which life will attempt to strike us. We must stand fearlessly resolute in out faith and allow the Lord to provide discernment for the appropriate use of our talents. When we apply the example of Amiri Baraka to our lives, we will be able to generate movements and work that were previously unfathomable. With the use of creativity and faith, our perseverance will easily defeat any adversity that appears in the journey of life.

One more prodigious historical figure deserves recognition and examination today – the Honorable Nelson Mandela. Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the Transkei region of South Africa. He was the son of a chief and was considered to be a man of royal lineage. After graduating from the University College of Fort Hare, he moved to Johannesburg. He joined the African National Congress in 1942 and formed the ANC Youth League in 1944. His role in the African National Congress made him the subject of increased government scrutiny.

In 1952, he opened a law practice and was banned from his country for the first time. The next three years marked a period of great difficulty for the resilient Nelson Mandela. He hid from the government using various tactics, but he was ultimately apprehended in 1955. This arrest led to the Treason Trial, and, even though he was not convicted at this trial, the government seized him when he returned to South Africa in 1962. This second detention occurred after Mandela traveled abroad to receive military training in Morocco and Ethiopia, and he returned to South Africa with the intention of leading an armed struggle against the oppressive government.

While Mandela was held in custody, the government raided a compound in Rivonia that housed his ANC colleagues. This raid led to the famous Rivonia trial, in which Mandela and his comrades were put on trial for sabotage. He faced the death penalty during this trial, but it did not dissuade him from delivering his famous ‘Speech from the Dock:’

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.[3]

The revolutionary leader was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years in prison, during which he missed pivotal moments in the lives of his family members. His mother and son died during his imprisonment, and he was not allowed to attend their funerals. He spent much of his sentence in isolation as the world’s concern about the apartheid government grew.

The international pressure on South Africa reached a climax in the mid-1980s. Negotiations began for Mandela’s release around the same time, and these efforts culminated in his release on February 11, 1990. He went on to serve as the first President of the new Republic of South Africa. He served one term and lived fourteen more years. I imagine that he used that time to catch up on the countless memories he missed with his family. He passed away in December 2013 at the age of 95. He was surrounded by his loved ones and was revered as an international hero.

The life of Nelson Mandela provides us with the third and final point of today’s message – chase your largest dreams without fear. As the son of a royal chief, Nelson Mandela was fully aware of his potential. He lived his life in the same fearless manner that Dr. Maya Angelou wrote poetry and Amiri Baraka organized Black artists. Because of their courage, these three iconic heroes exemplified the advice of verse six. They discerned the mysteries of life with the tools they discovered along their journeys. Because of their diligent work, they achieved a rich knowledge – one that I am sure the young spirits in front of me are capable of achieving.

With a proper examination of history, a determination to persevere through the challenges of life, and an imagination full of large dreams, there is no limit to the accomplishments that will follow your names. Remember the lessons that you learn during your experiences with the church; they will strengthen your faith and allow you to easily attain the three points set forth in today’s message. Dr. Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Nelson Mandela led remarkable lives, and they influenced millions through their fervent activism. Their exemplary lives show us that it is possible to change the world.

Follow your dreams when they are presented to you. Write the poem. Paint the picture. Stand up against the injustice. Complete these actions whenever the Lord appoints you to do so. You will face difficulties along your journey, but, when they mount up against you, reflect on the words of Proverbs 14:1-8. Equip yourself with the same knowledge that is discussed in this passage by reading and studying constantly.

Recall the journeys of Dr. Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Amiri Baraka and our countless other ancestors when times get difficult. Their resilience carried them through periods when their sojourns seemed impossible, and they reached the ultimate reward of heaven for their exemplary work. Faith, wisdom and courage led to each of them having a significant impact, and I know you all possess these three qualities. Go forward and change the world. Study, persevere and dream. Amen.

 

[1] http://mayaangelou.wfu.edu/story/family-obituary/

[2] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/blackarts/historical.htm

[3] http://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/biography

About andrewrhairston

Andrew Reginald Hairston is a civil rights attorney and writer. He will soon relocate to Austin, Texas to become the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project Director of Texas Appleseed. He earned his law degree from Louisiana State University in May 2016, where he was a Faculty Scholar. During his time at LSU, he served as the President of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) from 2014 to 2015, as well as the 1L Representative of the organization from 2013 to 2014. While he was the president of LSU BLSA, he served as a member of the Law Center's Diversity Task Force. Mr. Hairston refined his commitment to racial justice work as a law student. He worked as a law clerk for the LSU Parole and Reentry Clinic, and he subsequently served as a student attorney for the LSU Juvenile Defense Clinic. As a third-year student, he was appointed to the Trial Advocacy Board, and he won the Dean's Cup Senior Appellate Challenge during his final semester at the LSU Law Center. Mr. Hairston received his bachelor's degree, cum laude, from Howard University. At Howard, he was actively involved in the Alternative Spring Break program. He worked as a site coordinator to develop and execute the initiative's first trip to Baltimore in the spring of 2013. From 2017 to 2019, Mr. Hairston served as a staff attorney at Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization in Washington, D.C. He began his legal career as the George N. Lindsay Fellow and Associate Counsel at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law from 2016 to 2017. He is licensed to practice law in Louisiana.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s