Wednesday, January 28, 2015

MLK Day in Houston

Founder of Sparrow Hawk Village Carol E. Parrish wrote, “Once a healthy and vibrant land, our country needs to be healed of past and present violence.” That, i think, is what Martin Luther King Jr. was all about, and the reason huge crowds come out for parades and such on that day we have set aside to honor King each year. This year my wife and i marched in Houston’s parade with Randa Fox and her Not On Our Watch America Foundation, (NOOW), a Houston based non-profit seeking to put an end to childhood sexual abuse, and to facilitate healing for victims.

Now, i’ve never been around Houston before, let alone gotten out to a parade. I knew next to nothing about MLK Day in Houston before the morning of the 19th of January just passed. The theme of this year’s parade was Unity, i heard, a dearly needed principle following the events of 2014, and the nature of the relationships in the United States in their wake. The notion is somewhat confused by the fact that there were two separate and competing parades in very close proximity here. The MLK Grande Parade said they expected 300,000 people at their event that took place more or less simultaneously with the Black Heritage Society “Original” Parade in we marched. Still, a  huge and comparably sized crowd managed to attend our parade.  We walked around 20 blocks, each fully lined with families and revelers.

With over 2 million residents, Houston is largely hispanic. Blacks and whites share a fairly even share of around half of the overall population, give or take, according to the Houston Planning Department. Ours being the Black Heritage Society Parade may help explain in part why there were virtually no white faces in the crowd. There were a few, to be sure, but i think there were more white participants in the lineup than spectators on the way. This truth, and the nature of the group we marched with gave me a chance to make a couple observations that i may not have had elsewhere. In Colorado Springs, a city with many demographic distortions, we really don’t get much of a handle on the pulse of Black politics. We also attended a march in Colorado Springs following the decision not to prosecute in the Mike Brown case. One came away from that expression with the sense that Black America is angry, and the way it went down in Ferguson afterward seemed to support the perception. Not so in Houston. Though there may well have been anger among the crowds, the expression toward us, politically motivated marchers made up of an unusually pale mix of ethnicities, was very favorable; not one heckler attempted to deride our message of protection  against sexual abuse for children. On the contrary, quite many along the route were vocally supportive.

I also found it heartening that many of the banners and signs in and around the place carried messages of unity. The “amens” we heard and general thumbs up we saw in support of Not On Our Watch America were gratifying and encouraging. Maybe the frogs in the pot are beginning to notice the water has heated to a near-boil. That is, maybe the awful behavior of the police around and about, and the stupid wars, and things like rampant sexual abuse in our casual human trafficking and rape culture have finally become so unbearable that we are willing to come together.

Given that some statistics indicate that nearly 30% of U.S. teens experience sexual abuse, i have to know--have to admit--that more than a few in the crowd of supporters we passed were harboring dark secrets. I myself am sure that business as usual is still untenable. But still the degree of warmth we felt from the crowd truly served to buoy spirits. Our ability to share parade chanting rhythms with the group supporting migrant worker rights behind us did the same. Even the group of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition served to advocate unity by its very existence.

I really hate writing about race. There always seems to be some hidden pitfall that lifts someone’s scales. This event was not about that, though, even if MLK Day can not pass in these times without noticing some racial elements. I’ve never been prone to writing about sexual abuse, either; it really never occurred to me to do so. The more i travel around and interact with folks, though, the more i see that most of the women i know have some story to tell about an uncle or a neighbor, or even parents having committed some heinous act or another. These are separate matters, of course. There likely exists some kind of racial breakdown of instances of sexual abuse. That’s not where the action lies, though. Abuse crosses every line we know, and seems at a glance to be increasing rather than diminishing as one might expect in a supposedly enlightened era, and yet very little discussion takes place in public. Randa’s NOOW is out to change that, in as public a manner possible, and our participation in the parade with its friendly crowd was definitely a step forward. I can’t explain how gratifying it was to be so well received by the Black community of Houston as we helped to publicize such a volatile public issue.

Our country has a lot of baggage. Conquest, genocide, unfounded wars, and, yes, child abuse, both sexual and psychic have all come together to build a national identity that needs care, for sure. It’s lucky for us that we have folks like Martin Luther King Jr., and Randa Fox to help us separate ourselves from some dark history and build a lighter present that is better than tolerable, but full of real living, support for one another, and above all, Love. Sure, things are not perfect yet today, but as one of Randa’s myriad bits of literature points out, if we all work together, as we did in Houston, and keep at it, we can and will make things better.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


On January 5th of 2015 Orpha Bass passed along to the next world at her brother and my father Ralph’s house in West Virginia.

On the day that Mister Rogers died back in 2003 i shed a tear for my lost innocence. This is a similar day, and Orpha’s passing is a similar milestone. Orpha always seemed a strangely innocent person to me. She was a fixture of my childhood, part of the old generation Bass clan that lived along Rockside Road in Independence, Ohio, that included Dad’s mother Gertrude and her family. My great-Grandfather Ulrich had rolled into the United States during the late 1860s, bought a piece of land and established both a farm and one of those Europhile communities that don’t seem to exist so much any longer, at least not out west where i live, now. The family, including Orpha, Grandma Bass, Uncle Paul, Paul’s wife Mary, and Cousin Ray lived together in the old farmhouse. Aunt Ruth and my dad lived away with their respective families. Another Bass sibling, Ruth, and her husband Cifford--Uncle Buddy--were often there during those weekend gatherings with cousins Clifton and Janet. So far as i know, Dad’s entire generation was born there in that house, Orpha in 1925.

We spent pretty much every weekend there at the farm, living out scenes from Tom Sawyer in the North, (mingled with Kafka), without even knowing it. Orpha, an inveterate and talkative storyteller, would tell us how things were along Rockside back in the days when her dad would send her to the market on State Rd. to bring home beer in buckets. She had to walk slowly on the way back to avoid spilling more than half of the evening’s libations. She told us about the house next door, that had been a schoolhouse for a spell, after Ulrich donated it for that purpose. A family lived there by the time i knew anything about it. She told stories, and kept track of all the names the faces in those old sepia photographs bespoke. Those days--my story-forming days--were the days when fantasies were the staple of life, and anything was possible on any Sunday afternoon.

We kids would pass muster at the house and then scatter for the woods, or the barn, or the gully, to pursue some crackpot idea, (often of mine), or another. We started clubs, climbed around in the old barn that my granddad and his dad had built once and then dismantled and moved later, and dug through the ancient artifacts in the two gullies that had been used for dumping since the late 19th century. We smashed stuff for fun that would have made the guys from American Pickers weep. We got lost in the cornfields and the elder children would scare the younger in due course with silly monsters and impossible initiations. Once when i had gotten a little too much of the stress of my youth commingled with boldness engendered by avid reading, (My Side of the Mountain, it was),  i woke my brothers in the middle of the night to grab our haphazardly packed bags and move into the woods behind the farmhouse to live off squirrels and pilfered corn. This never really happened, of course, but that sort of absurdly fantastic planning was the staple of the day.

Our family took a pretty big hit during the late seventies when unpleasant business interests coerced Grandma into selling the farm to an outfit that preferred the standard veneer of asphalt and office buildings to the odd bucolic island that existed at the time there in Independence, just south of Cleveland. Grandma died a year later of what i remain convinced was her broken heart. My brother David spent a lot of time in the hospital around then, i was losing my mind to hormonal floods and a somewhat prescient case of post-industrial malaise, and Mom and Dad were barely holding civil space--for the sake of us kids, of course.

Soon after the loss of the farm and Grandma Bass’s death i left home way too young and soon found that being at odds with much of the world can be costly in various terms, mostly spiritual. When it occurred to me to reconnect with the old world--with my family, i mean--it was gone. The whole family was not really gone, of course, but irretrievably altered; and it may well be that my memories have become buffered and things weren’t as frog-hair-fine as i recall them. The huge Bass clan that collected itself once a year there at the farm may well have harbored tense dynamics unavailable to prepubescent sensibilities. But Mom and Dad were done by then and the family gatherings just never did come together again the way they had been. Surely few of the clan’s experiences were as dramatic as some of those that our branch--Dad’s branch--lived through. But i don’t know. Much of the crazier stuff we lived through you’ll never know either. To his profound credit, Dad did his best to preserve the Bass part of the thing, and Orpha and Paul ended their journeys at his reproduction of the farm there in West Virginia, more than less unencumbered by the dour nature of the way our society has progressed. 

The days from which i most remember eternally cheerful Orpha were from before all that stuff that broke our family and seems to threaten worse. Mr. Rogers days. Back then we could still collect huge bags of candy and other delicious treats some of them unpackaged from random neighborhood strangers without a whiff of consciousness about Paganism; and so far as i could tell, fourth graders never, ever, plotted to kill teachers with hand sanitizer, (whether the ones the link describes are for real or not).

I recall a day when i was around 8 or so when i wept in my mother’s arms over the pain of “growing up.” I was right about the pain, but it didn’t occur to me then that there would be great value in the years that separate me from that boy, pain and all. I may or may not be a “better” person now than i was back when Orpha helped form all those memories that amount to what perception of nostalgia that i carry with me now, but i am certainly more complete. I know a little more about what it means to be a better person because of the memories she leaves me. When i saw her last, a couple of years ago, she was grumpy. I had never seen that from her before and a little sadness came to me, then; even she couldn’t make it through unscathed. But her glorious cheerfulness remains with me, and helps to convince me--i really am convinced--that the world can come out good.

Vaya con Dios, Orpha; and true and genuine apologies to all those who have had to suffer through my presence when i failed to apply the lessons she taught me just by being. May we all learn them.