Thursday, February 4, 2010

"And I walked the sawdust trail..."

I really like it when, spiritually speaking, one simple hour can kind of throw you under a bus in the best possible way. I experience this on a semi-frequent basis when I listen to Nina Simone, who imperiously demands that you walk on coals with her, sway until you're seasick, fall prostrate at her feet. I can almost taste the asphalt when I listen to this song:

Nina Simone, Baltimore (live)

I think I'm alright with being uncomfortable, with that prickling blush that floods your face when you watch a film, an interview, or read an article, a poem, or a short story, and you are humbled. Today, my dear friend Eliza and I were discussing the meaning of what it is to be "humbled," and we were in concert in believing that it means to be in awe, inspired by, somehow made more human and more flawed by the beauty and the magnificence of someone else. We agreed that to be humbled DOES NOT mean that you graciously accept praise, murmuring, "I am so humbled by your words," though certainly many people use it in such a context. 

I am humbled by the many cracks and fissures that widen my perspective on the world. I think as a teacher, it sort of comes with the territory.  Students are the measuring stick equivalents of your own personal humble-meter. Hubris doesn't fly at an all-girls school.  

Love certainly does.

Today, in a special assembly at our school, we watched the legendary 1964 interview with James Emory Bond, a man who cried, wiped his own tears, laughed at his own jokes and praised humility in the face of unconscionable discrimination. Such was Baltimore then. Such is Baltimore now, to a lesser extent. Today his children and his grandchildren sat among uniformed schoolgirls in a darkened theater, watching him work his love-magic on a huge screen.  On this same day, February 4, 2010.  Exactly forty-six years later. 

Mr. Bond walked the three miles to Television Hill after watching a program that aired on WBAL-TV the prior evening. He came from his home in Baltimore city (West Baltimore - now a place where florists charge extra to deliver flowers). The program focused on the rising crime rate in Baltimore, and included a panel of judges and experts decrying the violence that marked such an august town.  Viewers were welcome to phone in with their comments.  Instead, Mr. Bond opted to walk to the television station from his home in West Baltimore to share his beliefs. He was seventy-five. 

And he spoke.  And they listened.  In an act of singularly inspired vision, the station decided to tape a short segment -  "two or three minutes," Sydney King, who interviewed him, shared with us today.  And he spoke for over an hour.

His message?  Love. Love what you are taught to hate.  Embrace what you are conditioned to fear. Create your own orbit.  Trade ideologies with H.L. Mencken. Find your way to Jerusalem, while Kennedy's Camelot crumbles and race is still a four letter word. Smile widely, cry openly, laugh at this folly. Show gratitude for being heard.  And change the way a nation considers its own stance on race, humanity, humility. 

James Emory Bond did this.  He talked to a disembodied voice (that of King's) for over an hour at lunch time. It is difficult to truly come to terms with how very unorthodox this whole thing was. His missive, one as old as Golgotha, aired at 9:00 pm that same day. Unheard of.  And then it aired again.  And a third time.  In Chicago. In New York. In Los Angeles. In towns and cities across the country, James Emory Bond walked into a space, filled it, and reshaped that space.  And then he said to us, "Come with me. Stay a while. Let's talk."  

Of his embrace of Christianity, his guiding principle, he remarked simply "And I walked the sawdust trail."  And here I am, some hours later, still under that bus,utterly undone by a single man wearing mirth and suspenders, a gentleman who dabbed at his tears with a pressed hankie, who had a handshake that sent shockwaves all the way to your toes. And our shared city that on this day, almost half a century later, has fifteen homicides on record so far this year, which is ten fewer than last year - it breathes still in the space he helped to create. And we keep walking...

"But, brother, I'm looking at the rose, and I'm handling the rose, and I'm inhaling the sweet aroma that the rose throws out and just avoiding the thorns carefully." 
                                                                                                    -James Emory Bond


  1. Such a wonderful blog entry! I graduted from RPCS, but was not yet a student there in 1964.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Your piece is beautiful, and I just wish to say to you that I have never been so moved as I was by the applause from the girls after seeing Mr Bond's video. I kept waiting for it to end and it just went on.

    This was a trial run for the presentation and we didn't know what to expect. Now we will seek future apportunities to share Mr Bond with other young people.

    Thank you.

    Sydeny King

  3. My eyes are slightly damper than they were. It's always those magnificent souls who are quiet and unassuming who create the greatest waves of good energy. Despite my lifelong antipathy towards racism - and my connections with those who worked against it - I'd never heard of James Emory Bond. I don't think he would have minded that.