As the fifth of 11 children born to a subsistence farm couple in the Delta region of Arkansas, an area characterized by suffocating racism and abject poverty, hardly a day passes when I don't think about my parents and the enormous impact they had not only on my siblings and me, but on my childhood friends as well. The older I get, the more intrigued I become with what motivated my parents, Eddie and Carrie Nelms, to possess such unyielding faith in the power of education when they had so little formal education themselves. Except for our family physician and a handful of teachers who taught at the local Rosenwald School, a few miles from our house, they knew very few blacks who possessed a high school diploma, let alone a college degree. The power of education, voting and land ownership was the force of freedom and liberation for my parents and others of their generation. These values and beliefs were transmitted to my parents from my grandparents and great grandparents, who, too, were literate and owners of land ranging from a single acre to more than 100 acres. Despite repeated purchase offers, my siblings, cousins and I still own the land bequeathed to us by our parents and grandparents.
In 1952, my parents paid $2,000 for 40 acres of farm and woodlands (the woods were later cleared with ax and fire by my father). I can still remember my parents letting my siblings and me hold and count the crisp 20 $100 bills that they had borrowed from a local white farmer who would, over time, earn more than 100 percent interest on the loan. The $2,000 seemed like a million dollars to us! Little did we know just how much independence that little farm would accord our family for more than 40 years. While it's hard for my son and his friends to fully grasp the level of poverty that my family endured, it is equally as difficult for them to appreciate the level of freedom and independence we enjoyed as land owners.
Growing up, I cannot recall many instances where my parents uttered the words, "I love you." Yet, their uncompromising love for my siblings and me showed in so many ways -- through their encouragement, guidance and discipline, and their willingness to let us make or own decisions and mistakes without saying, "I told you so," when we failed.
A subsistence farmer by day, my father was a rural community organizer by night, registering black sharecroppers to vote at great peril to them and him. Mama, on the other hand, was always there to quiz us on what we learned in school on a particular day and to check our homework. It was not until many years later that I realized she didn't understand much of what we were saying or what she was looking at. The fact that she didn't know whether the answers were right or wrong really wasn't the issue; she cared enough to make sure our homework was complete. During that era of rote memory, mama made sure we mastered our multiplication facts, the parts of speech and that we memorized poems from our literature classes. In fact, I can still recite many of those wonderful poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Frost and other poets.
Despite the depth and breadth of the poverty with which we had to contend, my parents' faith in education never wavered. I can still hear their words asserting that if we got ourselves a good education, no one could take it away. My siblings and I had the audacity to believe them and have gone on to enjoy a quality of life not otherwise possible. Not only have we enjoyed a higher quality of life, we've been sources of uplift for others based on the careers we've chosen.
As we pause to celebrate Father's Day, indeed Parent's Day, I am reminded of the key lessons that I learned from my parents more than 50 years ago, lessons that are just as relevant today as they were then:
1. Education is the engine of opportunity and the great equalizer;
2. You don't need a formal education, i.e., a degree, to assist and support your children educationally;
3. Whether rich or poor, we can all leave our children a legacy;
4. As long as we have hope, we hold the key to success in life -- personally and professionally.
The moral of this story is simple: We are all teachers, and the text is a life well lived. Here's to Papa, and to Mama!
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