02/17/2012 09:03 am ET Updated Apr 18, 2012

A Tribute to My Parents in Celebration of Black History Month

I am an unapologetic optimist, not because I see the world through rose-colored glasses or have Pollyannaish sensibilities, it's because I have been a student of DreamMakers all my life -- my Parents. Mom and dad are the two most courageous, caring, visionary people I have ever met; they are remarkable. They are what I call DreamMakers -- people who found the courage put their vision and values to work to make their hopes and dreams come true in the face of tremendous obstacles. My parents have lived a long life; mom is 89 and dad is 88 years old and their character, courage, and commitment to their vision and values remains unwavering.

Mom and dad came from very challenging beginnings. Mom lost her mother at the young age of seven and her father deserted her and her siblings. They were moved four times to different homes by the time she was ten years old. However, my mother being the oldest was determined to keep all the kids together. At the age of seven she became her sister and brothers defender and protector. Life was hard but mom escaped through books. She journeyed around the world through the stories she read, imagining herself in exotic places and cultures. Her most cherished dream however was to have a family and give her children the love and support she missed as a child.

My father was the second oldest of 10 children, he grew up in poverty in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan. His passion was the arts; he was gifted with a beautiful, classical baritone voice. He also played every wind instrument, sculpted and wrote poetry and short stories. In spite of his many talents his mother told him that his dreams of singing and performing around the world were unrealistic especially for a Black man in America.

When my parents married they consciously created a vision of the family and the life they wanted to create together. They committed to a set of values to guide their decisions and actions. They succeeded in making their dreams come true. Dad made a career in the United States military -- 3 years in the Navy and 20 years in the Air Force. As a Master Sergeant over Special Services, dad produced elaborate USO shows with audiences of more than 5,000 people. He sang and performed all over the world; he even performed on national television. Dad's message of love, peace and positivism made him on of the most popular performers in the military. When dad retired he created a youth motivation program called "Yes I Can". He took this program into the Detroit Public Schools helping young people to discover self-love to raise their self-esteem and self-confidence. In 1982 dad founded the "Yes You Can" Scholarship Fund for Children -- a preventative program aimed at helping elementary school children who were having problems in school to overcome their learning problems - before they failed. He also took his message to colleges and universities across the country inspiring young people to follow their dreams. Dad recorded a record album "I Am An American" and wrote a children's book. In 1983 my father was selected as one of the "Michiganians of the Year" - "A selection of outstanding citizens who have helped make living in this state a richer experience for the rest of us, either by their good works or by the example they set". Yes, my father is the quintessential DreamMaker.

My mom's vision of a family bonded by love also came true. She was at the heart of creating love, beauty and joy in our home. Her family was the center of her life and to this day we are extraordinarily close. She did all this while working full time and pursuing her college education. Our moving every three years and the fact that she put her family first interfered with her dream to get a college degree, but it did not stop her. Mom's unwavering commitment to her vision lead her to graduate from college at the age of 55 - a 32 year journey. Her vision of traveling to exotic places was also fulfilled; growing up we lived in Alaska, Arizona, Kentucky, and the country of Panama. As an adult I was a single parent that traveled extensively for my job. My mother traveled with me to help take care of my daughter while I worked. Mom's dream of traveling to places she had read about as a child came true; visiting England, France, Italy and Switzerland became a reality.

Mom and dad not only created a loving environment for us, they extended that love to others. My parents believe in community. Every place we lived they formed youth clubs. Our house was always bustling with people. When someone, anyone, was hurting emotionally, physically or financially, my parents not only stepped in to help, they often times opened our home to those in need. I remember coming home from school to find an abused wife who found the courage to leave her husband because she had a place to stay. Another time I came home to find a family that had lost everything in a fire. On three separate occasions, my parents took in children that had been abandoned by their parents; they raised two of them as their own. While living in Panama I came home one day to find an eighty-pound ocelot, a member of the tiger family, living with us. The tiger had been a ship mascot that was abandoned by its owner. Even my parents realized they went too far that time when the tiger took over our home.

There were times, many times when I resented those "disruptions" however my parents worked very hard to help me understand that - "As for the grace of God, there goes me". I did not except that explanation then, however today, I am a far better person because of all those people who shared our home. They taught me a great deal about life and the capacity to "bounce back". My parents gave me a great gift, they taught me to value people and community.

Life was not without tremendous struggles and challenges. During the days when segregation still existed on military bases, my father, in an attempt to enlighten his fellow soldiers, gave a speech on brotherhood in the "White" section of the mess hall - or should I say on top of the table that was reserved for "Whites Only". He told me he was neither arrogant nor hostile; he simply needed to speak his truth. My father was sentenced to five days in the brig and lived on bread and water. Needless to say to say, people were not ready to hear his truth.

Dad told us that when he was in the brig he prayed and held love in his heart. The commander, the chaplain and many others visited him and were humbled and softened by his love. This was a defining moment in his life. When dad was released from the brig, Blacks could eat anywhere in the mess hall. Later Dad was asked to go around the country to help desegregate military bases. I remember the first time dad told my brothers and I about this life-changing event in his life. We were very young -- six, seven and eight -- but old enough to know we were being told something very important, something we needed to learn from. As he told the story he cried (he still does every time he recounts it). His relenting message to us was, and still is today "But don't you ever hate, love is the answer".

My parents faced many challenges when we were growing up and yes there were tears, especially when injustice touched their children- but there was never defeat. During my early childhood, my father's job continued to focus on bringing racial harmony to military bases. As a result, we were frequently one of the only Black families to live on base. My early years of school were in places that were not hospitable to Blacks. The elementary school environment in the South in the 50's and 60's provided a particularly tough testing ground for my brothers and me. Of course my family experienced all of the intended and unintended humiliations Black Americans in the South had to endure: separate drinking fountains; prohibited from using public restrooms and being barred from eating in restaurants. Because we were often the only black families on base, so we also experienced some very tough personal challenges.

Living in Fort Campbell, Kentucky we were called me the "N word" 30, 40 times a day - and not just by the children. When we would go out to play the children would lock their arms and sing "tick tock the game is locked no niggers can play." -- it was a ritual. But very early my parents prepared us to navigate through those tough times. Every morning before I left for school my father would make me stand before the bathroom mirror, look at myself and repeat seven times "I am healthy, happy, beautiful, intelligent, loving, loved and wise". I remember thinking to myself, "and you are crazy".

When I came home from school after encountering many challenges, I would complain to my mother. My mother holds deeply the value of personal responsibility. She would listen patiently but she would always respond by saying "yes baby, ok sweetheart - now what are you going to do about it?" " People treat things like you do - How are you treating this". So between my father, giving me a positive personal vision of myself, and my mother teaching me the value of personal responsibility, I was able to navigate through some tremendous obstacles.

Dad was stationed in Panama during my high school years. He was sent there during the time the Vietnam was escalating. US soldiers were sent to the military bases located in Panama for jungle training, and then many were shipped out to Vietnam. By that time my father was a celebrity in the military. He produced huge USO shows and other programs to help keep the soldiers moral high in time of war. My brothers and I performed in the shows and at events in Panama City. This was an extraordinary experience, a very special time in my life; it was a plethora of paradoxes. Our base was 10 miles outside of Panama City, Panama. It sat right between the jungle and the beach. We were living in a magnificent paradise where exotic birds and animals were the norm, and the topography was breathtaking. The Panamanians were gracias, exciting and warm. Our home was always full of performers, practicing, laughing and celebrating. On top of all of this, I was in my teens and surrounded by hundreds of young, handsome soldiers.

But there was the other side of paradise; many of the solders that became our friends were shipped to Vietnam and some were killed within weeks. I was also ashamed of the behavior of many of my fellow Americans who treated the people of our host nation, as if they were the possessions of Americans - to be used for their pleasure and entertainment. The uneven economies gave many Americans a false sense of superiority, and many abused that power. The tensions grew so intense, the Panama riots erupted; many Panamanians and US citizens were killed. My mother and I were downtown when the riots broke out. Fortunately a Panamanian family recognized us and escorted us back to the Canal Zone, (the American side) just in the nick of time. You see dad and mom taught us to appreciate and learn from other cultures. We had many Panamanian friends. Our family's values of people and community extended to everyone and people could feel that love and respect. I believe living those values saved our lives that day.

My father decided to retire from the military after 23 years, so Panama would be our last tour. My parents decided we would drive from Panama to Detroit, Michigan. We "kids" were 18, 19 and 20, so my parents knew things would soon drastically change for our family; my brothers and I would soon go our own way. The trip was exciting, dangerous, fascinating and fun. The Pan-American Highway was not completed. It stopped twenty miles out side of Panama, so we found our way to the States by asking for directions; "¿Qué camino a los Estados Unidos?" -- "Which way to the United States?" It took us 14 days to arrive in Detroit. We drove through Panama, Costa Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico -- sometimes driving down riverbeds. We found ourselves in many situations that could have been perceived as dangerous however all we felt was love, excitement and fun. That energy must have been transmitted to everyone we met along the way, because everyone treated us like family.

Returning to the states was a culture shock. It was like I had fallen down the rabbit hole; nothing was familiar, nothing was safe. Three weeks after arriving in Detroit, all hell broke out -- the 1967 Detroit race riots erupted. We were caught in the middle of the violence and had to flee. I was so confused. I thought my country was focused on the war in Vietnam; to my surprise and dismay, there was another war within the US, and it was between our own citizens.

My oldest brother was drafted two weeks after we got home and several months later he was sent to Vietnam. I went away to college and entered a world that was teetering on the edge of a drastic transformation. The next two years were insane; Martin Luther King was assassinated; Bobby Kennedy was assassinated; the US National Guard killed students at Kent state, and the Vietnam War spun out of control. That was my introduction to social action and civic engagement. The students all over the nation pulled together in protest. There were some who turned to violence, but most chose love and peace. My vision and values lead me to the peaceful revolution. That era, that experience, taught me that people can ban together mobilized by love and peace and change the world.

My bothers and I grew up and started our own lives but we carry with us my parent's vision and values. Their view of life has deeply touched all of their children. My oldest brother Teddy contributed twenty-five years to directing a community college program for special needs students, mostly wounded Vietnam Veterans. His choice of work did not surprise me. Growing up, Teddy was very popular because of his effervescent personality and remarkable sense of humor. He did not choose to hang out with the popular crowd; instead he always befriended and defended people that were excluded from the "in-crowd". At parties he would dance with the girls the other guys ignored. He would come to the defense of boys who were small and frail. Teddy not only looked out for those who were excluded, he genuinely valued their friendship and they formed strong, authentic relationships. Teddy has the gift of being able to see the best in people, and a mission to create safe, fun spaces in which people can be themselves. Children, the best and toughest judge of people's sincerity, love Teddy and his wife Janet. Although they do not have "birth" children, they are godparents to eight children, two of which they raised.

Bruce, the middle child, early on developed a strong sense of independence based on what he believed was right and just. He relentlessly followed his heart and blazed his own path. Even as a young boy when his friends would encourage him to " leave his sissy sister at home", he never abandoned me. I hold a mental picture of Bruce taking my hand and kindly taking me along with him, despite the other boys' taunting. Independent of public opinion he always charted his own path. Bruce could not work for any traditional organization or for anyone, for that matter. This led him and his wife Debbie, to create the Detroit Windsor Dance Academy. Since 1984, over 10,000 young people have discovered dance and the beauty of the arts at their academy. These young people come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. They have gained self-esteem, self-discipline, and benefited from being a part of a caring, compassionate community.

Although each of us took different paths in life, who we are today and how we relate to others, come from the vision and values my parents gave us - the most beautiful gift parents can give their children.

To learn more watch this movie clip: