What is Right & Just?

It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving…I’ve got a mix of holiday music blaring from my Pandora station. Some Whitney, some Josh Grobin, some Hezekiah Walker. I love this time of year, especially because I love the hymns and melodies associated with it and every year I can’t wait to start playing these. This year, I began two weeks before Thanksgiving. Quietly at first because I didn’t want to disturb the students, but also because I didn’t want to be judged. 🙂

Last year, I was the Resident Director on-call for the college break so I spent much of the time cooking and feeding the students who weren’t able to go home. We played games and watched movies after we ate. For some reason, every day of that 10-day break I fed mostly the boys. It fascinated me to no end, that they would show up, help cook or clean-up, then eat and play games and then say good night. Each night one of them would ask me if I had seen a particular movie and when I said no, then they’d make sure to put that on. “We have to get you caught up!” To what? I was at least 22 years older than each of them. There was no catching up to be done as far as I was concerned, but I was amused. All the same, it was really cute to have a brood of boys. We topped off our week by camping outside Best Buy at 4am for Black Friday deals. This year I spent it quietly, cooking, eating, playing housewife and watching movies in north country where only brave Black folk go (upstate NY near the Canadian border).

The major holidays for me, have always been about giving of myself to others. My Thanksgivings since I arrived in the U.S. have been spent serving and eating at a Soup Kitchen or hosting a motley crew of immigrants who also felt misplaced themselves and tended to gather together. Since I’m usually too far away from home to join my blood family, I create lots of families of choice, and as the hostess extraordinaire that I am, attempt to bring all of them together. So this Thanksgiving was so out of character for me that I didn’t think I’d survive. I did, and I also got a chance to think deeply about what I required from life to be all of myself. My sense of family is so big because of the way I was raised.

Although my family back on the continent consisted of myself, my middle sister, our maternal grandmother and whomever was working for us at any given time (housekeeper, painter, taxi driver, etc) we usually opened up my home and hearts to everyone else. Grandmother was a very private and exclusionary sort of person, but she also took her civic duties to the less fortunate very seriously. We helped the housekeeper with the chores and cooking for the holidays and we always brought old clothes and toys to the donation bin at church during the year, but at Christmas, we also made care packages for various families around who we knew were struggling. The best part of all though, was the party we threw for the neighborhood kids and sometimes those adults who we knew lived alone or had no one to share the season with. She took her conviction as a Christian and Catholic very seriously.

We lived in a part of town that was the median between the “shi-shi” neighborhood and what we would term the slums, though not the worst of what the country has to offer. Grandmother complained often that when she bought her property, she had no idea that it would develop into such a place. She spoke of ruffians and riff-raff often with such indignity. How dare they squat? How could people be so filthy? Education was the answer! The British should never have left! She often went on tirades about the state of the world based solely on our changing neighborhood. All this aside, she loved the fact that she was one of the few educated people on our side of town. As well as the one Mulatto who still lived a relatively British life. In our neighborhood, she was called “Obronyi” something I knew she prided herself on.  In any case, this is another story for that memoir I keep teasing you with.

When our mom sent us her famous EMS & DHL packages from “abroad”, Grandmother encouraged us to make care packages for our friends: Skittles and Starbursts with a copy of a V.C. Andrews book I had finished reading, deodorant body spray, Primo, with a few packs of Wrigleys gum. No matter how much or how little we had each year, Grandmother encouraged us to share with those around us. That party came to mind this morning as I sat down to write. Despite all of Grandmother’s elitism, she believed that her grandchildren needed to be grounded in some way. We would plan the menu with our housekeeper and we’d make little goodie bags with lots of candy and biscuits. We’d pick carols to sing. Sometimes I think we even had season-appropriate coloring pages. When everything was ready, we called one of the kids closest to house and they in turn went to gather anyone whose parent would agree for their kids to come to the party. I recall in the earlier years, this was a no-brainer for most families. They’d have one less meal to worry about for the day; some even sent tupperware along. As we got older and the world got scarier and folks were worried about what their kids were being fed, they became more reticent.

This is what I grew up with. Sure, now with lots of sensitivity training and social justice lenses, I can also notice the proselytizing that was latent in what we did. The colonial attitude that came through as we demanded that everyone spoke English and behave like a lady and gentleman when they were visiting our house. I can see what could be read as condescension. We were trained to fit into the mold that the colonizer had fashioned for us. My sister and I, and our whole household, believed that we wanted these less-fortunate folks to also get where we were going. I think deep-down somewhere we felt responsible for their well-being because to an extent we lived by the motto: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently and we were discussing whether doing something for the less-fortunate regardless of our intentions or how we felt about these “less-fortunate” folks was better than doing nothing at all. Should I be upset at the homeless person who is Vegan and refuses my left-over pizza? The first time this happened I was indignant…if I was starving I’d eat anything! But then I thought to myself…sometimes I eat cereal and go to bed semi hungry because as the chef, I won’t take just any food offered to me. Why can’t the homeless person on the street also have a discerning palette? Should I not volunteer at the Soup Kitchen once a year because I really should consider making it more of a weekly committment? Should I refrain from donating my old clothes and think instead of buying a new outfit to give to some woman who is going to her first interview?

These questions plague me today because it’s that time of year again. Even when we are squeezed to our tightest some of us can still splurge on that Starbucks, or in my case, a Mickie D’s iced coffee. Should I be giving that dollar to Salvation Army? What difference does my $1 make in the face of such great need? Over the years of living in The Bay, I grew to learn to offer to buy homeless folks a meal of their choice rather than hand them the $5. But should I have just handed them whatever I could afford and allowed them to do whatever they wanted with it? Who decides what the less-fortunate among us needs? Shouldn’t I ask them personally (if possible) before I feed or clothe them? Should I be policing their choices just because I’m giving them a donation? In the same vein, should I be buying presents for family members instead of making a donation in their names? What’s the proper thing to do?

In this season where songs of inspiration float throughout airspace and a good number of hearts are full, what is the right thing to do? What is just? What is my responsibility as the one to whom much is given?

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One comment

  1. I miss being able to hang out and chat with you face to face. I’ve thought of you especially often this month since this is around when I saw you last year!

    I struggle with many of these questions too. Sometimes I just remind myself that it’s possible to be doing good at the same time that I’m doing it imperfectly. And that sometimes the consequences of our actions are as part of a long journey, rather than an individual encounter. And that everyone has a different take on what’s right, so that we can only do our best, and listen to input.

    Hugs and so much love to you.

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