Melissa Alberta Jackson Meeks
I watched her, week after week, sitting at the kitchen table meticulously doing schoolwork that was to be sent to Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas where she was a student working on her degree in education. This was before computers and distance learning. She was doing college level work through what was called a correspondence program.
Later the college offered classes in a nearby town which was about twenty-five miles from our home. Mama went to those classes as well. She would work in my father’s sharecropping field for a part of the day before getting herself, my siblings and me ready and in the car to attend her evening class. As the eldest child, it was my lot to be the responsible one to attend to my brother and sister while she was in class. We behaved ourselves because Mama was doing something very important. She was getting an education. We weren’t exactly sure what that meant, but we knew that we were an important part of it.
Mama was already teaching school without her degree because one was allowed to do that in that era, the early 1950s. Of course, not having the degree meant that she did not get a very good salary. All of the teachers received small salaries, but those without degrees got less, but teaching was better than being a maid or having no job at all.
Thus, for the next handful of years, I watched my mother continue the pattern that is described above. She did not talk much about the value of education, but she did not need to do so. I paid attention. I knew that getting through school had something to do with being a freer person and I knew that I wanted to be free just like Mama wanted to be.
In May 1964, I graduated from high school, and in August 1964, my Mama graduated from college. She had gone to college through those correspondence courses, extension programs and an occasional summer session for the major portion of my life. It had taken her close to eighteen years to earn her bachelor’s degree. She went to the campus of Philander Smith College in the summer of 1964 to fulfill some type of residency requirement and to take her final courses. She was finally going to be a college graduate.
Our aunt and uncle took us to the campus for her graduation which was an amazing event for us. We were so proud of her that day with her black robe and cap. We knew that all of us had won something, though we were not quite sure what it was. I continued to be convinced that it had to do with my freedom. Mama seemed freer on the way back home from Little Rock.
So, as I sit her writing this reflection about the lessons that I learned from my mother and her quest for education’s freedom and preparing to leave home soon to travel to Virginia Theological Seminary to receive an Honorary Doctorate which will be the first of three that I am to get this year. In two weeks, it will be the Seminary of the Southwest and in the fall from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, I am in tears.
The tears are a combination of gratitude for the courage of my mother and the lessons that she taught me about education, vigilance and freedom and gratitude for being given the grace filled honor to do the work that has led to these degrees being conferred upon me. Along with this is the deep gratitude for the opportunity to receive a Bachelor’s Degree, Master in Social Work and Ph.D in less time than it took Mama to do one degree.
But the tears are also laced with rage and momentary outrage toward Ron DeSantis and the book banning energy that he is helping to spread around the land. All of the folks who believe that they can rid the earth of difference by simply banning and burning books where diversity is expressed exhibit such a high level of unconsciousness and idiocy that it is difficult to sit in my chair to write about it.
The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing is joining in the resistance against this idiotic energy by purchasing as many banned books as we can afford and starting a library of banned books. You know books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and other classics by some of the best minds this country has ever seen as demonstrated by Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others. We will not stand for this foolishness, and we will not be quiet about it.
Will you join us by doing the same thing in your part of the country? I am standing with my Mama by continuing to say, “yes” to freedom through education and I hope that you will as well.