Friday, May 29, 2015

A Tribute to William C. Brassfield

Photo Credit: Kenisha Washington, on the William Brassfield Tribute Facebook Page

In September of 1940, a baby African American boy was born in Meridian, Mississippi. Though such an event was not uncommon, and it's setting likely even less exemplary to some, it was a life changing event nevertheless, especially to thousands of students in the Tuskegee, Alabama area.

This baby boy was named William C. Brassfield. He was a musician, a mentor, a leader, and proponent of excellence and achievement, and in 1969, he accepted a job in a small town that, while struggling in a lot of ways, was already on the world map for being the location of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).  

Tuskegee Institute was the epicenter of black education, famous for highlighting and housing leaders like writer and educator, Booker T. Washington; scientist and creator, George Washington Carver; lecturer and author Ralph Ellison; and musician and composer, William Dawson. Perhaps he knew it, perhaps he didn’t, but when William C. Brassfield accepted a teaching position in Tuskegee (as a high school band director), he was not only placing himself within that powerful legacy, he was beginning one of his own.  

Tuskegee was not an easy town to work in. It was a strange mixture of cultures: it housed an educational mecca for African Americans, but was also experiencing racial tensions and strife. The university was credited with a variety of successes, but it was also the home of the infamous Tuskegee Syphliss Study. The town was lauded for its cultural impact, such as being the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, through the tumultuous death of Sammy Younge, Jr. and the fact that it was the home or residential town of pioneers like Charles Gomillion, Rosa Parks, Frank Toland and Amelia Boynton Robinson. To many outsiders, it seemed like the perfect place for an upwardly mobile and educated black person, but to many within, it seemed that the opposite was true.  

Brassfield experienced the struggles rife in such tensions. He found himself having access to a plethora of eager and bright youth yearning for knowledge and enrichment. But he was also working for a school system that was struggling both financially and socially as well, because of the racial tensions it was experiencing. A lesser man would have given up and moved on, but William C. Brassfield knew better. He recognized that he if could metaphorically sculpt greatness from the hard red clay of Tuskege, then he would have achieved much more than the person who simply reaped from the fertile ground that someone else had sown.

And that’s what he did. He encountered the stubbornness of some, the resistance of others, and even the fear of certain individuals; and he took those things, treated them the way a good farmer treats hard clay, and beat through the resistance while consistently watering and enriching the soil as well, until it reaped the harvest so greatly needed.  
Click picture to read full news article featuring Mr. Brassfield's calling out
of the local community.

For example, in 1980, when the Tuskegee Institute High School Golden Virtuoso Marching Band was in need of new uniforms, Mr. Brassfield wasn’t content to just talk or complain. He pushed the community to get involved in helping meet that need, contacting churches for contributions and donations. And when only one local church responded to this cry for help (Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church), he wasn’t hesitant in pointing out the sadness of a solitary response, telling the local newspaper this: “Many of our students attend the larger churches with greater resources who oft times call upon the ensembles of the band to perform for the various church functions. It was quite surprising to know that these larger bodies could not afford to support an effort of this nature, especially when their youth were involved.”  

Click picture to read full news article highlighting Mr. Brassfield's success
in getting the commuity involved.
Such a strong statement, one which roundly accused the local community of offenses against its own children, probably made Mr. Brassfield quite unpopular with a number of individuals. But the hard red clay that needed to be broken was shattered, and in a matter of weeks, both the local community and the city officials responded, watering the ground which held the seeds of Tuskegee’s children. A down payment was made with the money raised from locals and local churches, and the final $4000 payment was made by the City of Tuskegee, right when the band was in danger of having the uniforms repossessed.  

That was the type of man William Brassfield was, with both the community, and the students he taught as well. By the time I joined the Booker T. Washington Marching Aristocrat Band in 1996, he was already legendary for being a hard leader who pushed you to your limits, but brought out your very best. I found that to be very true in deed, for I – like many of my fellow band comrades – found myself being pushed to the edge on more than one occasion by Mr. Brassfield’s tough and demanding nature. There were a few times I wanted to cry, and a few times that I wanted to quit the band, but I didn’t. Because Mr. Brassfield was also loving and kindhearted and I knew that he was pushing me, pushing us all, because he had faith in our abilities to excel, and excel we did.  

I will never forget the joy I felt after every football game performance that yielded screams, applause, and awe from the audience. I will never forget what it was like to be one of a few (if not the only) predominantly black bands participating in All-State Competition, and walking away with all ones (the superior score rating). I will never forget the times that we (the Marching Aristocrats) would visit other Alabama schools and be greeted as soon as we got off the bus by crowds full of the strange but excited faces of people proclaiming that the game against Booker T. Washington High School was more attended than their own homecoming, because our band was so good.  

But I will also never forget the time I got kicked out the band on Monday, but let back in on Thursday, and told that I had better not mess up the routine on Friday, even though I had not been allowed to practice with the band that entire week. The crazy thing was, Mr. Brassfield had “allowed” me to watch the practice from the sidelines while I wondered if I would ever be let back in. So when he let me back in on that Friday, I went home and practiced my butt off simply from the memory of what I had observed from the sidelines, personally insistent that I wouldn’t fail. And the joy of not failing is one of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced.  

A year after I joined the band, Mr. Brassfield retired and died soon after, on July 24, 1998. The Marching Aristocrat Band was never the same and neither was the City of Tuskegee, because no one decided to be the next Mr. Brassfield. And now, almost two decades later, I look back on the memories, and I get sad. Because the challenges Tuskegee faced when Mr. Brassfield first came, those challenges are still here. America is still suffering from racial tensions and unrest. Our local community is still economically challenged, and our school system is still short on the funding it needs. Our band program isn’t what it used to be and neither is our community, and this is a reflection, not of struggles (because we’ve always had them) but of the times and of the people, myself included.

Mr. Brassfield didn’t talk about problems in private and accept them. He called them out, demanded we make a change and contribution, and the problems were overcome. But now, none of us – none of us – are willing to push ourselves, our youth, and our world the way people like William Brassfield did. But I want that to change. I want to be the type of leader William Brassfield was. I want to demand the best of myself and others in such an insistent way, that it hurts at first, but enriches later. I want young people to experience the joy of knowing that someone believes in them so much that he or she refuses to let them simply fail, to simply not try. I want them to cry from the pressure of being told “You’re the best” and rejoice in finding out that it actually is true.

I want to be the William Brassfield of my generation and I want you to be the same. Let’s get together and beat this hard red clay of stubbornness, ignorance, laziness and complacency into submission, so that it can yield rich, fruitful, and bountiful results once again.
--Alison Caddell, Booker T. Washington High School Class of 2000


When the Comfort of Wrongness is Hard to Forsake - A Commentary on Innovative Leaders through a Biblical Lens

You can learn so much from reading the Bible. For me, my favorite parts of the Bible usually come from the Old Testament, especially the first five books. When you read about the Israelite people, and how they cried out to the Lord for freedom from the oppression of slavery in Egypt, you get a great sense of how people respond to actually being delivered from their circumstances.
The Children of Israel, though they cried out for deliverance for years, when God finally sent Moses to deliver them from bondage, the first thing they did was criticize Moses and question his right to lead them. The next thing they did was to frequently besmirch his character throughout the process of freedom and improvement, despite the evidence that he was actually leading them to the very things they had claimed to want.
After that, when they were finally freed, they allowed the hard work that comes with rebuilding themselves to allow them to actually claim they missed their days of bondage and preferred them to the hard work of freedom. It was only after Moses died that Israel finally recognized his greatness, to the point of trying to worship him.
So what have I learned from this, as far as how it applies to modern times? Usually, the very people who cry out for a positive change, end up being the ones to criticize and hinder the person who comes along to finally institute that change. Sometimes, people get so used to their low circumstances, that they are actually uncomfortable (even angry) with the work of pushing above and outside of those circumstances.
I originally posted this as a Facebook status, but decided to make it a blog as well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review: The Pharaoh's Daughter by Mesu Andrews

Months ago, when I read on the internet that Mesu Andrews would be releasing a biblical fiction account of Moses’ adoptive Egyptian mother, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I am an avid reader of the Old Testament, especially the books of Genesis, Samuel I and Samuel II, and Kings I and Kings II. In addition, Moses is one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible to me: he was supremely influential to the Ancient Israeli culture and religion but had lived as an Egyptian prince during his youth and early adulthood. He was also a conflicted man, torn between the Egyptian court that had raised him and the Hebrew slaves who were his true relatives.

Moses, adopted son of Bithiah
(known as the Egyptian princess Annipe in Mesu Andrews' book)

With that in mind, I assumed any book about his adoptive mother Bithiah (her Hebrew name) would be a fascinating look into the conflict readily available in such a context, but from the maternal point of view of a woman who was just as conflicted and torn as he was. What I found out instead was this: The Pharaoh’s Daughter by Mesu Andrews is not a book about Bithiah, the Hebrew woman who had formerly been an Egyptian princess. Instead, this book is about Annipe, the Egyptian princess who fully embraced life in the Egyptian court and only converted to the Hebrew way of life after her deception of Pharaoh was revealed and resulted in her near fatal punishment and exile. Such a book can be fascinating on its own, if that is what one is truly interested in, and I myself found it to be an easy and enjoyable read. Still, my ultimate disappointment was inevitable, because it was not the book I wanted it to be.

In the genre of biblical fiction, what interests me specifically is the insight it can provide about God, His people, and life in ancient biblical times. The historical context is fascinating as well, but the most important part to me is how it helps me to see the stories of the Bible. My issue with The Pharaoh’s Daughteris that most of the book focused on Egyptian court life with all of its intrigues, gossip, politics, turmoil, and manipulations. By the time it finally converged into the context of the Hebrew slaves and their existence in Egypt, the book was coming to an end. Basically, just when it got to what I thought of as “the good part” it was over.

What was it like for Bithiah/Annipe to witness this?
Reading about Annipe’s personal struggles -- the result of her early childhood trauma and the confusion brought on by the complex and ever-changing structure of Egyptian religion -- was a moving experience. But it would have been even more so and epically compelling if it had been followed by the struggles she experienced as Bithiah, a woman grafted into the Hebrew nation of Israel.

The Egyptian princess vs. the Hebrew slave

Was her conversion to following the God of Israel by choice? Was it the result of having been exiled and banished by Pharaoh? Or a combination of both? Did the Hebrews readily accept her, or were they wary of her presence as they began the sojourn from slavery in Egypt towards the Promise Land? How did she feel when her beloved adopted son was convicted of murder and banished from the court she had snuck him into through her subterfuge and trickery? How did she feel when he returned, changed into a prophet and shepherd who demanded the freedom of the people he had once ignored? What was it like for her to witness the miracles he wrought through his obedience to God, such as the parting of the Red Sea? What was it like to see the plagues his God inflicted upon her birth nation, such as the death of each Egyptian first born, including her relative, the oldest son of Pharaoh?

None of these questions were answered, because Mesu Andrews’ book focused almost exclusively on her life as Annipe, the Egyptian princess. So ultimately, I was disappointed, because the fertile ground that could have been the source of so much enriching fruit was basically ignored. Even if the opportunity to do so had resulted in a book that was twice as long, it would have been worth it for me. I think of Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series as such an example of an epic tale influenced by the events of the Bible. This is the type of book that Mesu Andrews could have written, but instead, I was left with a quick character study on a troubled and fearful woman living in a troubled and fearful time. Such as book is fine, but it’s not the book I had hoped to read.