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Friday, October 18, 2013

Necessary Losses

Like the Emancipation Oak, where Hampton University was founded, our friendships have withstood the test of time. But not without  life's "Necessary Losses."

We are all on this
road, traveling life’s journeys
through good times and bad

The Hampton University Chapel, where Bill and Gina were married in 1977
To look up and realize I still have the same friends 40 years later is truly a blessing, a miracle to behold. Many of my classmates from Hampton are still on a natural high, having recently returned to our beloved alma mater for Homecoming Weekend. While I wasn’t able to attend, Homecoming was definitely on my mind, as well as graduation and all the reunions we’ve celebrated since. Here I share “Necessary Losses,” a photo essay I created  in commemoration of our 35th reunion in May 2012. All of the photos were taken with my trusty digital pocket camera.

Here I pay my respects and share some experiences. I pay reverence and respect to the passage of time , to the way we have been able to survive our often complicated and conflicted lives while maintaining our priceless friendships. I pay reverence and respect to the power of memory.
Hampton's pristine waterfront campus remains the same after all these years
Yes, I remember:  The shimmering water sparkled
like prisms cascading from a crystal chandelier.  Swooping seagulls danced in formation and squawked in four-part harmony, almost as if they were serenading. The effect transformed Hampton Institute’s picturesque waterfront campus into an even more idyllic utopia than usual for Bill and Gina’s wedding day. August 13, 1977. Gina had just graduated that May and Bill was back after his first year in law school. Sybil, Gina’s baby sister who was fresh out of kindergarten, made for an angelic flower girl. Bill and Gina’s other siblings and close friends complemented an exquisite wedding party for the ceremony held in the Campus Chapel, located in the midst of a perfectly manicured lawn just yards away from the Hampton River waterfront.

I was happy to see the Katharine House was still standing upon my return to Hampton
After a sumptuous banquet at the Katherine House reception hall, which also overlooks the water, the beautiful couple came outside. They stepped onto an awaiting yacht, which was immediately christened with a bottle of champagne.  As the vessel floated away in the direction of the Chesapeake Bay, Bill and Gina waved goodbye. The rest of us were left waving back at them from the waterfront, wishing them well in their newly married lives together. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect.
Virginia Cleveland Hall - The legendary freshman women's dorm

Fast forward 35 years.  It’s Hampton University Reunion Weekend - May 2012.  The college has long since ceased calling itself an “institute.”  To be sure, the myriad new programs and degrees being offered, combined with the expanded buildings and grounds attest to the tremendous growth that has taken place over the decades.  Yet the charm of Hampton has not been compromised. The sweeping vistas of our waterfront campus remain as pristine as ever, evoking memories of the way we were. We began gathering that Thursday night, and continued streaming through to join the celebration on Friday and Saturday, all of us ecstatic to be there.  Shouts, cheers, and shrieks of glee clung to all the “Hampton Hugs” that were being generously passed around: Donna, Bop, Mike Ice, Suggs, Muse, Zoe, Eric, Rick Ski, Deborah E., Joan, Coke, Zim, Debra C, Bulliner, Wink, and Wendell. We clapped and cheered as so many of us returned to our “home by the sea,” our beloved alma mater, the place where we received our “education for life.” Our bonds are still strong, still resilient having passed the test of time. What an amazing feeling.

Gina and Bill are still a glamorous, loving couple.  They have moved back to the Hampton Rhoads area to be closer to relatives, now that Bill has closed the chapter on his uber successful career as a New Orleans lawyer, politician and entrepreneur and Gina has morphed her marketing firm into a sole proprietorship.  As we sat next to each other catching up, Gina spoke passionately about her lifelong love for gardening, working outdoors, using her hands to manipulate the earth. She spoke about the serenity and calm she feels whenever she’s out in nature.  She mentioned how proud they are of their daughters, both of whom are Hampton graduates as well. From all appearances, they have the perfect family. However appearances can be deceptive.

Nothing in their body language or demeanor let on that Gina and Bill are in the daily throes of dealing with disparate serious illnesses both of their daughters are currently experiencing. It’s just not fair. How could this be happening? Both daughters stricken with two different rare diseases and neither of them are out of their 20’s? As we continued to talk, Gina nostalgically referred to her brother Skitch, who, tragically was killed in a car accident a few years ago.  Our conversation also revealed that although they no longer live in New Orleans, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina still haunts them.  So much loss.  Indeed, too much loss.

Even still, Gina’s reminisces of the years that have ensued since our graduation were funny and bright. We laughed, giggled and marveled that we are still here. Her outlook for the future didn’t reflect gloom over the current health challenges her daughters are facing, but instead revealed her prayer practice, strong convictions and admirable sense of faith.
Not all freshman women stayed in V.C. I stayed here, at Kennedy Hall
Since graduation, Deborah, a retired airline executive, has survived not one but two nasty bouts of breast cancer. However she walked into the hospitality suite beaming, looking as beautiful and vivacious as ever. When we got a chance to chat, she did not dwell on illness. She said she lives with an active spirit of praise, that she’s thankful for each and every day, how she never takes anything for granted.

Linda, who had taken an early buyout after nearly 30 years of a whirlwind career as a director for CBS news, had shorn her shoulder length locks since the last time I’d seen her. Now she’s sporting a sassy close cropped Afro. A tall slender, butter-complexioned woman with a commanding presence, Linda strutted into the room with her usual confident self, smiling and laughing as she hugged and greeted everyone. So you can imagine that I was taken aback when she told me that over the last year and a half her brother passed, her mother passed, and a former boyfriend whom she had remained close friends with committed suicide. Also a Hampton grad, he had been a dentist, but his practice was failing, he was deep in debt, didn’t have health insurance and was suffering terribly from profound depression. The suicide note, which he emailed to Linda and a few others before committing the act, attempted to explain why he felt he had no other choice but to end it all.

As I listened to Linda recount these recent losses, I thought back to a few years ago when I attended her father’s funeral, and still further back along her life’s infograph, which, in addition to a stellar career trajectory included a hysterectomy during her early 30’s and several marriages. (One ended in divorce, the other ended in death, rendering her a widow before she reached the age of 35.)  Yet as she alluded to all the trauma, Linda did not exude anger or bitterness. Rather, she affirmed her conscious choice to live a fulfilled life, with a sense of peace, purpose, and harmony.

The Emancipation Oak Tree Symbolizes Freedom and Hope for the Future
Denise, a savvy public relations entrepreneur, was dazzling, chic and sophisticated - - just as she was back in the day. Yet her personal universe had recently been shaken when she relocated her frail, failing elderly parents from their familiar hometown to her adopted city. Life these days is spinning in so many directions, she barely has time to talk on the phone, let alone get together for a social event. So, like the rest of us, she was especially primed to have a good time at our reunion.

To think that close to 40 years have passed since we arrived on campus freshman year is truly mind boggling. My first day on the yard I met my homies from Philly who were in the class of 76:  Kazoo and Dog.  We have remained close ever since. Our connection is a spiritual phenomenon none of us can really explain. It just is what it is.  We have survived marriages, births, christenings, deaths, divorces, all kinds of highs and lows. We have also survived huge Afros, platform shoes, dashikis, and bell bottoms, all of which were the order of the day back in the 70s.

Our college days were filled with so much more than classes. Honestly, Hampton is not only the place where we received our “education for life,” it is that sacred hallowed place where we made our “friends for life.”  I have remained tight with my roommate, the incomparable “Cocoa,” ever since those halcyon glory days. She is my daughter’s godmother, my staunch supporter and confidant, that one person I know I can always trust to be reasoned and balanced whenever I am wrestling with a crucial decision that has to be made.
The current Hampton University Museum was Huntington Library during my tenure
The memories from our Hampton days are golden – just golden! For us mass media majors, there were memorable radio days and nights when we commandeered WHOV-FM. And, regardless of the particular major, there were those sleepless homecoming weekends, all night study marathons, precious moments hanging out on our lovely waterfront campus, and skinny dipping at Buckroe Beach. (Oh my!) There were lazy days sitting around in our dorms, listening to consciousness-raising music, (Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye), turning each other on to jazz albums, (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan), sharing books on the African Diaspora (Franz Fanon, W.E.B. DuBois, Cheikh Anta Diop.)
We whined and complained about the cafeteria food as we simultaneously plotted out how we would leave Hampton and go out to save the world. Thinking back, I am also reminded how artistic, cultural, and enrichment activities were so essential to the soul of our Hampton experience.  Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonia Sanchez, Ramsey Lewis, Dick Gregory, Cannonball Adderly, the Commodores, LaBelle, Gil Scot Heron, Les McCann and Count Basie  were just a few of the notables who came through. I’m sure none of us will ever forget when Susan Taylor and the staff of Essence chose Hampton as the subject for a cover story and our classmates were featured as models in the magazine.

Wow.  Reminiscing. What a blast. On Friday night the planning committee transformed the hotel ballroom into a “70’s Throw Back Party.” Many of us did our best to dress the part. We frolicked down the “Soul Train Line,” yelled out the answers to the “Scramble Board,” snickered through our hilarious version of “Family Feud,” soaking up the festive atmosphere. Ahmad, our dee jay for the night, brought a disco ball, and played all the great songs we remembered so well: James Brown’s “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time,” Funkadelic’s “Flashlight,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons,” Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” -  the list goes on and on. Although he is young, Ahmad got it right. 
A 2002 Hampton grad, Ahmad is also the son of our classmates, Tony and Denys. Our “Black And White Affair” Saturday night was all the more special because Paul Coker put together a spectacular slide show, with images of us from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. It was awesome, simply awesome.

How many secrets have been shared? How many memories have been sealed on the waterfront?
So many couples came together because of Hampton; it was great to see they have stayed together.  Bill and Gina. Tony and Denys. Sabrina and Wayne. Thomas and Shelly. Carolyn and Michael. Some of us have maintained svelte bodies but many of us have gained weight, even up to 100 pounds or more.  Many of us are in perfect health and great shape. We returned after 35 years triumphant from running marathons and rowing in dragon boat races.  Yet a few of us were in wheel chairs, and at least one classmate was getting around with the assistance of a cane. During our class meeting, Renee led us through a touching memorial service, which felt a lot like a West African libation ceremony, during which we called the names of our classmates and family members who have crossed over into eternity.
Yes, by staying alive, especially staying alive Black in America, we have suffered losses. Even the most successful among our race, those of us W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the” talented tenth,” have searing stories to tell – tales about overt and covert discrimination in our workplaces, tales about deaths of loved ones, illnesses, addictions, lost loves, lost jobs, and a range of crippling financial and emotional losses that have left us broken, picking up the pieces left from bankruptcies, foreclosures, fractured lives.

Hampton:  Our beloved "Home by the Sea"
Yet through it all, we have been the high achievers amongst our peers. Yes – the class of ’77 has grown up to become doctors and lawyers, judges, proud parents, community leaders, corporate executives, spoken word poets, engineers, authors, architects, journalists, producers, network news anchors, educators, photographers, entrepreneurs and the United States Ambassador to Nigeria. Throughout the weekend, as we reminisced about the good times, we frequently embraced each other with “Hampton Hugs.” We were happy and we were humble – humbled by all that has taken place over our lifetimes – truly grateful for all the necessary losses that brought us to this thankful place where we are today.

Asante Sana. Peace and Blessings Always.


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