Kindred Colorado Quaking Aspens
Renewing a camping tradition, I refurbished a small RV for the adventure of exploring the Grand Canyon during the fall. Driving from Oxford, Mississippi to pick up my son Charles and his seven-year-old daughter Safia who flew from Chicago to the Denver airport, my anticipation of being together eclipsed any other thoughts. After all, I had spent many summers in Colorado and the Southwest and took the now familiar landscape for granted – including the lovely, fluffy green quaking aspens. I gave no thought to, and was unprepared for, my encounter with quaking aspens this fall.
Are there any eyes as bright as a seven-year-old girl's on her first camping adventure with her Daddy and BiBi (me)? Accompanied by her favorite stuffie, Alaska Dog, a treasure from her Dad’s first camping trip to Alaska when he was about her age, Safia gleefully squashed her “travel hat” – a purple baseball cap declaring “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History” – over her voluminous curls of bouncy black silk. As we climbed the mountain terrain leaving Denver behind, Safia – accustomed to the flatlands of Chicago – sat with me at the RV table and seemed to take in the passing scenes with the wonder of following the Yellow Brick Road to Oz.
For years, I appreciated these fluffy quaking aspen green beauties during summer – my usual season in Crested Butte, Colorado where hikes through the mountains were soul-feeding enough to cancel out the stares I got as the only Black person within 500 miles. The quaking aspen branches billow playfully allowing just enough sun for shadows to play with a forest floor enticing in its offerings of grasses, moss, peeking Columbines, and their other wildflower friends. Aspens offering the hospitality of an inviting backrest and cool outdoor café spot for lunch. Aspens hoarding – a kindness really – the secret of what transpired after I left. Had I known the summer aspens transformed into fluttering, brilliant gold, I might never have left. Their secret hidden, I could return home with fond memories of hiking, bathing in the beauty of aspens, a favorite lake so mesmerizing in its tranquility that the arduous trek seemed a small token to pay, creeks bubbling with stories to share, trails inviting the wonder of what may be just ahead, mountain peaks kissing heaven – returning home more relaxed, refreshed but not transformed.
Quaking aspens in the fall command an entirely different response. At first, I thought they owed a debt to the sun. But, no, aspens are not dependent upon reflected glory. The gold leaves – as brilliant in shade as in sun – generously share the moment with green brothers and sisters on neighboring branches. All contributing in their differences to a whole – a proverbial slack-jawed experience.
When I could speak, I called Safia’s attention to the fluttering, million-butterfly gold wings on these trees. Supposing it would be unsettling to tell a seven-year-old child, "When I die, I want to come back as a quaking aspen," I couldn’t share what
I was going through. And I didn’t risk the reaction to singing conspicuously the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” I was overtaken by that hymn – in my head/heart I sang every verse I could remember from my childhood choir years and just sang the refrain when memory gave out:
O, Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder
consider all the words Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
They power throughout the universe displayed
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook and feel the gentle breeze
I hadn’t sung or heard or thought of that song in decades and now it exploded inside me washing like waves over my eyes’ perception and my soul’s unbounded happiness. The response that immediately popped into my consciousness: if reincarnation were “A Thing,” I wanted to return for all eternity as a quaking aspen. I’m not a person who goes around thinking about reincarnation. I’m a Cradle-Episcopalian, thank you very much; yet, I embraced this longing to become an aspen. To play with sunbeams, to try out the latest boogie-on-down with my wind dance partner, to twirl against robin-egg blue sky in my ensemble besting anything Paris couture could create – a life for eternity.
Later, someone snatched the dream/destiny away, “You know, aspens don’t live very long – maybe 150 years.” Another dream shattered by reality. I wrapped my reincarnation passion in purple silk together with my other longings and tucked it away in my heart.
But, those quaking aspens wouldn’t let go and, emulating Safia’s example – these young people “Google” everything – I turned to the universe of Google for information. Thriving from 6,500 feet to timberline, aspens cover over five million acres and are Colorado’s only widespread, native, deciduous tree. These trees don’t bother to present with the gigantic majesty of redwoods. Medium-sized, usually 20 to 80 feet tall, they range from three to eighteen inches in diameter with smooth bark showing up greenish white to yellowish gray or gray to almost white. Their leaves are smooth, ranging from bright green to yellowish-green (until fall), thin, rounded at the base with a little point at the tip. And that fluttering, million-butterfly-wings effect? Those leaves are attached to the branch by a flattened stem that allows the brilliant yellow, gold, orange, and maybe slightly red leaves to quake or tremble in the slightest breeze.
As is so often true, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. While my friend knew the visible aspen does not live long, she didn’t know the whole story. Aspen longevity is a thing of wonder. There are aspens dating over 10,000 years old in Colorado. The largest and oldest known aspen is estimated to be 80,000 years old. How could my friend be so wrong?
The dead-looking aspen has roots from which new plants emerge by means of root suckering. These root systems survive fires that wipe out entire forest areas. The first trees to push through the charred forest floor are always aspen “clones” – genetically identical trees from these vast root systems. The members of a clone can be distinguished from those of their neighboring clones by traits such as leaf shape and size, bark character, branching habit, autumn leaf color, and the timing of turning colors in the fall. When an aspen dies, it exhibits something one might call consciousness of the moment; it sends chemical signals to its connecting root system stimulating sprouts to start growing.
Now that I’ve resurrected my reincarnation passion, I also experience aspens as speaking to my journey as an African American woman descended from enslaved people who were bought and sold as property. My ancestors suffered multiple Fires – the Middle Passage, a euphemism if one acknowledges the actual conditions of transport; then generations of enslavement; followed by decades of legal segregation and state-sanctioned violence – and now I’m in the midst of a resurgence of White Supremacy. Fires sweeping through multiple generations. All those Dead Aspens.
My family gathers for a reunion in Virginia near where our common ancestor Parker Robinson, my great-great grandfather, was owned. From the roots embedded there, my father’s generation of thirty-six first cousins – similar to those aspen clones emerging from entwined root systems – brings us all back to the place that nurtures who we are and all the descendants who will come after us. Just as new aspens rise up from ground where aspens are visibly dead, so, too, Charles, Safia, and all my descendants will continue to rise from Parker Robinson’s continuously spreading, entwined root system. When Safia and I share memories of that trip to the Grand Canyon, she always mentions how enthralled we were by the sight of quaking aspens. One day she will realize just how much she has in common with them – how similarly rooted she is in the family of Parker Robinson.
Dr. L. C. Dorsey: Reaching for the Moon of Justice
Dr. L. C. Dorsey was a Mississippi civil rights legend whose brown skin reminded me of nutmeg. Her piercing eyes which revealed her powerful intellect and fierce will, and held a gaze familiar with deep sorrow, overshadowed her tiny frame. She brought Mississippi to life one night in 2002 during a public forum organized by New Delhi feminists. The audience of Indian women was an animated jewelry box as they greeted each other with the affection of feminist comrades in struggle. Every seat was taken by a woman dressed in a gorgeous sari or elegant salwar kameez – which would have been exotic attire if they were in Mississippi. L. C. was comfortable in her plain black skirt, jacket, white shirt, and sensible shoes talking with women who filled the room with all the shades of brown she knew at home. She knew they understood caste and wanted to understand the realities of Black life in Mississippi. Her prepared remarks established her moral, experiential, and intellectual authority to lead a deep and nuanced discussion. Asked whether the Civil Rights Movement had brought change to Mississippi, she paused before answering – the audience waiting in that proverbial silence that makes noise of a mouse tiptoeing through cotton. Her answer then and her life’s work make a formidable contribution to today’s conversation about “change” in Mississippi.
Dr. Dorsey shared what she felt as a child living on plantations in the Mississippi Delta, answering the question in her usual direct style. She spoke of fear in a way that cut to the bone, “I grew up knowing that my parents could not protect themselves, couldn’t protect me or any of their children from anything a white person chose to do.” L. C. has written about that childhood in the Delta – “outside of that [Walker] plantation, everywhere all around it, the KKK rode high and fast and for a very, very long time” – until the Civil Rights Movement changed Mississippi. L. C. did not declare that all was well. Into the absolute hush of the room she concluded, “Yes. There’s been change. I no longer live with that fear. We have work to do; but it’s not like that anymore.” She had a lot to do with what changed Mississippi before she died in 2013 at the age of 74.
Her home was always the Mississippi Delta, described vividly by historian James Cobb in his seminal book, The Most Southern Place on Earth. From that place, L. C. became a civil rights warrior, leader of innovative community organizations, global citizen, university professor, Presidential advisor, advocate for justice in multiple arenas, and played a major role in the development of the national health center model. With women’s rights, racial justice, mass incarceration, public health, food insecurity, and climate justice all on the front burner for so many – the work we have to do, as L. C. always said – the example of this woman who had no reason to believe she could change her world, but whose work encompassed all those issues, will help each of us find our own way to being change-makers.
To know her, you must ground yourself in L. C.’s home – the Mississippi Delta – northwest Mississippi between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, said to begin in the lobby of the Memphis Peabody Hotel and end in Vicksburg. The Delta is 200 miles long, 87 miles across its widest point, encompassing over four million acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, once covered entirely by forest. Black people – first enslaved and later held in slavery-by-another name – cleared the Delta and generated massive, intergenerational white wealth from soft puffs of cotton bolls, their dainty loveliness rising from ground soaked with brutality. This region reflects the legacy of slavery in ways unmatched by any competitors. Centuries of formal slavery and slavery-by-another name – tenant farming/sharecropping – combined with indignities of every kind to create the world into which L. C. was born. Always a majority of the population, African Americans were maintained in a system of bondage enforced by denial of any rights of citizenship, political disfranchisement, violence, and economic control as well. Even their claim to membership in the human race went unacknowledged. Close your eyes and see nothing but cotton fields to the horizon in any direction and it’s 99 degrees and 90% humidity. The fields once held shacks – rough boards held together precariously, cotton planted right up to the door, maybe two rooms, no running water nor indoor plumbing – for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. L. C. was born into and lived in one of those shacks for most of her life.
Born in 1938 to a sharecropping family on a plantation in Washington County, she believed for a long time that everyone lived on plantations. She glimpsed a world beyond plantations as her mother, Mary Francis, read to her from African-American newspapers, The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Her understanding of the plantation as a system of oppression emerged as a teenager when she initiated keeping an account of her family’s expenses and earnings so they would not be solely dependent on the record-keeping of the owner. Usually, at annual “settling” only the plantation manager had a record of what was charged at the plantation’s commissary and the wages earned. If that balance failed to leave the sharecropper with nothing, the manager added an item called “Plantation Expenses.” L. C.’s family had never come out ahead. But her records – kept in a blue notebook with daily entries – showed that her family should clear at minimum $2,000. She proudly handed her blue book to her father, but he returned to report they had cleared $600.00. L.C. believed her father never showed the manager her accounting. He knew his “place.” African Americans were totally dependent economically upon whites. Of knowing their “place,” she said, “We understood early on ‘our place.’ Even as a child. The posture, the subservience became ingrained. Because your life depended upon understanding that relationship.” She saw that life under the plantation system “really bought your soul . . . We saw the horror that could happen if you didn’t ‘belong’ to white folks.”
L. C. started working in the fields at age eight for $1.25 a day. She received such education as was offered by plantation schools and dropped out of high school thinking marriage would be her escape from the plantation system. She had six children from 1956-65 with her husband and briefly moved off the plantation. But, life off the plantation in Shelby, Mississippi did not offer economic opportunities or dignity, either. In 1964, desperate for income, she was offered $19.00 by a white family for domestic service seven days a week. L. C. explained that she needed Sunday off to take her children to church. Contrary to all the rules about interactions between whites and Blacks, the couple then began arguing in front of her – a signal to her that not only would agreement crush her spirit, but she would risk personal harm from either the wife or the husband. She knew the experience of hearing her hungry children cry themselves to sleep, but she rejected the job. L. C. returned to the plantation fields until, as she put it, “the Civil Rights Movement came to Shelby.”
L. C. was working in those fields when Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the greatest organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, began encouraging her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the new Freedom Democratic Party. With Mrs. Hamer’s encouragement, L. C. volunteered for the Council of Confederated Organizations (the umbrella group for civil rights organizations) and received a weekly stipend of $10-$15 for community work focused on the dangerous work of registering voters. For L. C. there was “magic” in the right to vote – “It would make people pay us fair wages, would make us not be fearful of police when we saw them, would make mob crews disappear.” The federal anti-poverty programs initiated by the Johnson administration combined with the Movement to bring about political and economic change. L. C. went to work for a federal Headstart program during 1966-67 and found herself among the Delta Black women who for the first time had an independent income while learning to be teaching assistants in classes for pre-school children. This income broke the stranglehold of the plantation system for L. C. and propelled her into a lifetime of seizing opportunities to change her life and the lives of Black people.
Tufts University soon launched the Delta Health Center with an expansive understanding of “health” in Mound Bayou, an all-Black Mississippi Delta town, and offered opportunities for L. C. to leave the Headstart program and return to her passion for organizing people to achieve racial justice. She helped develop this first rural community health center in America, a model to not only treat illness but to intervene directly against the root causes of it – poverty, malnutrition, lack of jobs, and poor drinking water. She worked in the training department where she says, “I was paid to do everything I learned in the Civil Rights Movement. How to get a community together to do something. Adding layers of empowerment.” She viewed this work as another phase of continuing the Movement – challenging the plantation system.
The North Bolivar Farm Cooperative, a 427-acre farm, grew out of L. C.’s Health Center work to identify and respond to community problems. The Co-op addressed severe malnutrition and lack of employment opportunities. Members were offered food and employment – another blow to the plantation system. After less than six months, L. C. had recruited over 800 families into membership and became director of the Co-op.
L. C. came to feel that she was not being taken seriously in her work, attributing the challenges to misogyny and her lack of education. She believed, “People will pay attention if I get a degree.” In 1968, at age 31, L. C. went back to school to become a more effective leader, saying, “I thought I needed to know a lot more.” She left Mississippi to complete her high school education by obtaining her GED, then a Master's degree in Social Work, a Certificate in Health Management, and a Doctorate in Social Work.
L. C. returned to Mississippi in 1973, and among other accomplishments worked to transform the infamous Parchman State Prison through her work on prison reform with the Lawyers’ Committee Under Law and as associate director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons from 1974-1983. During this time, she published numerous newspaper articles on prison reform and a book, Cold Steel, describing life at Parchman. She returned to the Delta Health Center and served as its director from 1988-1995, providing complete family medical care and social services to four Delta counties. L. C. became a clinical associate professor in the Family Medicine Department of the University of Mississippi Medical Center and served as associate director of the Delta Research and Cultural Institute of Mississippi Valley State University.
By the time she met with New Delhi feminists, she was among the founders of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative – a collective engaging Black women in 22 counties throughout the Black Belt of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. She had also engaged with change agents in Palestine, The People’s Republic of China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and South Africa. She had advised President Jimmy Carter as a member of the National Council for Economic Opportunity. L. C. was never impressed with “how far” she had come as the outside world may have perceived her accomplishments; many did not know she had a Ph.D. until she was dead nor that her name was Lula Clara. She must have hated that name; she always insisted that her name was simply two initials “L. C.”
L. C.’s tenacity assures us that changing Mississippi is possible if we honor her admonition – “we have work to do.” L. C. once said of her mentor Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, “She had the ability to at the same time make you believe you could go get the moon and bring it back and make you believe you had a responsibility to go get it and bring it back. Without any guilt if you didn’t get it.” She summed up her focus on tackling the root causes of social problems, saying, “The real thing is to understand the political, social, and economic structures and how you overcome [them] if they are barriers or you seize control of them.”
Whether we know her story or not, those who work to advance social justice stand on L. C.’s foundational work and example. I thought of her when, among the many protest signs carried during 2016 and after, I saw one that proclaimed, “We didn’t come this far to come this far.” It is an expression among Black people to proclaim perseverance. We have come this far and we who believe in democracy and justice will not stop here.
Photo courtesy of Mary S. Nelum Foundation
Barbara Phillips, a social justice feminist, has essays in Herstry, The New York Times; Black Memoirs Matter anthology of Memoir Magazine, and Southern Cultures. She has had residencies at Mesa Refuge and Renaissance House. A former civil rights lawyer, law professor, and Ford Foundation Program Officer, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi.