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'A Wealth of Wisdom'

A collection of stories, experiences, and observations of more than fifty African Americans.
/ Source: TODAY

Many believe that the wisdom of our elders is our most valuable resource. Now A Wealth of Wisdom is a collection of stories, experiences, and observations of more than fifty African Americans, ages seventy and over, including Maya Angelou, Ray Charles, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, David Dinkins, Katherine Dunham, Dick Gregory, Robert Guillaume, Coretta Scott King, Gordon Parks, and Andrew Young. Accompanied by portraits by famed photographer Howard L. Bingham, the accounts by these pivotal leaders take us behind their historic public moments to their underlying personal realities. Here's an excerpt:

One of the most wonderful and consistently frustrating parts of being a television journalist for so many years was finding myself constantly rushing back to the station mid-afternoon to get my report ready for the six o’clock news, excited about some fascinating person I’d just interviewed and all of the lengthy stories and invaluable insights captured on videotape, only to face the reality that all but a sliver of that material would end up on the figurative cutting-room floor. No one would be able to learn from them, be inspired by them. None of the young people, glued to their television sets, struggling, sometimes self-destructively, into adulthood, would benefit from these wise voices.

I lived in a world of varied, fascinating people and stories, but worked in a world of thirty-second sound bites. The contradictions were obvious. My precarious balancing act led to several Emmy Awards — and a bleeding ulcer.

What I really wanted was to do pretty much what I’d done growing up in Spanish Harlem; in Queens, New York; and in small Tennessee towns like Humboldt and Brownsville, where my maternal grandfather pastored a small church. I wanted to hear the elders’ stories. On my mother’s side, I wanted to hear about my great-grandmother, part Cherokee and tough as nails; about my late grandmother Gustava Maclin Vance, a pharmacist and the first African American woman to own a drugstore in her small, rigidly segregated town. I wanted to know how they survived the sometimes terrible hardships they faced.

On my father’s side, I would sometimes plague my New York family with constant questions about where we came from… How did we get the unusual name Poussaint? Why did our faces look so much like photos of strangers I’d seen in places like Mali and Martinique?

The elders in my family helped to fill in the blanks of who I was, by sharing stories of who and where I had come from. Those stories strengthened me in ways I am still discovering, by giving me a sense of the vast, rich African American foundation on which I stood.

What a wonderful gift! As a young girl, it made me want to hear about other people’s stories, other cultures, other ways of thinking, acting, and responding to life’s challenges. Each story was like the opening of a door to a new, unexpected vision of life. Each door gave answers to different questions, answers that meant there was no need to keep trying to reinvent the wheel; that a lot of the hard, fundamental work had already been done on some of society’s (and my) contemporary problems. I did not have to start from the beginning. I could build on an existing foundation created by my elders.

I grew up wanting to share that gift with everyone. It seemed particularly important for some of the troubled young people I reported on, who kept making the same mistakes over and over again. They lived in a world where the different generations had little contact, where they and their young friends seemed to drift, often with no apparent moral compass. I continued to believe that if some of these kids could have consistent, open access to their elders’ advice and life stories, it might make a difference, perhaps a small difference, but still something. This book and the National Visionary Leadership Project are the wonderful extensions of that lifelong belief.

When Camille Cosby and I joined forces to create NVLP, we agreed, first of all, that it had to be intergenerational. We needed to find ways to bring the elders and youth together on a consistent basis. We were driven by a real sense of urgency.

Some of the elders whose stories we wanted to capture on videotape were in their late eighties or early nineties. Some were younger, but battling health problems. They were the repositories of much of America’s history in the twentieth century. Some of that history had never been shared beyond the confines of the black family, where the truth about their lives in a majority-white world could safely be told. Once those memories and stories were gone, that particular history could never be retrieved.

Some of the young people we wanted to reach, including those from solidly middle-class black backgrounds, were running headlong into various educational, social, and professional glass ceilings, unprepared for the remnants of racism that still plague our country. Some of them had no real sense of their heritage of struggle, and could not imagine life under segregation. They did not know what their elders had gone through to win the rights to the life they enjoyed, and for the most part felt little concern about protecting those hard-won victories—that is, until they themselves hit one of those glass ceilings. That lack of knowledge about their past made their futures vulnerable. Our aim in founding NVLP was to help by bringing the generations together for better, open communication about our shared history.

One thing that became abundantly clear as we interviewed these visionaries was that it’s not possible to know an elder’s entire story, but it’s always fascinating to discover whatever we can. A Wealth of Wisdom gives glimpses of the visionaries’ varied stories and experiences, a mix of the serious and the lighthearted.

We hope that young people, in particular, will see these elders as complex, complete individuals they can relate to — not icons, but vibrant individuals who laugh and cry, who’ve made mistakes, fallen down, but managed to get up and keep going, often with remarkable good humor.

We want young people to know these elders as children, much like themselves, being a feisty tomboy like Coretta Scott King or trying to imitate the dance moves of a cool older brother, like Geoffrey Holder.

We want them to know these figures as young adults on the front lines of the civil rights struggle, some of them facing constant violence, like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who describes in this book the sound of the KKK bomb exploding at his family’s home on Christmas Eve.

We want them to learn about long-term relationships, such as that of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis as they talk frankly about the decades they spent trying to build a strong family, and the financial price they paid for refusing acting roles they could not be proud of.

Finally, we want everyone to see that in fact age is a very relative thing. These elders are shifting gears, not stopping. Katherine Dunham, at ninety-plus, a true grand dame of dance, still directs the occasional class. Carmen de Lavallade was recently photographed in fluid motion for a national fashion ad campaign. Now in his late eighties, Dr. John Hope Franklin is finishing a new book, and sharing vivid stories from a recent trip to the ancient city of Timbuktu, in Mali. And Dr. Dorothy Height, in her nineties, is still running the National Council of Negro Women, and traveling the country on a book tour for her new autobiography. And they are not alone.

These elders astound, exhaust, and inspire me. Hopefully, they will do the same for you.— Renee Poussaint

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Excerpted from a “A Wealth of Wisdom : Legendary African American Elders Speak” by by Howard Bingham (Photographer), Camille Cosby, Renee Poussaint. Copyright © 2004 by National Visionary Leadership Project. Published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.