Friends Who Just Met
“We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond”
-From “Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks
From the beginning, everything seemed so familiar. Joanne and I had arrived at the theater early Monday morning to meet with local poets who had signed up for this two-day workshop. Joanne was the highly-touted teacher from the far-away United States, and the Eswatini poets came expecting to receive from this prolific scholar furious flower-like nuggets that would enhance their craft.
Except for a janitor and a couple of poets who were in the theater when we arrived, the building was desolate. Within half an hour, a make-shift classroom of sorts was prepared. Poets started filing in and sitting around two long tables situated on the theater‘s stage in the auditorium.
Joanne opened the workshop with a request that we all introduce ourselves culturally. To help the Eswatini poets understand what “cultural introduction” meant, Joanne introduced herself first by saying she was shaped growing up in an East Baltimore Baptist church, grooving on the music of Aretha Franklin and Motown, and finding the roots of her American consciousness in Africa. Then I did likewise, explaining what it meant, even as a youth from a single-parent home, to identify myself with black men described as “race men,” fiercely conscious and proud of my blackness, an athlete, a loner, a lover of books, and a youthful soul trying to understand God’s Will for my life. Following our example, each of the poets began introducing themselves in terms of what was important to know about them.
What followed was extraordinary. Their cultural introductions focused on their trials of coming of age, the challenges of poverty, crime, loneliness, and the critically important relationships that impacted who they became. Once everyone had spoken, the group felt a connection and mutual appreciation for each person’s uniqueness. We bonded. Relaxed in each other’s presence, we were ready for an experience of sharing as friends who had just met.
Among the memorable experiences over the next two days, two stand out. The first was my shock at a question from one of the male poets. As we were preparing to bring our first day of the workshop to a close, he asked if he could ask a personal question. Joanne said it was fine. So he asked us to explain the secret to a successful marriage. That Joanne and I had been married for over 5 decades clearly impressed him. That this was something he—a man– wanted instruction in learning how to do spoke volumes to me.
The second experience that stood out occurred after Joanne had each poet write and read an “I am“ poem and an “ancestor” poem. After sharing with the poets her “Love Sleep” poem about us, they wanted to know why I was reluctant to embrace the obvious celebration of something so special and beautiful.
Listening intently, they heard me describe my fundamental approach to life:
“Imagine an escalator, like one in a large department store or the one in the terminals of Atlanta Hatfield International Airport. Imagine getting off the airport train on the lower level and approaching the escalator to go up to the next level in order to get to the gate for boarding your flight. From where you stand on the lower level, that escalator seems to be stretching up into the heavens before reaching the very top of the stairs.
Let’s assume you do want to go on the escalator from the lower level to the next level, but rather than stand on the up–escalator and let it carry you up, I want you to get to the next level by going up the down–escalator.
To get to the next level by going up the down-escalator, three things are necessary. First, to go up the down-escalator, you must make an effort. Standing on the up-escalator requires no effort to get to the top. Stand there. The up-escalator does all the work. But to go up the down-escalator, you’ve got to put effort into overcoming its downward trajection.
Second, your effort has to be enough to overcome the downward movement of the escalator stairs. A half-hearted, wimpy effort won’t do. You’ve got to put enough energy into the effort to off-set the escalator force pulling you down.
To go up the down-escalator, the first two requirements—making an effort and putting enough energy into your effort— are very important. But the third requirement is absolutely the most critical of all.
You’ve got to go …… ALL…… THE…… WAY..…. UP!
You cannot get half way up the down-escalator… get tired… slow down…or take a rest break. Stop putting in enough effort, and you’ll end up right back down on the lower level where you started.
You cannot get 90% of the way up the down-escalator… and because victory is in sight….take one moment to pause, celebrate your accomplishments and pat yourself on the back, and you’ll end up right back down on the lower level where you started.
To go up the down-escalator, you’ve got to …make an effort…exert enough energy working to reach the top…and go……… ALL..… THE.. … WAY..…. UP… “
Yes, I said to the poets that I am mindful or appreciative of how Joanne and I have been blessed. But because I want our tomorrow to be as good as our yesterday, my instinctive reaction is to be on guard against either getting tired or being seduced into pre-mature celebration.
The poets were not prepared for my answer. But based on the comments I received afterwards and a taped interview arranged by the poet Kr TC for his blog, my response had opened their eyes to something deeper and perhaps more significant.
The bonding between the people of Eswatini and the Furious Flower delegation was a rich harvest. According to Morrison, our Eswatini host from the U S Embassy, guests from the United States previously have not really connected with the people in a meaningful way. But from beginning to end, the children, poets, Eswatini people and Furious Flower delegation shared joys, hopes and stories like friends who had just met.
—Alexander L. Gabbin is an Adolph Coors Foundation Professor of Accounting at James Madison University. Gabbin earned his B.A. degree in economics and mathematics from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1967. He went on to earn his M.B.A. degree from the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois in 1970 and his Ph.D. degree in accounting from Temple University, Graduate School of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1986. Gabbin became a certified public accountant in the State of Illinois in 1971 and in the State of Pennsylvania in 1979. Gabbin left a public accounting career with Touche Ross & Co in 1973 to work at the Chicago Urban League during its financial crisis as Deputy Executive Director- Administration. He began his teaching career in 1975 at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania as an associate professor in the department of economics and business administration. In 1985, Gabbin joined James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia as a Commonwealth Visiting Professor. In 2000, Gabbin received the National Black MBA Association Lifetime Membership Award. In 2016, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award of the Lincoln University Alumni Association, and a February 16, 2016 Senate of Pennsylvania Citation for exemplary dedication to higher education.