I have been thinking about authenticity. What is it who has it and how do we achieve it? As an 18-year-old college student I came into the field having marched with Martin Luther King Jr and working as an eligibility worker for the Allegheny Country Department of public welfare. My job was to walk the all black streets of Homewood in Pittsburgh to check out people’s eligibility to collect public welfare. You could tell who I was – a young girl, dressed preppy, white collar shirts, a circle pin, and knee socks while carrying a distinctive little black book in which I had to verify rent receipts, gas and electric bills to see along the way if any one needed help. Boys about my age would scream here comes “Big Legs “ as I walked the streets and I would sheepishly smile.
I earned a whopping $8.00 per hour, lived in a third -floor attic with an original delicatessen booth in the kitchen, and had a claw foot bathtub that I proceeded to paint in day-glow daises. It was good that I was short as I did not hit my head on the ceiling. I was poor yet so much richer than those I tried to serve. I rode the streetcar everywhere or walked. I was safe, I was proud.
I often got in trouble with my supervisor as even then I was painting pictures, portraits of people with my words and getting them things despite what my supervisor said: a pair of glasses, a new bed. I also remember my first encounter with psychosis. The young brown skinned women stood in a corner of her 2-room flat. She held a broom in her hand and she swept back and forth back while a 14 -month old black cherub of a baby pulled at her well-worn skirt. She was glassy eyed and distant. I knew not of any fancy diagnosis, nor did I portend to know exactly what to do. She hummed and swayed back in forth and was oh-so-distant. I later learned depression and a psychotic break had taken hold. I called for help – that’s what social workers do they look for resources – and so I did. Maggie was taken to the hospital and her little one when to foster care. Maggie survived and so did little Lila. Martin Towery was another story. He lost his bed, so he said in the riots. I got him a new mattress and frame, only to later learn in an alcoholic rage he ripped the mattress with a knife. I got in trouble and yet I helped him find the halls of AA.
When the riots occurred and the looting occurred, I found myself standing on a street corner in Homewood . This was in my hood. I just passed boys shooting up, offering me drugs as I came from visiting sweet Mable. She took care of her grandsons and there was always a sweet smell of corn syrup in her home. the problem was Mabel’s eyesight was so bad she could not read the paper or any of the bills she was supposed to see. She needed glasses and I was delivering glasses the day the world stopped yet again an assassination so sense-less I could neither comprehend nor understand.
Like the poet Langston Hughes, whom I fell in love with. these were my people and I was one of them. I was scared only when two large women accosted me at my streetcar stop and said the governor called all workers out of black areas and I was the last one standing. Only when they picked me up and I was dangling in their arms as they waited for a streetcar to hoist me into, only then did my adrenalin spin, my heart beat rapidly, and sweat poured out of every pore. They scared me; my people did not.
You have to remember I was brought up by black women. If it was not for Ressie, Virginia who shared a room with me and Annabelle who cradled me in my arms. I would not have had safe refuge in the alcoholic haze of a home I lived in.
Lambchops’ anyone? My memory was jarred when a woman of 77 reached out to me to share my childhood. Standing at a meat counter, ready to buy lamp chops she exclaimed, “I wonder what happened to Louise Ann? Aunt Dottie always made her lamb chops.” Being a librarian and a master of Google she tracked me down via the web and my book Falling Up and thought she must reach me. The last time my memory saw Ann was when I was 8 or 9 years old. Ann was taller, slender and a whopping 3 years older than me and oh so wise. Her father, a school principal, and mother, a psychologist, were friends with Aunt Dottie (my mother) until my father died. They parted ways when Aunt Dottie married a nefarious man and fell more in love with the bottle than anything else.
They stopped taking me to their home or to their church. Ann and I stopped putting on plays which were imaginative and a wonderful escape from I the sordidness of everyday life. It was like a fairy princess from my past flew into the garden sprinkling the gold dust my secrets of growing up in a family beset with rage, anger, alcohol ,and suicide.
Anne at her ripe old age of 14 saw the truth and was able to verify the memories and the secrets which were never spoken. Ann was like a white light who beamed through the stratosphere affirming that my childhood was crazy, my mother was a creative beautiful mean drunk and my father, Sidney loved me. That despite his mental illness and alcoholism he had a bright blue glint in his eyes, my eyes she said, and always spoke in a gentle, caring way.
She told me even as a kid I liked all people and we were always welcoming everyone into their home. She shared I went into so many different homes being carted around by Annabelle and Ressie’s as my mom was never around. She shared it was true my grandmother was generous my uncles were awful. Her mom thought the way they treated Aunt Dottie after my father died was deplorable and she often wondered how I might survive.
I thanked her for memories. It was as if someone came and told that little ACA of a girl, she saw the world correctly. Most of all she told that little girl, her father loved her and there was no need to think that you contributed in any way to his death. How affirming to hear and rejoice in that. How fitting to get that Father’s Day gift.
She said it is no wonder I took the path I did, and she was glad to see I am still committed to authenticity, to meeting people where they are, and to helping others create portraits of hope and affirmation.
Many moons have passed from the streets of Pittsburgh? I went on with my English Literature major and entered social work graduate school for my master’s thesis I was allowed to do a study of authentic. I strung poetry together by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “A Coney Island of My Mind,” and Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, etc. Using a research method called Factor Analysis, I created portraits of authenticity as seen by social workers. From the early days I learned the richness of visiting with people in their homes as opposed to offices. Honoring folks where they live was and still is my M.O.
Let us fast forward to today. June 19, 2020. My team and I create portraits of the people we serve. My skills are robust, strength based and collaborative. We meet our clients where they are at, in their homes, in coffee shops and their boardroom wherever they feel honored, safe and secure. And we honor them for their pain, their suffering, their resiliency and courage.
We gather data -i.e. portraits- of the people we serve, and we invite people to change to get the essential help they need for their emotional, physical and spiritual health.
In doing so we stay wide eyed, curious and inquisitive discovering strength and resiliency. Ever ready to craft plans that honor others, we use culturally relevant evidenced-based strategies for our clients, our people!
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
God! What dancers!
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers,
Dancers and laughers.
Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate.