When I came to work one day last week, I found on my desk a book titled “Not All Poor People Are Black and other things we need to think more about.”
My longtime colleague and friend Cindi Rickard said I might find some interesting things in the work for a column.
She was right. Not only did the title pique my curiosity, but I also learned it was a series of essays on various topics as seen through the eyes of Janet Cheatham Bell, an author, editor and, as she calls herself, “a recovering academic, a mom and grateful grandmother.”
Bell, a native of Indiana, asks this question: “Do you believe our country is in a mess right now? So do I.”
She proceeds to give her view of what ails America, how it can be fixed, and “how each of us can help make things better.”
There are 24 essays in the 180-page book. They can be read in any order you desire. Each essay is complete in itself, addressing the road Bell has traveled in her nearly 80 years on the planet.
She writes about her abortion in 1957, and why she made that decision. Regardless of what side of the issue you stand on, I think you will find her essay “Choosing a Life in the Dark Age” informative because it describes her shame for keeping her abortion secret for decades, why she kept it a secret, how the procedure was performed and how she garnered the strength to overcome that experience. Her conclusion: “Secrets are debilitating. Hiding a part of yourself carves a hole in your heart in which you enclose the anguished knowledge. The more of yourself you keep hidden, the larger the hole grows until gloom reigns throughout your life.”
She calls this chapter a dark age because until the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 in the Roe v. Wade case, she writes, males dictated what happened to women’s bodies, and it was a time of shame, anxiety and terror for women.
Bell also writes about taking risks to explore new opportunities. One of her essays, “Making Changes, Being Changed,” deals with her leaving her corporate job at 47 to start publishing her own books.
She shares with the reader her marriage to a Jewish professor in 1965, and how the experiences during that marriage, when she went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan, broadened her academic worldview, especially as it related to racial strife in the U.S.
She writes about her bout with cervical cancer in the early 1970s at a time when her beloved father had died, she was without a job and was raising her then 8-month-old son. The essay explains how she overcame those difficulties.
Bell also writes passionately about religion, sexism, aging, extrasensory perception, politics and, of course, racism.
Here are some of the essay titles addressing race: “The Big White Lie: America’s Racial Paradigm,” “The Help: How to Comfort Whites” and “Not All Black People Are Poor; Not All Poor People are Black.” In that final essay, she leaves these words to ponder from the late Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”
In that essay, Bell said she read a 2011 Washington Post article that pointed out that “Hispanics now make up the largest group of children living in poverty, the first time in U.S. history that poor white kids have been outnumbered by poor children of another race or ethnicity. …”
She realized, she writes, that she had internalized the idea that the majority of poor people in this country are black, a myth, she said, that had been perpetuated for years by politicians and the media. The truth, she writes, is that people of African descent never have been the largest group of impoverished people living in the United States.
Bell’s son is W. Kamau Bell, comedian and host of the former FX TV show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.”
This collection of essays is her 13th book. Her first was “Famous Black Quotations and some not so famous.” That was self-published in 1986.
Bell’s book is her viewpoint on how, as a people, black and white, we hold the power to change things, “but first, we have to recognize and claim our power.”
In the introduction to the essay collection, she says it is written “To the American people who are the final reservoir of power. For all those who want more from themselves and more from their country.”
For information about Bell and her books, visit her website, www.janetcheathambell.com.
Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly minority-affairs column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org