It wasn’t just my mom who taught about abstinence and personal responsibility as a lifestyle. Every summer when I was growing up, my family would get into our Chevy Suburban (this was before Suburbans were cool) and we would drive across the country from Southern California to see my mom’s family in a small town in Alabama. After the Civil War and the slaves were freed, many of my ancestors stayed right there and built the churches, businesses and homes in the entire community.
If you met someone on the street and asked them where they came from and they went back far enough in the family tree, chances are good we were related to them. There was a sense of community that I had never experienced before. During those summer visits, we would sit and listen to stories from aunts and uncles about how things used to be.
My paternal grandfather was the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where a bomb went off in the ’60s. The story is the basis for Spike Lee’s movie Four Little Girls. I learned about my uncle, who after retiring from the Air Force, became a professor of engineering at Tuskegee Institute. He designed the carpool system for the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights movement.
I also discovered that when my mom and her sister were college students at Alabama State University, they took a day off from classes to hear the cute new pastor preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They were disappointed to find out that the pastor’s wife, Coretta, was playing the organ. The pastor’s name? Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard stories from one of my younger aunts who used to host Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. at her boyfriend’s parents house. (They are now her in-laws.)
Many people know who Rosa Parks was, but she was not the first to be arrested or the last. My aunts and many other college students sat in the front of the bus as a matter of protest, waiting to get arrested. It was here at the feet of my elders that I began to understand why my parents were the way they were.
In the big picture, life and death, success and failure depended on doing what was right and not what was convenient or popular. They disciplined themselves to stand for what was right, even when others mocked, spat at, threatened and abused them. And I thought I had it hard! I realized that I benefited from their discipline and sacrifice.
We grew up hearing about civil rights and we also grew up hearing about personal responsibility. The two are inseparable: Every right demands responsibility. Growing up, it only made sense that when someone got pregnant, someone got married. If you exercised the right to have sex, then you should step up and be responsible. Every right demands responsibility.
Rights and responsibilities apply to every area of our lives, and one summer I discovered how they apply to sex. When I was 11 years old, during my family’s annual visit to Alabama, I woke up to discover that my grandfather was nowhere to be found. After a few days, I realized that his disappearance was a daily occurrence. So one afternoon, I decided to wait for him out on the porch. When he finally came back, I asked him, “Granddaddy, where do you go in the mornings?” “I go to talk to my best friend,” he answered. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Your grandmother,” he answered. Now, my grandmother had been dead for four or five years. But six days a week, excluding Sundays—which was his day of rest—my grandfather would get up while it was still dark and walk down the dirt road with his cane. He loved to make the two- mile journey to his daily destination—our family cemetery—just as the sun was coming up. He would sit in his lounge chair next to her headstone for hours. Then he’d walk two miles back home. He was 90 years old.