Living and working in Washington, it’s not unusual to run in to famous people. No, not “movie star famous.” At least not most of the time. But people who hold important positions or people whose work and actions have made history, and made a difference in the lives of countless others.
Dr. Dorothy Height was one of those people who fit all of the above criteria.
Height was born in Richmond, Va., and grew up near Pittsburgh. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York, only to find that the school had already admitted its quota of two blacks.
In 1963, as Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington, only one woman stood on the platform behind him: Dorothy Height. A lifelong champion of civil rights, Height organized a meeting the next day in which women in the movement could address racism and sexism.
Height had the ear of U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. President Obama paid homage to Height in a statement Tuesday, calling her a hero and “the godmother of the civil rights movement.”
I never formally met Dr. Height, but in my one experience with her she impressed me with the depth of her understanding, and I came away knowing a bit more about how she could work so tirelessly for so long.
A few years ago, I was among the guests on an NPR show, along with Dr. Height.
So, I was on the radio Friday afternoon. On NPR, actually. I was invited to be on the broadcast of News & Notes, which was focusing on the question of “What makes a healthy family?”, specifically where black families are concerned. I was in the middle of a board retreat for Rainbow Families DC (during which I somehow got nominated and elected as vice president), where we spent the day talking about how to support and connect LGBT families in our area. So it seemed appropriate to take a few minutes out of the day to talk to a broader audience about gay families.
Host: So when you think about a family like Terrance Heath’s, a two gay men raising a child, does that fit into the traditional value structure you’re talking about? Is that a structure that is open families of different composition, and is more about the energy you bring to it, or do you make a distinction between different kinds of families?
Height: No, we recognize it. In this country we’ve accepted the nuclear family, but we we also recognize many different kinds of families. And the important thing about it is the extent to which the family cares one for the other, and that they take care of each other, and that they have a commitment to being part of life together.
I thought about that, day and those words, when I heard of Dr. Height’s passing. Since then, she has been remembered as a ceaseless worker for justice, and a giant of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and others. Undoubtedly, she was and is. And, remembering that one moment with Dr. Height, I understood what made her all that and more.
Dr. Dorothy Height “got it.” She understood the difference between justice and “just us.” That’s why Dr Height — who is said to have attended the National Black Family Reunion every year — didn’t hesitate or equivocate when ask about gay families and whether a distinction should be made. She included us and answered, “No, we recognize it.” Because when it came to family, she knew her history; she knew our history.
It’s so not strange because it’s what African Americans have done since the moment they came to North America. Only then it was slavery that ripped apart families, when a mother or father was “sold off” and separated from family for any number of reasons. And, then as now, other family members or unrelated members of the community (the “village,” if you will) stepped in to care for those — old or young — who were left behind. Maybe later in history it was the violence of lynching, or economic necessity during the Great Migration that separated families, but the basic pattern of other stepping up and creating family bonds has stayed the same.
Like I said above, it ought to go without saying, because if we stop and think about it for a minute black folks already know that families come in many configurations. And whatever those configurations are, we know the important ways members of those those families benefit from the care and support the receive, and how our communities We know the importance of protecting those families, and how our communities benefit by extension. When it comes to same-sex marriage we just need to act like we know, because we — your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc. — are family too. We always have been.
So, thank you. Dr. Height, for your understanding and for dedicating you life to working for justice — instead of stopping at “just us.”
Would that we had more African-American leaders like you. It’s a shame that we don’t.