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November 97 Message
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Two steps forward.

There is an Akan (The Akans of Ghana are the Asantes, Fantis, Brongs and others who share a common rich language.) proverb that states, "You will see it better when you travel to where it is." Also, Dr. Azikwe, Nigeria’s first president, had said that the best of education is traveling because it opens your eyes to see things more clearly than you might at home.

On Wednesday, the 15th of October, my wife Eleanor and I were checking out of a hotel in Detroit and as I rode down on the elevator to the lobby the bellman, an African American man probably in his late 40s, asked me if the lettering on my black and old gold jacket meant that I belonged to a fraternity. I responded that in 1906 Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was the first college fraternity founded by African American men. He then asked if I was a teacher and I laughed and said I get asked that question a lot but I am a retired federal government manager - but I do a lot of writing for the community. We reached the lobby and as he was pushing the luggage cart out the door to our waiting car he asked if I had anything with me that I had written. I responded that by coincidence I had some materials in my luggage and opened it to dig through and give him a copy of a collection of essays that I had written for the African American Coalition of Howard County newsletter since August 1996, my "Last Train Negro" paper and a copy of a letter that I had mailed on October 10th to The Washington Post concerning the word "Negus" in relation to two articles it had published on the word "nigger." As he quickly glanced at the materials he noted that I used the name Baba Kofi Ojise’ and he stated that he uses the name Omowale. I instantly acknowledged that his name means "the son who has come home" in the Yoruba language of Nigeria - the name that was given to Malcolm X when he visited Nigeria in 1964. As I tried to give him a tip for assisting with the luggage, he protested that he shouldn’t take it because I had already given him so much. I insisted that he take it anyway because there is a price he must pay for the materials that I had given him. I said the price is that he must make copies and give them to others who he believes would want them. Omowale looked into my eyes and said, "I understand." We shook hands and I drove off heading east for Pittsburgh and eventually home.

About two hours later on the Ohio Turnpike, somewhere east of Toledo and west of Cleveland, we pulled into a rest area and entered the building. The building was mostly filled with truckers. Suddenly I was aware that a tall European American, probably in his late 50s, dressed in denim and apparently a trucker was striding quickly directly towards me. As he stopped, just inches from me, he grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes and said something like, "As soon as I spotted that black and old gold jacket I knew it was a Brother," as he simultaneously administered "The Grip." He was Brother Max Yoder who excitedly told me that he had been initiated in 1963 at Gamma Mu Chapter at Livingstone College in North Carolina. He said that at the height of the civil rights movement his Mennonite (Church of the Brethren) faith had brought him south to the small college where he was the only Caucasian student. He said that as he became aware of the service involvement and commitment of the Alpha Brothers on campus he knew it was the only way to go. As Max and I stood hugging each other and laughing, Eleanor told me later that the other truckers were looking at us dumfounded - and a Black trucker stopped talking on the phone and just looked at us in astonishment. I think if Max and I could have found a "fatted calf" on one of the trucks we would have sacrificed it to celebrate the brother who was lost and is found - I got the impression that I was the first Alpha Brother that he had encountered in many years. Max told me that he lives in Niles, Michigan and was on his way to Baltimore to make a delivery. I got Max’s address and as we parted I told him that I would send him a copy of the article that I just had published in The Sphinx on the Afrocentric focus of early Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. That Saturday, after returning home, it occurred to me that by using the new Membership Directory I might be able to locate other Gamma Mu Brothers from that period at Livingstone College who are currently active. I phoned Brother Robert Miller in Lawndale, North Carolina and after identifying myself told him that I had seen Brother Max Yoder. Brother Miller shouted with excitement because he hadn’t see Brother Yoder in over 30 years. I told him about our encounter at the rest area and gave him Brother Yoder’s address which he said "made his day."

In the days since, my thoughts have frequently turned back to Omowale and Max and an evolving sense that there was a lesson being made more clear during those few hours on the journey.

With respect to Omowale, I am reminded that Jewel Brother Nathaniel A. Murray wrote that during the development of Alpha, it was working class Black residents of Ithaca were more encouraging to the Founders. He wrote that working class people in the community gave, "necessary moral support … [and] even offered us financial aid and stated that we could use their homes whenever we wanted them for our meetings. The idea that the Negro boys of Cornell were going to organize a fraternity spread like a prairie fire, and many offers of financial aid and other aid were offered us." (Henry Arthur Callis: Life and Legacy, page 27) You should remember that at the time some members of the Black intelligentsia were taking the position that African American men weren’t ready for a fraternity. Kwame Ture has stated that, "The masses of our people are ready for struggle. It’s the intelligentsia who are not ready."

With respect to Brother Max Yoder, I am reminded of the courage it took for him to go into the south in 1963 to cast his fate with the Black students at Livingstone College and thereby put himself in danger from white supremacists in the area. My brief encounter with Brother Yoder refreshed for me both the words of The House Of Alpha and the closing chorus of The Alpha Phi Alpha Hymn..

"College days swiftly pass, imbued with mem’ries fond,

And the recollection slowly fades away.

Our renowned A Phi A and dear fraternal bond,

May they ever abide and with us stay."

I’ll continue to ponder these two forward steps made while on the journey as their meaning and connection for our time becomes ever more clear.

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