Aretha Franklin’s greatest lesson: Live with purpose, help others


(Reprinted from Detroit Free Press, September 2, 2018)

As hundreds of black-clad women gathered in a semicircle around the coffin of the Queen of Soul, serene, heartbroken and respectful, I am among them, standing near the front, when suddenly, I feel myself grow woozy.

It is a combination of emotion, heat, dehydration and sadness.

Lord, I cannot pass out during one of Delta Sigma Theta’s Sorority, Inc.’s most sacred rituals, the Omega Omega ceremony for Soror Aretha Franklin herself! So I slowly make my way through the sea of black and pearls to rest against a wall outside the rotunda at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Instantly, a Soror, Juanita Anderson, sitting herself and holding a cane, places a hand on my shoulder.

She didn’t ask: Are you all right?

She didn’t ask: What’s wrong with you?

No, she quietly asks: “What can I do?”

This moment epitomizes sisterhood. It epitomizes the kind of womanhood, the kind of peoplehood to which we should all aspire. It epitomizes Aretha Franklin, as those who know her, love her, explain over and over in the week after her death.

She never asked: What’s wrong?

She asked her father: What can I do for the church?

She asked civil rights leaders: What can I do for the movement?

She asked her friends: What can I do to make you feel better?

And whether it was to make oxtail soup, write a secret check or host the party of the year, every year, where local unsung heroes mingled with superstars, Ms. Franklin proved how to love and how to do.

Read the rest here.

The world buried an icon. Detroit buried a family member.

Funeral for Queen of Soul was a loving family reunion

(Reprinted from Detroit Free Press, August 31, 2018)

It could have been a family reunion in LaSalle Gardens, the neighborhood where Aretha Franklin grew up.

Neighbors, friends, politicians, preachers and strangers trading stories, telling jokes, reminiscing about old times.

But then Smokey Robinson walks up to a pulpit mic at Greater Grace Temple and talks about being 8 years old, hanging with the boys and going over to the new kid’s house. His name is Cecil, and he has a sister named Aretha, who sings like an angel.

Suddenly, Robinson looks down at the coffin holding Aretha Franklin, the little girl who grew from the daughter of a preacher into a music and civil rights icon. And the room fades away.

“I hear music, the piano being played and this voice that sounds like a little girl singing and I go into the room and I see you, and you’re there, and you’re singing and it was my first meeting you, my first sight of you. And from that moment on, almost, we have been so, so close and so tight. I didn’t know especially this soon that I was going to be having to say goodbye to you, farewell …”

And the dam broke.

All the pent-up emotion, all the not believing that it could be true — even after seeing her at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Tuesday and Wednesday and at New Bethel Baptist Church Thursday and  Greater Grace on Friday, a four-day engagement that would be her last — ended in that single farewell.

Aretha Franklin is gone.

Can the U.S. Learn from Canada?

DETROIT _ NABJ18 has begun, and among the highlights: The NABJ Global Journalism Task Force will host a conversation between Canadian Parliament Member Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Washington Post Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah at noon Thursday in the NABJ Executive Director’s Suite. Celina R. Caesar-Chavannes will discuss the trade debate between the U.S. and Canada, current foreign affairs and how Canada deals with race and global politics in the Age of Trump. After the conversation with Karen Attiah, Caesar-Chavannes will field questions from the audience.Celina Caesar-Chavannes is the Member of Parliament for Whitby. She served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister from December 2015 to January 2017 and is currently the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development. She was a successful entrepreneur from 2005 to 2015, owning a successful research management consulting firm focused on neurological research. She was the recipient of both the Toronto Board of Trade’s Business Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012 and the 2007 Black Business and Professional Association’s Harry Jerome Young Entrepreneur Award. Mrs. Caesar-Chavannes was a well-known research consultant and who worked with a variety of private, government and non-government organizations. An international lecturer on the inclusion of marginalized populations in clinical research, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto, an MBA in Healthcare Management, and an Executive MBA from the Rotman School of Management. Karen Attiah is the Global Opinions editor at TheWashington Post, where she commissions and edits commentary on global issues from a variety of international writers. She joined The Post in 2014 as a digital producer in the Opinions section. Attiah often writes on issues relating to race, gender and international politics, with a special interest in Africa. She previously was a freelance writer for the Associated Press, based in the Caribbean. She was a Fulbright scholar to Ghana and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She received her bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Northwestern University. Continue Reading

Latest “Burden” chat at Kalamazoo’s amazing “Book Bug” digs deep

KALAMAZOO _ Like the dozens of special moments during my 40 conversations since February about my book, “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” there were plenty at my Wednesday night appearance at the Book Bug. This place is amazing and features movable bookshelves, clean open space and a coffee bar. I am so in love with, I plan to go back for vacation. You have to see it for yourself.  But back to the conversation, which was poignant and open and earthy. My thanks to bug owners/proprieters Joanna Parzakonis, Derek Molitor and Nicole Butz for a wonderful, heartfelt evening. I forgot to take a photo with them but will post one when I go back again. I do have one of Joanna hugging a judge and Sidney B. Williams, a 1954 graduate of Little Rock’s Dunbar High School. He and I had an interesting exchange about what the Brown vs. (Topeka, Kan.) Board of Education Supreme Court decision really did. I felt that America should not have tried to desegregate itself on the backs of children and the experiment ultimately failed. He saw my point but disagreed, saying that ending an unconstitutional system was necessary.  He was right on that point. But ultimately, we appear to be back where we were 64 years ago. We still have much work to do – for our children and for our country. And the conversations continue. If you want to have one where you are, just send an email to rochelleriley1619@gmail.com.

Detroiters told their stories in local magazine for NABJ conventioneers

Thanks for taking a chance to tell 3,000 journalists about the real Detroit, the one that isn’t all about bankruptcy and ruin porn. The Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists wants to help change the national narrative about our beloved Motor City. So we created a special magazine that will be given to our guests to tell them about things uniquely Detroit. The book is now closed. Look for it August 1!

When life gives you lemonade, forget about the lemons

DETROIT _ You could have knocked me over with a feather when I gave the amazing Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a copy of my book, “The Burden,” and he said he had just last week ordered copies for the bookstore at the National Lynching Memorial. Honored! Week made! No, month made! I was hosting, and he was the featured guest at, the Trauma Summit that Starfish Family Services held on June 22 to remind us that children are children, so we need to stop asking “What is wrong with them?” and instead ask “What happened to them?” Bryan was, as usual, astounding, and the summit will make a difference. As I continue my work studying the effects of trauma and toxic environments on how children learn and retain information, agencies like Starfish will be vital. Their employees, who are more like angels, are the ones on the front lines with teachers. They are the ones that need our help the most. And perhaps by the time I’m done, I can convince at least Michigan officials to pay teachers in urban districts what they should earn for the many jobs that they do.

When Thursday night becomes Saturday night

DETROIT _ Is there anything better than treating a Thursday night like a Saturday night, complete with great food, great friends and great music? Began the evening with a stroll along the Riverwalk where the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel has performers each week. The weather was perfect, the water was soothing and the jazz was really, surprisingly great. Even the vendors were at the top of their game. I bought a piece of strawberry shortcake layer cake that demanded a feature in a food magazine.Then headed over a few blocks north for food and indoor music. While it was refreshing on the riverfront, the music was blasting at They Say, where I hung with the girls. (Left to right, Rose Moten, Michelle Davis and Gail Perry Mason). They do say indeed!

That time a bunch of columnists got together…

CINCINNATI _ I had the most amazing time giving a keynote at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference here: Met fantastic people, visited a first-rate zoo (where I captured a photo of my grandchild’s favorite animal – the meerkat); heard amazing and empowering speeches from Connie Schulz, who received the Ernie Pyle award and Nick Clooney who showed where George gets his wit. I also signed copies of “The Burden.” Thanks everyone for making my weekend special! And Clarence Page asked for MY autograph! Be still, my heart!

THE BURDEN goes Underground: The museum signing

CINCINNATI – If you haven’t visited the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center, put it on your calendar now. I went to present “The Burden,” but I was moved by just being in that space. It is heartbreakingly real in its curation and beautiful in its imagery. And the conversations were amazing and included comments from a woman from rural Ohio who came alone, because she couldn’t convince her husband to come, and talked about driving past a little place called Colored Town and not knowing what it meant. She wants the world to be better. She wants America to be better. She’s interested in us finally talking to each other to get past America’s worst chapter post founding. I can’t wait for the next conversation, and I can’t wait to return to the center.