Rhonda's Memorial Service
Well Supremes, here finally is our overdue account of Rhonda's memorial service. What a surprise, it's long. :)
Sandi flew from Austin and I from San Francisco on Sunday, Dec. 3rd, a day in advance of the service. We met in the Denver airport where we hooked up with Mary, who couldn't make the trip but wanted to at least visit at the airport. The three of us settled into the departure gate and spent the layover looking through Mary's black and white photos from Saint Louis and other tourneys, deciding which one's we could safely show on the table of memorabilia without forever tarnishing Rhonda's processional reputation (the one with Mary, J'wan, Caryn and Rhonda line-mounting a blow-up dinosaur was left behind). In no time, the flight was boarding so it was "Kiss, kiss! We'll post to the Supremes list soon" (oh well), and we were headed to Washington-Dulles.
After a relatively smooth flight (I think Sandi was praying the whole time... who knew she had such devotion?), we rented a car and navigated to the Courtyard Marriott near the University of Maryland, ate out that night (slim pickins) and rested for the next day.
The weather was pristine on the day of Rhonda's service. After giving the Denny's breakfast not quite enough time to digest (I may still be digesting), we went to the University for a run. The campus is impressive in size and architecture: red brick colonial style buildings with white trim and columns. After four laps around the main quad and some crazy running backwards exercise 'for our quads' (so Sandi said), we had worked off that nasty day-in-an-airplane feeling and were adjusted to the climate. It seemed right to put in some vigorous exercise on this day of remembering Rhonda.
It may not surprise you, but to be clear: our mood was not somber. It felt so perfect to share this occasion with Sandi and not to hold back in our humor for this was part of honoring Rhonda. My friendship with Sandi is among my most treasured. Like so many of my Supreme connections, our banter resumes within seconds of reunion. This trip was no different. We remarked several times that it seemed Rhonda should have been with us and, from the back seat, either nodding off or dramatically leading the conversation.
The service began at 3:00 and was held in a ballroom near the student union. It came in two parts: a more formal section with a program and specific guest speakers where the focus was on Rhonda's professional career, and then an informal reception in a neighboring building with further tributes. In the formal section, I would guess there were around 500 people in attendance including Rhonda's mother Arlene, brother Robert, many colleagues from U of M's Afro-American Studies Dept. as well as other U of M dept.'s, colleagues from other universities, graduate and under graduate students and many friends. Salif and Phillipe were also there which was wonderful. There was a stage up front with a podium from which speakers took their turn describing their experiences and impressions of Rhonda. The host was the acting Chair of the Afro-Am Dept. Sharon Harley, whom Rhonda replaced when she took that position. All of the speakers were colleagues, save Rhonda's brother, mother and one friend, Vicki Foxsworth, who spoke last.
I suppose it is said that you learn much about a person at her memorial service. That certainly proved true in this case. My exposure to Rhonda's scholarship during her life was limited, delivered through impromptu discussions at parties, late nights studying at her house for my Marxist Economics class and a few of her lectures I attended over the years. Her perspective, including this incessant debunking of "isms" wherever she could detect them, seemed powerful and certainly unique in my life. But I had no way of knowing if her voice was one among many, perhaps a particular articulation but part of a trend in political, economic, social thought; or if it was instead a pioneering voice, a truly unique and courageous perspective, making novel connections, seeing what others could not see. By the experience of this first and more formal view of her life, I learned it was the latter. Again and again, these speakers struggled (she loved such struggles) to articulate the nature of her unique and powerful voice, its impact and legacy.
But not all were profound. One young man, a representative of the undergraduate students, I can't say did Rhonda justice. This boy, beautiful in his dreadlocks, big eyes and gorgeous skin, forgot where he was. He got up there and lectured this crowd, 99% older than him, with a kind of misplaced arogance on the lessons of death, how it's not really over, Rhonda is still with us, etc. etc. etc. etc. Nothing specific about his experience of her, what she meant to the younger students (quite a lot from what I recall!). No, it was just his performance of a wisdom he did not seem to possess. Several times, he'd stop. Dramatically. Look up. In the room. And say. "Rhonda. You have not left. You have not left. No. (long pause) You have not left." Okay, he was well meaning, but we predict we'll see him on MTV before he publishes his first work in Afro-Am studies. Sandi and I decided that Rhonda would have found some blistering and yet compassionate way to sum up his performance.
With that one exception, the tributes were eloquent and moving. As I said, Rhonda's good friend Vicki closed the formal service. She spoke about their friendship and Rhonda's impact on her own work in diversity education. She ended with a recitation of a stunning poem by Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets) called "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches." It was perfect in its themes (empathy, facing death, courage) and had me making plans to change my life, in that moment (which, by the way, I am doing).
After the formal service, there was a reception in an adjacent building. There was some food and tables. In this setting, people were invited to come to the front of the room and share their stories and thoughts on Rhonda. The host made a special invitation to those friends from Rhonda's "Soccer Team" at UT. Grrrr. Several folks got up and spoke; we'll share Phillipe's in particular. For those who haven't met him (this was my first time), Phillipe is a beautiful boy, mixed race, spunky and confident. Rhonda's role in his life is clear. His story went something like this: "One time when Mom was about to start her period, before her hysterectomy (!), we were in the kitchen making a lot of noise. Mom came in, grabbed a wooded spoon, shook it in my face saying "Not NOW (picture a little boy imitating a tense and threatening Rhonda face)...I'm NOT having a VERY GOOD DAY!"
Well of course I had to get up there, if nothing else than to correct the egregious "soccer" error. First I needed to explain what Ultimate Frisbee was and how no dogs were involved. I mentioned that there were many fascinating Rhonda stories which just, well, couldn't be shared in this context... curious, many who spoke made this same remark :). I instead told the story of our loss in the finals at the '87 Regionals in Tallahassee. After our immediate and pathetic collapse on the fields, Rhonda gathered us all around for a little discussion, where, in typical Rhonda fashion, the personal become political. I remember her instruction: our loss wasn't particular to this social context; it was rather a fundamental part of any competition and, though ours was one without economic or political consequences, it was a loss nonetheless and could give us insight into larger global struggles; we should embrace this experience and the empathy for 'otherness' it could engender.... yada yada yada, like that, Rhonda-style.
Another graduate student from U-Maryland took the microphone to tell a wonderful story about the founding of the Asian-American Studies Dept. at the University. Mind you in our tiny survey, this Asian woman was the only Asian woman and one of probably 4 Asian people wehad seen on campus. On our run the day before, we encountered black and white folk almost exclusively. She had apparently worked for several years to generate support for the creation of an Asian-American Studies Dept. but was unsponsored and largely unheard. Soon after Rhonda joined UM, this woman met with her and was thrilled to discover Rhonda's enthusiastic response to the Asian-Am Dept. idea and, with her help as an influential faculty sponsor, the Asian American Studies Dept. was founded, funded, staffed and is running today. Another Rhonda legacy.
During the reception, Sandi and I got to meet Deb Leopold, Rhonda's recently rediscovered high-school friend. This is the woman who became a primary caretaker during Rhonda's illness. While Elizabeth was moving out of Rhonda's house, which took a while, Rhonda and Arlene stayed with Deb in Deb's house. Once Rhonda's house was available again, Deb cleaned the entire place and made it a home in which Rhonda could be comfortable. Rhonda spoke so highly of Deb almost every time we talked. I felt an enormous personal debt to Deb for allowing me to relax and know that Rhonda had what she needed and was surrounded by love. So it was paramount that I meet this woman and thank her personally. She was every bit as loving as I imagined... a heart with skin on it, if you know what I mean.
We also met Rhonda's good friends Vicki (who recited the poem at the end of the service) and Nancy. They invited us to their house later that night and we enthusiastically agreed. It was at their warm little house in College Park suburbia that the event became whole for me.
There were I think 11 of us there, including Arlene, Bob, Deb, Sandi, myself and, happily, Salif. Salif is truly an amazing young man: at 13 years of age, he stands about 5'9" and is the most articulate 13 year old I have or shall ever meet. What little I know about what this boy has been through, I won't go into here, but when combined with his surprising self-awareness, he is astounding to talk with... or should I say listen to. For a good half hour, this boy seemed to be holding court. I believe that everyone there except for Sandi and I knew him well, but I sensed a mixture of not wanting to interrupt and being captivated by his musings about everything: his mother, Rhonda a little, school, his ambitions and problems.
I also got a lot of time to talk with Bob. Alissa knows Bob and J'wan may have gotten to meet him when she visited Rhonda last fall. But for the rest of you, you must know this: Rhonda and Bob look, speak and act very much alike. He is maybe an inch or two taller (at most) than she, wears glasses and has those large eyes, that wide jaw and big smile. His build is even similar. And remember that furrowed brow Rhonda would get when she was listening intently (or eating!)? Bob does that! Or how she would stringseveralwordsreallyfasttogether? Bob does that! Like his sister, he is wonderfully intelligent, well spoken, and kind. So that evening, I found myself needing to be near him as he was the closest approximation of this person who had meant so much to me and was now gone. I was thirsty, so I drank. I think he has no idea what it meant to me hang out with him that night.
And there was something else: it wasn't just the speeches and the stories and the attention given Rhonda. It was also being around people who knew her well. Besides our reunion last summer, Daweena and a few wonderful visits with Sandi, I haven't been around other people who knew this friend of mine, not since Austin almost 15 years ago now. No one here in California knows her. I can't possibly explain what it was like to meet all of these people who really knew Rhonda. In the course of this day, every so often someone would convey a little moment, imitate a facial expression, or quote a Rhonda-ism and it was suddenly clear that this person knew her. For instance, at one point, Rhonda was quoted in the context of someone selling her short, "Dey mus' think I'm Bubba-da-fool!" And in that moment, just for a second, Rhonda would be right there, in this person's eyes and voice. That was the most surprising and wonderful part of this gathering for me.
We stayed at Vicki's house for several hours, talking and laughing and finally went back to our hotel, tired but full. The next day we shopped (!) at the campus bookstore, each of us getting a generic U of M sweatshirt to commemorate this occasion. Of course, we used our credit cards. Then it was off to the airport and the flight home.
As I write this, I am on my morning train ride into San Francisco. It's been more than 2 months since Rhonda's service, almost 3 months since she left. I know I am the person I am in part because of her. I've said before that no one person in my adult life has influenced me more. Rhonda-isms pop up regularly in my life regarding everything the nature of work, politics, race, family, intimate relationship and friendship ("Its all about us."). I can't begin to explain what she really meant to me and these words seem to bare almost no correlation, but they are the best I have. As this time goes on, she becomes more and more a blessing in my life for all that she gave: her wisdom, her love, and that laugh.
For those with the means and the interest, an undergraduate scholarship fund has been created in Rhonda's name.
Some References to Rhonda's Work: