BONDAGE OF FEAR

BONDAGE OF FEAR

From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Bondage of Fear

Few are too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.

Booker T. Washington

As you read this, I want you to know and be aware that there are thousands around you who can’t read it.

I grew up from the 1940s to the 1960s and attended school during segregation. Some of it was good and some not so good. I realized at a very early age I did not, could not, read like other children. During my early years in elementary school I learned what terror was—not the world terror we know today, but just as real and just as powerful to a seven-year-old little boy.

I think back to those days, sitting at my desk, staring at my reading books, Oh no, the guy behind me just stood up. I’m next. As he is reading I try desperately to remember the words just as he is saying them. I can’t do it. Why do I have to do it anyway? They are going to laugh at me again; the snickering has already started, because they know I am next. This, they think, is their time to get a good laugh. I remember thinking, Oh, please don’t let her say I’m stupid again. I have to remember the story; oh, if I could only remember each word as it is written, then they won’t know I can’t read.

That is when it started, my amazing ability to memorize. I found that I could listen while others were reading so I then could memorize what they were saying. This allowed me to slide through school. In high school, I learned to find ways of getting out of school. I found that I could swim and dive. I was the best in town at that time, winning many ribbons and trophies. I had found a way to change their laughing and smirking into cheers and support! I could only do this through my school years. I would soon be faced with real life. I was beating many records in swimming; however, back then we of the darker skin were not recognized as much in sports.

Then it came to me that I could play drums—this became my “safe place.” In joining the marching band I learned that this, of course, would allow me to be excused from many different classes. After all, the band had to practice a lot and go to different sporting events and participate in parades. Then I found myself at graduation day. Standing there I just remember feeling how grateful I was to have it over, not caring that I could not read any better than a second-grader. I was free now to go and live life, or so I thought. I did not realize what the bondage of not being able to read had done to me.

By the mid-eighties, I had spent the last twenty years in and out of bands, traveling around, taking jobs that ranged from flipping hamburgers to sweeping floors. During those years, I learned to dull the fear and the feeling of being dumb by drinking and doing drugs. One night, I was playing drums on a riverboat in St. Louis. I was drunk and pretty high, and did not realize that they had the drummer positioned on a pedestal above the rail; I was jamming, and then all of a sudden I threw my hands up in the air and flipped backwards into the mighty Mississippi River. I sobered up right fast! This made me glad to have my swimming experience.

I married and moved to Michigan, where I was faced with having to change my driver’s license. I remember asking myself, Why did my wife have to ask to see my license? Why couldn’t she just mind her own business?

Finally, tired of hearing her mouth, I pulled out a worn piece of paper from my wallet. As I handed it to her it started to crumble in her hands. She looked at the expiration date that showed 1966, and although it was from the State of Michigan, it was now 1985. She looked at me bewildered, because she had met me in California and knew I was from Alabama.

I remember asking myself, Why can’t she just leave me alone? I remember thinking, I can’t tell her; she will know how dumb I am. I can’t share this secret with her. I love her so much, and why can’t she just leave me alone? I have to get a drink, then I will be able to talk. Maybe she will just go away! She won’t leave me alone. I can drive so why do I need another license? She will know why I always bring things to her to fill out. It has been years of this, and she does not need to know after all these years that I just can’t read. I hate the pain I am placing on her. What did she ever do to me but love and support me? She gave me four great kids; I trust her with my life and yet I can’t trust her with my secret. I can’t take it anymore. She has to be told, and then she will leave me alone. If she chooses to leave me, so be it.

I remember taking her to our bedroom and closing the door behind me. I was so scared. I didn’t want to lose my family. They were all I had. I had to tell her; the fear was raging in me. I could feel the devil himself inside of me trying to explode, “Don’t tell her,” he kept saying. I couldn’t listen. I had to tell her. I remember falling on my knees in front of her, grabbing onto her as if my life depended on it. I was crying now, and she was bewildered; I saw fear in her face. She had no idea what I was about to tell her and she was expecting the worst things imaginable.

I silently prayed, God, please give me strength, while visions of my classmates making fun of me haunted me.

Then, I looked up into her tear-stained face and said, “I can’t go get my license because I can’t read!”

She looked down at me for what seemed an eternity. She pulled my hands to raise me to my feet next to her and wrapped her arms around me, and we cried together. After much release of the years of hiding my secret, she took me and sat me on our bed. We talked for a long time. I was so thankful to have it out.

That night, when the children were in bed, my wife came to me with our youngest son’s reading book. He was in second grade. Who would have known that I would have a chance to start all over again? My wife took me back years so I could start again when I thought my life ended. There was no laughing or teasing. No one else even had to know, just us.

I have my license now, and I keep it up to date. I can read anything put in front of me, though it may take me a moment or two. My children all know of my being consumed with the spirit and bondage of terrible fear. I now no longer drink or do drugs; you see I no longer have anything to hide or to numb. I am free of the one thing that kept me in bondage. God has truly brought me out of my Egypt!

As you read this, please pray for all those around you who you may or may not know, are stuck in the bondage of not being able to read. I’ve learned that “Reading is freedom.”

Howard E. Lipscomb Sr.

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