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On Meeting Congressman John Lewis, an American Hero

Awe, honor, and a dream fulfilled...Tameka Cage Conley on being in the presence of an iconic Civil Rights Movement leader.

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. ~ John 10:18

What are you willing to die for?

When my seventeen month-old son was born, I knew. I would die for him. It would be an easy death, not one I would want but one I would choose. I’d be his hero, even if no one ever called me that, including him. It’s not just that he’s my flesh and blood, though the memory of how his long limbs stretched me marks my love–an endlessness that expands the universe and returns to a place before time. I will love my son for the rest of his life. From beyond, whether I am alive or not. My love shall remain, even when he is an old man. I believe he will always feel it and hear the songs I have sang ringing in his ear.

But would I lay my life down for justice?

I have carried signs and marched. I have joined my heart to social causes I believe in. I am an activist, but I cannot say yes, I would put my body in the line of fire, the way the Freedom Riders and young women and men of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) did, the way Martin, Malcolm, Fred Hampton, Sr., Medgar Evers, and countless others did, including Congressman John Lewis. To lay down one’s life is revolutionary, an act of love. One’s willingness to die is a breath away from certain death. One’s heart must be ready and must believe that the cause is worth it, that to die would be an act of freedom, and even perhaps, a joy.

Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Another question is, “How does a fulfilled dream transform your heart and soul?” On October 26, I met Congressman John Lewis, along with Judah Adashi, my friend and collaborator for RISE, a cantata comprised of poetry that I wrote, which contemplates the Civil Rights Movement from Selma to Ferguson. Judah breathed something holy into the work and brilliantly, beautifully set the poems to music. One of the poems in the cantata, titled “O, Light (from Troy to All the Cities)” is dedicated to Congressman Lewis. Judah’s parents, who are also generous donors to RISE, which premiered at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC in April, knew how we dreamed of sharing the work with the congressman. So they shared our hope with their state representative,Jim Langevin (D-RI), who orchestrated a meeting with Congressman Lewis in his office on Capitol Hill.

Tameka Cage Conley and Judah Adashi with Congressman John Lewis

Tameka Cage Conley and Judah Adashi with Congressman John Lewis, October 26, 2015

What does one dream and consider and think when one is on the silver line from the Virginia suburbs where one has crashed with a high school friend when one is about to meet arguably the greatest living icon of the Civil Rights movement?

I thought of being born in Shreveport, Louisiana to a nineteen year-old girl who still refers to my sister and me as “her babies” and a father who has always seen light in me. I thought of growing up in a segregated community and that even in the eighties and nineties, I was “bused in” to one of Shreveport’s best public schools and took advanced classes with mostly white, affluent students. I thought of how far my writing has got me and that I am still young and there is so much more work to do. I thought of my husband and son who were not with me on this trip and how much I missed my baby boy, even though I had only been gone from home less than a day. I thought, “What next?”

How nervous is one when walking from the train to Capitol Hill?

To lay down one's life is revolutionary, an act of love. Willingness to die is a breath away from certain death.
I was nervous and excited and could breathe but barely. Judah and I decided to meet in front of his building. I had an awful headache and confessed this to Judah after we hugged, and I noted how nice he looked, both dapper and appropriately conservative, as one would expect when about to meet an icon that is also a member of Congress. I was not in my body, but I was. Later, I realized my head hurt because I’d had no caffeine that morning, only a makeshift breakfast of toast slathered with my friend Anthony’s homemade plum jelly and a granola bar that I crammed into my mouth in three bites. Judah gave me a few Advil, and after a quesadilla at a nearby Mexican place that featured all the alcoholic drinks on the menu’s first page, my headache subsided. Judah and I spoke in high voices. We complimented each other on how nice we looked. We said over and over again, in one way or another, that this was a pretty big deal. This was a very big deal. This was epic. This was amazing. This was beyond our wildest dreams and highest hopes. This was happening. Nothing was deferred. Judah and I decided we should leave. He buttoned his coat and positioned his scarf just so. I made sure my pearls hit where they needed to and decided I would remove my jacket once inside the congressman’s office, but definitely before I met him. I made sure my long locs framed my face just so, just so. Not one could be out of place. My makeup needed to look natural. It did. When I read the poem dedicated to the congressman, I would read it as if I was speaking to him, which I would be, and not performing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

How does the inside of the Cannon Building look?

It is immaculate as the sun. Tones of gold and ivory and how absolutely pristine the building is kept nearly took our breath away. I am not one to glorify a building, but if one might think to sing a hymn in honor of a beautiful structure, this could be it. Of course, there is security, and I don’t recall having to remove anything. I put my red leather jacket, gifted by my mother-in-law, along with my bag and phone onto the belt. Judah took photos. Everything–everything–is official. Even the golden trashcans are imprinted with the emblem of the United States government. We went up one flight of stairs to the congressman’s office and took photos of the plaque outside that bore his name. This. Is. It. We walk in, and his aides are extremely nice and offer us water. We take selfies as we wait. I post a status update on Facebook. I feel my heart.

What does one do with all one’s emotions when the congressman shakes your hand and looks you in the eye?

I smiled broadly and thanked the congressman for meeting with us. I tell him how honored I am, which he expects and has heard so many times, but he is gracious nonetheless. Let me tell you: the man is absolutely stately and dignified as they come. When he asks, “Would you all like anything? Coca-Cola products?” He is absolutely sincere. He wants us to be comfortable, for his office to feel like our home. As we walk into his conference room, there are photos of Dr. King, Gandhi, and the congressman as a young man during the Civil Rights Movement all over the walls. One can get lost in studying the images of a riveting time in the social memory of America. We sit, and the congressman invites us to tell him about our project. As we do, he listens with his ears and eyes. He absorbs each word. We let him know he is the bedrock of the cantata and that his life and sacrifice are the bridge between the movement of the sixties and the movement that continues in the 21st century. When he begins to talk about being beaten in Selma, the enormity of the moment hits Judah and me. Judah reaches for my hand, which I take, and I weep. I realize I am sitting at the table with a man who is not only powerful but humble, not just distinguished but accessible.

Tameka Cage Conley and Judah Adashi meet with Congressman John Lewis, October 26, 2015

Tameka Cage Conley and Judah Adashi meet with Congressman John Lewis, October 26, 2015. Also pictured: Britni Rillera, Legislative Aide to Congressman Lewis, and state representative Jim Langevin (D-RI).

One of the congressman’s lovely aides, Britni, sees my tears and puts a box of Kleenex on the table. By the end of the meeting, there will be a wad of Kleenexes where I have sat. When I read the persona poem that takes the voice of the Congressman, I decide I will not apologize if I got the voice or theme wrong. As I tell my students, “No disclaimers.” I read two poems, “O Light,” and “Alpha and Omega,” which pays tribute to the men and women who marched in Selma and acknowledges the congressman’s quote, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” He described the work, including the invocation that Judah played from his laptop, as “powerful and moving.” He tells us how important these stories are to continue to educate about the movement and give it life, that without music, the Civil Rights movement would have been like “a bird with no wings.”

Yet we see sadness like a shadow across his face when he says the violent act of Deputy Ben Fields throwing a female, high school student across the room in South Carolina is like, “I am living my life all over again.” He’d explained that on the bridge in Selma, he thought he was going to die, that that was his final protest. When he survived, he decided “the Almighty” must have a purpose for him. We nodded our heads in agreement. I was lifted above the sky, empowered by a man who had risked his life, believed he would die, did not die, and lives on to tell not only his story, but the story of all those men, women, and young people who trembled for freedom and bled for it.

What more will I do? What more can I do?

About the Author

Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the August Wilson Center. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines. She is at work on a first novel and poetry collection.

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