Category Archives: courage

Review: Someone Knows My Name


Someone Knows My Name
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in a current funk of self-pity, this is definitely not the book for you. On the other hand, if you could use a vision of courage, Someone Knows My Name will not disappoint. This book explores what it means to be a slave and what means to be free. Through the central character, Aminata, we also also explore what it means to be human.

Lawrence Hill has achieved the remarkable in several ways. First, he successfully writes from the viewpoint of an 18th-century African woman, thereby ensuring we see the extent of how slavery affected “the least of these.” Second, his careful research guarantees just enough detail to facilitate our transport to the world of 18th-century colonization. Finally, and I think this is the most remarkable thing, Hill goes beyond simply indicting European slave traders, or even Africans who fully collaborated. He doesn’t shy from the truth that slavery exists wherever human selfishness, fear, and greed exist. In other words, he indicts us all.

Only after Hill has given the reader a real eye-full of the horrors of slavery does he allow his characters to discuss the issues surrounding slavery and the lies that slave-traders and their collaborators used to condone the industry. And only after ensuring that the reader sees the misery and cruelty as blatantly as possible does he show Aminata’s own struggle to identify the right people to blame. Is it the slave ship owners? Is it those who buy the slaves? Is it the Africans who participate and profit from the trade? Is it even ladies in the drawing rooms of London who can’t live without sugar in their tea? And how does she figure in the fact that her own village once owned a man?

Identifying the enemy was far more complicated that she imagined, and knowing how to fight slavery was equally challenging. At one point, she strikes a bargain with an African slave trader to take her back to her native village. She is pained to realize that this man and his followers, who are faithful Muslims, are actively engaged in profiting from slavery just as easily as those who called themselves Christians or Jews. She also soon realizes that she has participated in the threat of her own re-enslavement by paying for their services. Even worse, as she witnesses new groups of slaves being led to the coast, she is appalled to realize that she is just like the bystanders she had condemned so long ago for watching the captives pass by and doing nothing to stop the captors.

As she tells her stories later to fellow Africans, the chief of the village is incredulous when she claims that not all “toubabu” (white men) were devils. He asks, “How could it be possible to see good in some of them?” Aminata replies, “Do you not know the human heart?”

Aminata spent years associating her identity with her father, her mother, her language, and her Bayo village. As her dream of returning there fades, she begins to realize that Bayo and all that it held is a past that she must surrender. The thing that she cannot surrender and that becomes her new identity is her commitment to freedom.

Hill’s book is a striking illustration of how easily we can justify wrongs, even whitewashing them with words like “progress and prosperity.” He forces us to look at the price of greed and evil, while also considering the power that one soul, completely free from fear, possesses to effect change. Aminata’s ultimate commitment to the truth versus even to her own dreams is one we would all do well to emulate. As she so beautifully said, “I don’t govern my life according to danger.”

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The Art Experience


Art Experience Venice FloridaMy friend Ron Goulet has been telling me for months about a monthly community event he hosts in Venice, Florida, called “The Art Experience.” It goes like this. Each month, a group of aspiring artists are given a topic to paint. It could be anything. Last month, it was beer. Another month was sailing. This month, the topic was angels.

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What’s got you?


A few years ago I went rappelling. Can I just be honest and say that I was pretty much terrified?!  The first try was from the top of a climbing tower, only about 60 feet high, but the climb alone was freaking me out.  If not for the fact that I was supervising a group of middle and high schoolers, I might have chickened out, but my pride was on the line.  When it was my turn, the guide took me by the hands and said, “Okay, turn around and face me.” He turned me to face him with my back to the edge of the platform.

“Now walk backwards until you’re just standing on the edge with your toes.”

Was he SERIOUS? 

Charlie had been doing this for years. A modern-day mountain man, he was a little grizzled and rough around the edges, but he was gentle with the kids and with me. He was in his late 50s, and somehow the fact that he was NOT twenty-something was incredibly comforting at that moment.

“Charlie, I’m a mom.  I need to be alive after this for my kids, ok?”

Charlie laughed.  “Just keep your eyes on me, ok?  Trust me.  Now step back.”  He held my arms while I closed my eyes and then quickly opened them again because he said, “Keep looking at me!”  I inched backwards until I could feel my heels dangling off the ledge.  “Keep your eyes on me,” Charlie coaxed.

Fat chance I’m looking anywhere else!

“Now, just sit down.”

“Sit down? You mean…as in sitting?”

“That’s it, just squat down like you’re gonna sit in a chair. You’ll see.  The ropes and harness’ve gotcha!”  He had that wide-eyed smile of a father watching his kid learn to ride a bike.

“Ok, Charlie, if this thing doesn’t hold, I’m gonna haunt you in the after-life.”

Charlie grinned. “Just do it.”  I leaned back and squatted down, as though easing into a La-z-boy…and…amazing!  It really did feel like I was sitting in a chair.  The harness and ropes were dead secure.

Instantly, I lost all fear.  I looked up at Charlie in surprise, and he caught my expression.

“See? I told you. It’s got you. Now just push away from the wall and have fun flying down.”  And that’s exactly what I did.  It was exhilerating!  It was over in just a few seconds, but I could’ve done that all day.  When we graduated to scaling off a mountainside a couple days later, I felt like an old pro, “Pfffff, I got this!”  All because I knew that the ropes and the harness and the guys on belay had me secure.

That’s what trusting God is like.  It’s so scary to go out on a ledge, until you step off the edge and sit into your fear. Only then can you know the safe and strong arms that have “got you.”  I love that scene in Indiana Jones where Jones, in order to solve a riddle, realizes he must take a “leap of faith” off a monumentally scary cliff side.  He sees no alternative but to stick his foot off the edge and walk. When he takes that step, he is amazed to discover solid ground beneath him.  The bridge was there all the time, but it was disguised in such a way that he couldn’t see it until he was actually on top of it.  What a great image of trust.

Trust is a mysterious and powerful thing when we stake our lives on something–or Someone–worthy of our faith. My rappelling experience was only as secure as the equipment and the experience of those on belay, both of which proved to be reliable. There are trustworthy arms ready to catch and hold us.  But we will never know them until we step off the ledge.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Think Small


Have you been dreaming about something you would like to do? Do you think it might never happen?  Take some encouragement from writer Leigh McLeroy.  Dream big. Act small.  If you need a little kick in the pants, read her post here.

Wednesday words from Leigh.

Apollo 11 and Possibilities


View from the moon

Not long ago, I heard a special radio broadcast that included interviews from people like you and me who reminisced about where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s memories. (I have searched NPRs website to find a link to the program to no avail. If anyone out there does know where to find this broadcast, shoot me a link.)

The program got me to thinking about the glory of the goal. As we look back now, it is easy to see that the race to the moon was all about the journey, and the side benefits of even attempting the journey, more than the destination itself. Buzz Aldrin talked about how they had computer problems during the mission, and I wondered what they learned from having to deal with those problems. I wondered how many other technological advances came about due to the grand goal of using brainpower, ingenuity, creative thinking, problem solving, and modern technology to get to the moon. Talk about aiming high!

There’s a great website I learned about recently called “Do Hard Things,” started by a couple of young guys who just wanted to challenge themselves and others to not take the easy way out. By challenge themselves and others to “do hard things,” they have started what they call a “rebelution” to get kids away from the Beavis, Butthead, and Simpson generation and into a new era of young people who want more than the path of least resistance has to offer.

A while back, I was talking with a friend who was going through some tough marriage problems. She said that she had concluded with that very same thought, “It’s not about my personal happiness,” she told me, “It’s about the journey and completing it well.”

The race to the moon yielded countless technological discoveries and advances. I find myself challenged to ask what kind of moon I can aim for and what I might discover in my attempt to make it there!


© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

The Help


The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No doubt, there will be those who will hate this book and say that Kathryn Stockett was presumptuous to write it in the first place. But I will not be one of them. Stockett’s story about “Skeeter,” a young white Mississippi woman in the 60s who decides to secretly interview the household help of her junior league friends so she can write their stories is brave and remarkable. The book provides a glimpse of Stockett’s own effort to understand what it was like for “colored women” to work for white families like her own. It is brave because she recognizes her own family’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the painfully unappreciated lives of swallowed pride these women led. And Stockett also sees and understands the irony in the inexplicable love that sometimes developed anyway between “the help” and their white employers.

At the same time, while Stockett does not give her white characters a pass for their prejudices, she also does not turn them all into one-dimensional villains. She reveals their foibles, pride, misguided thinking, and fears, and in the process she reminds us that they, too, are simply human—sometimes grand and sometimes pathetic. Stockett’s story is about so many white Southerners who grew up with prejudices that a new generation would take a lifetime to unlearn. Those who cherish those prejudices are hateful. Those who learn to discard them—well, it turns out they were just prejudiced, not hateful. There’s a difference.

I, too, grew up in the South, in Tennessee. While we never had hired help, my mother has often talked of the maid she had back in Alabama. Ruby was her name, and Mama, like Stockett, thought Ruby was family. No doubt Ruby had her own thoughts about that, but I am certain that my mother and grandmother loved Ruby the best they knew how, which, like all human love, very likely fell short of perfect.

My parents grew up and lived in Birmingham through the worst parts of the civil rights struggles, and they determined that their children would not grow up hating people because of the color of their skin. For all their efforts, I’m sure they unwittingly passed on prejudices they didn’t even know they had, but I love them for trying. Like the time they invited a black man to stay in our home. There was no talk, or even thought, of separate bathrooms and eating utensils. He was a bona fide guest and was served as such. I’m sure it was a big step for my parents—maybe for our guest too—but I look back and love the fact that I don’t remember that much about it. I guess I just thought it was okay, and I suppose that was the point. I have no idea what their friends, or my grandparents, thought about it. They never told me.

Stockett does a painfully beautiful job of portraying the reality of what it might cost to reach across racial barriers to extend a hand of friendship. It might mean you lose friends. It might mean you’re at odds with people you love—and you do love them, even when they are wrong. It means that too many times you aren’t sure if you are reaching across racial lines because you really do love color, or you just feel guilty for being white. Probably both. But the alternative is to live in a one-color world—and that just isn’t an attractive option.

The point of Skeeter’s book, and Stockett’s, is that we have more in common than not, so with this book she issues a gracious invitation to both sides to come to the table to find that common ground and, hopefully, find new friends. I applaud Stockett for making the effort. I hope she finds a lot of people willing to join her at her table.

Note: I listened to this book on my iPod, and I have to say this is a book worth listening to. The readers, Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell, bring Stockett’s story to life with such compelling voices, you feel as though you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, and you don’t ever want to leave. I highly recommend it.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Do it Scared

Artist Linda Kasun

Artist Linda Kasun

Linda is my hero.

She is a self-confessed ‘fraidy cat! She plays the violin but is terrified to play for anyone but her plants. She is one of the funniest people I know, but she’s petrified of speaking in front of a crowd. She has visions of saving the world, but she’s happiest working in her studio where she paints and does pottery.

Linda is afraid of everything.

But she is not afraid to face down fear. A few years ago, she picked up her violin and determined to use her gifts anyway. She was visibly a nervous wreck the first few times she played. Her remedy? “Play harder!”

She has the audacity to call herself an artist and actually put her work out there for the whole world to see and critique. Though she’s an introvert at heart, she went to every charity in town that our church supports to find out what they specifically need so that we can better support them.

How does she do it? Linda has a brilliant motto: DO IT SCARED.

She decided that if fear was always going to be a battle, she would just do it anyway and do it scared–whatever IT is.

I love that.


Is there something you need to “do scared” today? I have a whole list! Time to get started…

P.S. You can view Linda’s beautiful artwork and pottery at


© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Yes Man


Leaping Bride and GroomI just went to see Jim Carey’s new movie, “Yes Man,” and YES, I recommend it. The main character makes a covenant to say “yes” to anything that comes his way. ANYTHING. Of course, the fun is in watching that idea played out to its ridiculous extreme, but I admit it really made me think about how playing it safe is a learned, and sometimes dangerous, behavior. Just a few weeks ago, Barry and I were getting ready for a trip, and in the madness of wrapping up work projects, arranging for the dog sitter, cleaning house, paying bills, and doing all kinds of last-minute errands, I suddenly remembered the days when I could just throw a change of clothes (or not), a clean pair of underwear (or not), and a toothbrush (or not) into a bag and GO!For our honeymoon, we had a plane ticket to Greece and the first two hotel nights booked. That was it. And we had 4 weeks off! Nevermind that the trip turned out to be a total disaster. We’ve enjoyed years of storytelling mileage from it. And even though that trip ended with us literally panhandling on a German train to get back home to Amsterdam (long story), we have great, albeit quirky, memories–like waking up to a Mediterranean sunrise on a ship to Crete. Or like the waiter in Crete who kept giving us the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and asking us how many times we “did it” when he found out we were newlyweds. Or the old men who sat around the open squares gossiping and playing with worry beds. Or the lone mountain goats on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Australian hitchhikers who were grateful for a lift in our rental half-car. Bored cafe owners who would send us into the kitchen to point to our dinner selections. If we had not said yes to the disastrous bits,we’d have missed all the fun bits.

I can think of two reasons we learn to say no: 1) We are wiser. We’ve been there and done that, and we SHOULD say no, OR 2) We are afraid. We have been there and done that and we are scared. We’re afraid to be vulnerable to hurt, pain, loss of control…whatever. Maybe the good thing about getting older is that if we are really honest, we can know when we are being wise and when we are just chickening out. I think risk-taking is probably like the “use it or lose principle” in exercise. The less risk we take, the less we are able to take. I’m going to work out my risk-taking muscle a little more by challenging myself to one new “yes” a day. I’ll let you know how it goes.


© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.