Great diversity leaders of letters – By Terry Howard

I’m often asked to suggest some conferences to attend, good books to read and other ways to learn about diversity. Here’s a glimpse of some of it.

“Who are the contemporary thought leaders on diversity, Terry?” queried one. “Someone suggested “Dr. So-and- So’s” book; would you recommend it?” surfaced in a recent e-mail.

“We received still another invitation to a diversity conference. What can you tell me about this one?” came up during a conference call.

Now there are books aplenty out there on diversity. And conferences? Yes, they’re a dime a dozen these days. Just punch “books” or “conferences” on diversity into your favorite search engine and lots of stuff will pop up. I’ve read — and probably own — most of the books you’ll uncover, and have pretty much “been there, done that” on the diversity conference circuit.

But you know what? Though we may not have thought about it in this way, many of us were exposed years ago to some of the best stuff ever produced on “diversity,” and long before the word etched itself into today’s workplace vernacular. And the naked truth is that much of it was done by some great folks who spoke, wrote and painted pictures laced with “diversity” themes. Astoundingly, much of their work was often done under social and political conditions unmatched in modern times.

Now before you question the veracity of my premise, my sanity, or both, c’mon, join me, and I’ll take you back through the lyrics, prose and paint brushes of history. You needn’t pack a suitcase; just close your eyes and bring along your wildest imagination. You’ll hear from some of these leaders and will, I hope, end with an appreciation of how their words and deeds put today’s diversity work into the historical context it deserves.

The late 18th century Elizabethan England is as good as any place to start. We’ll slip down the dark alley and tiptoe quietly into the back of a church I’m familiar with. There’s a sermon going on inside.

Shhh, listen to the guy at the podium, the bearded one. “No man is an island, entire of himself! Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the whole.” Remember him? Recall that line? Yes, that’s John Donne, one of the pre-eminent orators of his era. Now tell me that’s not a “diversity” message!

Let’s fast forward across the ocean to an old barn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, west of Boston. I’ll scrape an opening through the frost on the window so that we can steal a peak at the inhabitants inside.

Ah, listen to them, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as they hotly debate — in conversations lubricated with rum and black beer — the key issues of the day. I’m willing to wager that the average reader never thought of these guys as great diversity writers. But in today’s context, they were.

Take Melville. Through the imagery of his Moby Dick, let’s visit the sun-drenched deck of the Pequot opposite a ruddy white-haired Captain Ahab and joined him in his famous search for the great white whale. From there let’s accompany him across the ocean to the unspoiled island of Tahiti and soak up the culture while admiring the rainbow tints of its inhabitants.

Not one to be outdone, Mr. Longfellow, in his Song of Hiawatha, enthralls us with the inner strength, the dignity and the humanity he saw in the American Indian. My hunch is that few would consider Melville and Longfellow as great writers of cultural diversity. But they were.

Now since we’re near Great Barrington, let’s assemble at the feet of Norman Rockwell. Through eyes moistened by his pipe smoke, we’ll immerse ourselves into his painting, “The problem we all live with.” Remember that one? It appeared on the cover of Look Magazine in 1964 with the image of a pony-tailed young black girl taking courageous steps to enter a previously segregated school. With magical strokes of his brush, Rockwell adroitly captured the essence of the civil rights movement.

Let’s head east now and try to catch up with Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond. Word about town is that he was released from jail last night for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest of slavery. He’s probably in a cantankerous mood so it may be unwise to stay too long. But maybe we can get him to read from his Civil Disobedience before he runs us off. Hum, wonder how many of us accepted the notion that “protests” actually started in the 1960s in the U.S. South? Try telling that to Thoreau.

We must move on before the snowfall comes. We’ll stop and chat with James Russell Lowell, a powerful writer in his own right and himself a vocal abolitionist. Remember the line, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again?” Yes, that one belongs to Lowell. And yes, in today’s context, it’s a diversity message.

Time to swing southward now, where Walt Whitman holds a seat for us on the Brooklyn Ferry. He’s agreed to read aloud passages from his Leaves of Grass, splendid lyrics, parts of which flirted dangerously close, especially for his times, with subtle references to male homosexuality.

Our trek continues further south where the green countryside of rural eastern Pennsylvania beckons us.

Let’s climb on the back of a horse-drawn carriage with some nameless Quakers, many whom provided stopovers for runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. They have lots of stories to tell us and promised that they’d drop us off at the West Virginia state line. By day’s end we should end up in Harpers Ferry and, with any luck, we may get to share some freshly brewed coffee and a cigar with John Brown, who led a historical rebellion for the sake of diversity.

On to Mississippi. When we get to Oxford, let’s hike up a dusty road to a graying bungalow I know about. The gentleman on the front porch who’ll stare out and welcome us from his creaky rocking chair will be none other than William Faulkner. Once there we can sip lemonade and swat flies as he tells us what motivated his Go down Moses and his courage to tackle other thorny social issues of his day.

OK, open your eyes, shake your head and snap back into reality. Here’s the crux of my message: if you really want to learn about diversity, start with these great leaders. Their works are probably packed away, perhaps in a box in the corner of your attic. Failing that, try the local library, your daughter’s book bag or the next garage or yard sale.

My recommendation regarding a diversity conference? Take in Othello or Romeo & Juliet at a weekend Shakespearian festival. From Shakespeare, you can learn some diversity.

Wow, imagine for a moment a diversity conference with Donne delivering the keynote, Whitman, Shakespeare and the rest leading breakout sessions and the walls covered with Rockwell’s best. Shucks, I’d pay a scalper’s price for a front-row seat at that one.

Yes, these were just a few of some really great diversity leaders from days gone by. And if my experience is a good barometer there are some other great ones in the world and in organizations today. Let’s acknowledge that fact, then take time to recognize, thank and encourage them. Hopefully, our just completed journey is incentive enough for all of us to do just that!

Terry Howard

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