My grandmother, Ruth Boston, was one of the unsung heroes in the trenches of civil rights that helped make America a better place for you and me through her tireless work for freedom and equality. She always spoke of seeing each person as a person, not as a race. I miss her already needless to say. The funeralizing — how did it go you might ask? How was that big black wake/funeral/interment etc in Baltimore. Well, are you familiar with the works of Tyler Perry? Hmm…yeah…All that was missing was a big black man in a dress and a chainsaw. Tyler — if you’d like some notes for “Madea Goes to A Funeral” — call me! Still the service at the nation’s oldest cathedral, Baltimore’s Basilica, was lovely and so precious. It was an honor to be able to read this tribute to her which includes some of her last clear words. I’d like to give a shoutout both to the new Monsignor of the Basilica — Grandma AKA Honey AKA Ruthie would have been so proud and touched to know that this was the first funeral over which Rev. Msgr. Arthur Valenzano personally presided at the Basilica. I’d also like to laud the professionalism and dignity of a treasured Baltimore institution — the black family owned Howell Funeral Home. Many thanks to the Howells for ensuring a graceful celebration of my grandmother. She mainly asked to be dressed in white and be buried holding a bible in her hands.
Below, here’s the tribute I read with one section added that I cut for length during the actual service. Thanks for all of your kind words — it’s meant more to me than I can express. It’s been a challenge to get back into the swing of things, I’ll admit. But I know my work and that of all her children and grandchildren was important to her….so I gotta keep on keepin’ on. One of her favorite spirituals, This Little Light of Mine, is mentioned in the tribute and I’ve added a happy, upbeat version of the gospel song by the Soweto Gospel Choir above. She would have jammed to that! Here’s a photo of her below dressed in her best.
Tribute to Ruth Boston: By Our Light, Enlighten
One of my grandmother, Ruth Boston’s, favorite spirituals was
“This Little Light of Mine — I’m gonna let it shine…”
Ruth Boston was indeed a powerful light that chased back the darkness this world can deliver.
We come here from different backgrounds, different families, different hopes and different dreams. But there is one thing that unites us here today. There is one thing that we have in common and share with every other person in this room. And that one thing we can agree upon is that for each one of us, Ruth Boston sparked a little additional light in our world. Especially when it was dark.
My grandmother was…an optimistic person. Born into poverty, she rose through prayer, a passion for learning, hard work and goodwill to prosperity. Though she was not able due to the barriers placed before people of color in her early years to attain a formal secondary education herself, she never stopped self-educating. When my mother and I were going through her papers during her final illness, the articles, magazines & books she was reading ranged widely in subject matter and included anthropology, history, medicine, science, technology, macroeconomics, politics, sports from different countries like cricket, and more.
If you knew my grandmother, you’ll know that she knew more than she let on. One of the things that she knew was the importance of education and achievement. She completed 2 years of business college which helped her climb to increasingly supervisory positions in her career. All of her children went not just to college but received degrees from graduate school. She proudly displayed in her sunroom the college mugs from all her grandchildren’s colleges too. [A special experience that I shared with my grandmother was inviting her to spend a week with me while I was attending Yale University as an undergrad. I am the only person to my knowledge on her side of the family to attend an Ivy League institution and I knew that was meaningful to her. While my grandfather was alive, they’d once driven up to Harvard University -- just to walk around and see that great place of learning -- an experience they both loved.
My grandmother came up to Yale for a week my junior year and during that time, she tagged along with me -- she hung out at the local coffeehouse with me and my friends, she ate in Yale’s historic dining halls and went to all of my classes with me -- just like a real college student. I was proud to introduce her to each of my professors saying: “This is my grandmother, without whom I might not be here at Yale.” Such was the light she inspired in me. She loved it at Yale and we had a great time. She fit right in, kept up her end of the conversation and had very interesting things to say about all my classes from philosophy to economics to the history of Islam. All my friends loved her and asked about her years after we’d all left school. It was a very special experience for both of us. Both my mother and my aunt told me how much that visit meant to her -- to live a dream -- and how she didn’t unpack her suitcase for weeks.
My grandmother was a giving person and for once I was able to give back.] She led by example — always being there for a friend or relative in trouble. Always giving to those who had less. I remember walking with my grandmother and brother when we were very small — maybe 5 or 6 years old and she gave a dollar to a beggar on the street and gave my brother and I a few coins to give the man too saying to us as we passed, something like: “Remember – you must always help those who can’t help themselves and share what you have to help those in need.” As sick as she was at the end, she still loved giving and enjoyed Christmas greatly, especially wrapping presents. She gave Christmas gifts to all the workers at Alfred House with my mother’s help and her few words thanking them for their care were incredibly moving. Each person here today experienced my grandmother’s giving spirit, which arose from her deep relationship with God. Her spiritual connection to the divine was the light that fired her from within and which radiated from her as her as fathomless warmth, humor, grace & generosity.
You could not help but smile in her presence – her sparkle was that infectious & inspiring. Toward the end of her life, her body may have been stilled and her speech slurred. But her mind and her spirit were so large, so great, greater than ever. She looked at me once a couple of years ago after she’d first gotten sick and told me, eyes wide: “You are going to see some things, such things — amazing things!” Another time, I asked her what she was dreaming about when she was sleeping. Due to the stroke, she slept quite a bit. She looked me straight in the eye with that look of wisdom she had and she said simply: “God is my travel agent now.”
The light my grandmother shared was comprised of her spirituality, her generosity, her intelligence and her wisdom. During one of the last lucid conversations I had with her, she was intent on giving me an important message. She used her last days on earth to keep spreading that light. All the staff and residents at Alfred House loved her. She also used that time to meditate on her life, your lives and the life beyond. She was so intent that I understand this last message and wouldn’t go on until it was clear I’d understood her. She was visibly relieved when I showed her I was taking pen to paper to capture what she was saying to me. I know if she was here today, she’d be keen for me to share a little of that spiritual message with you. Here are a few quotes:
“Love is hard. By our love is understanding. With understanding is truth. We must give our love to those who will dispose of our love through God’s will. Stand with Him in His Light. By our Light, enlighten.”
This last quote I’m paraphrasing a bit because she was unable to complete the sentences herself. But when I pieced it together and asked if this was what she meant, she nodded yes:
“People are going down, down, down instead of up, up, up. You must go higher, always higher and seek greater acquaint-ency with all you do with that which is greater than you.”
My grandmother has her wish now. She’s gone higher — as high as any of us can go. And yes indeed — through her light, she has truly enlightened each one of us.
I return then to that favorite spiritual: “This Little Light of Mine: I’m Gonna Light It Shine”. My grandmother was a great light. That bright, beautiful, brilliant light has gone out now….but yours has NOT. If she were here she would tell you today to Shine Your Light – Shine it for all to see. And she would say: if I was a light in your life, then shine that light on someone else who needs it — if I ever helped you, then you go and in my name, you go and help somebody. Shine your light for the world to see and enlighten — this is the truth she wants us to understand today.
I want to thank you for coming here today to remember this great light and I hope that you will join me in carrying a little of Ruth Boston’s light with you for the rest of your life.
Cheryl Contee aka "Jill Tubman", Baratunde Thurston aka "Jack Turner", rikyrah, Leutisha Stills aka "The Christian Progressive Liberal", B-Serious, Casey Gane-McCalla, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley aka "Marcus Toussaint," Fredric Mitchell
Special Contributors: James Rucker, Rinku Sen, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Adam Luna, Kamala Harris
Technical Contributor: Brandon Sheats