I’ve heard it from the time I was a little boy: Death comes in threes. Despite the tone of certainty that often accompanies this pseudo-urban legend, I have never placed much credence or thought into it. That is until April 2010, when in the space of five days, three notable figures in the African-American community drew their last breaths.
Two of the three were indisputable civil and human rights pioneers whose lives were testaments to the tenets of hard work and perseverance. The other: A modestly famous hip hop intellect who also promoted the values of ambition and positivity using the power of the microphone and the rhythmic cadence of the spoken word.
The homecoming chariot made its first stop in Memphis on April 15 to bring civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks to eternal rest.
Rather than focus on the vital statistics of his life and accomplishments, I have instead chosen to reflect on some of the circumstances of his earthly experience, which molded his commitment to leadership and community.
Growing up in the pre-Civil Rights south, Hooks drew on the indignities of segregation as an impetus to succeed. He used the law of the land and his love of justice to focus on solutions rather than wallow in self-pity.
Even after serving his country in the Army, Hooks was reminded of his inferior status in American society when he was denied access to restaurants that Italian prisoners of war were allowed to enter. He had to study law at DePaul University in Chicago because no law school in his native state of Tennessee would admit him due to his race.
Vindication for Hooks came in the form of achievement. He became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and in 1976, he was named executive director of the NAACP.
Despite his intimate interactions with the worst of what America offered in terms of racial tolerance, he walked the journey of success without the aid of a crutch, and implored black America to do the same.
Promoting self-reliance, Hooks addressed the 1990 NAACP convention delegates stating; “I am calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge Black America today…all of us…to set aside our alibis.”
Hooks is joined in paradise by a woman who exemplifies all that is encapsulated in independent and self-assured womanhood. Dorothy Height left this life on April 20, and though her physical presence is no longer with us, she graced us with a legacy that should serve as a blueprint for all women.
Undaunted when the prestigious Barnard College reneged on her admission to their institution in 1929 because they had already met their quota of two Negro women, Height went on to earn a master’s degree in educational psychology at New York University.
Always dressed impeccably with her trademark hat poised atop her beautifully coiffed hair, she was certainly worthy of a crown. She exuded an almost regal presence in her roles as national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc and president of the National Council of Negro Women.
Armed with the power of education and the cultivated virtues of class and dignity, she influenced areas of the government and academia that had been previously inaccessible to black women.
Any woman thinking that life can only be enhanced by what a man or the government can give you has only to look at Dorothy Height to understand the true power of a woman.
The accolades of Hooks and Height are indisputable, but when legendary rapper Guru, aka Keith Elam, went home to glory on April 19, this unlikely street prophet became the final piece of this trinity of purpose.
Unlike the “Hip Pop” music or “Ringtone Rap” that currently poisons our airwaves and children’s minds, the old school brand of hip hop that gave birth to Guru was one that served as the underground railroad of inner-city information and cultural awareness.
Though he was one of the founders of the more street-oriented Gang Starr, Guru’s solo career and personal evolution mirrored that of the cultural maturity many of my generation experienced as we left the club scene and headed to corporate boardrooms.
His solo series of albums known as Jazzmatazz was a bold and eclectic homage to jazz and soul music legends, which amalgamated conscious and thought-provoking rap lyrics with these truly American art forms. Thanks to Guru, a whole generation was exposed to Ramsey Lewis and Bob James, and was able to appreciate the melodies and movements that make jazz truly special.
Taken from us at the young age of 43, Guru represents the viability of music as a means by which to teach all the lessons learned from those like Hooks and Height, and not merely as a soundtrack to gang-related drive-bys or the score to young men and women behaving badly.
The collective bodies of work from these three luminaries serves as a framework from which to build a better community and nation.