Updated: Mar 16
“One of the things I realized is that you can spend the rest of your life being angry at what people have done to you or you can turn the negative to make yourself stronger. I don’t feel I need to waste my time or energy being angry because they don’t know any better. They were never given the opportunity to know a different way of doing things. Hatred, dislike, distrust - those things are taught. So yes, I still get angry, but I feel it’s best that I deal with it out of humor and laughter because it’s harder to turn off the anger than it is to turn on the laughter.”
I had met Cleo at the beginning of 2021, and it was his infectious happiness that stood out from the beginning. It wasn’t until after I wrote the piece on GW Carver that I got the idea to begin writing about people still living who exemplified an overcoming spirit and work to make the world a better place. Cleo is one of these people. When I reached out to him to ask if I could feature him in one of my ‘wellness wisdom’ pieces, I asked him how he developed the trait of laughter in the face of adversity. He gave me the above response. I wasn’t satisfied; I wanted to know more so...I asked.
"I’m a fairly happy person about who I am. I feel a lot happier now than in the past. For a while, I had heavy anger issues; so bad that I'd have to buy a car every few years because I would drive like a bat out of hell when I was angry. Time and maturity helped with this shift, but my family foundation played a big part in it as well.
I was born in 1951 in rural Mississippi as one of seven children. We were sharecroppers - we didn't have much but we were always taken care of. Community, sharing, music, dancing, faith, respecting the rules, and education were values that were instilled and modeled as I grew up. My cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were close by so we were able to see each other at least weekly if not daily. If someone had a need, we worked together to take care of each other. On Sundays, the family would get together, someone would have a guitar, another a harmonica and we’d start singing, dancing, joking, and sharing stories. There was always something we would find to make us smile or laugh."
This wasn't always easy. As sharecroppers, life was hard. The sharecropping system was never designed for Blacks to get ahead but rather to keep them in bondage.
As a sharecropper, you were able to grow on land and paid a portion of your profit to the landowner,
but your portion always seemed to be next to nothing.
In the summer and fall, you would plant and harvest - typical crops were cotton, corn, peanuts, potatoes. When crops came in, you'd bring them to town (with mule and cart) to be weighed and tallied.
‘Payday’ didn't happen until the end of the season so throughout the year, the bank or landowner helped to finance needs. At the end of the season each person's ledger was reviewed - this was often altered (not to the benefit of the grower of course) - and the bank or landowner would be reimbursed for the support they gave during the year (again, prices often adjusted in their favor) before the farmer was paid.
One year, Cleo said, they only received $4.
There was a heavy KKK influence in the town he grew up in as well. Blacks felt that they were always under siege due to the oppressive and hateful behaviors of many in the community. As a child, he was taught that in order to survive, there were certain things you did not do when you were around whites. Two examples are:
If you saw a white woman, never look her in the face
If a white person is coming in your direction, move to the side
He always knew that whites 'were superior' so he knew he needed to do whatever was needed to keep out of trouble and out of sight of the whites. It was common knowledge that everyone had guns and they weren't afraid to use them.
'One had to make sure to cover himself well because the entire family or community could be hurt or killed from just one person's participation.'
During the civil rights movements, Cleo wanted to participate, but for Blacks in rural areas, participation in any of the activities was even more dangerous than for those in cities. When you live in a small town, everyone knows everyone (+ everyone's business) and all hell could break loose very easily. If people learned you were participating, the implications were far-reaching. One had to make sure to cover himself well because the entire family or community could be hurt or killed from just one person's participation. This was true for anyone who participated in the movements, but the likelihood of being found out (and lynched for it) in the rural areas was greater. Rather than direct involvement, Cleo and his family did whatever they could to provide “behind the scenes” assistance for anyone who was participating on the front lines. Whatever supplies or support were needed, they worked hard to ensure they could provide it.
After finishing school, Cleo moved north - hoping for more opportunities and less oppression but quickly learned there were a lot of limitations up North for Blacks as well. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He worked hard...and harder than most. Many people’s mentality was that Black people's work was not done as well as white's. They also believed that if they did hire a Black person to do the job they could negotiate a better price. Cleo was watched like a hawk on most of the jobs he worked and his work was scrutinized constantly, so he always felt he had to do something ten times better than his white counterparts.
For many years, he worked full-time in childcare to be able to get insurance and a steady income and then took side jobs doing construction to build his craft. In time, he built up enough of a reputation and started a construction company with five other (white) friends. Cleo realized regardless of his skill level and professionalism, he needed allies to help him get certain jobs. While this angered him, he also realized that it was what was necessary for him to advance AND to start paving the way for other Black men and women to get ahead.
It’s been a long road, but Cleo forged a path for himself AND created opportunities to help others become successful. Even in his retirement, Cleo continues to give back. He’s on the board of Habitat for Humanity and constantly finding opportunities to help others. For those who are not able to get into the programs offered through Habitat for Humanity, he and his wife have personally helped to fix up properties in low-income communities and rent these homes to community members at affordable rates… and it's done with a smile and love!
When I asked him why it’s important to give back to others, here is what he said,
“If you don’t educate people (not necessarily school - sometimes just day-to-day living) with how to deal with situations and function in a society, you’re always going to be losing. I feel that a lot of times in the Black community there isn’t a lot of that going on, there’s a lot of distrust with everyone - with whites, with each other, etc - and I get a certain amount of gratification with helping to pour into the lives of others.
Take time to reflect on Cleo’s story. What can you learn from him and apply to your own life? If you're already applying many of these principles, let his story inspire you to continue even in the face of the challenges you may be facing.
In love + health,