Neil curled up with a good book.
Every month we'll highlight a reader in the Great Lakes Bay region and learn more about them, their work and their reading life.
It's no surprise that we are highlighting love in February but we're combining that with Black History Month. It's a perfect combination as the Black community can definitely use more love, understanding, and support. And, not just this month, but every month. Corneilius Phelps', from Saginaw, touches on this as well as his reading life and what's comes to mind for him about Black History Month.
Note: Neil's words are as he wrote them are an expression of his style.
What role have books and reading played in your life?
As a kid I was a bit slow to learn to really read but once I got it I was all about it. As a kid I got really into sci-fi and fantasy and found refuge in those stories. I’m an only child and those stories - as well the ones they inspired me to imagine - became my friends. I read far less fiction than I used to (regrettably), but those stories still come to mind and I still find comfort there.
As I got older, learning in school setting got more difficult for me. As an adult, books became a path to learning outside the classroom. They reminded me that I could still learn anything and that most things were available to be learned in the right pages somewhere. These days I read a lot of stuff about society. History, politics, economics, movements - that kind of thing. I worry it’s made me a bit of a bore, but I love it. When I’m overwhelmed I take refuge in buddhist scripture.
Do you have a favorite book that touches on the Black experience? If so, what is it?
“The Black Experience” is hard to pin down… think blackness in America, blackness in the diaspora, blackness globally. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as the black experience, I just want to acknowledge the enormity of such a statement. The black experience knits together literally billions of people and every thread touches everyone the same.. but the fabric is there. So for me, For my experience of being black; The Fire Next Time.
As a Black man in the community, what does Black History Month mean to you?
Hmmm, black history month is a double edged thing to me. On the one hand I appreciate the time taken to acknowledge stories of black folk. I enjoy our time in the sun. On the other hand I find black history month to be a timid tacit acknowledgement of the underlying problem at best. Sometimes it feels like a blatant deflection. The problem being: our stories, our truth has been deliberately, systematically, and effectively written out of history. The same can be said for all people of color across ethnic lines. I sometimes question whether one month a year is enough to turn this around. February’s not a very sunny month after all.
Are there any books related to social and/or racial justice that resonate with you? Why?
I’ve read and occasionally still find myself reading the collected letters and writings of Bayard Rustin. We have so much in common. Reading about his struggles, his triumphs, his failures, his views, the changes, that he got old, and I daresay happy, then just passed away - largely in his own words - reading that gives me hope. I know that he survived, thrived, and died. I will too.
What suggestions do you have for how people could support racial justice in our community?
Stop being racist. Jk.
Ok forreal now. Racism in Saginaw, just like everywhere else, is *historically* normal, appropriate, and comfortable - for almost everyone. Even black people, through immense violence and oppression, have learned to accept it. So if someone is doing something seemingly unusual, unwarranted, or upsetting - consider that. And if you’re doing something seemingly normal and appropriate that someone calls out - consider that. And above all consider that to undo racism you will be required to do things that may feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable thought. Uncomfortable conversations. Uncomfortable spending. Uncomfortable action.
If you’re comfortable, you’re probably *racist.
Stop being racist.
Given that you're very involved in the community, what's your favorite project that you've worked on?
Some years ago (~2016) I was part of a team that put on an event called Pop the Polls. It was a one day music festival and your ticket in was getting registered to vote. Hundreds of folks got registered, updated, or confirmed their registration. Being part of that project had a giant impact on me.
In 2020 I got to be involved with a Saginaw group who were part of the larger cultural Movement for Black Lives. We generally referred to the project as the Ghost of George Floyd, and the people involved in that work displayed a level of determination, compassion, courage, and joy I carry with me every day. They humble me. We successfully advocated for changes in local policing that I believe will protect people from certain forms of brutality like those that killed Floyd.
I’m all but certain of it considering my experience with Saginaw Police. That work is far from done and I’m excited to be in such good company again.
But the real answer to your question might be park clean-ups… Does that make me sound lame? Sorry. Weird flex but I bet I’ve done a hundred. I’ve been doing them since I was a kid with my dad, so they’re kinda ingrained in me. You get to be outside, it’s simple, straightforward, you get to move around a lot, planning's a snap, can be done alone or in a big group - I could keep going about why I love them, but the best part: When it's done you can see the difference you made. It’s just instantly gratifying. <insert millennial joke>
What do you do for your 9 to 5 gig?
<edited from my work bio>
Cornelius Phelps III
An organizer, conservationist, bikewrench, and occasional barista committed to work that furthers self-determination, environmental reparation, and access to abundance in communities of color. Cornelius lives, labors, and is in love with Saginaw, Michigan. He presently works as an organizing trainer providing services to progressive efforts all over the nation. Feel free to call him Neil.