By Angela Walker-Franklin, Ph.D | President, Des Moines University


I come from a relatively small family; I am the youngest of two daughters, with parents now more than 90 years old. Although slowing down with a few health challenges, they are amazingly sharp mentally, mobile, and eager to travel and engage with their children and grandchildren.

During a recent weekend, I was pleased to celebrate my mother's 92nd birthday along with the first birthday of my first and only grandchild. It was an exciting time to see such generational love displayed as we reflected upon the rare privilege of having four generations all together.

It felt like a once in a lifetime experience as the likelihood of many more such celebrations will become slim as time passes. So we cherished the special moments as we laughed, blew out candles, opened gifts and took pictures to preserve these times for the generations to come.

The timing of this gathering was also fortuitous, as I had recently received a restored portrait of my paternal great-grandmother, created more than 100 years ago. As a child growing up in South Carolina, I often saw this old picture stuck in a closet in my parent's home, never really knowing how much I would appreciate it later in life. This painting of her would have been completed in about 1890 and was in amazingly good condition. Her name was Dora, and she was born in 1871. She died in 1917 at the age of 46. As my parents gathered for the birthday celebrations, I shared the refreshed painting of this mysterious woman, Dora, who was born on a South Carolina plantation.

I could only imagine the world seen through the eyes of my great-grandmother, Dora. Post-slavery in the South, she obviously was treated well because this picture remains, and at that time it was likely quite expensive to produce and even more unlikely to have been done for a former slave. She had a strong posture and was elegant in a lovely white lace dress. There must have been something special about her. Perhaps she was the chosen one who was given the rare opportunity to achieve.

So the lineage unfolding before us during this special gathering caused me to stop and ruminate about the world my great-grandmother witnessed and the experiences that my 92-year-old mother had. The presence of my granddaughter made this gathering even more profound as I pondered her very existence and the world she will experience. The dynamics of our society are shifting, and I wonder if she, too, will be able to live a life that is still better than the one her father now enjoys. 

Then there is my mother, born in 1925, who saw a different world from Dora, where education was the ticket to success. She was the oldest child in her family and was sent away to be educated, later becoming a schoolteacher. She became accomplished in her career, earning a master's degree in education, and she was determined to provide the best education for her own children. Her dreams for her daughters were to surpass what she had come to achieve.

Seeing my first-born son with his first-born child was another one of life's surreal moments in this gathering. I found myself thinking back to his birth and reflecting on the baby boy that I brought home from the hospital more than 30 years ago.

Perhaps, in that moment, I had the same feelings my mom was having as she saw me caressing my first grand-baby, the little girl we all eagerly awaited.

And staring down from a picture frame was the recently restored painting of Dora. I couldn't help but see her staring in amazement at the people we are and the world in the condition it is today. Dora could never imagine the degree of advancement of people of color today. She could never imagine the lifestyles we live, even though during her time she may have been treated better than most.

Those are my bittersweet reflections: happy that we are all gathered together, yet sad to know that we are still living in challenging times where hatred, violence and negativity are displayed, causing fear and anxiety for all of us. As I look at Dora's reflection, I think of how far we have come, and I am hopeful that we will never slip backward.

I think of the messages I received from my mom, who was a working mother, a schoolteacher who always pushed me and my sister to strive for excellence in all that we do. She was the one who reminded us to always work to defy expectations and prove the naysayers wrong -- those who may have thought we weren't good enough or able to achieve because of how we looked.

Those were the same messages I gave to my sons as they met life's challenges, at times causing them to doubt their ability to achieve.

And now we live in a time when there have been considerable achievements for women as well as people of color. Yet now there is an ugliness in the atmosphere, which cannot be hidden. It has become palpable and inescapable: It seeps into our very existence as we hear it and feel it wherever we go. There is anguish, fear, disdain and outrage all around us every day. The daily reminders of a divided and splintered world are hard to take. We wonder if the progress of the past seems to be fading. If the Golden Rule is still "golden," then why are we not able to treat others the way we would want to be treated? Respect and kindness are so easy to share, but apparently much harder for others to do so.

I feel like the mother hen, now wanting to protect the next generation from the destructive forces over which I have little, or no, control. I worry about my own children and the next generations. My granddaughter is the symbol of all things good and special. But she reminds me of the need to make this world a better place for her as well as for those still struggling.

It is disturbing to hear the selfish and mean-spirited rhetoric of the past creeping back into our advanced society. Messages that say some of us are less worthy than others must end. To believe and proselytize that some people are superior to others contradicts the principles of equality and opportunity our forefathers espoused. They fought to gain the right to be counted as one human being, not a mere fraction of one.

There is fighting in the streets to reclaim power, presence and superiority, and at what cost? For us to be these "United" States of America, we are sending a very dangerous message to the world that shows just how disjointed and fractured we are.

So how will we ever get beyond it?

Can we reclaim what was good and special about our country and the positive dynamics that most of us want? We must!

I know some might ask, "Why?"

Because we must think of the impact these behaviors and attitudes are having on the future: the children, like my 1-year old granddaughter who I hope will see a world that is restored to a place that values and respects all people as special individuals. I would not think I would still need to reference Dr. Martin Luther King's quote about judging people by the content of their character as opposed to the color of their skin, but we still have not fully embraced this basic, rational principle. Frankly, we seem to have stepped back to the mean-spirited and divisive postures of the past, which calls into question the true value we place on one another.

"Bittersweet" is how I describe my time with my family during the last week. But we must never give up!  We must continue to fight against the hateful rhetoric and stand for what is true and right. I still dream of a better day, but I also must pray!

I pray for goodness and kindness.
I pray for peace and tranquility.
I pray for open and honest dialogue.
I pray for the hearts and souls of us all to come together as one people.

And I pray that we all can be treated with respect as we celebrate the power and value of different voices and perspectives. That is what our forefathers were hoping to achieve, if not guarantee.

I share these bittersweet reflections, along with a strong hope for a stable, productive future!

Angela Franklin, Ph.D, is the 15th president of Des Moines University, a 118-year-old health sciences university. She is a native of McCormick, S.C., a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a 1981 magna cum laude graduate of Furman University, a small liberal arts college in Greenville, S.C. A licensed clinical psychologist, she completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Emory University, followed by a yearlong clinical internship at Grady Memorial Hospital.