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As published in the East Texas Review.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings:
A True Representative - Part Three

Here is the conclusion of my interview with the Hon. Elijah E. Cummings, U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 7th District, and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Earlier he spoke of his parents and growing up years; persons, both black and white, who influenced his career; CBC priorities as to education, healthcare, civil rights; his love for plants and history. His commitment to the lives of people, young and old, is in his speeches and congressional reports on, for example, prescription drug prices, rail security, ergonomic injuries on the job, the tragic effect on seniors of cuts in Medicare.
     Last year, addressing the Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facility Needs for Seniors, he represented the plight of millions of elderly people when he said: “The courageous human beings who are struggling to live in the midst of this current crisis, and the family members living it with them, are not abstract statistics. For any older American to suffer after working hard all of their life is a national disgrace” ( The Hon. Elijan Cummings with Alice BernsteinResponding further to my question about his interests apart from public service, he said:
     Elijah E. Cummings: “I love all kinds of jazz. And I’m a member of the church and love gospel music. Gospel inspires me and brings back memories of my mother. When I was a little boy she went to church with other women on weekday nights to pray. They were very tired; most had worked all day cleaning and washing people’s clothes. What amazed me was that they had faith that things would be better for their children.
     “I do believe that all of our trials and suffering should strengthen us to help somebody else traveling that same road. As human beings we need to find those things that bring the very best out of us. Plants do that for me and spirituals do. When I became chairman of the Caucus, I said in the inauguration service, “When I think about where I could have been today, I just thank God for giving me the path He has given me.”
      Adding to his thoughts about subjects he looked forward to learning, he said: “I’d like to learn more about how human beings can best go about being the best that we can be. I spend a lot of time reading books to try to understand this.” At this point, photographer David Bernstein, covering this interview and who is my husband, spoke about the book Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters, Little Essays for Children and Others by Eli Siegel (Definition Press, 2003). He told of our having been invited to read from it to second graders at the Maryland elementary school which the author attended as a child. Mr. Cummings said that school is in his district, and wanted to hear more.
     AB: “We read the essay, ‘Books’ which tells why reading is a big and wonderful thing; and also about why people don’t want to read, and how that can change. Then we read the essay ‘Being Angry’ in which Mr. Siegel so importantly distinguishes between two kinds of anger - one is mean, narrow and selfish, and the other is in behalf of justice to the world and people. David told them how much it meant to him to learn about these two angers in himself, and that the reason Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are loved is because of their beautiful anger against injustice. “
     And I told this class of African American children how sorry I am that people whose skin looks like mine were brutally unjust to people whose skin looks like theirs; and that Eli Siegel came to the knowledge, the education Aesthetic Realism, that enables people to be kind and to end racism forever.”
     EEC: “That’s very powerful. When I was growing up, if I’d had somebody with white skin come in and say what you just said, it would have meant a lot to me. When we were growing up we were taught by society that we were inferior. It’s important that you and your husband continue what you are doing. The children may never remember your names but what you say will be implanted in every cell of their being. I don’t go a day without thinking about Albert Friedman, a white man who told me the opposite of what the white world was telling me. This is why I say, Don’t stop!”
     The depth of Mr. Cummings’ commitment to children’s well being is powerfully clear in his congressional report on the catastrophic impact of the proposed dismantling of the 38-year-old Head Start program. Millions of poor children in grade school would not be guaranteed dental care, parental involvement, mental health services, health care, and disability services. Children would be at risk for not getting treatment for asthma, anemia and vision problems. Said Mr. Cummings, “It’s so sad that so many children will go a lifetime being scarred by people’s failure to respect them. When I think about folks who literally kill the dreams of children and then turn around and criticize them for not growing up to be all they can be - it’s criminal!”
     AB: “I agree completely.”
     As the interview was concluding, I said, "In your congressional tribute to Mr. Siegel you spoke of 'the tremendously successful Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method,' used for decades in New York City schools. You said: 'It’s an effective tool to stop racism because it enables people of all races to see others with respect and kindness.' How do you see this method in relation to the nation’s classrooms?"
      EEC: “First of all, it would be good to have it in these classrooms starting in pre-K. Children are not born racists or intolerant. As the father of a nine-year-old, I remember her saying, ‘Daddy, I’ve got some pink people in my class and I’ve got some yellow people in my class.’ Her friends are Asian, white, African American, Indian. But it seems like the older children get, the whites are over here and the blacks over there.”
     AB: What would you most like people everywhere including readers of The Harlem Times, to know about you?
     EEC: “That Charlie Rangel is one of my best friends and mentors, and that Elijah Cummings, as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has a vision for America. It’s best summarized in a song by Garth Brooks, We Shall Be Free.” Here are some lyrics:
              When the last child cries for a crust of bread,..
              When there’s shelter over the poorest head,
              When the last thing we notice is the color of skin,
              And the first thing we look for is the beauty within,..
              And when money talks for the very last time,
              And nobody walks a step behind,
              When there’s only one race and that’s mankind,
              Then we shall be free. [The Chase, 1992]

     “That is my vision. And I want people to know that I work every day to make that happen.”

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This series of articles was also published in: 
The Harlem Times, New York Beacon, East Texas Review, Philadelphia New Observer,  La Vida News/The Black Voice (Ft. Worth, TX), Chicago Defender, Milwaukee Times,  Omaha Star, Caribbean Life, Birmingham Times, New Voice of NY, Long Beach Times (CA), Tennessee Tribune, Buffalo Criterion (NY), Carib News, Philippine Post, Madison Times (WI), Black News (SC), Michigan Chronicle, South Carolina Black News