Reviewed by Tony Dunbar
Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 32-33
The Measure of Our Success, A Letter to My Children and Yours, Marian Wright Edelman (Beacon Press, 97 Pages)
You need to know a little bit about Marian Weight Edelman before you pick up this book, or else you might not fully savor its ninety-seven pages of ethical, political, and parenting instruction. “South Carolina is my home state and I am the aunt, granddaughter, daughter, and sister of Baptist ministers,” is how it begins. A little daunting.
Fortunately, a great many people will recognize her as the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, as a human rights fighter, and perhaps also as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. Others who don’t will come to know her in the months ahead, when she sure is to be featured in national magazines and on talk shows in the promotion of this book. It is her integrity and record that add power to her words, most of which are venerable.
The Measure of Our Success is organized around a personal letter to Edelman’s three sons and then her 25 “Lessons for Life.” Other small chapters deal with her own upbringing in Bennettsville, South Carolina, at the hands of upright, industrious parents (he, a minister who taught her to stay busy and account for herself; she, a fundraiser for the church and care-giver to the elderly who always “earned her own dime”) and an extended family of relatives and church members. Her letter and the 25 Lessons for Life are a “spiritual and family dowry” for her children.
The treasures in this dowry are simple and familiar. “Treat others as you’d like to be treated,” she tells her sons. “It is the only ethical standard in life you need.” From the first Lesson (“There is no free lunch. Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for”) to the last (“Always remember that you are never alone”) there is nothing here—and I am confident Ms. Edelman would agree that would not—fit well into one of the Reverend Wright’s sermons. But there are some very special things about this book.
One is that, in her choice of moral thinkers to quote in support of her precepts, she is mindful of the great Southern black teachers of her parents’ generation and before, those who led the rising out of slavery and Reconstruction. Howard Thurman, Mordecai Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin Mays, Dr. J.J. Starks, and Vernon Johns share her pages with, more popularly known figures such as Gandhi, Einstein, and Shel Silverstein, and they mingle compatibly.
Another special thing is that Edelman does not let us forget that there is a social and political dimension to personal responsibility. She skillfully illustrates simple advice, like “Be a can-do, will-try person” (Lesson 18) by asking, “If the Soviet people and their extraordinary leader Gorbachev could dismantle Communism, can’t we in America envision and wage an end to child neglect, poverty, and family disintegration, which are graver threats to our national future than nuclear weapons?”
And throughout the book is the emphasis on good parenting and taking responsibility for the nurturing of children.
She lectures young men on sexual responsibility and urges parents to love their children unconditionally and to teach them by example. In the final chapter she asks the good questions. How can we afford the Persian Gulf War and the thrift and bank bailout while we say we cannot fund more child care for working families or mobilize doctors, teachers, and social workers to fight the tyranny of poverty and child neglect and abuse?
This is one of the most condensed books of wisdom since The Prophet. It could probably be read most usefully
by teens and new parents.
Everyone, however, can take gentle inspiration from Edelman’s simple message. We must care for our young. For spiritual and community well being we must engage in individual service and private charity. And, “Collective mobilization and political action are also necessary to move our nation forward in the quest for fairness and opportunity for every American.”
An hour or so spent with The Measure of Our Success may recall past mornings in Sunday School (which may have a pleasant feel) and may also remind us of the significance and the challenge contained in old truths.
Tony Dunbar practices law in New Orleans and writes about the South. His latest book was Delta Time, about the Mississippi Delta’s present look. (An earlier version of this review appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)