Thu | Jun 21, 2018

The Bernards: Realising the American dream

Published:Monday | September 2, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Michelle and her father, Dr Milton D Bernard.
Michelle Bernard

Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer


On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Milton and Nesta Bernard reflect on the American promise through their daughter Michelle.

The two Jamaicans moved to the United States (US) during the height of the civil rights movement. Today, both are at the top of their game professionally - Dr Milton Bernard, is one of the US's most respected oral and maxillofacial surgeons, and his wife is vice-president of development and alumni relations at Howard University.

Their daughter, Michelle, is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, the author of Moving America Toward Justice: The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1963-2013, a contributor at the Washington Post and a political analyst on NBC.

"My parents have been able to live the American dream; despite blatant racism, they believed in America's promise and became what they wanted to be in life."

Bernard told Flair that her father, who attended Calabar High school in St Andrew, and her mother, who spent her adolescent years at Russea's High in Lucea, proved that in the face of enormous discrimination, they were going to raise their children and ensure that they got superior education, "with the values that we call America's promise".

In an article titled 'Jamaican immigrants reflect on America's promise on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington', published last Saturday, August 24 in the Washington Post, Bernard spoke of her unique position as a gift from her parents, who in 1961, chose to migrate from Jamaica to the USA.

Her parents arrived two years before the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963.

From her father's perspective, she said, the movement began for him when his father, praised the courage of Paul Robeson, whose activism cost him his career.

"As a young boy in Jamaica, my father also related to the greatest of Garvey - father of the back-to-Africa movement. He believed deeply that both Robeson and Garvey had paved the way for Dr King and the civil rights movement taking place at that time in the United States."

Although her parents didn't know each other in Jamaica, her mother was as moved by the American battle for civil rights as her father, because of the work of men like Garvey and King, Bernard told Flair from her home in Washington, DC.

"So despite the racism they knew they would face, my parents made their way to Howard University, here in Washington, DC."

None of them participated in demonstrations, because all of their time was occupied by school and working to support their growing family.

Bernard said as soon as she and her brother and sisters could read, they were introduced to biographies of Frederick Douglass, Dr Charles Drew, Marcus Garvey, C.L.R James, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Madame C.J Walker, Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King and scores of others.

"Together my parents taught the four of us pride and self-respect when they willingly lost jobs because they refused to enter a workplace through a back door," states Bernard.

She was taught that black is beautiful, and was taken out of a school after she was reprimanded by a teacher for colouring the people in her book brown rather than white.

"My parents saluted me for doing that," she reminisced, adding that her parents taught her and her siblings the importance of academics and how to deal with the low expectations when the new guidance counsellor at her school told her to focus on track and field rather than academics.

"My mother taught me the beauty of feminism and the importance of community activism and service to others when she wore her afro, donned her peace and black power medallions, and went to work at the United Planning Organisation."

Bernard's Jamaican parents taught her self-love and perseverance, preparing her for the day when she may be called the N word.

Obviously, extremely proud of her parents achievements, Bernard says her father taught them the art of what she calls, "smart dissidence" and the value of self-reliance, when as a student, he took on self-employment as a taxicab driver to support his family, rather than accept employment from anyone who saw him as less than a man because of the colour of his skin or his Jamaican accent.

"He taught us that he could be anything that he wished by being competitive, keeping his eye on the prize, being a brilliant student, and a man of honour above all else. "

"My parents tell me that on August 28, 1963, when Dr King spoke, they listened intently and were exhilarated. My father took part in the events of the day by shuttling people to and from the periphery of the Ellipse in his taxicab. He said he stayed and listened to the speeches. My mother listened on the radio."

Now American citizens, Bernard is immensely proud of her Jamaican heritage. She told Flair that Jamaican blood runs through her veins, while "love for the United States of America and her promise of freedom and justice for all runs through my heart and soul".

Excerpts of this story were taken from Michelle Bernard's article in the Washington Post.