By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, Black Books and Reviews.com.
Robin Roberts received welcome after heartfelt welcome from people famous and ordinary when she returned to the Good Morning America anchor desk February 20, five months after a bone marrow transplant. In between delivering the news, Roberts heard scores of people tell her how inspired they were by her courage and strength.
While standing together in the Good Morning America studio, Robin Roberts and sisters Dorothy and Sally Ann, who was her transplant donor, agreed they and their brother Lawrence were all following their mother’s legacy when it came to inspiration and survival against the odds. Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts left them– and us– a life narrative teeming with faith, hope and grace amid adversity when she died at age 88 last August. Her death came months after her new book was released and on the same day that Robin Roberts left Good Morning America to prepare for cancer treatment.
In her book, My Story, My Song: Mother-Daughter Reflections on Life and Faith, Lucimarian Roberts opened up her life to give us an engaging glimpse at what a journey of stead-fast faith looks like, even when disappointment and resistance are encountered along the way. Her daughter, Robin, lent her star influence to the book by adding an introduction and personal reflections at the end of several chapters. Together the Roberts duo provide a striking portrait, much like the one on the book’s cover, of the sustaining power of God, family, love and living purposeful lives.
Mrs. Robert’s story takes us through the ups and downs of the black experience. Along the way, we get to see the making of a strong African American woman and her family, as well as formative moments in the history of a people from a fresh perspective. She begins her story with her sharecropper grandparents who moved from Alabama to Akron, Ohio, as part of the great Southern migration. She grew up with a father who was entrepreneurial but unpredictable because of his drinking and a mother who held the family together with determination and commitment to her Christian faith.
“She taught us that success in life is never about money,” Mrs. Roberts wrote of her mother, Sally Tolliver. “It is about integrity and character. She often told us kids, “you may be poor, but you don’t have to be common. That simple but profound statement has stayed with me.”
As a young child, Mrs. Robert grew to love the music of the Church of God where her grandfather was a lay pastor. She reveled in singing the spirituals and playing the piano all her life. The title of her book is rooted in the time-tested hymn, “This is my story, this is my song…praising my Savior all the day long.”
“As I look across my life, I realize that the music of the church has been my saving race. It has stirred my soul and brought me great comfort,” wrote Mrs. Roberts, who also called her piano bench her refuge. “It is where I come to God.”
She lived through the Great Depression and endured the harsh realities of segregation and integration. She dealt with personal moments of racial prejudice and broke through the proverbial glass ceiling later in life. With the help of a long-time mentor, she became the first person in her family to go to college. She took the train alone to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University, where several new windows of opportunity open to her.
She sang in the chapel choir there when noted theologian Howard Thurman was dean of the Rankin Chapel and participated in lecture discussions prompted by then sociology professor Dr. E. Franklin Frazier. She was a student leader at Howard who in her senior year was selected to sit next to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a special dinner.
At Howard, she also met Lawrence Roberts, whom she married after graduating. Roberts became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and enjoyed a career as an Air Force officer. Their 57-year marriage ended suddenly when he died of a heart attack in 2004.
As a military wife who moved 27 times with her husband, Mrs. Roberts witnessed first-hand the changes in the racial climate for African American servicemen and their families living here and abroad. She felt the unbearable isolation of being a black woman on foreign soil and endured by calling upon her smarts, her faith and her music to persevere through tough times. Of one event in her life as an officer’s wife, she wrote:
“During the early years of integrating the military, I sometimes was the only officer’s wife not invited to an event. Being the only black woman in the organization, it was easy to feel alone, excluded, and marginalized. I learned to orchestrate the situation by quietly asserting myself in the proper role of an officer’s wife. I had practically memorized a book of protocol for officer’s wives. I would show up wearing my hat, white gloves and a gracious smile.”
Throughout the book, Mrs. Roberts uses Bible passages and song lyrics to punctuate certain chapters in her life. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast and severely damaged her home in her Biloxi where she rode out the storm, she came to see her renovated living room as “holy ground.” She ends that chapter with the words from the church standard Marching to Zion and Scripture verses from Lamentations 3:22-24.
In the 144 pages that make up “My Story, My Song”, one finds in Mrs. Roberts’s life a rich tapestry of a life well-lived. It is well-worth the read. Her book leaves us an example of a person who did not allow life’s obstacles to stop her. Mrs. Roberts became an educator and the first African American to head Mississippi’s Board of Education. She served on many boards of organizations and performed many philanthropic endeavors.
In the book, Robin Roberts credits her parents for her success. “People often ask me what is the secret to my success, I tell them, being the daughter of Lawrence and Lucimarian Roberts. They made be believe anything was possible.” What a legacy for all of us.
About the Book Review Author
Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb volunteers with faith organizations and the Earl T Shinhoster Youth Leadership Institute. She is writing a book about her brother, Earl, and working on other writing projects. Yvonne retired from The Washington Post in 2008 after a 33-year career as a journalist.