“Put On No Airs”:
The Radical Humility Examples of Brown and Blow
Among the beauties of radical humility are the lessons it conveys. My maternal grandmother, Catherine Stokes Speller, embodied such lessons for the ninety-three years of her rich life. Like Ruth Nicole Brown’s Auntie Dottie, my grandmother was an African American woman who was full of southern “mother wit” and grounded wisdom. Brown described her Aunt Dottie in this way, “Aunt Dottie’s generosity was sourced from a life-affirming humility, that among many other things, works as antidote to misunderstanding” (38). I believe Grandmother Speller also had an earthy, “life-affirming humility.” Whether it was the pastor of her church or her four grandsons, she instructed all, “Don’t put on no airs.” Akin to Auntie Dottie’s guideposts of faith, my grandmother cautioned others to not be boastful about the blessings of titles and accomplishments but instead humbly serve God’s people.
Although quite different from Brown’s essay, New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s essay also reminds me of my grandmother’s radical humility. He opines against the self-puffery and unrelenting arrogance of President Donald Trump in contrast to President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy of humility. Unlike Trump, Lincoln possessed enough generosity of spirit to listen to even his “fiercest critics,” such as the brilliant Frederick Douglass. Blow recounts how Lincoln literally exclaimed across the room, “Here comes my friend Douglass,” when moments earlier White House security barred Douglass’ entry because he was a Black man. Blow’s essay reminds me of my grandmother’s example because all her life she lived near or in Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the once self-declared Confederate nation against which Lincoln and his Union waged war. And while my grandmother and I did not agree on all matters political, the humility lessons she taught coincide with Blow’s conclusion about the Lincoln-Douglass relationship, “Think about the amount of growth involved in that relationship and what it can mean for you to just be open enough, humble enough, to listen to someone who you disagree with? To admit that you might have been wrong, and to be brave enough to change your mind” (71-72). In short, Lincoln was a president who “put on no airs.”
Like myself, Brown and Blow are students of politics. Both speak to the power of humility as a lived union—Aunt Dottie and Ruthie (Ruth Nicole Brown), Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. And although these two stories differ in many respects, they both call us to consider the radical humility connections in our own lives. Brown and Blow ask us to consider what occurs in the absence of radical humility: What if Aunt Dottie had been unable to gift Brown a garden full of humility lessons as a student in Ann Arbor, Michigan? How might Brown as a distinguished professor have had a smaller storehouse of role models in working toward the grassroots empowerment of Black girls and Black communities? What if Lincoln was not humble enough to make course corrections on such momentous questions as emancipation and Black citizenship rights? How might future presidents and citizens have had a more impoverished storehouse of standards to assess the dangerous arrogance of President Trump? Such possibilities remind us how radical humility exists in powerful connections—sometimes quiet, sometimes full of historical import. We, in part, ensure the health of our community, of our republic, if we connect to others who “put on no airs.”
Public Holistic Response by Gretel Van Wieren
Todd Shaw’s essay draws on the lived experience of his grandmother, Catherine Stokes Speller, as an African American woman in order to explicate the notion of radical humility. As a scholar of religion, I particularly appreciate Shaw’s explicit attention to her spiritual outlook, as this lens is often overlooked in the academy. Shaw makes helpful and important connections between his grandmother and Radical Humility essayist Ruth Nicole Brown’s Aunt Dottie through the notion of "life-affirming humility." There is so much to this idea in my mind, and it is helpful that Shaw concretizes it by describing some particular practices his grandmother embodied. Shaw further notes how the type of radical humility practiced by his grandmother integrally involves listening to those with whom one disagrees, a notion that resonates more broadly across many public conversations happening today in higher education, politics, religious traditions, and families. Drawing on the example of the Lincoln-Douglass relationship, Shaw helps elevate its historical (universal in some sense?) relevance and significance for multiple types of communities and exchanges. At the end, Shaw returns to Brown’s essay, asking: “What if Aunt Dottie had been unable to gift Brown a garden full of humility lessons … how might Brown as a distinguished professor have had a smaller storehouse of role models in working toward the grassroots empowerment of Black girls and Black communities?” This is such a great question and one that I hope we can circle back around to during the collaborative roundtable discussion.