OPINION: Goodbye, readers, and thank you

AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples is retiring after more than 40 years in the newspaper business.

Credit: Gracie Bonds Staples

Credit: Gracie Bonds Staples

AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples is retiring after more than 40 years in the newspaper business.

When this column began, my charge was to write commentary on, well, this life. That has meant introducing you to the people I’ve met along the way, looking at trends, cultural shifts, and politics, and responding to the news of the day.

For years now, I’ve tried to do that, always with a heart in search of the divine and always mindful that who tells the story is as important as how it is told, and which story is told.

I have witnessed a kid with no hope realize her dream to go to and graduate from West Point. I’ve spent the night on the street with a group of high schoolers wanting to raise awareness about homelessness. I’ve seen an entire community rally to support a gay couple when neighbors criticized them for hoisting a pride flag on their mailbox. One afternoon before COVID-19 hit, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Lifford (aka Violet Bordelon) from my favorite television show “Queen Sugar.” I have sat talking for hours by phone with a young mother as she tried to make sense of the suicide of her husband.

AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples is about to leave the paper and enjoy retirement with her husband, Jimmie. (Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

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Credit: Family photo

I’ve seen some things unimaginable when I started this journey four decades ago. I’ve watched a Black man be sworn in as president of the United States, a woman win the Democratic nomination for the same office and another woman of Black and Asian descent be sworn in as vice president of the United States. I’ve been the only Black staff member of two newsrooms, where I was a reporter/photographer, and at other times one of a dozen or so, where real photographers accompanied me on assignment. I’ve weathered waves of buyouts and layoffs as this business struggled to remake itself in a constantly changing digital age. Six times, including this one, I’ve said goodbye to newsrooms. Other times, sadly, the goodbyes have been permanent as death stole some away. Roger Brown, Marty McNeal, Scott Walton, E. Richard Walton, and my favorite desk-mate and birthday twin Lateef Mungin.

I’ve collected a few extra pounds from all the cake, pizza and doughnuts I’ve devoured in the AJC newsroom and lots of sweet memories, mostly spun from my own sick humor, mimicking the sound of a cracking whip when Tracy Brown, then one of my bosses at the AJC, dared to tell me what to do and referring to AJC editor Kevin Riley as “cool daddy” when he shared his “coronacalm” playlist with the staff during the first months of the COVID lockdown.

I still remember how happy and optimistic I was when I joined this newspaper 20 years ago. I was hired to cover health-related issues on the features team.

Though my job has changed more than once over the past two decades, I still feel honored to have been a part of such a dedicated team of reporters. From the very beginning, my goal was to bring to our pages voices that would not otherwise be heard — the poor, the disenfranchised, women, Blacks and other minorities, void of the stereotypes that normally accompany them.

I am proud of my work as a writer not because it garnered me dozens of awards but because it inspired and encouraged those who read it.

Those same readers inspired me, too, over the years with their emails.

“There is a need for justice and liberty for all,” wrote Carole Jezek when I wrote about Breonna Taylor recently. “There is a need for all the Constitutional Amendments. There is a need for God’s Grace. There is a strong need for your articulate voice.”

Most of the emails I received came after my work launched online or ran in the newspaper. This one from Mandy Bass arrived just hours after a Sept. 9 interview for a soon-to-be published narrative:

“Dear Gracie, Thank you for the thought-provoking interview yesterday,” she wrote. “Out of the dozens of interviews I’ve had over the last four years, I don’t recall any other that elicited new insights from me about my own thinking and behavior. More importantly, you reminded me that when I get out of my own way and just let God work through me, my decisions are always right.”

I share it now because Bass captured my hope for every interview I’ve ever conducted and every story I’ve ever been given the privilege of telling. It arrived when I needed it the most.

It was as if God himself was saying to me “well done, thy good and faithful servant.”

And so, after nearly 42 years of writing for daily newspapers, it’s time to call it quits. My last day will be Jan. 29.

Though Gracie Bonds Staples' newspaper writing has usually been about other people, she occasionally included her family in her columns. This is what the after-Thanksgiving Day dinner glow looks like at the Staples residence. Pictured with Gracie (standing far right) are her daughters Jamila (center) and Asha (lower left), family friend who feels like a daughter Amanda Al-Mahdi (standing left), and friend Sheila Burks, Amanda’s mom. (Family photo)

Credit: Family Photo

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Credit: Family Photo

That’s a lotta years and yet this — my final column — stinks of self-betrayal. At just 63, I’d imagined myself running on a little longer, but the time just feels right. Experience often brings wisdom, but also a certain heaviness and fatigue.

It would be easy to blame my husband’s cancer diagnosis in 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial upheaval of the past year. The truth is I began contemplating this moment seven years ago when I realized Jimmie and I were about to mark a couple of significant milestones — own our home outright and see both our daughters embark on what look to be promising careers in television and medicine.

Today, my mind is full of those who have nurtured my love for writing. Whether you were responding to my words like Bass and Jezek or critiquing them, you lifted me to a place even I had not imagined when Mrs. Turnage and then Mrs. Craig told me I was a writer.

I won’t bore you with every assignment I’ve had here or at other newsrooms over these four decades. Suffice it to say no matter how moving the stories I told were, they are not what endure. What endures are the people who entrusted them to me.

I had not intended to become a columnist. As it happened, I was writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, filling in for someone who missed a deadline.

I wrote about the burning of my childhood church in Smithdale, Mississippi, and months later the piece was named a finalist in the statewide Katie Competition. It wasn’t the first notice I’d received for writing and it wouldn’t be the last.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I was worth reading, but I could never tell a story I didn’t feel. I felt plenty. The problem was I felt them deeply, maybe too deeply, which made for some tense discussions with editors, you and the good Lord.

Don’t laugh but in my talks with Him, I often asked, “Why did you give me this big heart?” To this day, He hasn’t answered. He just handed me another story to tell and the strength to run on a little while longer.

Looking back, my heart overflows with gratitude first to Him, the editors who put up with me, and you, dear reader. You who sent me notes of encouragement and you who felt the need to take me to task, who cc’d Kevin Riley, hoping he’d take me to task, too.

Thankfully, I learned the art of just walking away so I could fight another day. And when my faith failed me, God remained faithful. He and He alone is the reason I’ve lasted this long.

He and He alone gave me you just when I needed you the most, to uplift and remind me that love and hatred are the same wherever you find them, that in whatever place I found myself, there was always something or someone to win or lose, to mourn or celebrate. That’s just this life, isn’t it?

Now in the words of my favorite writer, James Baldwin, every goodbye ain’t gone.

You and my colleagues, you who made this journey worthwhile, will forever be in my big heart.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.