When I was in college I was a part of this big time summer research project. I was triple excited about it because UM basically paid me to read books and write about them. I was like, “Read. Write. Money. Sign me up.”
There was only 1 professor on campus at the time who was willing to mentor me for the project. I don’t know if it was me or my subject material. But I didn’t care as long as nobody made me change my focus. I wanted to study how black women used the written word to chronicle OUR story in America.
Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980 edited by Erlene Stetson was my Bible that summer. I found Stetson’s book on the mark off bind at an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor. It costs me $5.90 but I would have paid 10 times as much for it.
I had read Lucy Terry’s Bars Fight, the first published work by a Black woman. But Stetson introduced me to Charlotte Forten and Francis E. W. Harper and Ann Plato and Rosalie Jonas and Angelina Weld Grimke. With my ‘Bible’ in hand, I scavenged the bookshelves of the Undergraduate and Graduate libraries at the University of Michigan. I exhausted microfilm files sitting in closeted rooms watching ancient footage of Bessie Smith performing songs written by herself for herself.
I emersed myself for weeks in the ideals of black womanness. I drank from the cups of the mothers and daughters and sisters and friends who came before me. Then as I was sitting at the table in my rented kitchen completely spent and full attempting to consume in one sitting the work of Audre Lord, I called my grandmother.
My grandmother was my sage. I loved her with my natural self. I would call her with absolutely nothing to say and walk away with new recipes and all the news on who was sleeping with who on ‘All My Children’. She kept my secrets and held my heart.
So after reading Audre Lorde and feeling like my head was spinning I called her up. I think I might have told her I wanted to make a rice pudding and didn’t know if I needed eggs. Who knows how I started the conversation. But eventually I got around to talking to her about what I was reading and how it was making me feel.
She was quiet. Listening to my 20 year old ranting about the burdens of black womanhood. I was just going on and on about how oppressive our existence has been and how even in the midst of the sorrow and pain we’ve been singing and dancing and writing poetry. I don’t know how long I talked but she listened. When I was done she gave me this…
“I worry about you Wonda. I worry about you and the world you will live in. The work you will do. I don’t know how you’ll keep you in this world where you have to use your mind to make your living. See with me and the generation before me…we were laborers. We used our hands, our bodies to earn our keep. But our minds. Our minds stayed free.”
That’s some deep shit for your ass, right?
My grandmother was born in 1926 in rural Louisiana. She grew up on a farm bequeathed to her family by way of a slave owner who happened to also be a forefather. She knew how to launder clothes without a machine. She could kill a chicken with her bare hands. She rocked me to sleep and sewed me my prettiest summer dress ever. She understood labor and hard work in ways I still don’t get. She remembered listening to her elders talk about slavery times.
She remembered listening to her elders talk about slavery time because they had lived it.
They had lived it.
And here I was her 20 year old granddaughter speaking on ideas that connected labor to experience but entirely missing the point. How was I going to operate in a world where my work would require not only the labor of my physical self but the output of my mind.
How can I keep me when so much of me is required in order to make a dollar to live a desirable lifestyle?
My grandmother was the wisest person I have ever known. And after 23 years, I still don’t have an answer to her question.
Every year I wonder how much more can I give? I wonder if I am doing too much and if maybe I need to roll back at least for myself. At least for a little while.
But then I plan a fundraiser and kids who are told they can’t count or read or get alone with others learn to make public announcements or I put them in charge of collecting money or I give them the chance to set the price of the cookies and they rise to the occasion and outshine my expectations and right in front of my eyes are transformed into capable, confident young men and women. And I think maybe this is the evolution…perhaps working from my heart will set my mind free.