those women

i started a post a few days ago about colorism and what i perceive to be the destruction of our personhood as black people, but i was distracted by a more pressing issue that i am fighting through: justice over fear.

at the age of 34 my mother was married with 5 kids. she told me she worked up til my birthday and when the doctors tried to send her home she refused. after 4 kids i’d say she knew that number 5 was ready to make her debut. what you must know is that my mom takes no shit; she has been a spitfire her entire life and lays down for no one. we all know the story of her premature birth and how the midwives wrapped her in newspaper thinking she was stillborn, but she started kicking and as she says, “has been ever since.”

my mom had a career in banking that spanned over 40 years and included two major financial institutions. in the 70s and 80s, women who worked in banks (and perhaps other offices and industries) were required to wear skirts or dresses and pantyhose. (when did you last fight your way into hosiery?) we were secretaries, keypunch operators, mailroom clerks, receptionists…in short, we were the help. we were not in positions of power and authority.

early in her banking career my mom experienced racial discrimination. she never shared the details of what happened but the gravity was such that she wanted to bring suit against the bank. as the story goes, when she presented this to my dad he resisted. this would be the first of many disagreements between them that frayed the fabric of their marriage until little was left but threads.

in 1977, we moved from the city to the suburbs. my parents bought a 4-bedroom, 3 bathroom, split-level house with a 2-car garage. my dad maintained our yard with the artistry of an arborist and landscaper. brilliantly colored marigolds, petunias, and tulips greeted houseguests and our lawn was expertly manicured, the arborvitae trimmed, the trees shaped to perfection. had the neighborhood issued awards, he most certainly would have earned first place. our house was nestled in the middle of the block and we were one of three black families (i know a little something about growing up as the only one).

i suspect my dad surveyed what he had fought to build for his family, toiling for the railroad, and he told my mom that he was not on board with any lawsuits against the bank. he told her we could lose our home. she was hurt, angry, and to this day recalls the fear my dad expressed at what could happen to us if she lost the suit. they were in their 40s then, 5 kids at home, they made a respectable living, both church-going, God-fearing people. he could not imagine losing our home to a judicial system where the scales are invariably tipped in favor of the power elite; she could not imagine losing her principles and character to a white, male-dominated institution.

more than 40 years have passed and i am now in my mid-40s, a homeowner, living in a balanced neighborhood. i survey what i have accomplished and i reflect on my dad’s decision and what it must have destroyed inside my mother when she returned to an office that did not respect, value, or appreciate her. but she had mouths to feed and no support, so she sucked in her gut and her pride and soldiered on. isn’t that what we often do? suck it up? press on? swallow the bile that creeps up our throats and force a smile?  as i consider what is before me, in full recognition that the same judicial system from four decades ago is still rigged, racism is still alive and well from the white house to the corporate boardroom, i reflect on my mother and tell myself, i must stand on principle.

there is always one who says, “that’s not my experience” and to them i ask, do your lack of experiences invalidate or negate mine? or the scads of women who face discriminatory practices and overt racism with unprecedented frequency? how many sisters suffered the same mistreatment as rosa parks, shirley chisolm, maxine waters, ruby bridges, “the squad” but did not draw a line and challenge the establishment? it takes courage to go it alone. to stand when no one stands with you. when your own forsake you and distance themselves because, well, they have mouths to feed. but it’s those women whose backs are bent and whose shoulders are bowed at the weight of injustice, who stand for themselves and therefore stand for all of us. what those women did, and scores of others whose names were not recorded in the annals of history, is what i must do. take a stand. for me, for you, for those to come after us.

what we cannot continue to do is “work harder” to “show them” our value. they have been clear that our value is not what they appreciate. it’s our silence, our acceptance, our quiet secret-sister-circle gatherings where we bemoan the latest injustice, clink glasses to cries of “black girl magic!” and drive home mentally defeated knowing we must square our shoulders and re-enter the den of thieves and conniving souls whose self-interest will always outweigh our upward mobility. far too often we retreat in fear or uncertainty of “what will happen if” i speak out, stand up, push back, and demand the respect i am due.

it’s moments like these that black women are expected to be good christians, that’s the typical fall back position. girl, as christians we need to “do good to those who spitefully misuse us” we need to “work as unto the lord” and let the lord repay because “vengeance is his.” all of those sentiments are true and the lord both admonishes and commands us in matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”  i challenge each one who suggests these passive persuasions to consider those who have walked before you. did they cower? did they show up hat-in-hand begging? or did they take action against racial bias, discrimination, micro-agressions, and blatant disregard for their agency?

it’s a new day, a new year, the start of a new decade and a new me. what i know for sure is that i will stand on my principles if i must stand alone. i will go forward confidently, without fear, for as a wise elder said to me last week, “anything they could do to you, they’ve already done.”

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