HAVING THEIR SAY: Our Grandmothers

Lately, I’ve been thinking about being a Nana ( to 4 grandsons). The announcement by two close Boomer friends ( FH, SS) that they were about to enter Nanaland was the trigger for this contemplation. Like many other Boomers who are now being called Granny, Grandmama, Mima, Abuela, Baba, Nai Nai, Grandmere, Ya Ya, Oma and the super cool hip hop Gmom, my knowledge of this role comes from my interaction with my own Grandmother Rachel.

Grandma Rachel lived to be 100 plus years. No, she didn’t get her picture on the Today show smucker jelly commercial, but she did receive many accolades/awards during her lifetime. Much of it was for service in her NY community and church where she remained active until her later years.

My fondest memories of her were the summers she traveled from the big Apple to Norfolk to make her yearly sojourn down South. A native North Carolinian, Grandma Rachel had made her home in New York, but her roots ran deep in southern soil.

News of her impending visit, would always cause a bustle of activity in our household as my mother supervised our cleaning/polishing/scrubbing activity….girl you better use that comet to clean under that toilet..what you afraid of?

But I knew Grandma Rachel didn’t care about whether the house was spic and span, she just wanted to visit her children and enjoy afternoons on the porch sipping ice cold coke while she braided my long Indian rope hair and reminisced about summertime in Scotland Neck. The memory of those visits can literally turn my frown into a smile and brighten my hectic days.

A few years ago, I reconnected with my 93 year old cousin Mamie who also has fond memories of Grandma Rachel…she called her Mama. The 30 year difference in our age makes the idea of her being my cousin somewhat eyebrow raising to many, but she was in fact my 90 something year old father’s niece…talk about a family tree. Out of respect for her and the significant age difference between us, I always referred to her as Aunt Mamie which seemed more fitting.

Aunt Mamie was a phenomenon. A survivor. A Bible Scholar. A pillar of the community. Loved by many grands, nieces, nephews, blood and non-blood. She was a praying/God fearing/believing Grandma whose hands had seen many days hard work. She raised her own 5 children and those of many others including my brother and I (for one year).

Her melodious voice which often reminded me of someone singing was never without a word of encouragement/praise/forgiveness for those who had the good fortune to be in her presence. She loved a good laugh and often delivered some one liners that were comedian worthy. As the ravages of old age began to invade her body, she remained stalwart believing that her God was always right there delivering her from the pain, the sickness, the dark days. He is worthy to be praised she would sing, smiling that almost ethereal smile. She was a blessing. She was Mima . (Thank you Minnie).

The book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 years by sisters Bessie and Sadie Delany comes to mind when I reflect on these strong women. Their story is a testament to the strength/survival of African Americans. It is also an example of the oral tradition so important in documenting the lives of African American in this country.

For the Delany sisters, their story begins with freedom and ends with an understanding of the importance, not only of their lives, but of all who struggle to comprehend our raison d’etre.

Although the Delany sisters did not experience slavery firsthand, their account in Having Our Say replicates the structure of the slave narrative juxtaposing the slave’s experience with that of eventual freedom. The color issue, ever present in this personal history, impacts the lives of the two sisters with a deafening insistence often found in African American culture, even today.

The opening chapters of the book provide an introduction to the members of the Delany family complete with a description of their physical attributes including color.

People would look at us Delany children and wonder where in the world this bunch came from. We were very different shades from nearly white to brown sugar. I (Sadie) was one of the lighter children and Bessie was browner.

Sadie’s forthright, philosophical approach to the color issues does not, however, reflect the general sentiment of other members of the race. In fact, the acceptance of racial identity is an integral part of the rite of passage of the black female in this society. Her acceptance of racial identity is crucial to survival in a world which is often hostile to people of color.

As we learn more about the personalities of the sisters, we find that Sadie is the calmer, more passive sibling while Bessie struggles with the anger and frustration brought on by dealing with a hostile, color conscious world. Adversity has made Bessie the stronger of the two. She attributes her longevity to meanness and sheer determination. This same attitude/fortitude has made survivors of many of our mothers and grandmothers.

The sisters eventually (like my Grandmother Rachel) left the South and migrated North to Harlem. Bessie continued to battle racism and sexism by gaining admission as the sole black female in Columbia University Dental School. Sadie became her mother’s companion and spent much of her time traveling through the South. The sisters finally made their home in Mt. Vernon, NY where they enjoyed the privileges of the Negro Intelligentsia.

The sisters’ journey ended following the publication of their book…Sadie at 106 and Dr. Bessie at 104. Their memoir remains an important document in American history. It refutes the portrayal so common in history/literature of the black woman as mammy/matriarch/sex object/ or THOT.

The Delany sisters experienced the multifarious damage and distance of class and race in the segregated South and went on to battle the racism and sexism of a Renaissance North. This oral history is a testament to the determination and strength which makes GrandMamas a force to be reckoned with.

Blogging: Lesson Learned

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Songstress Alicia Keyes’ melodious lyrics filter into my pre- dawn bedroom.  Yes, I was burned but I called it a lesson learned. Mistakes overturned So I call it a lesson learned. My soul has returned So I call it a lesson learned. Another lesson learned.

My three year journey into the world of Blogging has certainly been filled with lessons learned.

For someone who has authored 4 nonfiction children’s books and edited many more; completed a 300 plus page fiction/memoir about a 20 somethings R rated adventures/life in Los Angeles in the 70s; published journal articles in everything from the Ohio Middle School Journal to Afro Americans in New York Life and History; mastered the art of researching/writing complex legal pleadings (for lawyers); taught countless middle, high and college level students the joy of writing; successfully written federal/national/ and local grants; and conducted workshops/seminars on the teaching of writing to folks from 6 to 60– Blogging is by far the most challenging writing I have ever done.

A fellow Blogger (and English teacher) opined in her post that Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. She provides a logical argument for this premise asserting that Blogging has the potential to reach and influence many, both in and outside of the classroom. Blogging represents a 21st century skill with real world uses. When was the last time your boss asked you to write a narrative essay? (S.Wright, Making the Shift)

After reading this Post and the comments (and they were numerous), I realized that I too have come to some startling truths about Blogging.

The idea of sharing your writing with others in a public forum sounds harmless but is certainly not for the thin-skinned. It is one thing to have a publisher reject your work (isn’t that what they are paid to do?) but to have an anonymous reader question your word choice, your style, your editing, your grammar, your font, your raison d’etre…well it can be, let’s say, a bit daunting.

 Blogging, despite what some hard working people think, is WORK. It is a most intensive type of writing-writing on demand- for an audience that you are totally unfamiliar with (age, gender, race, politics, etc.). And while you may be familiar with some of the readers, once the post gets passed on to a friend of a friend or available to the www public ..the audience issue becomes a slippery slope.

 Blogging can cause you to question friendship with people you thought really had your back and were supportive of your efforts to get your voice heard. After a few conversations with them and not once do they mention ANYTHING that was in any of your last 20 posts, you realize they have not taken the time to even peruse your site. You then begin to question the true nature of this relationship since you can literally make lists of the times you have been there for that person over the years providing money/advice/meals/a shoulder/a ride/late night phone calls/a ride/money..I digress.  There she go….grinding that axe..hmph

Blogging can make you realize what you already know… that ultimately writing is a solitary endeavor…best done in the privacy of one’s home/office/cabin. And only shared when it is finished…in final form… as in A Book.

But… on the other hand…

Blogging can bring together like- minded people who share common interests and who are there to uplift each other as they all struggle to find their Voice. Many Bloggers on WordPress actually read each other’s blogs and post thoughtful comments/questions on their site.

Blogging can inspire, challenge, inform, entertain and even delight the Readers who take the time to read your Blog.

And  finally, for many creative types who suffer from the curse of insomnia, Blogging can give you something to do when the whole world except you and the people in another time zone are all fast asleep.

Does this girl have a man?  She need a boy toy or something!

Bon soir  

 

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD: A Search for Self

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  Some come in with the tide.  Others sail forever on the horizon…That is the life of man.

Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget.  The dream is the truth.

And so the novel opens.  The storyteller begins to weave the tale starting at the end and bringing us back circuitously to the beginning

Janie, dressed in muddy overalls and weary from her journey relates her story to friend Pheoby.  This sharing of her tale is not only an affirmation, but evokes the age old practice of sharing or confessional which has now evolved into the Talk Show. (think Oprah, Ellen, Steve Harvey)

Janie saw her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches”.

We learn that Janie’s journey of self has taken her through three marriages and many struggles.  Walker notes that Eyes is generally thought of as a love story, but its theme, she believes, is Janie’s search for identity which finally takes shape when she throws off the images thrust upon her because she is both black and a woman in a society where neither is allowed to exist naturally and freely.

Literature is replete with stories of this search for identity. The Bildungsroman is a novel that traces the development of character from childhood to adulthood, through a quest for identity that leads the protagonist to maturity.

The story of Siddhartha often comes to mind when I think of the protagonist of Eyes. Like Siddhartha, Janie’s world is full of natural images that symbolize the role of nature in the character’s quest for a better understanding of self.

In trying to decide whether marriage to Logan Killicks and his oft mentioned thirty acres was the answer, Jane was back and forth to the pear tree…continuously wondering and thinking.

She looked to the horizon for answers.  And she soon realized that marriage to the lackluster Mr. Killicks, despite his financial security was not her idea of love. Nanny, however, thinks that marrying Mr. Killicks will be the answer. She tells, Janie.. The ni**er woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see.  Ah been prayin fuh it tuh be different wid you.

But Janie realizes marriage to Mr. Killicks is not the answer. Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. She ends the marriage when she hurries out the front gate and turned South.  Zora writes, Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

Janie’s second husband, the domineering, boastful Joe Starks from in and around Georgy represented newness and change. Janie knew that Joe did not represent sun up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.  To Janie, this represented another rung on the ladder of self fulfillment.

Marriage to Mayor Starks, however, proved to be demoralizing as Janie realized that he wanted her to play the role of the submissive wife keeping her thoughts and opinions to herself…Mah wife don’t know nothing ’bout no speech-making, he tells a crowd.  Ah never married her for nothing lak dat.  She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.

After twenty years, the marriage ends with Joe dying from a longterm  illness, during which he refused to see Janie.  Finally, Janie confronts Joe on his death bed..All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice-dat ain’t why Ah rushed off down de road tuh fund out about you.

At Joe’s funeral, Janie ...starched and ironed her face and came set in.  She sent her face to Joe’s funeral but herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.  Janie’s journey for self discovery continues.

It is here that Zora’s fictional life and real life seem to intersect (this often happens in a novel).  Zora meets and falls in love with the real love of her life.  He was tall, dark brown, magnificiently built with a beautifully modeled back head…And he was an Alpha man. However, Zora notes, she did not fall in love with him because of looks..he had a fine mind and that intrigued me.

He was a man who wanted to do for her...But nothing, she writes..must be in my life but himself.  Zora’s career and fierce independence began to interfere with their relationship. Finally, Zora found escape from the struggle to maintain her ‘self’ in the relationship in the form of a Guggenheim Fellowship.  For two years she was to study/research out of the country.  Eyes was published in 1937 while she was in the Caribbean . She wrote it in only seven weeks.  This was my chance to release him and fight myself free from my obsession.  So I pitched in to work hard on my research to smother my feeling.  

Similarly, Janie’s love affair with Vergible Tea Cakes Woods, an easy going laborer, ten years her junior, represents her fulfillment in a union.  Tea Cakes teaches Janie ...de maiden language all over.  He is man enough to treat her as an equal and they spend their days traveling from job to job working the land, in unison with nature. The novel ends on a bittersweet note as Janie’s dream fades into reality and she realizes the journey one must travel to distinguish role from self.

Many literary critics say that Eyes is the quintessential love story. However, like Zora’s own real life, Eyes is also a story of survival and realization of self. In her autobiography, Zora writes…Be that as it may, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have loved and been loved by the perfect man.  If I never hear of love again, I have known the real thing.

And in true tongue-in-cheek Zora fashion, quips: But pay no attention to what I say about love..it may not mean a thing…Just because my mouth opens up like a prayer book, it does not just have to flap like a Bible.

Love. Life. Identity. Illusion. Reality. Dream. Truth. Roles. Self. Nature. Struggle.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is all this and so much more…just turn the pages.

FOR ZORA

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(Reader, If this appears as one long paragraph, my apologies…working with a new computer and it apparently doesn’t respond to my commands)

This month marks the 125th birthday celebration of literary artist Zora Neale Hurston. Those of you who followed my original blog in 2013-14, know that I am a bonafide Zora Neale Hurston lover.
My first encounter with Zora was in the 90s during my grad school days at ODU where I was one of a few black students enrolled in an AA Lit course. The syllabus of which included the controversial Harlem Renaissance writer. After reading her autobio, Dust Tracks on the Road and then her novel Their Eyes were Watching God, I was hooked. My book budget was soon devoted to purchasing all of her works and a gaggle of literary criticism about her

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I even applied for a goverment grant when the semester ended so I could study more of her writings during my summer off from teaching . My father fondly referred to this practice as “teacher welfare”. And I was a master grant writer back in those days. For six glorious weeks, I read books by and about Zora , communicated in person and online with other Zora devotees and immersed myself in all things Zora.
As we near the end of January, I often find myself re-reading her famous novel, Their Eyes were Watching God (made even ‘famouser’ by Queen Oprah who turned it into a movie). and reflecting on the paradoxical, complex life that was Zora Neale Hurston.
This post will provide some background on Zora and Part 2 will follow next week.

January marks the 125th year of Zora Neale Hurston remembrance.
Appropriately, Zora’s annual celebration in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida is about to ‘jump off’ (last week of January). And perhaps some of you will be inspired to take the trip down 95 to Eatonville, the oldest incorporated Black town in the U.S, OR at least buy/download a copy of Eyes and settle in for a good read.
According to writer, Mary Helen Washington, Zora lived her life ‘half in shadow’. And in referring to herself after viewing a series of her photos, Zora noted:  I love Myself when I am laughing and then again when I am looking Mean and Impressive (this quote later became the title of a Reader edited by Alice Walker).

Walker summed it up:  we love Zora for her work first, and then again (as she and all of Eatonville would say), we love her for herself.
Biographer Robert Hemenway spent seven years and 30,000 miles touring the country trying to gain enough insight to put pen to paper about this paradoxical woman.
So, who, you ask was Zora Neale Hurston?
For 30 years, Zora was the most prolific black woman writer in America. Always curious as a child, Zora wrangled a scholarship from a white benefactor to attend Barnard in 1925. She was the only black student at Barnard at the time.  I became Barnard’s sacrificial animal, she once remarked. After Barnard, Zora evolved into her Self -Becoming a folklorist, anthropologist, novelist, feminist, and cultural revolutionary.
Zora was a complex person, adventure seeking, loved to laugh, throw parties, dance wildly, passionately sexual – a woman before her time. She did not believe in sexist roles. And according to Hemenway, traveled through the South alone with a handgun, a $2 dress, and a suitcase full of courage.
Zora was considered the darling of the Harlem Renaissance. But, conversely, Zora was the first writer to call the Harlem Renaissance literati, the ni**erati.  Alternately heralded and criticized by her contemporaries, Richard Wright accused Zora of… an apolitical approach to art that ignored the toll of racial prejudice. In typical Zora fashion, she responded, “No, I do not weep at the world– I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife”.
Much like a modern day griot (she even wore a headwrap), Zora studied her culture, celebrated the people/traditions and translated all of it for an audience that did not speak her language.  Refusing to separate herself from the common, ordinary porch people of Eatonville, her writing style was rich, full of the oral tradition transformed into written narrative. Zora celebrated the wit and expressive cadences of black cultures throughout the South and the Caribbean (Shapiro).
Alice Walker writes that the language of her characters…that comical ni**er dialect that has been laughed at, denied, ignored or improved so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it..is simply, beautiful.
So, how then did this prolific AA writer who published 4 novels, 2 folkores, an autbio and 50 short stories end up ill and penniless in a Florida welfare home in the late 50s… Dead by age 60, and buried in an unmarked grave in a weed filled segregated cemetery???
Unfortunately, Zora’s struggle for survival as a writer represented the norm for a generation of AA writers prior to the 60s. The sad truth is that she lived in a country that fails to honor its black artists.
Imagine this, one of her stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post while Zora was working as a maid in New York! Alice Walker surmised that without money of one’s own in a capitalistic society, there is no such thing as independence. Amen to that!

Zora’s life is truly a cautionary tale.
In a final tribute to honor her spiritual mentor, Alice Walker, in 1973, traveled to the cemetary in Fort Pierce, Florida and put a tombstone in the area of Zora’s grave.
The tombstone read “A Genius of the South”, a line from poet Jean Toomer.

(Part 2, a literary essay of Their Eyes were Watching God that I authored several years ago..will follow next week).
Hmph…there she go tooting her own horn again..
Thank you for reading/commenting/sharing!