This essay has been in and out of my head for months. I have intended to write down these words in praise of black women as they flow in and out of my life, in and out of my mind, in and out of my heart, perhaps for years. Black women shaped my childhood, my young adulthood, my education, my relationship to television, and my relationship to reading. They influenced my love life and my role as a mother. I haven’t written this essay until now because I never felt like I could do it justice. The words could just never be right enough. I’m still not sure they are.
I have been living in a fog for two weeks since my baby got a fever from her vaccine, my oldest got a cold, then my baby got the cold, all the while I have been writing content for clients and working on projects outside of my own personal writing, my own personal website.
And I finished everything up last night. All my major projects are complete, I have no pressing work to do, and to be honest, I feel a little empty.
“What do I do now?” I asked myself this morning. I took the girls to Costco to restock our bare cupboards, and I started cleaning the house I have neglected for far too long.
“What could I write about?” I thought. It has been over a week since I have written for my site, and while I have a million ideas for pieces, I wasn’t feeling struck by inspiration. My muse is as exhausted as I am.
And then she came back and hit me on the head as the placard scrolled up my Instagram feed.
It’s Black History Month!
I read a post on Linked In earlier in the day that listed about a dozen “heroes” that overcame impossible odds, people considered “crazy” for pursuing their passions, for fighting for justice, for amazing feats. You know the list: Ghandi, Einstein, MLK Jr., Amelia Earheart, and so on.
I do give credit to the post for including a black man and at least a few women (all white).
But there was not one black woman on the list.
Not even Oprah?
Not even Oprah.
And I wanted to respond; I so wanted to comment, to list all of the inspirational black women in history who have overcome impossible odds, who have been labeled “crazy,” who have kept going when anyone else would have given up. Harriet Tubman, anyone? Recy Taylor?
And it made me start to think about who I would choose, if I had to choose one of the black women among the many who inspired me throughout history.
My mind landed on Alice Walker, and it lingered, and it stayed there.
I was very young, only 7, when The Color Purple was released as a major motion picture. We had HBO in my house, so the movie played on loop as HBO does with movies when they are first released on television.
I fell in love.
Up to that point, the girls who had been kindest to me had been the black girls who lived across the street from us. They were a big family, four sisters in all, and they were all older than me.
Shaun was the oldest, probably 13 or 14, and she invited me over to play. I was merely 4. We played in our court, on their lawn, and around our neighborhood. They were kind to me, a lonely little girl whose parents were going through a horrid divorce and whose mother was busy surviving and caring for an infant.
These girls laughed and loved and played and shared, and they taught me what it meant to be friends.
Meanwhile, on television, Shug was coming in and out of Celie’s life in The Color Purple, teaching Celie to smile, to love, to laugh, to sing, and to find her voice and her truth.
My earliest memories were shaped by black women. And Alice Walker played a huge role in those memories.
Before The Color Purple, I didn’t know anything about racism, I didn’t know about slavery or sharecropping. And Alice Walker introduced me to all of this, along with the wonders and the complexities of black life, a way of life I knew nothing about.
The Color Purple tells stories of love and struggle, of Africa and African Americans, of religion and a corrupt justice system. You simply cannot come away from this movie and not be deeply moved.
And I was, and I was 7.
In middle school I was poor, I had holes in my shoes, my clothes smelled like smoke because my parents smoked, a lot, in the house.
I was ridiculed.
My middle school was made up of primarily white, Mexican, and black kids. The white girls ignored me; by this time they had realized that I didn’t have money for cheerleading and weekend trips away to cabins and boat trips. I couldn’t run in their circles. I couldn’t run. So they left me behind without a backward glance.
The Mexican girls loathed me. They were beautifully hard girls with thick black eyeliner and crunchy hair. They pulled my hair in the hallways and pushed me back and forth between them like a pinball in a maniacally laughing machine.
In the middle of my seventh grade year one new girl to the school became a particular target for these girls. They found her alone after school one day, and they beat her up. They beat her so bad, throwing her to the ground and kicking her in the crotch repeatedly, that she needed stitches.
“That could have been me,’ I thought. “That still could be me,” I thought.
But for some unfathomable reason, a group of black girls took me in. One girl in particular, LaSaundra (Nani), befriended me, defended me, and led the group of girls to protect me. I stayed overnight at her house for sleepovers, we walked home after school together, and we maintained a tight friendship for years.
I remember her mother one night after a bad experience with a black boy from school, an experience I’ve written about previously, introduced me to the concept of the white girl as “victim.” I knew from that moment on that I never wanted to be that girl. I was a very early intersectional feminist because of Nani’s mother.
Those girls saved me, molded me, and are a primary cause of my studies later in life in Black History, my love of hip hop, my lifelong love affair (mostly from afar – I’m looking at you Idris Elba) with black men, my deep interest in Black Literature, and, yes, my survival instinct.
As a grown woman, my appreciation for black women has only grown as my understanding of black life became more academic and more mature. In college, I took social justice classes and studied Black Literature and Culture.
I discovered Nina Simone and Etta James. I fell in love with Zora Neale Hurston and found myself right back at the beginning of my journey.
Zora Neale Hurston could only be on my syllabus, could only write to me from the Harlem Renaissance, could only tell me Janie’s story in Their Eyes Were Watching God because Alice Walker clawed Hurston’s legacy from out of obscurity. Talk about sisterhood.
Once again, Walker gave me a gift that just kept on giving. If The Color Purple showed me on the big screen black women’s experiences, Their Eyes Were Watching God reveled a depth of emotion in the Reconstruction life of one black woman that made me feel like I was wading through the Everglades with Janie and TeaCake. I was in the floodwaters; I was watching my beloved become ravaged by rabies.
From Hurston I then discovered Toni Morrison and raced through her opus, and as the years went by, I discovered more black women authors, poets, historians, scientists to be in awe of. And not just for their accomplishments, but for their continued perseverance in the face of almost outright indifference.
From the time I was 7 to the current day, I have developed more and more appreciation for what Black Pride means, and how black women so often get left out of that narrative.
Zora Neale Hurston said that the black woman is the mule of society. White men shit on white women and black men, and then black men and white women shit on black women. Black women find themselves always somehow at the bottom of the pile.
And still they rise.
Some of the most magnificent, most powerful, and somehow still the most loving and most open hearted people on earth, I have found, are black women.
Black women have contributed to our way of life as a world without receiving any recognition, much less praise, for centuries.
Rosa Parks gave us a movement. Henrietta Lacks gave us her DNA. Michelle Alexander gives us her knowledge. Michelle Obama gave us her husband.
We, white people, have paraded black women out as objects to be loathed and lusted after. We have used and discarded, we have appropriated and underappreciated black women’s lives, their art, their voices, their value.
Throughout my life, I have met and been honored to be friends with amazing, gracious, loving black women. Nani from middle school; Calani from high school; my longtime friend K from my community college days, my newer friend Dee who began by putting up with my blabbering as our children played soccer. To honor just a few.
So let us stand in praise of black women.
Black women have influenced science and math, literature and history, film and music.
Black women have acted as the canary in the coal mine, warning us of danger, telling us truths we don’t want to hear. They are our Cassandra, boldly sharing predictions and prophesies that we refuse to believe.
And each time I wonder why the hell they continue to put up with us when we continue to let them down.
But I guess that is a story for them to tell.
I’m just hear to listen.