Teach them while they are young
In my estimation as a four-year-old, my grandmother, who was a nurse/nursing instructor/caterer and home economics teacher, knew everything about everything and everyone knew her. Her name said it all, everyone from my dad (her son) to the neighbors called her “Chief”. Shopping in the supermarket was one of our favorite activities; second only to eating out, trying new foods and then critiquing the chef’s execution. While out shopping invariably someone from the Black community would stop her and say hello. She had taken care of or taught many of them in her various jobs as a college campus nurse, and as a nurse at a segregated hospital. At her wake I found out that she had attended the deliveries of Black women who could not afford to go to the hospital.
Looking back, our quick runs to the supermarket were never actually quick runs – the prep always involved her scouring the daily paper, while drinking her morning coffee, to determine which supermarkets had the best sales and from that she would design her weekly menu. Subconsciously, she was teaching me how to survive, how to help others to do the same, and how to feed myself our traditional Louisiana Creole foods, all while being open to new tastes and the flavors of the world.
My grandmother’s personality was warm, compassionate and generous, while at the same time she suffered no fools and only had one good nerve for those who dared test it – drawing her ire along with a thorough tongue lashing. My grandmother and grandfather (himself a self-taught radio personality and photojournalist who documented African-American life in the 1950’s and 1960’s) were my earliest teachers, babysitters and playmates. Along with Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Mr. Rodgers I watched Madame Butterfly, the Iran Contra hearings, tagged along with them to vote and attended lectures at the local university about notable African-Americans, such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. It was a rich environment for a little person’s developing brain.
In my tiny world of grandparents, parents, neighbors, and extended family there existed a clear matriarchy. Almost all of my daily needs were met thanks to the women in my family who ran the show, and in which the men played loving, supportive roles. I couldn’t have thought of a reason as to how the world could be any different. I had no concept of their degradation in American society and the daily microaggressions they suffered at the hands of white women and men of all kinds. Both my mother and grandmother were divorcées from extremely religious families who quit the men who tried to dim their light and then remarried men who were supportive and who fully embraced them. My mother and paternal grandmother rejected their parents’ pressure to pursue “suitable” careers as teachers, but rather ventured onto a path unknown and with no role models to reference.
In all my days, thanks to both my grandmother’s and mother’s presence and influence, I never got the impression that my life was at all dependent on the approval of men. While Betty Friedan was sitting down to pen The Feminine Mystique, decades prior the women in my family had already found their voice and power.
My matriarchal legacy made me a womanist, a term beautifully defined by Alice Walker as a Black feminist who focuses on destroying the oppression of Black women, while simultaneously fighting for the liberation of all women. This is the thread that runs through everything that I do, every choice I make and every hope I have for the future.
I look again to the deep and meaningful words of other womanists for a way to verbalize my own confrontation with the patriarchy and the women who subscribe to it. Audre Lorde writes, “Black women give our children forth into a hatred that seared our own young days with bewilderment, hoping we have taught them something they can use to fashion their own new and less costly pathways to survival.” My grandmother and mother taught me to continually fight for my liberation and the liberation of their granddaughter, their great granddaughter and, indeed, all women. They prepared me from birth by giving me an apt, difficult name like the poets Shire and Xango recommend. My name means the pool below a waterfall – one who knows no fear with the pronouns she/her/Dr./Ms., but not Mrs.