My grandmother taught me how to be “black woman”.
Out loud, she taught me that being black woman meant making the best caramel cake in the entire congregation. I remember that lesson perhaps the most clearly. Poking my head into her room every fifteen minutes for a couple of hours, nervously tugging my uncomfortable pantyhose around my chubby thighs, asking “Is the cake cool enough to ice now Grandma? I know I just asked but it’s been, like, forever.”
Being black woman meant sitting on the itchy carpet of our living room every Sunday (silently weeping) while she carefully worked a comb through my tangled curls. She taught me through tea parties, long flowered dresses, big church hats, and fake pearls. Through afternoons spent clipping the ends off of string beans, through “I know it’s an awful lot of sugar, what else do you think is gonna make it taste good?”, through fans wagging in church pews, through attitude as spicy as her collard greens, and through taking no shit, from no one, never. She taught me through speaking up, holding her place in line, getting what she asked for, being hard, and being heard. Basically, my grandma taught me badassery.
And there are things my grandma taught me quietly. I learned from my grandma that being black woman meant a whole lot of tears. I learned the quiet, loving rage with which she replied to every letter she received from any of her sons in prison.
Being black woman, my grandma taught me, meant building an empire. Seven-children strong, dressing beautiful black babies in pure white bonnets and teaching them royalty, having them photographed often, even and especially when she could not afford it, swearing all of her matriarchal queendom into existence, and watching the neighborhood swallow black baby after beautiful black baby. Watching systems of oppression steal from her what she fought every day to build.
On Monday, Freddie Gray was laid down to rest.
I think of my Grandma in her deaconess uniform. I didn't know her back then, but she used to be almost six feet tall, judging by the photographs. I think of the too many black folks my grandma laid to rest, the too many funeral services she had to wag her fan at, the too many funeral hymns she knows by heart.
I heard it so often from my grandma, and from my mom, and from so many beautiful, regal black women in my life that it never seemed strange to me. “If anyone hurts you, I will be in prison the next day.” That unquestionable rage, that’s black woman.
A while ago, a lot of posters were put up on dorm doors with lines from poems that I can’t help but assume many of the inhabitants of those dorms never bothered to read. One was “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith, in which Smith says, “& isn’t that what being black is about?/ not the joy of it, but the feeling/ you get when you are looking/ at your child, turn your head,/ then poof, no more child./ that feeling, that’s black.”
I don’t understand all that much about black femininity. I worry, often at poetry slams, that I’m not doing this whole “black woman” thing right. Then again, if I am getting something right about this whole “black woman” thing, it is the worry.
When black people get killed, my white Facebook friends from home get to be upset about riots. They get to post videos of black people weeping, and shouting, and setting shit on fire and call it foolishness, quietly tsk-ing their tongues and shaking their heads from the safety of their dorm rooms. They get to believe the newscasters and feel bad for all those poor, poor windowpanes and police cars and doorknobs that are clearly the main victims of police brutality. Meanwhile, I’m starting to look a lot like my grandma, rocking silently in front of my laptop as she did in front of the radio, or the stove, waiting for all her babies to come home.
On Monday, I went to a reading by Claudia Rankine for her newest book, “Citizen: An American Lyric” which is a very important book about living through a lifetime of racist microagressions, and how those microagressions are the same violence that leads to black people being killed, and the astonishing rates of violence against black transwomen, queer people of color, and people of color in general. She was introduced by two white women, both of whom talked about their sorrow over this terrible “year” of injustice. When black people get killed, white people get to talk about this “year” of injustice. This one year.
I was expecting Claudia Rankine, the author, to be a fierce, relentless, lighthouse of a woman. Like my grandma, like what I understand of black femininity. But as I watched her speak about this book to a completely packed room of people of whom about six were people of color, I was generally dissatisfied by the gap between the voice I heard in her writing and the catering, pleasant, “giving all these white academics a space to laugh while a photo of a lynching is on the screen,” voice I heard in the room. I started to think about my grandma, and how she used to be six-feet-tall, and I understand how age and arthritis work but I also understand the weight of constant trauma on a black woman.
My grandma is old, y’all. She’s a gentle, lovely lady. She is also fiery as hell. If I talked to her about Freddie Gray, or the list of black men and boys who have been killed by cops this year, she could give me a list as many times longer as she is older than one year. If I talked to her about Mya Hall, or the long list of black trans women who have been killed by cops this year, the long list of black people of all other genders who have been killed by cops this year, the angry, fiery tears she would hold back, the clenched jaw—
That. That’s what my grandma has taught me about black feminism. And I don’t think my grandma condones all this “black violence” against all these inanimate objects. But I also don’t think she gives a shit. Her babies are dying.
Madison E. Johnson ’18 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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