Editor’s note: We cannot take Black women for granted.
In Memphis and across the country, Black women have been on the forefront of liberatory movements that reimagine justice and survival while holding space for each other at home and on the streets. Their multitudes in motion inspire us always, but especially in a year like this one, marked with so much pain and struggle. Writer Celeste Williams and MLK50’s visuals director Andrea Morales brought together words and images from Memphis as an offering of gratitude to these women.
I am a Black woman.
It is a fact that colors and shades all of my thoughts and reflections. The poem that begins this essay is one written by my late mother, Leah Keturah Pollard Williams, 35 years ago. It is penned in her hand, in an otherwise blank book left among her personal items I gathered after her death.
Mom would have been 91 this month.
If I could talk to her, I would tell her that I have done a lot of Black Woman Thinking in this Year of Pandemic, this Year of Racial Reckoning, this Year of Personal Reflection, this Year of Years.
I have studied my history; I know there have been times such as these before. While each person exists in one’s own time, like the universe, time constantly merges and collides, stretches and comes apart and comes back together — a “comingtogetherness,” that poet Mari Evans has written about in her poem, “Who Can Be Born Black?”
As I watch from my perch of quarantine, I virtually walk alongside my mother and my sisters, and watch us march, suffer, cry, rejoice, run, faint, laugh, lead, grow, bend, break. I have read our words, and read about us; and find myself swelling with unspeakable pride of how beautiful and resilient we are.
Ladies, we move and speak like poetry.
My thoughts swirl and dance. I mine those imaginings for something profound to share. My musings settle on Juneteenth, a celebration of dreams lost and found; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who made up for lost time.
Like the enslaved people in Texas who were informed in 1865 that the proclamation freeing them from servitude had been signed three years earlier, Mrs. Hamer, the wife of a sharecropper, learned for the first time in 1962 that black people could vote.
It was a revelation. She was 44 years old.
Mrs. Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and vowed to register to vote for the first time. She recounted her experiences in riveting testimony before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
She recounted being jailed, severely beaten and left permanently scarred. She said:
Mrs. Hamer became a full-on activist, and even ran for office. She died in 1977. She was just 59.
She is my hero, this amazing woman who was willing to lay her body in the breach for her convictions. I stood in line for 3 ½ hours and she steadied my hand as I voted.
Millions of us walked with Mrs. Hamer when we voted. If voting is a muscle, we exercised it. We stood on line, in the hot sun, the cold wind and rain, with our lawn chairs and umbrellas, canes and walkers, and we mailed our ballots with a prayer.
And with our will and power, we turned this election.
Still, I find myself in tears about what we as black women are expected to endure because we have exhibited such warrior-like strength.
Black women carry. That’s what we do.
Pick up that load, woman. Because you have to. If it seems heavy, foist it onto your head. You’ve seen the pictures of African women carrying loads like this, with a baby strapped just above the curve of the hip. We know these women. They are our mothers, our aunties, our grand-mamas, our sisters.
Carry your family. Are they hungry? Find sustenance for them, even if it means standing in line for dented cans, mac & powdered cheese, and noodles that stretch a casserole for an extra day. Bend, sister. But try not to break.
Run without fainting, walk without weariness, it says somewhere in the Bible, right?
But we are weary. We are often unsteady. We die… too soon.
I know; it feels sometimes like it is not OK to cry, because there is not time. There is work to do. We are warriors, with our bodies as armament.
And they know that. When we go into the streets, raising our voices and our fists, we are met with forces dressed in real armor, wielding clubs and guns. They spray gas that makes our tears flow even more than they already have.
If they think that level of sheathing is necessary to suppress us, we must be fierce. But they have to know that their violent response to us further stiffens our spines.
They carry us away by our arms and our legs as if we are sacks of produce or roped calves — not human beings. After letting her violently pierced body lay for hours, they carried Breonna away in a body bag.
“Our Now. Our Future. March For Our Black Children.” It is more than a slogan across our breasts. There is a reason we dress our children and bring them with us while we march.
See those trans women? We fight for them, too.
I look into the faces of sisters at the front of protests, raising fists high, their manicured nails pressing into the soft flesh of their palms. Their hair in dreads or braids, or flattened and curled extensions, or day-glo colors.
See, we have heard about self-care, and Lord, we try. Woman, I see those long eyelashes, the glitter shining at your breast-bone, the shea butter glistening on your bicep as your fist stabs the air. I see the hoops in your ears, and the rings on your fingers and piercings in your nose.
Your mask often covers your mouth, but you are not silenced. You have represented. Your hand-painted and lettered signs mark the names you want to shout; the questions you have: Why is my death always justified?
Breonna, George, Ahmaud, Trayvon, Tamir, Emmett… Who have I forgotten? Who have we forgotten? Mothers still say the names of their babies gone before them — gone, in an order that does not seem right.
We Black women, women of color and of colors want this year to be gone. We don’t want to die. We want to celebrate something more than, just surviving — as poet Lucille Clifton wrote, “…everyday something has tried to kill us and failed.”
We want to live.
We want to be seen.
We want to be heard.
The year 2020 is gonna go. But we want the lessons of this fraught time to remain, names of the lost to remain a testimony on our lips.
Don’t despair. There is movement. There is a movement. Our Black lives do matter.
Sister-woman, our marching is the continuation of our awakening to a freedom we already know is our right.
It is our Juneteenth. Celebrate it. Now. And for-ever.
Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.