Snapshots: Black Women’s Stories
Storytelling is powerful. They shape the way we view ourselves, others, and the world.I have interviewed three black grandmothers as a way of addressing (on a local scale) Black women’s erasure in history and invisibility in the present. In the context of the coronavirus that all of our stories are unravelling in, I want to take a moment to make use of masks in a metaphorical sense. We all wear them. We tell ourselves they protect us from the world. However, I believe storytelling uncovers the disguises we hide behind and allows us to see each other in our authentic form.
With that being said, I would like to introduce Helen Keyes….
Book: Waiting to Exhale
Ms. Keyes was born in North Carolina and moved to New York at 7. She was an only child with two working parents. She originally wanted to go to nursing school but her fear of blood brought up a slight problem. So she worked in daycares and as a nanny. She stood by her dad through 3 strokes and had to drop out of college to raise her daughter on her own working multiple jobs.
When I asked how she was able to persevere she told me about her grandfather, how he was enslaved and sold for a bag of flour. She said,“knowing that story helped me be strong.” I realized in this moment that we operate from different timelines, in the fact that we project different distances on to the past. This explains the dissonance in our culture of how we engage with each other in the present and the disconnect in how we choose to step into the future.
Advice: “Love yourself more than anything else in life.”
Book: Little Women
Ms. Hairston was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She retired in Malvern, Pennsylvania after teaching for 38 years. She was inspired to become a teacher by Ms. Lee, her 5th grade teacher, who would not let the brown and black students go to the bathroom. During lunch, this teacher would hold her sandwich high taunting the kids who couldn’t afford it. Ms. Hairston said, “I wanted to be a teacher because I knew all children had value.”
Ms. Harirston was the type of teacher that arrived first and left last. She treated all her students with respect, but she especially made sure the ones who were dismissed in every other space in their life knew they were worth it. She empowered and inspired them to dream bigger in a world that told them they were hopeless. For this reason, she still has students who come visit her and tell her the impact she had on their life.
Advice: “Carry yourself with dignity, have your own mind, and stand firm in what is best for you.”
Ms. Grady has lived in D.C. her whole life. She told me, “it's a blessing to reach 70 because you never know.” She has 10 siblings and a dream of becoming a model but became a mother before her last year of highschool. I asked her how she was able to persevere. She told me,“I thought about my ancestors and what they did and I stood on their shoulders and I didn't want to let them down. I knew I had to make it for myself and my child.” She ended up rising up the ranks in the federal government. She took her civil service exam on a typewriter, started as a Gs2 and retired a Gs12.
Her white counterparts rose through the system faster despite her higher credentials. She took IBM classes and got other certificates to hone her skills in addition to working. When I asked her what black women she felt were slept on, she said, “we celebrate celebrities but I’m talking about the women like my sister and my mom who weren’t celebrated, that woke up at 5, the common woman deserves to be celebrated. They didn’t have money, they had that firm foundation.”
Advice: “Don’t stop what you’re doing, speak out but do so with the generation behind you in mind. When you open that door, open that door knowing you’ve done the work, you did what you knew was right. If you're gonna go to war make sure you're ready for battle. Know your rights and be careful.”
I hope you have been inspired by these snapshots and the beautiful, diverse ways these women navigate spaces with confidence and freedom when there are so many forces trying to kill their spirit. The next time you are in the same space with someone who is different in some way, take a minute to listen and you might be surprised at what you find. But remember, this is not about applauding these women as heroes but treasuring them as humans.