There have always been strong black women in American literature. Black life has been a struggle. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…,” says, Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. To make it, these women heralded strength and honesty, and a belief in God, who will reward. Some of my favorite black literary matriarchs have said things that I have already known in my heart because my mothers said it to me first.
In Thank You M’am by Hughes, Luella Washington Bates Jones, who has snagged a little boy who tried to snatch her large purse, says, “‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No’m,’ said the being dragged boy. ‘I just want you to turn me loose.’ ‘Was I bothering you when I turned that corner?’ asked the woman. ‘No’m.’ ‘But you put yourself in contact with me,’ said the woman. ‘If you think that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Washington Bates Jones.’” My mom was just like that. She wouldn’t let you go until you were set straight. I’ve been to her funeral and they didn’t forget her.
Strong, hard lessons are taught in black literature. Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, wrote truth in her poem, The Mother – “Abortions will not let you forget./You remember the children you got that you did not get,/ The damp small pulps with a little or no hair,/ The singers and workers that never handled the air.” Even though I never had an abortion, I knew truth when I read it. You see, the black women, that I have known, have always been truthful, straightforward, and honest. My grandmother would say truth to me and then say, “So now you know that much.”
And they sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired; I am weak; I am worn,” – my dad’s mom’s favorite song – “Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.” She sang it like they were her words. Strong. Resilient. Mahalia’s His Eye Is On the Sparrow. Cynthia Eviro’s rendition of I’m Here. Lena’s Believe In Yourself. These women’s truthfulness and strength have always worked to keep me/us together. Toni Morrison described this strength-giving in Beloved, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you have a woman who is a friend of your mind.” My blood sisters always put me back together. I have sister-friends of all colors who have done the same.
I have had strong literary women and literal women in my head. Mama said, “Tomorrow is another day and it can be better.” Maya Angelou said, “Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise/I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,/welling and swelling I bear in the tide/Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/I rise.” In the scriptures Esther said, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
How can I be weak? My fight has been minuscule and my training has been deep. It’s simply my hope that I have passed on a few honest words of strength to the hearts and minds of others who struggle. Keep climbin’. And remember, it’s only temporary. “Precious Lord, take my hand…”
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