March is Women’s History Month and as always, we can expect to hear unending conversations about or analyses of the lives of women who have made a difference in our homes, communities and the world.
Some of these women bear names that are well known, even to children in elementary school who find themselves searching for a woman who inspires them and about whom they can write in that obligatory essay.
It’s easy to call the roll: Mae Jemison, Shirley Chisholm, Marian Anderson, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey, Althea Gibson, Phillis Wheatley and Michelle Obama. In fact, it’s safe to say that teachers will grow red-eyed and weary after reading version upon version of first-time compositions about the accomplishments these women achieved in their lives despite the odds they faced being Black women in America.
But most of the women who have really mattered in our lives – or at least in my life – have rarely made the evening news with Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings.
Few, if any of the women integral to our development and instrumental in our own successes have been showcased on the front page of The New York Times. Even the local newspapers in the cities where these “phenomenal women” made their mark, or in some cases continue to make a difference, have given these women their just due.
Yet, the older I become, the more I understand that stardom and praise was never the motivation for why the special women in my life did the things they did.
In fact, with the death of my own mother almost two years ago, which coincided with an unprecedented health pandemic and a surge in domestic violence and heated partisan politics that still threaten to topple our republic, I am amazed at how the ordinary women in my life did such extraordinary things.
While I could easily compile a list of the “sheroes” in my life, I find it more prudent to talk about the things they did, the difficult roads they traveled and the little miracles they accomplished. In this way, I believe that they serve as reflections of the kinds of women that others may remember from their own journeys as well.
Turning back the clock 50 years ago when I was little Black boy often teased by other children because I was a bookworm, intellectually astute and preferred reading books or playing piano over shooting hoops or tossing footballs, I could always count on my mother’s encouragement.
She would say they’re simply jealous. They wish they had the gifts that God has given you. They don’t want you to be the “you” that you’re meant to be.
It isn’t easy to go against the grain or to refuse to yield to the normative boxes in which society seeks to place little boys and girls. In my case, however, my mother helped me find my own voice, secure my own path and develop my own sense of self. I learned to love who I was.
This is what phenomenal mothers – phenomenal women – have done for ages.
Some of the women in my life experienced pain, disappointment and anguish that I cannot fathom. Several of my aunts and adopted mothers were victims of domestic violence in an age when those things simply weren’t discussed – particularly among children. I say them carry the scars. And yet, they always loved the children in their midst fiercely and without reservation.
Others would survive multiple miscarriages – desperately attempting to make their husbands proud by becoming fathers but unable to bring a child to term. And their men would seek companionship elsewhere – deflated or discouraged – as if their wives wanted to lose their children. I didn’t understand.
Some would face frequent abuse and discouragement by the men in their world who believed that women were second-class citizens, there to serve their needs and desires. And I wondered, didn’t those women have needs and desires – dreams – of their own?
And yet, these women, the women who sheltered me from the storms, who wiped my tears when mental or physical pain was at its highest and who walked with me when I felt most alone, seemed to do so almost instinctively. Somehow, my mother, my grandmothers, my mother-in-law, my aunts and older cousins, my adopted sister – even my longtime babysitter and my favorite piano teacher – all knew what I was feeling in my soul. And they poured out their love to help me make it, one day at a time.
I’m sure most of us have watched achievement programs like the Grammy Awards or sports championships like the Super Bowl and heard entertainers and athletes, one after another, thank God and then thank their mothers. Sometimes, they haven’t even mentioned God. But Mom was certainly saluted.
I must admit, for a long time every time someone would give a shout out to their mother, I would experience a tinge of jealousy.
Why didn’t they thank their fathers, or uncles, or brothers, or grandfathers? Why were the women of their lives always given such thanks, love, praise and gratitude for all the world to see and hear?
Now I understand the many reasons why.