It was a picture of Shirley Chisholm that started my obsession with old pictures of women of color. She doesn’t have the cheekbones of Lena Horne, but to me she is the absolute picture of beauty. Perhaps not by society’s typical standards, but she was unyielding courage and intelligence personified. Mostly she was life personified… LIFE! And for me, she was everything.
Like many women of color, who I am can be defined in many ways. There’s a little bit of Irish and Cherokee on my family tree several generations back, but for many years I presented solely to the world as a young black woman, a black face flattened by outside cultural norms and identities. My identity, however, is much richer than the simple fact of my skin color. Marriage has grafted Ukrainian, Puerto Rican and Japanese branches onto my family tree and my childhood blossomed with borsht, salsa music and sushi. It wasn’t until middle school that I started to address this cognitive dissonance and ask myself who I am as a woman – and a black woman – in this family made up of many cultures.
Kids will look for anything to tease you about. For me, it was the music I listened to and the way I spoke that offered me up for derision as not being black enough. So I questioned my blackness, something I would do for many years until I started to see the truer picture of who I am as a woman, and as a black woman.
It was those pictures of black women – strong, talented, beautiful, complicated women – that gave me a road map to owning my own history, and a shared history.
Joining Shirley are Eartha, Ella, Billie, Dinah, and dozens of starlets who didn’t make the big time. And there’s Angela Davis (to whom I owe my name), and Sojourner Truth, and Maya Angelou. There’s Cathay Williams, who was the first black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army; she served as a Buffalo soldier after the Civil War under the pseudonym William Cathay, presenting as a man in order to serve our country. There’s Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights activist, lawyer, judge and state senator who wrote the original complaint for the Brown v. Board of Education, and was the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. And there’s Mary Church Terrell, who was one of the first black women to attain a college degree, and who worked on civil rights issues alongside Frederick Douglas, who was a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, and a founder of the NAACP.
There are my aunts, grandmothers stretching back generations (including my maternal grandmother who raised eight boys and two girls on her own) and my mother – my beautiful, strong mother – all smiling back at me in pictures. All these women, from world famous to famous just to me, have taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: there is nothing about being a woman of color that makes me ‘less than.’ Nothing. Where I get my strength and my identity is not from a narrow definition of what others think, but from the strong women I come from.
In fact, all those influences – culinary and musical, literary and cultural, familial and spiritual – are good, rich, glittering gifts that only add to me. They shine on me, and through me. There is not one thing about those influences, coupled with my own unique experiences, that does anything but add to me. It’s a history that lays about my shoulders and enfolds me. The voices of those women – sometimes just one, often in concert – are in my head when I’m phone banking in Florida, or organizing in Mississippi, or on a conference call with activists in Ohio and Wisconsin. Those voices whisper wisdom to me as I parent my 11 y.o. twins with my wife, and as I continue to grow myself.
As we begin Black History Month, I have the words of Rumi in my head, “Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the roots.”
I am grateful for the roots – the grounding – of all those women in my life… because they make the tree that I am.