The Strong Black Woman (To Know Almeda, NancyLee, and All of Us)
October 11, 2020. 2:16PM.
What makes a Strong Black Woman? Are we not blessed to know us?
The story was told to me as the following-
In 1918, my great-grandfather and his friend were working on a roof when the Ku Klux Klan became hostile towards them. A fight broke out and my great-grandfather and his friend fled. That night, the KKK arrived at the carpenter’s house and murdered him, his wife, and his son. The KKK came for my great-grandfather the next day and he had already fled town dressed in women’s clothing and a wig. His whereabouts were unknown and my family was spared. My great-grandfather stopped in Virginia, then migrated to Detroit and found a job with the City of Detroit. He worked until he earned enough money to send for my great-grandmother (who was pregnant) and the family, who had moved to Hopewell, VA. My great- grandmother Maggie had her tenth child in Virginia on route to Detroit. Later, my great-grandfather Damon, died of the swine flu in 1921, leaving behind my great-grandmother Maggie and ten children.
Who was my grandmother, Almeda? She was born in 1916 in South Carolina and the 9th of ten children, raised in Detroit, and well-known as an athlete. This was after her brother Hiem (Herman) saved enough money to pay for my grandmother’s surgery to correct an accident that resulted third degree burns on both of her legs.
In 1934, my grandmother, Almeda attended Bennett College in Greensboro, NC on a full academic and athletic scholarship. Bennett’s women’s basketball team didn’t lose a game in the four years when she started and played as a shooting guard.
Almeda graduated and started her teaching career in the public-school system in Asheville, NC where she met my grandfather, Arthur. They married on Christmas Day in 1941 and my grandfather, a Warrant Officer in the Army, went overseas during WWII. My grandfather returned and my grandparents had three children- my Uncle Spike, dad, and Aunt Judy. Later, my grandmother taught in the public-school system in Richmond, VA and later in Durham, NC. My grandfather worked as an accountant for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance in Downtown Durham for over 40 years. The legacy that the two left behind still lives in Durham, on Parish Street on the former Black Wall Street, near Hayti and all up and down Red Oak Avenue.
Both of my grandparents passed away in 2000. My grandparents were married for 58 years.
In another life, my grandmother was an Olympic athlete, collecting medals and accolades. She would be a professor, author of many novels; her name would grace the signs of many important buildings in Detroit, Richmond, and Durham. I imagine my grandfather would have enjoyed storytelling, lecturing young Black men, tutoring, and owning his own afterschool academy. He was known to be quiet, but I remember him hidden behind the newspapers whenever we visited. Segregation and oppression aside, I imagine he would own a Black owned newspaper and encourage young people to read.
But we all know that our success is not in all we do, but who we are.
There are generations of trauma in my family’s bloodline, but we are not victims. The stories passed down to me are stories that live deep within my blood and that is what gives me strength.
I was seven years old when my grandfather left this earth and eight years old when my grandmother passed away. My mother told me I could wear whatever I wanted to the funeral. I chose the yellow dress my grandmother bought me. I still remember my mother explaining that I didn’t have to only wear black to funerals. “What do you think your grandmother would wear?” My little brother, cousin, and I played outside in the grass outside of the B. N. Duke Auditorium on the campus of North Carolina Central University. My father gave a speech and wiped away tears, while holding his notes written on yellow sticky notes, notepad always tucked into a suit jacket or back pocket. I think my mother sang Amazing Grace.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a Strong Black Woman in the way that my grandmother was strong. My mother is from Portland, Oregon, and there is a different world in the miles separating Portland and Durham.
My mother taught me compassion. Kindness. Grace. She taught me empathy; she taught me patience. She gave me songs, her guitar, journals, short stories, phrases, and a way of being that I still am unable to explain. My mother taught me how to navigate the world and take up space anywhere around the world. I am still learning from her and she is still surprising me. Years ago at 3AM in New Orleans bar, I learned that she knows sign language when she leaned over the table to sign at a couple sitting tables away. “She says they’re just friends, but I agree with you Tianna, they’re cute together.” The couple waved and smiled at us.
My mother let me read Harry Potter books with little objection. When Black parents in the South became overly concerned that J.K. Rowling was exposing young children to witchcraft thanks to the Black Church, my mother laughed and asked if I believed in Harry Potter. I told her no and she looked at me, sitting there engrossed in a four-hundred-page novel at the age of 11 and laughed harder. She knew I was lying. She never asked again, even though my friends and I stole brooms and played Quidditch in the backyard. When my mom let me watch the movie Crossroads by Britney Spears in 2002, my older cousin in Seattle was furious.
Dear Mom. Yes! Yes, I believe in Harry Potter and I’m almost 30.
Thank you for always letting me be myself.
My mother introduced me to her eclectic friends who were gay, diverse, lesbian, Muslim, liberal, trans, conservative, and all the many intersections of life. There was the friend who was from India and an architect. The musician! The writer! The yoga teacher! The healer! The designer! The artists! All had different professions, some hated their jobs and approached life sarcastically- they gave the best advice. Others were living out their passions. Others were small business owners. Some had tattoos and nose rings and cursed a lot. Some chose not to have children. Some spoke other languages. Some allowed me to call them by their first name. Some wore makeup and some grabbed their stomach and made funny faces at me in the mirror. Some prayed to one God, a few Gods, and others believed in nothing but themselves.
Even though I was raised in the South, my mother’s upbringing in the Pacific Northwest and adulthood in California allowed her to navigate the world in a way where she could have white friends. Friends of different backgrounds. This didn’t mean that she didn’t experience racism and discrimination, but because of her, I was exposed to anybody and everybody from a young age, in a way that the South demands that you fight a little bit harder for. Only now, driving through my childhood city did I realize how segregated the city is- as my white, Black, and Latinx friends all live in different parts of town. Because of my mother, I was able to live in color.
And as we grow older, we realize that we are an abstract of countless experiences, of trauma, of what we had and what we wanted to be, of who we are, and who we are growing to be.
In what I could not express verbally, my mother handed me a permanent marker.
The funny thing with strength is that you can’t measure it. An ability to lift weights in the gym does not make you strong, but proficient at lifting. But what is proficiency and what is a passing grade? One woman’s strength may look different to another.
Who can quantify what strength is? Is strength not strength?
However, when I was younger I wanted that Strong Black Woman to relate to. I wanted someone who was present in a way that she would show up to my school to whoop ass. I wanted someone real southern who cooked grits and pork bacon while she lectured me on life.
I grew up with stories of my grandmother Almeda. She took her Black and Brown students to Raleigh for Harlem Globetrotter basketball games, many of which never visited Raleigh, which is 30 minutes from Durham. When I was a kid living in Connecticut, she mentioned the North Carolina State Fair on the phone and I had no idea what it was. A week later, she packed over 20 red candy apples for my classmates and me in a box and it arrived on our doorstep, 12 hours away. I heard the story of the time a kid was bullying my uncle in the 8th grade and the bully showed up at the house. My grandmother held the kid down in the front yard and told my uncle to hit him. My childhood was on that land. To me that is what strength is.
I remember the story where my grandmother told my uncle that he couldn’t go to the movies at the Carolina Theater, which was segregated. African Americans could only purchase nosebleed seats in the balcony. My grandmother resisted until she decided to let my uncle attend, but accompanied. Sitting in those segregated seats, she cried.
50 years later, my childhood involved several outings at the Carolina Theater, sitting in almost every seat downstairs, next to my parents, my brother, friends, etc. I watched Loving with my family in 2016 and up the street, I saw Angela Davis speak.
From all the stories I heard, my grandmother is someone that was strong as hell. I imagined you did not want her on your bad side. She showed up for others. She went Christmas shopping in July and with all she did for others, it seems that her love language was Acts of Service. I imagine her as someone who spoke her truth the minute a thought crossed her mind. She was also stubborn, which I imagined caused conflict. She was strong in her convictions and in times of difficulty, she did not abandon her principles. She was a woman who could not be swayed and while I’m sure she was quite outspoken, she stayed true. I imagine her as a woman who did not take no for an answer. I heard the story of how she didn’t have enough money to buy the California ranch floorplan that she saw on television, so instead she wrote the architect a handwritten letter. She and the architect developed a friendship and he mailed her a few copies of the blueprint for free. Her older brother Herman, who was her only father figure, and cousin Damon built the house in 1957 in Durham, the same house where my brother and I were raised.
Even though I only knew my grandmother for eight years, I carry her story forward.
For years I wanted my mother to be more like my grandmother, only to realize that in all that my mother is, she taught me something that my grandmother couldn’t. In all of life’s complexities and highs and lows, as a woman, I begin to understand that there is no difference between the two of them.
At the age of 15, as I walked to my dad’s office in Downtown Durham, minutes away from my grandfather’s old office at N.C. Mutual Life Insurance. A woman that I met in the hallway said hello and then told me I looked familiar. When she asked what my name was, she exclaimed- “Your grandmother was my 4th grade teacher!”
At the age of 16, while getting my hair done, my grandmother’s friend, Mrs. McClinton sat next to me at the beauty salon. She told everyone stories of her life as a Black woman, stories of strength, of wisdom. When asked by another woman if she was ever scared to travel alone, she threw her head back and laughed.
“Girl, no!” She laughed again. “I wanted to go! So what? I was gonna sit there and wait for somebody to go with me?”
This stuck with me for life and I took her advice and moved alone to the Dominican Republic when I was 22, Spain when I was 24, and Mexico at 26. During my childhood, once a week, Mrs. McClinton waved hello from the driveway. She offered a story or encouragement and I always appreciated it. It is only now that I’m older that I understand how much my mother appreciates her presence.
At the age of 20, a man commented in the Facebook group, Growing Up in Durham. “Almeda Spears was my favorite teacher. As a little white boy in North Carolina, she was my first African-American teacher in the 60s.”
At the age of 23, as I looked at plane tickets to Hong Kong, my father told me that my grandmother went on a six- week Fulbright to Japan. We were the only two people in our family to ever travel to Asia and my brother went farther and traveled to Australia.
At age 28, I found a book that belonged to my grandmother called “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” by C. Vann Woodward, a second revised edition written in 1966. The book is water stained and on the title page of the book, my grandmother wrote her name. On page 3, she underlined “slavery” and wrote “factors.” On page 4 in pencil, she underlined “secession, independence and defeat, emancipation and reconstruction.”
In Chapter 3 “Capitulation to Racism” on page 67, she ripped out a piece of paper as a bookmark. Nothing says “this is my book” more than tearing out the pages of a book. I wanted to know if this was my grandmother’s personal, curated reading experience and her dislike of bookmarks. This made me laugh.
But in the Chapter “The Man on the Cliff” on page 139, she folded the page and there are two small pages as bookmarks. What was it about this page? Was it this section right above the fifth paragraph that gave me chills? It read- “The other was a doubt, strongly reminiscent of the laissez-faire doctrine of William Graham Sumner, that any law could be effective in this area: ‘I don’t believe,’ he said, ‘you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions.”
This was the only page in the book with two small book pages used as page markers. I figured page 139 held the upmost importance.
There was so much I wanted to know. I also thought about what legacy I wanted to leave.
As a young woman, I am beginning to define womanhood in all its intricacies and challenges. I wanted to be known as a kind woman, a trailblazer, someone who was true to her word and her heart. I wanted to be remembered as someone who was genuine, who put her hands up and fought back, but who slept well at night, and felt every emotion as it passed through. I wanted to heal so that I could feel new feelings in the future, free of any bygone significance.
I sometimes feel like I need a mentor. To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize that the stories that added to my life and the stories of my grandmother were one sided. As I am experiencing a period of such conflicting emotions of grief, sadness, pain, and pride, I realized that my grandmother’s stories were of overcoming.
But did my grandmother ever feel sadness? Did she ever abandon strength? How often did she cry? Did she ever display emotion that was categorized as weak? Who was her mentor and what advice did she give her to keep moving forward?
Did she ever not want to get out of bed in the morning?
Where did she find her strength?
The other day at the park, I asked my family this question.
My uncle responded first. He met my grandmother years before he ever met my aunt. My grandmother was an avid shopper at Kroger in Durham, the story goes. “She would come in every week and sit your grandfather on the bench by the door. ‘Don’t move,’ she’d tell him and he didn’t,” my uncle said. “When your grandmother came in the store, she needed her items and if anything was wrong, she spoke to a manager.”
“And I always thought to myself, that woman loves that man.”
In adulthood I needed guidance. I wanted reassurance. I wanted an older Black woman to take interest in me and tell me that I was doing just fine. That everything felt strange but it was all a process and I was doing a good job. I was overcoming! I was grace and I was beauty, and I admired myself more than how a man prized me. And that I was doing a good job as a trailblazer even though I often felt alone.
“She got her strength from her life experiences,” my aunt broke the silence and paused. “In overcoming.”
I was soft and I was hardened. Racism dismantled my life in ways that I was just beginning to understand. I was trying to figure out how to exist in a world that just caused so much daily pain for women like me, the Strong Black Woman. And yet, I was tieddddd of being strong, of always overcoming. Of taking pure shit and making it into some story of power and strength. Simply Lemonade was $3.99 at the grocery store and I only had $0.63 cents.
I just wanted the space to be able to say that all of this was bullshit. I wanted to put down the cape handed to Black women; this toxic idea and stereotype that we as Black women can always overcome because we do it all. I wanted to feel protected, yet several of the Black men I knew were working through their issues with sexism to the point I wondered if I needed to date outside my race or leave America. And it wasn’t just a few Black men, it was patriarchy soaked in American culture.
Love & Basketball was not a love story.
This notion was all in the childhood movies that I re-watched with pure horror as an adult, all up in Moesha, and every BET movie I remember. I didn’t want to be a Superwoman. How many of us were overwhelmed and exhausted and living with diagnosed and/or undiagnosed mental health conditions and illness and weary just because we kept overcoming and overcoming some more and just a little bit more?
I just wanted to be.
The article on the Strong Black Woman read– “Many black women in America report feeling pressured to act like superwomen, projecting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and free of emotion to cope with the stress of race- and gender-based discrimination in their daily lives.”
I want to be soft. I want to be able to ask for help and people actually help me. I want counseling to be a part of the human experience along with open conversations around mental health and self-care. I want to talk about how happy I am that I found a Black woman as a therapist, how much I’ve grown in the last year with therapy. I want to say how proud I am of myself. I want to be honest about what I experience and feel everything little damn thing in-between and all-around. I want to not need daily coping skills- I want an America and a world that gives me every mile of space I deserve.
As a Strong Black Woman, all the world offers you is apologies, if that. And guess what? I’d had enough of apology without action. I wanted accountability. I wanted systemic change. And I was terrified because I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait for my desire of a better world to come to fruition.
And what was the quote my friend told me in college? “She wanted strength, so God gave her a situation to be strong.”
As a Strong Black Woman, life goes like this-
No one gives you a seat at the table so you build your own.
No one listens to you so you speak louder.
No one protects you so you learn how to fight.
No one gives you a job so you become an entrepreneur.
It was all so complex. Yes, my life was different than that of my mother and grandmother because they endured so that I didn’t have to. But why the idea that someone else must suffer so that the next generation can breathe a little bit lighter? I do not want to squirm in pain in order for the next generation to feel joy. I do not want my children to endure for my grandchildren to see paved streets. Would they want that for me?
I am still trying to figure out another way.
And yet, my hope is that one day my daughter will know joy in a way that does not exist as I write this.
From these women, I learned of sacrifice and a deep love. But I was still impacted by racism, discrimination, sexism in the form of misogyny and misogynoir, and this collision decimated any of my remaining human rights and I still needed to be grateful because I came further than both, but yet my world has so far to go?
And in all my ability to take the streets and grab my pen and rage and disappointment and sadness at being deprived a full existence, how can I push the conversation further? What action(s) do I take? And will I see the fruits of my labor?
Will I taste joy?
Will I taste freedom?
I needed someone to answer the questions that I thought about frequently, but I knew that I only needed to trust in God and the universe and it would somehow all be okay.
It was pathetic to admit but – if I’m being vulnerable- I wanted to learn lessons like white women. In the movies, it was earl gray tea and toasted croissants in suburban homes. It was paved walking trails and an easier life. I wanted this experience not to exist. I wanted to learn life lessons in books detailing situations I would never encounter, oppression on the basis of race as fictional literature, where I had resources and privileges to choose when to show up for others and not demand others to show up for me. I wanted to not experience the constant reminder that there were systems here to get me down.
I wanted the privilege of trying to find what tv channel the revolution was on.
I wanted to go to a Women’s March and recognize white women from the Black Lives Matter protests. I wanted the privilege behind knitting pink pussy hats in my knitting chair. I wanted to read White Fragility and not know the book word for word before reading. “Yeah I read it, but I mean she really didn’t say anything new. Black people have known that for centuries. Girl it’s really just a book for white people,” was my friend’s book review. I wanted the ability to be fragile, but in my 28 years in America as a Black woman, I was so damn rigid that I didn’t ever think I could break and in that was a beautiful pain.
This is not to say that white women did not live difficult lives and face challenges as class and gender collide, but as a Black woman in America, we learn the alphabet in a different manner. Let me be clear, I think both of these complexities can exist and knowing both does not create division. I knew that by acknowledging and knowing what is, I could be the change.
F was for Flat Iron Your Hair for The Job Interview and After You Get the Job Wear Your Hair Natural.
I was for Is This a Microaggression, Misogynoir, Misogyny, or All of The Above?
R was for Racism.
S was for Should I Really Check My Race on This Job Application?
T was for Twice As Best.
I had to search a little bit harder for a band-aid that matched my skin color, underwear and makeup that matched my complexion, a scarf to rest my curls. My natural hair products were only found in specific stores. It took me a little bit longer to find the works of Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde. But there was still beauty in this because once I found it, I appreciated it more than you could ever imagine.
I found poetry in Nikki and wore my hair like Angela. I was free.
I wanted a kinder, softer life. I wanted power and success. I wanted career. I wanted financial stability, yet I knew none of that would make me feel any better.
I had all I needed.
My mother was overcoming. Aunt Judy was overcoming. Mrs. McClinton continues to overcome at 101 years old. My grandmother overcame. Four woman all given a different hand of cards to play, who all played them well using the best resources they had at the time.
In my growing, I was trying to give myself more grace which I was learning to give to others.
In no particular order, there was Dianne, Chery, Michele, Wendy, Jeanette, Ava, Lenora, Rosa, Carol, Marina, Mari, Elyse, Laura, Stacie, Almudena, Charlay, Tuff, Debora, Lana, Jackie, Nan, Ursula, CeAndria, Alexis, Ariel, Vonni, Alexandria, Valerie, Erica, Linda, Tracy, Denene, Virginia, Patsy, Joyce, Donna, Tricia, Julie, Patsy, Martha, GiGi, Zelda, Sara, Minnie Mae, Ashley, Marilyn, Mina, Patty, Marissa, Veeta, Jasmine, Sami, Amy, and so many women of all backgrounds that impacted my life. Some told me about myself in English, other women told me their darkest secrets in Spanish. All women given a different hand of cards to play, all cards in which race, age, class, gender, nationality, sexuality, and other factors intersected at continuous and never-ending crossings. And I loved them all.
I wanted to be more like them. And I wanted to ask my grandmother how the hell you deal with some of these white people. How do you stay married to man for 58 years? Fifty-eight years? How you hold your face and your tone when faced with disrespect? How did she bypass Jim Crow and did she ever drink from “Whites Only” water fountains because she didn’t strike me as someone who would let someone tell her what to do? As a public-school teacher, how did she feel when she read or heard the news of Ruby Bridges?
How do you raise three children and have a blossoming career? What were her joys? Did she have regrets? Who was her best friend and how did they meet? What was Bennett College like? What was her free-throw technique? What was it like being in America during the Civil Rights Movement? What legacy did she hope to leave behind? What did she think of Kamala Harris and did she watch Naomi Osaka, Venus, and Serena Williams play tennis from heaven?
Who was her favorite author? Artist? How did she take up space?
I wanted to know all of the parts of her Black Womanhood.
My grandmother was four years old when white women could vote. When Black women were granted the right to vote, she was 49 years old. I wanted to ask her if in 2020, has America changed? Are we better? Has life improved for Black women? And please do you have any advice, anything you could tell me to make this ride a little easier?
And how could that be? I knew the perils of racism like she did, her upbringing in another state up north because of the KKK. My grandmother not playing outside and learning our family’s land in South Carolina and knowing her hometown of Camden. What did she miss? What did white people miss out on by oppressing her, my ancestors, and what lived in their bodies? I felt this oppression festered into a new name, one where I had to flee a dream job because of white men, 101 years after her family fled South Carolina. Would she tell me that the current president was no different from Jesse Helms? Would she draw parallels and when she slept at night, would she sleep soundly and encourage me to still dream of a better world?
I wanted to ask her how to overcome. I wanted to ask her how she would navigate the world now as a Black woman, knowing all she knows. And what did she think of me considering moving abroad? Does she think I should give it one more try here in America or should I pull a Josephine Baker and move to Europe? What was her favorite book? And that apple pie recipe, what was it?
And weeks later in therapy, I asked where I could find a Strong Black Woman as a mentor, my therapist laughed. “Who was with you when you decided to share your story with the world?”
She paused. “And if they told you not to, would you have listened?”
“Tianna,” she says to me. “You keep blazing trails. You will face heartache and extraordinary joy. Such is life.”
Maybe womanhood is simply knowing that you are women.