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September 23, 2014

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Who Holds the Other End?

Comments (4)

When I was a little girl, we sometimes found ourselves one person short when we tried to jump rope. One of us had to swing the end of the rope and the other was meant to jump -- but who was to swing the other end? Sometimes we'd make do by tying the rope onto a fence. Black feminists are like that fence -- nothing would happen without the fence, but who ever talks about it? You don't share photos of a fence or invite it to reunions.

Finally arrives 'Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton' by Duchess Harris, and I realized what a tribute this book is to motherhood. It lionizes all the mothers -- literal or not -- in black activism (from Fannie Lou Hamer to Barbara Jordan, pictured below, to Dr. Joycelyn Elders). They were like that fence, holding up the other end of the jump rope and making everything possible.

They nurtured our movement, strategized our political growth and were guardians of our future. They are also too easily overlooked by the male dominated political movements and those who report on it. No matter how far black women march, no matter how big their afros, no matter how high the office they reach their history has always been told from the perspective of men, where the other end of the jump rope isn't that important.

As I read the Harris book, I'm reminded of my stepmother, Henrietta Walker. She was, in my mind, always grouped with those political women even though she was simply a cook in a slightly sketchy lounge in Boston's South End. She raised the children of other relatives, and me when I visited every weekend. She was so different from the quiet Native American/Bostonian great grandmother with whom I lived, that I was intrigued from the day we met when I was 8 years old.

Henrietta was from Gulfport, Mississippi and carried the art and culture of the south in her walk, and in her smoky voice, full frame and the red lipstick she wore. Both playful and commanding, she was as much a friend as caretaker. She believed in the Civil Rights Movement and was one of the few relatives who didn't have a fit when I started wearing my hair natural. She even wore an afro herself when she hit her 70s.


One story she told forever bound me to her and to the images of those black feminists who marched and sang and passed legislation. Henrietta went back to Mississippi for a family visit after the civil rights bill was passed and after the sit-ins and bus boycotts had died down. For the first time in her life she rode in the front of a municipal bus.

I'd watched all the southern marches and violence against the marchers on television and revered the people -- the men and the women -- who put their lives in danger to secure basic human rights like voting, schooling or drinking at a water fountain. They inspired me to be active in the more subtly segregated north.

Henrietta's bus ride echoed those heroic moments I'd watched anxiously on the nightly news and her description of that moment raised the hairs on my arms. This woman who'd taught me how to make peach cobbler, braid hair and wait on tables could have, despite the proclaimed new day, been in danger! All it took was one resentful racist sitting nearby.

She knew it and still she rode the bus. My usually cool teenage exterior dissolved and I cried as she expressed her own anxiety at sitting down in that strange place, that free place. She also revealed the mix of emotions she held inside when nothing happened -- exaltation, sadness and relief.

The world that has desecrated the image and idea of African American women from the moment the first slave was dragged in chains onto these shores has little space for these heroic women. The shameful lineage is long: from the mammy figure to the dismissive Moynihan Report that blamed black matriarchs for the demise of the black community, to the expletive filled defilement of black women that still fills rap and hip Hop music.

Yet it is millions of black mothers who shaded the children they gave birth to in cotton and tobacco fields and marched thru the civil rights movement; who still work night shifts to support families, and cry at the funerals of her gangsta sons. They serve in Congress and serve food just like Henrietta.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Southern sit-ins I think about Henrietta and her bus ride. She disproved all of the knee-jerk stepmother stereotypes with her black, Southern, no-nonsense, silky boisterousness that carried the history of who black mothers really are. They carried the other end of that jump rope that made all things possible.


Jewelle Gomez is the author of 'The Gilda Stories,' the only black, lesbian, feminist vampire novel that marries lyrical language to epic action over a span of 200 years. Additional works include two poetry collections, a book of personal essays, and a collection of short stories. Read Jewelle's blog on Red Room.

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