Black women as Superwomen

Ebony magazine headline SUPERWOMAN SYNDROME: Are Black Women Killing Themselves to be Strong?

Reminded me of a session in marriage counseling with husband #1. I was lamenting not being able to be June Cleaver (“Leave it to Beaver” mom) because she didn’t work outside the home! Husband#1 queried, ” haven’t you ever heard of “superwoman”? I responded “f–k superwoman” the counselor replied, “she doesn’t have time for that either.” loved the counselor!

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Aunt Haggie’s children

Aunt Haggie’s children

On a recent visit with a 90 year old cousin, she became annoyed with the imprudent behavior of her fellow church members in preparation for Sunday service. Instead of using the N word to describe their ignorant behavior, she called them “aunt Haggie’s children.” I questioned her about that term. She said, “in college, at Livingstone, the then President said that ignorant blacks acted like they were still slaves, or “aunt Haggie’s children. ” I began using the term. And I encourage all to replace the N word and callout aunt Haggie’s children whenever you see or hear one and stomp out ignorance.

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The Eastern Shore of Virginia

Reginald Giddens, Rose Giddens Steele, Reginald Jr.Steele, Virginia Savage, Herman Giddens

Painter, VA

My mother’s family is from the Eastern Shore. A unique parcel of land south of Delaware and Maryland on the peninsula. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas were born further north on the Eastern shore of Maryland.

I spent summers on the Eastern shore visiting my maternal grandfather.   While my prep school classmates took exotic summer vacations abroad or experienced summer enrichment programs, I boarded   a Trailways bus  with a lunch bag to visit my grandfather. In the summer of 1963, when I was 7 years old, I purchased a postcard during a bus change/stop on the way. It was my attempt to document my “travels” during summer break. I sent it to my maternal Grandmother Eretta just to let her know that I was  thinking of her.  I did not remember sending the postcard until I had the occasion in 2009, to clear out her home after the death of my mother, who had  junk piled  her things after grandma suffered from dementia.

I cannot imagine what she thought when she received the postcard from me: various confederate flags of the South! Growing up in Harlem, I had no clue of the symbolism of  the Confederate battle flags.The first time I remember seeing the flag, and knowing  the terrorist history associated with the symbol, was within my first few days of arrival on campus at Princeton University.

I was surprised that  grandma had saved the postcard in a special place of correspondences received. There were not many cards that she kept; and I’ll never know why Grandma kept that card from me. 

When I hear a  screen door screech shut, memories of the Eastern shore flood my brain. As the Trailways bus pulled into the gas station at Exmore, Va, my grandfather, Reginald stood waiting with a wide grin on his face; looking dapper in his hat, short sleeved shirt, and perfectly pressed cuffed pants, neatly held up by a modest thin  leather belt.  When we arrived at his home, the screen door clacked and screeched behind us as we walked into the familiar kitchen which promised many meals  of good eating. 

Granddaddy and “Aunt” Myrt (my step grandmother)  got up early each morning before the rooster crowed.By the time  I heard the rooster crow, Granddaddy had already collected eggs to sell and prepare for breakfast; and he had completed most of his daily chores. Sometimes I woke up early enough to see him throwing the chicken feed to his flock.  

He and Myrt both made biscuits from scratch every morning for breakfast, but his were always better. He claimed that she was “stingy” with the lard. Some mornings we would eat  flour biscuits,  homemade  sausages  and cheese which  was melted on the stove served up with molasses. I can still remember the taste and the lightness of the biscuits l- a result of his perfect blend of lard and flour. Other  mornings, sweet potato biscuits were served with thick slices of fried bologna. 

Dinners were fresh vegetables of lima beans and home grown tomatoes, pork chops or  fresh killed fried chicken. He never let us see him kill the chickens and we never saw any trace of the crime. In fact, the only bad memory of  my time with him was when nature called and I had to use the dreaded “outhouse.”  It was years later when my uncle  Reginald Jr. installed indoor plumbing in the house for his father Reginald.  But during  those summers,  there was no indoor plumbing. Water was pumped from the well each day into  the enameled face basin for washing, sometimes heated on the wood burning stove, sometimes not. Then discarded out door. 

We kids always ate in the kitchen. Granddaddy would take his meals at the dining room table, but only after we had already eaten. He literally beamed when he looked at us and showered us with love,  RC colas, ice cream or anything that we might possibly want from the Bundix  store in Painter, VA. (We could not get RC colas in New York City. And my mother only bought cheap sodas on sale: 20 cans of the A&P brand for $1.  I was only able to get cokes during recess at prep school).

My grandfather drove a school bus during the school year, and in the summer took various handyman and painting jobs for the local white folk. He was an usher at the baptist church where he worshiped. And apparently was a mason; as I discovered some mason paraphernalia upon clearing out his home for sale after the death of my mother.

Black families on the Eastern shore worked summers  in the fields picking string beans, white and sweet potatoes and other crops. According to my uncle, Reginald Jr., ( knicknamed “June”) in the winters, work was scarce and the only crop available to be picked was broccoli. Black families relied on the credit obtained from Carlyle Williams’ country store for staples until the spring came and they worked to  pay off the winter debt. He remembered that  Carlyle Williams was honest  and kept a book of what the families owed. Many black families survived in the depression because of him; Carlyle Williams was “ a lifesaver for blacks, he helped  black people survive” recalled my uncle “June.”

Uncle June also told me that  many families had wood burning stoves to heat the homes or shacks were they lived. They would collect oak wood to burn in the stoves.  In the winter, white people could afford to  buy coal; while most blacks could not.  His father, Reginald Giddens Sr. worked for the coal company, and would often get coal free. At night he would “bank the fire with coal and wood, and the coal/wood kept the heat going through the night.”

I remember spending those hot summers reading any and all book I brought with me. However, the nights were surprisingly cool and my grandparents would burn the wood in the stove making the house unbearably warm. I learned very early  that when you opened the door of the pot bellied stove, you could release some of the heat which  radiated throughout the room and reduced the temperature of the room considerably, much to the chagrin of my step-grandmother.

My grandfather’s brothers were not middle class but proud hard working men. In later years, my grandfather’s brother Herman Giddens owned a country store. Reginald Giddens Sr. would purchase blocks of cheddar cheese, chunks of bologna and Karo molasses and syrup in cans for breakfast from his kin.  Billy and Bucky Giddens were the sons of Norman Giddens and operated a funeral home. Norman Giddens worked for the Railroad.

The dissonance  created in my grandfather’s  attempt to carve out an existence in Jim Crow America as a black man providing for his family; while having to  subjugate his manhood in order to peacefully co-exist with the white folk, often manifested itself in violence against his women. My grandmother bore two children from him. And, in spite of societal and economic pressures to marry him, refused to submit to a life of certain domestic violence and migrated to New York. 

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“Sing the praises of our ancestors”

A post by Rosemary Mullally touched my soul because it conveyed  the burning desire deep within me to collect and share the stories of my family:

“As an African American living in a country and a society of Africans, I can’t help but feel proud, yet saddened.  Proud that not every part of our African culture was erased by our enforced journey into slavery, yet saddened that so much of our history and knowledge is lost.  African American Griots do exist in the form of our historians, writers, actors, musicians, parents, grandparents and our selves.  We sing the praises of our ancestors, we tell their stories, we give them their rightful place in history and we are the keepers of their memories. As we research our families, let us become a part of the gift giving competition, bestowing our gifts of knowledge upon our fellow Griots, sharing information and resources, praising each other’s successes.  May our loud and long praises echo down the centuries, from generation to generation, never ending”   Rosemary Mullally, American Grio, Bamako , Mali, January 2005

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Health care and the Affordable car act (ACA)

The ACA requires those who do not have health insurance to make a sacrifice so that (1) emergency rooms are used as true emergencies and not as primary health care; and (2) so that local taxes which support the indigent care given to those in the ER room, may be used for much needed items used by all, i.e. improved roads, transportation, the list goes on. Of course there are others reasons, but these are my top two.

I graduated law school in 1992, clerked for a judge for two years and had great health insurance because of my government job. I started my own law practice in 1994, in a city where I didn’t know another soul prior to moving here. I came to Savannah as a newly wed in a marriage that was subsequently annulled. I became a single mother again, As I had been previously divorced with a ten year old daughter. I did not know on a daily basis, not to mention weekly or monthly basis, how I would pay my mortgage, car note, law school loans, rent for my office and my supplies to practice law. But I understood that health insurance for myself and my daughter had to be a priority in the budget. I cannot tell you how I managed to get the bills paid except by faith. And not all bills were paid on time, some were late, 30 days late sometimes -which of course negatively impacted my credit rating. But the bills were paid. Whenever, I was truly at my wits end, miraculously my mortgage company would send me a certificate permitting me to skip a payment which permitted the funds to be used elsewhere, or a client would walk through the door.

I learned to live without cable, vacations and other luxuries. And I was blessed to have child support (from husband #1) and a mentor who helped me get started in the practice. My only asset was a laptop when I started my practice. My mentor lent me a beautiful pine desk, rented a room in his office/home(on a sliding scale proportionate to my intake), and gave me permission to print my docs on his printer using floppy disks (as this was long before wireless). That setup worked until his secretary became too inconvenienced and he charged me to buy my own printer. Also remember back in 1994, printers were quite pricey.

I bought a $900 laser printer on my Amex card and prayed that I would have the money when the bill was due in full at the end of the month. A few days later, a new client entered my office needing an attorney for a mediation between her union and former employer for a wrongful termination case. The mediation was scheduled two days from the date she walked into the office. She had come in to seek from my mentor, but had no money for a retainer. He was a well known local civil rights litigator. (Justice Thomas clerked for him, more on that in another blog). He referred her to me.
She told me she didn’t trust black lawyers. She is black. I prepared her case, negotiated a settlement and the case generated a $9000 fee for me. My prayers were answered and I was able to pay for that printer when the Amex bill became due.

I currently have premium health insurance because I married a union man. My daughter missed the 26 year old cut off under ACA and therefore she could not be covered under our insurance while she completed her master’s degree in public health. She has used the ER room for much needed, but not life-saving medical treatment.

My daughter is waiting to become insured when her employer has open enrollment. She needs it, her maternal grandmother had breast cancer; I have the BRCA gene mutation that predicts a greater likelihood of breast and other cancers than the general public. I pray that she follows through and makes the sacrifice and makes health insurance a priority. I want her to have health insurance for her welfare and for selfish reasons. I do not want to go broke should she ever require expensive life saving medical treatment.

My point is this: we the peeps- Americans, have forgotten two of the most important lessons learned by our ancestors- sacrifice and “making do” in order to survive. I am still learning to sacrifice, I am not often successful but I continue to strive and to resist the addiction of the conspicuous consumption of goods I don’t need and really cannot afford.

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1 Corinthians 2:14
New International Version (NIV)
“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”

I typically give free consultations on the telephone. However, if a potential client insists that she have an office review of her papers, I charge a consultation fee. On one occasion, a politician from a small town in Georgia was not satisfied with my determination that I was unable to assist her in her case and insisted upon bring me documents to review in support of her plea for my assistance. I warned her that I would charge her a consultation fee for an hour at my then hourly rate.

She arrived, I collected her fee, I reviewed her file and came to the same conclusion. Further, the documents revealed her former lawyer had negotiated an agreement which included a waiver of her ability to appeal.

It was then that the Spirit directed me to give her the consultation check back. Well, I was not happy about that. I was in my early stages of discernment, and I obeyed.

Luke 11:28
Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (NLT)

As I gathered her papers to return to her, I placed the check on top exposing: “I am returning your check because the Spirit has directed me to do so and I try to obey when I am so directed. It is NOT out of the kindness of my heart, and it is NOT because I do not need this check. It is because I am learning to be obedient when the Spirit reveals actions for me to take.” At that point she broke down and cried. She told me ” I had to borrow the money for the consultation. I have helped many people in the past and now that I need support no one was there for me, and I LOST MY FAITH IN GOD.”

My simple act of obedience, helped her to see that God had not left her side. When God closes a door, we must look forward and give thanks to the one He will open. I only heard from her on one other occasion; she called to tell me she doing well.

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On finding white slave master ancestors

All my life I was told that all four of my grandparents had mixed race backgrounds. Of course, this was no surprise as my father was light skinned with”good hair” from his mulatto grandparents on both paternal and maternal sides. My mother was brown skinned with Indian mix from the Eastern shore on her father’s side and a mulatto grandmother on her maternal side.
My father died when I was 12, so I searched most of my life for his roots to somehow stay connected to him. His mother’s sister, held the clues of the white family from which we were descended on his mother’s side,but she only had the last name,Hall. Her mother, my great grandmother, Pearl, shared the family history with me when I was 11 years old during a summer stay. One day she unlocked the door of the parlor and revealed her past, my past, the ancestors. When she died twenty years later, I sought out those portraits of our shared past.



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