On December 13th global icon Beyoncé released her latest album. Yesterday my FB news feed was flooded with commentary about it. Some hold her up as a role model and inspiration for young girls across the world. As I read the discussions my mind began to race with questions about the whole concept of role models. I reflected back to the stories of two women who have inspired me. I will share parts of these stories in today’s post. I hope you enjoy~
The year is 1985. My mother has been called out to duty on a naval carrier, so I am spending the year up in Seattle with my maternal Grandma. My aunt, my Grandma’s youngest child, was nineteen years old at the time. She’d given birth to her first child two years earlier. A decade later she would tell me of how badly people treated her when she became a teen mother, how one of her own siblings called her a shame and predicted she’d be nothing but another trifling black mother on welfare living in the projects. In 1985 she was on welfare and she did live in the projects. But my Aunt didn’t listen to the haters. Aunty decided on a career-she wanted to become a nurse. The best RN program at the time was in Shoreline. Shoreline is a northern suburb of Seattle, far removed from our Rainer Valley. My Aunt didn’t have a car, so she had to catch three buses to get to class. Every day she would get up, get her son ready for school, take the bus to drop him off with Grandma and then continue on to school. She’d return in the evening. My earliest image of her is of her head bent over my Grandma’s kitchen table, her textbooks and assignments making a lovely mess. Only my Mama would inspire me more than her. Move up out the projects, attain an education and raise responsible children with the help of a great husband? My Aunty did that! Though Aunty and I would sometimes go at it in my teens-we are both very passionate, headstrong women-I have always had immense respect for her. I don’t think she fully understands how much her struggle and victory as a black woman spoke to me. Aunty’s life demonstrated the power of drive. Her tenacity and resolution showed me that no matter the circumstances I never had to give up.
The decade is the 1960s. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania lies a village populated by the Chagga people. A round-faced girl with a gap tooth lives there. She fulfills her roles of helping her family, frequently going into the surrounding forest to gather charcoal for cooking. The girl is very smart and inquisitive. All young children in the village go to school, but only boys continue past a certain grade. It is considered a waste to invest time and money in continuing education for girls. They are just going to become wives and mothers anyway. But this girl doesn’t want to accept that. She loves school and doesn’t want to stop going. She goes to her father, crying and pleading with him to find a way to pay the fees for her to continue. He thinks about it. He has a cow that he could sell, and that would provide the funds needed. In the end he acquiesces to his daughter’s wishes and does it. His neighbors laugh at him. Why spend such money for a girl? The father presses on and the daughter enrolls in school. To her family’s delight she brings home high marks every year. Her academic success would net her a scholarship to the University of Dar es Salaam. This smiling Chagga girl is my daughter’s paternal Grandma. Her love of knowledge and ambition took her from her quiet village in Arusha district to the halls of academia. I sat in her courtyard in Dar es Salaam in 2006, awed by both her positivity and her strength of purpose. My mother in law never lost sight of where she came from. The gift that her father gave her continues on, as she works to empower young women from her village and help them attain the education that she did. I frequently remind my daughter of the stories of her paternal Grandma and of the women in my family. It is the everyday women, those bonded to us both by blood and by time, that I want her to emulate. There will never be a reason for her to feel weak or incompetent, for she has the blood of warrior women running through her veins.