“We know we are beautiful. And ugly too…. We stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
BET’s “Black Girls Rock” awards show broadcast Sunday inspired me to honor my grandmothers, who raised me to rock. I grew up with three grandmothers – a hint of abundance from the start, I think. I had mymaternal grandmother, Irene Thomas, recently anointed as First Mother of Tenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest; my paternal grandmother, Sis. Wala Waheed (Willie Tate), honored as a pioneer in the Nation of Islam by the Muslim community at Masjid Muhammad. Then there was my biological grandmother, Grandma Fuller, who told me religion was some silly s*-)!
Some of their insight, wisdom, and advice were clear and powerful enough to last me a lifetime; some of it I knew would not fit the world they were leaving in my hands.
Grandma Thomas and I debated the merits of dating vs. marriage. This year we celebrated her marriage 72 years of marriage to my grandfather. But ten years ago, she and I debated the merits of marriage vs. dating. I was a young woman playing the field – and getting played – when she offered her advice on marriage and men. “Men have to get a license to go fishing, go hunting or anything else they want to do. Make them get a license to be with you,” she told me one day. Confidently, I disagreed, “Grandma I am not a sport, nothing to be played with, not to be owned.” She shook her head, at her wit’s end. I ended up married, but in my own time and on my own terms, I’d like to think. Our needs and values were different, I realized, and that’s o.k.
GrandWillie had hung a small wooden plaque inscribed with the words, “Man Makes the Living: A Woman Makes Life Worth Living,” in her home when I was growing up. After a few years of being out in the real world I reported back to her that this bit of conventional wisdom had been set on its head. “Men these days aren’t marrying women unless you’re making at least as much as they make,” I told her. “That ain’t no real man,” she insisted. She had been widowed by her first husband, then managed to live mostly off his pension, plus money she made providing child care for other working mothers, and help from her own children when they began working. My appreciation of independence and self-reliance was different from hers, and that, too, was o.k.
I learned much from and with my grandmothers. Over board games, on shopping trips, at religious events, in their gardens, in their kitchens, at their hospital bedsides when they grew old, I learned more than I might ever pen. My relationship with them was better than their relationships with their own daughters. I was their second chance to get it right, and they seized upon it. I am sure GrandWillie, who passed almost three years ago, is smiling on me daily. Grandma Thomas, who turned 92 this year, tells me often, “I love you, and I pray for you every day. I pray for all my grandchildren.” I am sure she does.
While I have honored Grandma Thomas and GrandWillie throughout my life, I am just now beginning to glorify Grandma Fuller. Grandma Fuller had 11 babies by a married man. I am leading the charge to dignify her passions, however, unwise they were. She married her “babies’ daddy” when the youngest was a teen. “Grandma was a ho,” one of my sisters said flatly when I shared this bit of our family history. She was not a “whore,” I insisted. “She was, uh, unconventional.” She loved who she loved, how she loved, I thought. I had the luxury of marveling at her boldness in love. She had birthed wonderful beings into this world – against so many odds. (It took her children a whole generation and a lot of hard work to overcome the shame of growing up “bastards.” About ten years ago they initiated the Annual Fuller Family Ball to amplify family honor and celebrate what we have become. But for me, she had set a mold for thinking – and being – outside the box.)
My grandmothers were each unique in their needs, beliefs, and family values. I could not possibly have embraced all of what either had to offer, but I am grateful to have collected enough pearls of wisdom from each of them to fashion a fine necklace of sorts.
I was happy to see Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Shirley Ceasar, honored on BET’s “Black Girls Rock.” But I found conspicuously absent our honorary grandmother, Maya Angelou, whose poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” inspired us all. Langston Hughes’s manifesto came to mind as I thought about my Grandmothers – and the many other women (sisters, friends, aunts, and mentors) who have inspired me throughout my life. I am their rock, and they are mine. Black women are complex beings. We are beautiful in our ugliness and ugly in our beauty. But we rock on.