Friends invited me to go with them to the inauguration this weekend and I dropped everything else and went. I was looking for a gal’s trip, a chance to witness Obama’s swearing in up close and personal, and some time away from the chaos that has become my life in the last months. I’m selling my dream house, splitting with my partner of five years, and moving forward into new dreams. As if that wasn’t enough, I decided to quit smoking before I left on the trip – smoking, the nasty habit I took back up in the last months to help me cope with all the changes in my life.
What I wasn’t expecting from this trip was a history lesson from the lens of African American women. As I entered my friend’s mother’s house, the first thing I noticed was the art work – Clementine Hunter and Bill Hemmerling paintings covering the walls; figurines reflecting African Americans, and a refrigerator full of photos of bright brown and black faces of all ages. I thought of my own home, the one I’m leaving, and the one I will be creating, and how most of the references to Africa and African Americans are confined now to Tin’s bedroom. I never noticed, until I noticed.
We went to mass at St. Augustine, the “Mother Church of African American Catholics” in Washington, D.C., founded in 1858 through the efforts of emancipated Black Catholics. It was there while holding the hand of two parishioners as we said the Lord’s Prayer that I started sobbing – perhaps the effects of nicotine withdrawal, perhaps the effect of being moved by the priest who came to the altar to pour the wine and pick up the host and began singing like an angel and he took me swirling through the many challenges that I have been facing and brought me closer to my ancestors and to his and I felt so incredibly moved my knees buckled. I wondered if my desire for Tin to experience my Judaism by going to a synagogue would be robbing him of a more spiritual understanding of his own African American roots that are found more easily in Christianity in the U.S.
Next we went to Howard University, as my friend who graduated from there put it, Harvard is considered the white Howard University. There we went in search of the tree where the Deltas had left their ribbon and the founders 22 markers and then the statue of Minerva, who is their mascot. One of my friends is a Delta and the other’s mother is a Delta, AND being a Delta is a very big deal, and now in 2013, on the 100th year anniversary of their inception, it is even a bigger deal. Deltas are more than a sorority, they are a socially conscious organization for life that split from the Alpha sorority, who were privileged, light skinned African American gals just looking to to dress up and have fun. These Deltas were called to serve and to help other sisters around the country no matter what shade of skin those sisters were born with. If there is one thing I identify with these girls it is the Delta, as Delta is the symbol for change, and having had my life turned upside down one too many times if I ever got a tattoo it should be a red delta. I couldn’t help but think of Tin at college one day and how wonderful it would be if he could go to a University like Howard where he would meet these wonderful Delta strong women and others who would make any mother proud, who are the best and the brightest in a panoply of skin hues.
My girlfriends and I spoke about men and ex-partners and they identified stereotypes – the African whose vision of gender roles is foreign, the angry African American male, the noncommittal man. I asked one of my friends if she had ever dated a white man and she said yes, but she wants brown babies, so she kept to brown men mostly. There were always references dropped to Roots, to African American politicians, thinkers, authors, to songs and cultural artifacts that were not part of my vocabulary. It made me realize how much Tin would miss out on his cultural narrative by just learning from me.
We went to the African American Civil War memorial and to Martin Luther King’s memorial and we were surrounded by African American pulchritude as we listened to President Barack Obama take his oath of office and espouse equality for all. In each of these stops, I saw young black boys on top of their parents’ shoulders and my eyes welled up to know that Tin will long to look into the eyes of people who look like him, that he will have missed that African American male who would have been a father to him (although I do anticipate he will have many mentors in his life), and I felt so enormously grateful that all along the way, I was welcomed, in spite of the fact that my friends’ ancestors were once not welcomed. Most of all I want Tin to know the struggles of the African American people as well as their successes because I do believe in order for humanity to progress, you have to know history.
At the end of the day, my girlfriends had cultural references I did not learn when I was young, but we bonded on being intelligent women, and being aware (socially, spiritually, relatively) and about what we desire. We want the same in life. We value the same. Our strongest trait is in being independent women.