Sing Oh Barren One

Sing Oh Barren One

by Bernice Johnson Reagon

To all of us who, by standards of those

who set standards, flunk–

maybe we don’t look right,

or love right,

or we don’t have a home,

or a job,

or maybe pregnant at 14,

or HIV positive

or

with the wrong person,

in the wrong place,

at the wrong time,

it is You – Me – Us

who are the voices to be heard,

it is WE who must sing!

Bernice Johnson Reagon creatively calls us to love and action through her lyrics. Founding and singing in Sweet Honey in the Rock, her words continue to shape activism.

Florynce Kennedy

An excerpt from Page 238, Negroland: a memoir, Margo Jefferson, Pantheon Books, New York 2015:

“Florynce Kennedy was the first black feminist that I saw in public and in action. Lawyer, protester, organizer, she was born in 1916,…and four years before women of any color got the vote. A whiplash tongue and a cowboy hat; suede and leather pants … dangling earrings and many necklaces (some with women’s rights symbols, some with bright stones and feathers). She was tall and fabulously grandstanding. She’d plant herself and thrived in every movement that counted: civil rights, anti-war, black power, feminism, gay rights. Her principles never swerved; her tactics never staled. She used to say something like this:

“When black women tell me feminism is a white woman’s thing, I tell them: you’ve spent all these years, all these centuries, imitating every bad idea white women came up with—about their hair, their makeup, their clothes, their duties to their men. And now, they finally come up with a good idea — feminism — and you decide you don’t want anything to do with it!  “(italics original)

 

Cover of: Color me Flo by Florynce Kennedy

Day Thirty-One Women’s History Month Heroine

Throughout this month I have reflected upon thirty women who have positively influenced my life. Of course, the most important influence is my mother who has been a constant in my life for sixty-one years.

Marjorie Ann Moreland Lang is still full of piss and vinegar. She is one of the smartest people I know and she has spent her life loving and caring for me. I know that I haven’t always reciprocated that love, but as an adult things have come more into perspective.

My mother’s mother died when she was fifteen, so Mom had a great deal of responsibility for not only the house, but the farm as well. When she graduated from high school, she had a scholarship to college, but Grandad didn’t think women needed college. She stayed on the farm, but then insisted upon going to work. Grandad didn’t think women should work outside the home either, but Mom threatened to join the armed services; so he relented.

Mom worked for the Social Security Administration before marrying my father. She met my father at the wedding of his cousin to one of the women from New Richmond. Grandad didn’t approve of Daddy either, but I think that Mom was on a streak of resistance and wore him down.

Sometimes it is hard for me to fathom the life that Mom led. Although I am very light in color, my mother was a platinum blonde in her youth and her hair has little curl. I know that people often do not want to accept that I am African American; it had to be doubly difficult for her.

Mom was and is an activist. Over the years she has campaigned for underdogs (she went door to door for McGovern in a Republican district). Winning was never emphasized, but taking a stand for what was right was paramount. My parents had gay friends and never made a big deal out of it. Only looking back have I connected some of the dots.
Mom was not raised in the church so her spirituality comes as a result of seeking and studying. She has never been one to put up with bull shit.

There was one pompous pastor in our little church who was a bit of a bully. One Sunday, they took up the collection and when the amount was reported to him, he announced that there was not enough money. He positioned himself at the rear of the church by the only exit and said that no one would leave until the collection for the Sunday reached a certain amount. Mom told me to get my things. I looked at her and looked back at him and gathered what I had. We stood up and walked right by him as his face reddened.

My mother didn’t talk about this, but her actions were lessons in and of themselves. I’ve seen her put her hand on her hip and argue her point loudly. I have also seen the quiet before the storm and that one always worried me; not for my mother but for the poor unaware potential victim.

We women have a rich history. If we only incorporate the history that makes it to the text books, we miss a great opportunity. We are surrounded by wisdom on all sides if we will but take the time to listen, learn and share. At age sixty-one, I am no way as wise as my eighty-five year old mother, but give me time; I’m still learning!

Day Thirty Women’s History Month Heroine

Growing up, when I heard a white person with a southern accent; I prejudged them. I automatically assumed that they were bigoted and, well, evil. Horrible things were happening to black people at the hands of white people in the South and so I associated that behavior with the color and the accent.

When I was a freshman in college in 1972, all of that changed because of Senator Sam Ervin as the Senate probed the Watergate Scandal. Senator Ervin was wily and self-deprecating. I remember him talking about being a poor country lawyer as he showed masterful legal skills for the entire country to see.

I began to realize that I had constructed a persona for people without even knowing them. I was prejudiced. In 1981, when I moved to Northwest Indiana, I saw how devastated Gary had been at the hands of some very avaricious people. Banks redlined entire neighborhoods making it impossible to secure financing for mortgages or major building maintenance. In addition, the massive demographic shift of white people out of the city had effectively destabilized most of the city.

One neighborhood in Gary organized its residents to combat what was happening in the rest of the city. Miller is a neighborhood east of the steel mills and in proximity to Lake Michigan. The Miller Citizens Corporation banded together to racially integrate in ways that would not cause panic selling. As a result, the turnover in houses in Miller was much less than the rest of the city.

In 1982, I moved to Miller. I was married with one child at the time and decided to attend the local United Methodist Church. My husband said that it looked like a white church. I asked him how a red brick building could be white? I began to attend Marquette Park United Methodist Church. It was the first racially integrated church that I belonged to.

The congregation was an interesting economic mix as well. There were some upper middle class families that lived on the shores of Lake Michigan. There were also a few families who lived in the government subsidized apartments. The parsonage was on a cul de sac just a block or so from the church. Next to the parsonage lived Louise Brown.

Louise was tall, had snow white hair, and a southern accent. She was originally from Harlan County, Kentucky which is south and east of where my father was born. It is definitely a county that gives name to hillbillies. Louise used to laugh about being a hillbilly. She also was very serious about her Scottish heritage with her tartan plaid at the ready.

In addition to all of this, Louise was one of the smartest women who I ever met. She was a voracious reader and kept me supplied with the latest New York Times bestsellers. As we came to know each other better, we began to share meals. When the first pastor of color was appointed to Marquette Park, his neighbor, Louise was there to welcome he and his family. She was the kind of neighbor who lived alone but “accidently” made enough food to share with a family of five.

When Sue, a hospital chaplain started attending the church, Louise extended a warm welcome to her and when Sue came out as a lesbian, Louise loved her the same. Several years later when Sue introduced Louise to her partner, Louise’s arms enfolded her as well. Louise was just a loving person; not syrupy, but nevertheless, loving.

Louise also made the best Scottish shortbread that made your arteries clog just looking at all of the butter! When I moved to Muncie, I kept in contact as much as possible. In her 80’s, I noticed that she wasn’t moving as spryly. The next time I made the trip to Gary, I stopped by her house just to say hi, but there was no answer. I left a note and when I got back to Muncie, I received a phone call from her son. He hadn’t had a way to contact me when Louise died.

I felt such a loss. As I write this I can see her face wrinkled with time and laughter. I am so glad that I didn’t prejudge Louise! I would have missed out on so much! One year for my birthday, she gave me a card that said, “When you were born they broke the mold; … and beat the hell out of the mold-maker!” Louise you are one of a kind and I am a better woman having known you.

Day Twenty-Nine Women’s History Month Heroine

I was watching “To The Contrary” this morning. The panel of women were talking about The Women’s Mosque of America. Currently on the west coast, this all female mosque is meeting once each month. Two of the panelists were Muslim women. They talked about early Muslim traditions of female inclusion and seeking to empower women in their faith. One of the panelist had her hair covered; the other one did not. It was their choice.

A self-identified Christian woman on the panel asked why they only met one day a month? Why not meet each week? The response was that they wanted to continue to work within the traditional mosque so that men and boys would have the benefit of their input.

When I was pastoring Trinity United Methodist Church in Muncie, I was aware that some of the women were considering converting to Islam. I encouraged each of them to do what seemed right.

Ustadha Aliyah is a Facebook friend. She was one of the people who attended Trinity UMC. As a Muncie native, she was very aware of some of the generational issues that plagued the church. At the annual church picnic in August of my first year, one senior member of the church said something hateful which reduced my daughter to tears. As I struggled with my perceived professional obligation and my duty to my daughter, Ustadha Aliyah swooped in and comforted my daughter.

Apparently, this same man had been hateful for years. She explained to my daughter that this man was just mean and that she had done nothing to provoke him. I was relieved that this young woman was comforting my daughter and I was ashamed that another woman had to do for my child what I had failed to do. I am grateful for so many women who have filled in my many gaps over the years!

Ustadha Aliyah is a person of great humanity. She is active in efforts to empower women and girls. It really doesn’t matter to me what religion a person professes as long as they understand how to treat other humans. Every person in a hijab is not coerced and all bare-headed women are not free. Let us respect all paths that seek to liberate the captives!

Day 28 Women’s History Month Heroine

Centennial United Methodist Church in the Emerson Neighborhood of Gary, IN, had been an Evangelical United Brethren Church before the merger of that denomination with the Methodists in 1968. The church, at that time was all white.

About the time that the denominations were merging, Gary elected its first black mayor and the city went through drastic economic and demographic changes in a short period of time. The pastor of Centennial wanted to stay as the demographics changed, but the bishop appointed him elsewhere as the denomination capitulated to white flight.

When I arrived as pastor of Centennial in the mid 1990’s the church was 100% African American. The neighborhood is as overwhelmingly black as it was overwhelmingly white before the white flight. The neighborhood is about 93% African American. Just as the racial composition of the neighborhood changed, so did the racial composition of Centennial. At least that church stayed open and continued to function as a United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church in downtown Gary closed rather than stay in the newly black governed city.

Many of the people who lived in Emerson were originally from the Deep South. They had migrated north to work in the steel mills that were just blocks away. The Centennial congregation was theologically pretty conservative so I was not sure how I would be received as a liberal, light-skinned woman.

I remember the meeting where the committee charged with accepting or rejecting the pastoral appointment met. Mary McCreary was there. Mrs. McCreary was a widow who lived to serve that church. I remember someone in the meeting asking me about being a female pastor. I told them that I expected some resistance. My own grandmother (Granny) had left her United Methodist Church when a female pastor was appointed. I told them that I was under no illusion about universal acceptance.

The committee seemed to be waiting for a sign, and then it came. Saint Mary said, “In the last days God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh.” Of course, I knew that the book of Acts continues with the words “Your sons AND daughters will prophesy.” At that moment I knew that I had an ally in Mary McCreary.

I was extremely grateful in that first meeting to have the support of this woman. As I continued in ministry, support (especially from women) was not always readily available. My three-year pastorate at Centennial was quite the learning experience. Although the church was a short distance from my home, it was a totally different world. In that place, the gracious people of that congregation loved me into my pastoral role and Mary McCreary led them there.

Often women neglect to recognize the importance of supporting each other. Too many are trying to be successful no matter what impact that success has on others. Womanist theology professes the praxis of “Lifting as we climb!” Thank God for women like Mary McCreary. Well done good and faithful servant!

Day Twenty-Seven Women’s History Month Heroine

Marianne is Aunt Frances’ daughter (see day twenty-six), but she is no Earth Mother. The oldest of the six Hudson children, Marianne is seven years younger than my mother. As I was growing up, she was more a part of my mother’s generation – but not quite.

Most of the women around me thought that the natural order of the universe was to be a wife and mother. Marianne, however, did not conform her life to those standards. She was adamant that she would not have children. She also did another thing that was unheard of in our family–she got divorced! I found her fascinating!

In my eyes, Marianne was a wild woman. She drove a red convertible with a stick shift and she sun bathed in a bikini. She definitely had my attention (as well as the attention of others). One Christmas, I was present at Aunt Frances’ dinner table eavesdropping on the adults. Marianne was being teased about a Christmas gift from an “admirer”; a red pajama suit. (After working in the lingerie department while in college, I now know that it was a peignoir.) I was very quiet because I realized that I was privy to some very womanish conversation!

As I entered my adolescence, Marianne moved in with a white guy. The local gossips were busy talking about how she and he were “shacking” up and probably other things. My parents took me with them when they visited the couple at the lake. The cabin that they lived in was very rustic. Charlie was big into hunting and fishing so I nicknamed him Moose. I began to realize that the world was not as absolutist as I had been led to believe.

Marianne helped me to realize that life is full of choices not by lecturing me, but by truly living her life on her own terms. She and Moose eventually married, not to conform to a societal standard but because it was right for them. When Charlie died Mom and I drove down to attend his funeral. We spent some time with Marianne who, now in her late seventies still has a wild woman spark.

I love that trailblazing wild women have provided alternatives for my generation. Part of my job is to provide opportunities for succeeding generations to have choices as well. There is plenty room for Earth Mothers, Wild Women and everything in between. Thanks Marianne!

Day Twenty-Six Women’s History Month Heroine

When I was growing up there was a television commercial for Chiffon Margarine. Mother Nature tastes some of the spread and declares it’s my own sweet natural butter! The announcer says that it’s not butter it’s Chiffon! Mother Nature frowns up and there is thunder and lightning and she says, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

The concept of Mother Nature includes much of the mythological Gaia who comes to being out of chaos and then gives birth to everything. We image this creative force as female because that is the source of our being as well. That feminine force is voluptuous, unpredictable and fertile.

I am sure that there are women in your life who represent this strong feminine force. For me it was Aunt Frances. Aunt Frances wasn’t really my aunt; she was married to my mother’s first cousin on her father’s side, Babe Hudson. Aunt Frances was a Jackson from Ripley. However, shortly after she married she moved to Twelve Mile Road and raised six kids there.

When I was four, my mother was hospitalized for four months. Aunt Frances opened up her home and welcomed me. A couple of years later, my family moved across the road from the Hudson family in a house trailer in my grandfather’s yard. The younger two Hudson’s were just a bit older than I and we grew up almost like siblings.

Aunt Frances was not just nurturing to kids, she seemed to open her house to all kinds of critters. Much like Ellie Mae Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies”, when you walked into their house, you might find a runt pig scurrying around the front room, parakeets flying outside of their cage, an orphaned squirrel, or raccoon. Outside up to ten dogs were housed for a variety of hunting purposes. In addition there were chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs all on less than an acre of land!

When she finally got grandkids, you would have thought that she died and went to heaven! She loved to take care of them and even her great grandkids as long as she was able. Growing up I didn’t “get” why she loved babies so much. I was never around young children, but when I gave birth to my own children; I began to understand a bit more. When my grand boys arrived, I too, experienced a little bit of heaven.

Frances Lucretia Jackson Hudson was not wealthy in material things, but she shared an abundant love. When I think of Earth Goddess, I think of her. She truly was an Earth Mother and the richness of knowing her continues to nurture me even though she is no longer physically present.

Day 25 Women’s History Month Heroine

On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was having tea in New York City when a fire broke out in a nearby factory. Following the commotion, Ms. Perkins arrived on the scene of a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She was witness to women jumping to their deaths from windows in the factory.

A total of 146 women died in this tragedy because of unsafe working conditions. Perkins’ education had prepared her for the trajectory of her career. While working on her Master’s in Sociology at Columbia University, Perkins too a history course which visited factories so that students would have first hand knowledge of the working conditions.

On that 25th day of March, Perkins was moved to work to correct the horrendous conditions for workers in New York City. First as part of investigations into this fire, a coalition of women and labor banded together. “Perkins worked on the New York State Factory Commission–established in response to the fire–to improve job safety. She testified before the state legislature, and had lawmakers visit factories and workers’ homes to see their working and living conditions firsthand. Her tactics were successful. New laws and codes to protect workers, compensate them for injuries incurred while on the job, and to limit working hours for women and children were written between 1911 and 1915.”

New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt met Perkins in this capacity and when he became president, she was appointed as the first female cabinet member as Secretary of Labor. When approached by Roosevelt, she cautioned him, saying, “I don’t want to say yes to you unless you know what I’d like to do and are willing to have me go ahead and try.” She then told him about her plans for reform, including minimum wage, maximum work hours, unemployment benefits, social security, and universal healthcare. Roosevelt was certain she was the person he wanted, telling her that he would support her ideas. With that, Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve in a President’s Cabinet. She was Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, serving under both FDR and President Truman. “

The progress that women can claim in American Rights has come from a variety of sources and coalitions. Let us continue to unite across our perceived differences to correct remaining injustices!

(http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/frances-perkins)

Day 24 Women’s History Month Heroine

Linda Hollies was the victim of childhood incest. I first met her at Hammond First United Methodist Church where she was presenting a Lenten series. I went the first time upon the recommendation of my pastor. I kept going throughout the Lenten Season because of Rev. Dr. Linda Hollies.

Her book, “Inner Healing for Broken Vessels” she lists seven steps to mend childhood wounds:
1. Recognition that there is an emotional wound.
2. Admission to self that this wound has power over you and affects your actions and reactions in life.
3. Sharing the wound with a significant other. Getting it outside of yourself.
4. Confessing the wound on an emotional level.
5. Accepting the past. Reconciliation is making peace with your past.
6. Choose to be different.
7. Continue to choose every day. (copyright 1991 Woman to Woman Ministries, Inc.)

When I was contemplating attending seminary, I remember her telling the story of the woman at the well. Linda’s womanist “take” on the story helped me to embody my call in this woman’s body. She explained that the woman at the well was the first evangelist because she listened to Jesus and then went and told the story. People received the Gospel from this woman. Women have always been called.

Rev. Hollies encouraged me; that is, she helped me to have the courage to do what I needed to do. Throughout the years, there have been haters and nay-sayers, but women such a Linda continue to encourage me. I hope that I will continue to have ears that will hear and a heart that will listen.

Linda Hollies died suddenly in 2007.