[Produced for and published first by "MLK50: Justice Through Journalism" and available here. MLK50 is a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis.]
In this photo essay, writer Celeste Williams and photographer Andrea Morales collaborate to consider the beauty and burden of being a Black woman in America.
May 27, 2020 | Union Avenue in Midtown: A scene from a demonstration in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. The protest, where social distancing was practiced, started along the sidewalk on Union in front of the police department's traffic division, but police later shut down the street. It was among the first of many local protests demanding justice for Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was killed at her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13, 2020. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
I feel greatness in my breast
It swells as if to burst,
I contain it, and lo, a flush,
my ebon cheeks glow
with a burst of pride.
I raise my head,
lift my hands
erect my spine and shout,
“I am woman!”
An ebon, or tawny, or yellow, or pink or brown woman,
Strong, weak or docile woman,
unrobed, I stand erect-woman!
Hear me, let me be heard.
The fire in my bones will not be quenched
until you hear me.
- Leah Keturah Pollard Williams
I am a Black woman.
It is a fact that colors and shades all of my thoughts and reflections. The poem that begins this essay is one written by my late mother, Leah Keturah Pollard Williams, 35 years ago. It is penned in her hand, in an otherwise blank book left among her personal items I gathered after her death.
Mom would have been 91 this month.
If I could talk to her, I would tell her that I have done a lot of Black Woman Thinking in this Year of Pandemic, this Year of Racial Reckoning, this Year of Personal Reflection, this Year of Years.
June 5, 2020 | Cooper-Young: Jordan Dodson (center, whose pronouns are they/them) and Allyson Smith (right) walk with about 150 people down East Parkway on what would have been Breonna Taylor's 27th birthday. The two organizers led birthday songs and chants for Taylor, as well as Tony McDade, a Black trans man that had been killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
I have studied my history; I know there have been times such as these before. While each person exists in one’s own time, like the universe, time constantly merges and collides, stretches and comes apart and comes back together — a “comingtogetherness,” that poet Mari Evans
has written about in her poem, “Who Can Be Born Black?”
And/to come together
in a coming togetherness
vibrating with the fires of pure knowing
reeling with power
ringing with the sound above sound above sound
to explode/in the majesty of our oneness
in a comingtogetherness
As I watch from my perch of quarantine, I virtually walk alongside my mother and my sisters, and watch us march, suffer, cry, rejoice, run, faint, laugh, lead, grow, bend, break. I have read our words, and read about us; and find myself swelling with unspeakable pride of how beautiful and resilient we are.
Ladies, we move and speak like poetry.
June 20, 2020 | Overton Park: Lori Spicer Robertson was an organizer of the “Our Now, Our Future” march for Black children. “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out ‘mama’,” Spicer said. “Now, Black mothers summon all mothers and women to stand in solidarity against anti-blackness, against racism, and for an equitable future for our Black children.” The viral video that depicts George Floyd’s killing includes a moment, as he’s gasping for air, where he called for his mother. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
My thoughts swirl and dance. I mine those imaginings for something profound to share. My musings settle on Juneteenth, a celebration of dreams lost and found; and Fannie Lou Hamer,
a woman who made up for lost time.
Like the enslaved people in Texas who were informed in 1865 that the proclamation freeing them from servitude had been signed three years earlier, Mrs. Hamer, the wife of a sharecropper, learned for the first time in 1962 that black people could vote.
It was a revelation. She was 44 years old.
Mrs. Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and vowed to register to vote for the first time. She recounted her experiences in riveting testimony before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
She recounted being jailed, severely beaten and left permanently scarred. She said:
“…. All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. …Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
July 17, 2020 | Hickory Hill: Mary Stewart (center) speaks at the five-year anniversary memorial for her son Darrius Stewart, who was 19 when he was fatally shot outside of New Direction Christian Church by Memphis police officer Connor Schilling. Stewart was killed in 2015 when the car he was a passenger in was pulled over for a traffic stop and he was asked to step out allegedly after a check on his ID was flagged with a warrant. Stewart has been a steadfast and unabashed advocate for her son through protests, memorials and litigation against the city and Schilling. In 2017, it was revealed that her name was included on a list of people (along with activists, clergy and victims of police brutality) who were required to have police escorts if they wanted to enter Memphis City Hall. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
Mrs. Hamer became a full-on activist, and even ran for office. She died in 1977. She was just 59.
She is my hero, this amazing woman who was willing to lay her body in the breach for her convictions. I stood in line for 3 ½ hours and she steadied my hand as I voted.
Millions of us walked with Mrs. Hamer when we voted. If voting is a muscle, we exercised it. We stood on line, in the hot sun, the cold wind and rain, with our lawn chairs and umbrellas, canes and walkers, and we mailed our ballots with a prayer.
And with our will and power, we turned this election.
Still, I find myself in tears about what we as black women are expected to endure because we have exhibited such warrior-like strength.
October 21, 2020 | Hickory Hill: A woman stands in front of a Memphis police officer holding a sign asking the MPD not to work with federal agents. Attorney General William Barr visited the Ridgeway police precinct to deliver remarks on Operation LeGend, Trump's effort to flood cities with federal agents in response to spikes in violent crime he's linked?—?without evidence?—?to protests. Two people were arrested outside. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
Black women carry. That’s what we do.
Pick up that load, woman. Because you have to. If it seems heavy, foist it onto your head. You’ve seen the pictures of African women carrying loads like this, with a baby strapped just above the curve of the hip. We know these women. They are our mothers, our aunties, our grand-mamas, our sisters.
Carry your family. Are they hungry? Find sustenance for them, even if it means standing in line for dented cans, mac & powdered cheese, and noodles that stretch a casserole for an extra day. Bend, sister. But try not to break.
Run without fainting, walk without weariness, it says somewhere in the Bible, right?
But we are weary. We are often unsteady. We die… too soon.
I know; it feels sometimes like it is not OK to cry, because there is not time. There is work to do. We are warriors, with our bodies as armament.
October 12, 2020 | Mississippi Greenbelt Park: Tabitha McGuire, 46, wears a mask she made with Breonna Taylor's name on it, while standing for a portrait. McGuire has been making masks since the pandemic affected her income. While she has some health issues that leave her immunocompromised, she volunteered to provide transportation to the polls to those in need during early voting. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
And they know that. When we go into the streets, raising our voices and our fists, we are met with forces dressed in real armor, wielding clubs and guns. They spray gas that makes our tears flow even more than they already have.
If they think that level of sheathing is necessary to suppress us, we must be fierce. But they have to know that their violent response to us further stiffens our spines.
They carry us away by our arms and our legs as if we are sacks of produce or roped calves — not human beings. After letting her violently pierced body lay for hours, they carried Breonna away in a body bag.
“Our Now. Our Future. March For Our Black Children.” It is more than a slogan across our breasts. There is a reason we dress our children and bring them with us while we march.
See those trans women? We fight for them, too.
I look into the faces of sisters at the front of protests, raising fists high, their manicured nails pressing into the soft flesh of their palms. Their hair in dreads or braids, or flattened and curled extensions, or day-glo colors.
See, we have heard about self-care, and Lord, we try. Woman, I see those long eyelashes, the glitter shining at your breast-bone, the shea butter glistening on your bicep as your fist stabs the air. I see the hoops in your ears, and the rings on your fingers and piercings in your nose.
June 14, 2020: Overton Park | Kayla Gore (center), an organizer, trans activist and executive director of My Sistah's House, helps lead a march for Black trans lives through Midtown. Gore's work is rooted in connecting trans folks to affirming resources as well as providing emergency services, such as shelter and medical care. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
Your mask often covers your mouth, but you are not silenced. You have represented. Your hand-painted and lettered signs mark the names you want to shout; the questions you have: Why is my death always justified?
Breonna, George, Ahmaud, Trayvon, Tamir, Emmett… Who have I forgotten? Who have we forgotten? Mothers still say the names of their babies gone before them — gone, in an order that does not seem right.
We Black women, women of color and of colors want this year to be gone. We don’t want to die. We want to celebrate something more than, just surviving — as poet Lucille Clifton wrote, “…everyday something has tried to kill us and failed.”
May 31, 2020 | Riverside Drive in Downtown Memphis: A woman takes the lead in a march of hundreds of protesters along Riverside Drive downtown. The crowd moved along the street without a police escort for about 30 minutes. It was one of the largest of many local protests following the May 25 killing of George Floyd. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)
We want to live.
We want to be seen.
We want to be heard.
The year 2020 is gonna go. But we want the lessons of this fraught time to remain, names of the lost to remain a testimony on our lips.
Don’t despair. There is movement. There is a movement. Our Black lives do matter.
Sister-woman, our marching is the continuation of our awakening to a freedom we already know is our right.
It is our Juneteenth. Celebrate it. Now. And for-ever.