Strong Women and White Privilege

Gia Hayes-Martin

Gia Hayes-Martin

“You come from strong women,” my grandmother said. It was late on a Monday evening in the winter of 1991. We were up late on a school night, and my grandparents were visiting, because I had been confirmed that evening. Granny gestured to the small photographs of her parents that sat in a double frame on the desk in our guest room. My great-grandmother, whom we called Muzzy, was approaching the end of her very long life. We hadn’t known until the last minute whether my grandparents would be spending the week with us or five hundred miles away at Muzzy’s bedside. Looking at the photos, Granny said it again. “Never forget it. You come from strong women.”

I’d heard Muzzy’s story before. In 1924, her husband, my great-grandfather, was found dead in bed of “acute indigestion.” (Someday I will find out what that might have been.) Muzzy was twenty-eight years old. She had four children under the age of seven and was pregnant with her fifth. They had moved from Louisville, the city nearest their hometown in rural Kentucky, to Akron, Ohio, so my great-grandfather could find work on the new streetcar line. Now that she was a single mother, Muzzy knew she needed to be near family. She returned to Louisville, where her sisters helped care for the children and her parents sent produce from their farm to put food on the table.

It was common in the 1920s for the children of widows to be institutionalized in state orphanages. Muzzy was determined to keep her family together, and she reasoned that if she owned a home, the state would have a harder time proving that she could not care for her children. She used the money from her husband’s life insurance to buy a little shotgun house on Greenwood Street in Louisville’s West End. It became my Granny’s childhood home. Muzzy took in washing and sewing, and once her children were older, she went out to work as a seamstress. She did it: through shrewd thinking, hard work, family support, and sheer bloody-minded strength, she kept her family together.

Muzzy was a remarkable woman. Read more

Why we don’t always feel like talking about race (and what to do about it)

Picture of the author, Nicole Martin

The author, Nicole Martin.

The time is ripe for race talk. The problem is, some people don’t always feel like talking. A variety of recent events have added to a surge of desired dialogue on the black experience, but after years of talking, some black people are too tired to engage. As an African American clergywoman, I feel this tension nearly every week in some tangible way. There’s always some group seeking insight on what it means to be black, including Presidential candidates vying for the “black vote;” Christians debating on whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter; new research within my community on the psychological outcomes of blackness; and so much more. While this is extremely fruitful, it can also be extremely taxing, especially for those of us who are able to articulate our lives in ways that others can understand.

I sensed this for the first time growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Like most young children, I never had a concept of what it meant to be black until a white student pointed it out to me. “Why are your hands two different colors?” they asked while laughing on the playground. I had no idea what they were talking about. In that moment, I looked at my hands from front to back, and sure enough, the insides of my hands were lighter than the skin that covered my body. I was never good with comebacks, so I just put my hands in my pockets and walked away. This was the beginning of an intense process of discovering that my hair, lips, body, speech, food, and family would all one day be spaces of curiosity for well-meaning white people. Read more

Tired Shoulders

 

My shoulders are tired this afternoon. Most of that is soreness from doing hair yesterday. All of yesterday: 10 hours of washing, conditioning, putting in product, brushing, combing, parting, twisting. 10 hours from which my daughter emerged with a beautiful head full of dark brown twists. Gorgeous. She is funny. She is smart. She is beautiful and I love her.

She is my daughter. It’s me or my husband who comfort her after bad dreams, dose out the ibuprofen in the midst of a horrible cold, or drive to dance lessons. We are the ones who remind her to pick up her room, to put the dishes into the dishwasher, to finish packing up her back pack. At first glance, we may not look like her parents, but we are. I am not a person of color. I am, in my colleague Rev. Michael Russell’s words, “a person of white.” We are a multi-racial family. We are not alone: 15% of the United States today are part of multi-racial families. That’s about 21 million folks.

I have sat at a kitchen table with a good friend, laughing, telling stories, and watching and listening as my friend reminds her teenage son about how to interact with the police should he be stopped for “DWB” (driving while black). “I know, Mom,” he says, “I know: you’ve told me.” She reminds him that she loves him. I have sat there, hearing this conversation, and for the first time realizing this could be my conversation with my children in a few years. Read more