In American culture, we sometimes underestimate the value of women in our families. Their presence is seen as calming, nurturing and safe. We are lulled in our everyday lives to thinking a woman's place is beside her man, her children, her home. Quietly supporting those around her without inferring her thoughts or her will with a off handed quietness left to be dismissed as unreliable and emotional at times.
In my experience within the Black American family dicotomy that is far from the reality or at least it used to be.
When I was a kid I remember my Aunt CK calling one hot summer afternoon and rattling off the events in her own family over some time. The conversation lasted at least two hours and all throughout my mothers expression varied between concern, thoughtfulness and quietly expressed anger.
I could see the wheels turning in her head as I tried to remain inconspicuous as I listened to the onesided conversation. I remember my mother interjecting every now and then while occasionally raising a glass of Canadian Windsor and Ginger Ale inbetween hushed agreements, invasive questions and advice but mostly she sat in quiet with steely eyed silence as my aunt divulged information and circumstances I'd never fully know.
Some hours later after the sun went down and the summer evening turned to early morning, my snoring was broken by the jangling of the telephone, the blinding of the lights turning on and my mothers Maude like voice rattling off instructions to the voice on the other end. There were at least three phone calls back to back as well as third party calls inbetween. The conversations lasted less than five minutes each and were carried out quickly as my mother instructed me to not answer the door. She'd be back soon was all that was said regarding the mysterious goings on in my house.
Inbetween all of this, off went the terry cloth nightgown as she made three quick strides to her closet, pulled out a pair of cut off shorts and a pull over and jaggedly ran a comb through her undone hair.
As she gathered up her pocketbook, car keys and slid her feet into house shoes, there were several phone calls that only received gruff acknowledgements, location directions and agreement. Suddenly at two in the morning our house was a bees hive of buzz. My mom gave the short version of events: Who, where and subsequent actions to be carried out to those whose calls lagged behind all the others. I wasn't allowed to answer the door or speak anything other than her exact words.
Family business was being handled.
The women in my family had things to do. They were as organized, coordinated, stealth and as precise as any military platoon's plan of attack that had taken months to coordinate. Only their's took place in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes.
There was no time for bullshit.
My aunt had sent out a call and the women in my family answered with precision, knowledge and speed. The men were on standby in case things got out of hand but it was an unspoken reality that this...was woman's work.
My mother was all business as she determinely walked down the steps, out the front door and to her car. As she started up the car all she said was "if anybody calls tell them I left already" and drove off in the dark to pick up my aunt and the two would meet the others at a predetermined location. If anyone arrived before they got there no one was to do anything until they arrived.
They were commanding this particular mission.
The next morning I was full of questions... What happened, who was it, etc. etc. But I knew better than to ask... grown folk business is... GROWN folk business.
The daylight brought a flurry of activity. I don't know what time my mom got home but I know she didn't sleep...there was no time. There were things to be done in a short amount of time.
First, my cousins and I were taken to my aunt's house, instructed to eat breakfast, watch tv and be quiet in the living room, upstairs, outside or the basement no one under twenty one was allowed in the dining room.
My aunts and uncles were in there, they sat around the table and "discussed" the person and the nights events. Nothing was left out and everything was laid out from each perspective or line of sight.
We kids pretended to watch tv, our usual plan the oldest cousin would sit closest to the table and gather information. Now we had to change up seating because we couldn't be seen taking "notes".
Little pictures have big ears.
No information was EVER passed directly, you could expect a whooping along the lines of "tying fire to your ass" if you were so much as caught looking in the direction of the dining room and you didn't have a good reason. That being getting food, something to drink, being instructed to clean or going to retrieve something for one of the adults. Now there were a number of variations to these rules depending on the event or situation, family member and aftermath circumstances.
Teenagers were not given passes to come and go but they were privvy to a variety of sub conversations that took place all over the house including basements, bedrooms, backyard and front porches. So they were key to little details. Family and close family friends who'd become relatives traipsed in and out. Food was prepared, bought and served as the night and days and months maybe even years leading up to the previous night were rehashed and picked apart, scrutinized, dissected and argued.
At that dining room table sat the person, if able, and all the elders of our family. Nothing was off limits within the confines of that room. Your history and that of the pronounced event were scrutinized for causes, weaknesses, triumphs and viability. Everything you were, had ever been, were currently and expected to be was argued or discussed.
There was no room for pussies at that meeting of family forces. Feeling might get hurt but it was for your own good.
It would start gently but responsibility and introspection was doled out with a swiftness and an assurity held in any congressional hearing in order to make sure it never happened again. If there was any desire to hide dirty laundry it wasn't tolerated nor was it given.
The woman was consoled, given sage advice to soothe the effects but the bottom line was what do we do now. What was the most immediate need and what was everyone willing and/or able to accomplish. Inevitably someone's similar situation was included not for blame but insight. You had to know you were not alone nor were you the first.
Embarrassment was overlooked and unacknowledged at that table.
You were purely a means of reference to be held up as a reflection for greater understanding and ability to overcome.
The future was not discussed until after all the information was on the table, looked over and put to rest...with little input from the person involved because it would be more prudent to let them deal with the immediate problems, they needed to hear where everything had gone wrong but most importantly where everything could go right.
If children were involved or housing was an issue arrangements were made with the women deciding who would stay where and how long. All future plan discussion would be presented to her later with the most popular pushed at the end or middle. Us kids would receive our own abridged version through washing dishes, cornrowing hair or just hanging out by the kitchen door "unseen".
No one kid had all the dirt so we had to disperse it in a way the gaps could be filled in by a variety of sources.
Those times were crucial in the acknowledgement of our family's structure.
Hierarchy was recognized and adhered to during these gatherings.
Elders words were given and any dissent was artfully and respectfully given except in rare cases where tempers grew short because things weren't moving in the most productive fashion.
We learned what family business meant and how it should be carried out.
The phone was key, there was a call placed and within moments that call was answered by a host of blood and bloodlike family. Everybody had a job to do.
It didn't matter the time of day or what needed to be done. You were required to be there ready, willing and able to perform to the best of your ability or there were consequences to be paid should you fail.
Your position within the group fell, your suggestions or insight diminished or completely ignored depending on the severity of the offense. If you couldn't be trusted you were cut off. No one wanted that.
But never was your call ignored should you be in need.
It was these times that helped me throughout my "developmental" years.
I hated the "ghetto gazette" but without it I was lost.
A gathering of women coming to the aid of their own was a natural force not even a 100 mile an hour wind hurricane was brave enough to face.
They rolled deep, thick and when they arrived all that was needed was the logistics.
It's why the scene in Spike Lee's X, where Denzel raises his hand and without a single eye aimed in his direction gave instruction to march with the flick of a finger. All moved in unison never breaking step or rank moved me so much.
These women moved as one.
The women in my family pulled together at a moments notice to defend one of their own.
Woman's work has long been dismissed as tedious and trivial, overlooked in the development and maintaining the well being and sustainability of the family support structure.
But it is where I learned how to move, strategize and maneuver.
It was where I learned to cry on Sunday and get down to business on Monday. It's where me and my cousins built our muscle for holding it all together, making decisions and guiding our children.
Ain't nothing ever easy but you ain't never on your own.
By listening to the women and men sitting at the dining room table we learned first hand, Family first, family last, family everything.
You didn't leave your own alone to face the crisis. You kept your wits about you. You used all your skills and you gathered your blood together and reviewed everything from the beginning. You presented a list of options to be given by a group of elders and peers whose only job is to support. they made sure you leave the table with a clear understanding that when you call it will be answered no matter what our personal differences.
It doesn't matter how far the drive or the hour of need.
This was women's work,
cleaning up the mess and making sure everything was put back in place by daylight.
There is no room for pussies here.
Causes Mya Speeks Supports
The Leeway Foundation