The Women

As I listened to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speak last night about the black women (Shirley Chisholm and others) who paved the way for her historic accomplishment—and about the countless (or rather, counted) other black women who made this redemptive and long-overdue moment possible through their votes and tireless activism—my thoughts turned to some of the black women who have made powerful and profound impacts on my life, and to whom I owe deep debts of gratitude.

And so, while these words are far from sufficient to express my appreciation, respect, and love for the women I name, much less the many others whose lives have also inspired, challenged, and encouraged me along the way, I wanted to share this poem as a small tribute to some daughters of Mississippi who have dedicated themselves to the hard work of building the beloved community in that state. Dear friends, I will forever cherish and celebrate your wisdom, compassion, courage, generosity, kindness, persistence, grace, honesty, strength, and other admirable qualities. Thank you for sharing these treasures with me and with others who have had the honor and privilege of journeying alongside you!

The Women

In this staunchly patriarchal place
where the ghost of white supremacy
still manifests from time to time—
to the chagrin of many
and the surprise of some—
it’s the women of African descent
who have captivated my imagination
and secured my enduring admiration.

So dramatically different from one another
in hue and stature
in demeanor, gifts and dreams,
they are strikingly alike in resilience,
able to stare into the face
of the ugliest things life has to offer
and return beauty and honor
to a world desperately in need
of both.

I watched Lee Sharon Harper,
gifted and called to preach,
as she ministered to a congregation
not yet certain it was ready
to hear the Word of God
through a female vessel.
She persevered,
and they were blessed.

I listen with morbid fascination
as Lee’s baby sister, Vashtie Brown,
speaks of her work in a functionally segregated
chicken plant:
The whites rule the office,
while the blacks work the line.
Caught in a structure fashioned to keep her
in her place,
Vashtie converses boldly with the boss man—
telling him the truth about the business he owns
and the people he does not.

I witnessed Belle Coleman,
on the morning after she had lost
another son,
standing to praise the God
who understood.
And I stood
in awe of her faith—
I who have lost so little,
yet bemoan what little I have lost
as if it could begin to compare
to the riches of which Sister Coleman
has been robbed.

I immerse myself in the story
of Rosie Camper Weary,
who labored for decades
in the shadows,
just outside the white-hot glow
of the spotlight that bathed her husband’s work.
Neither disappointment nor tragic loss
could keep her silent forever,
and now, against her natural inclination,
she tests her voice—
discovering, to her surprise,
a multitude eager to hear it.

And I grieve the loss of Gloria Stene Lotts,
who spent her final weeks on earth
caring for others’ children
as well as her own
and planning the final celebration
of my birthday
that she and I would undertake together.

Without her, the world is a poorer place—
as my own life would have been
had the brilliant example
of these excellent women
and myriad more
not shed light upon my path.

© 2014
Alexis Spencer-Byers