By Anjeneé Cannon
“Damn fool!” you shouted as the showcase contestant bid over her prize amount. “I told her that was too high.”
“You know people on the T.V. can’t hear you, right?” I smirked.
“Mind your business!” you replied, sticking out your tongue, thumb on the tip of your nose, wagging the other digits.
You sat cross-legged and slumped down in your favorite navy-blue lounger, an ice-cold glass of Heineken in one hand and the television remote in the other. This was your daily routine, watching the Price is Right by 11 a.m., while the continuous stream of phone calls from your peers ring through on the telephone. I have watched you carry out this same sequence of events daily for as long as I can remember. Seventy years old, that’s how old you were when I came into this world, a veteran soul ready to pass on your wisdom to anyone willing to sit and listen. Twenty-one years later and nothing but the mere obvious has changed. You slouch a little lower in your chair, your frame a little frailer, and the stream of phone calls has become a trickle. Though time has taken its toll on your body, the strong Black woman in you remains formidable. Now, as one of the few remaining students of Howard High School’s Class of 1946, you’ve seen death come for so many it doesn’t faze you, not one bit. Even as the agonizing pain of your dead hip tries to impede you, you still relish life, determined to inspire. You taught me that Black resilience is not to be undervalued; it’s a feeling, a movement, the spirit of our people; and indisputably, our women.
Every afternoon I’d join you on the porch and sit across from you, watching you scroll through the newspaper. Your first lecture, as I recall, was in response to my dislike of my skin tone. I was seven at the time, enchanted by whiteness, partly because I spent the majority of my time in white spaces.
“I wish I was white like my daddy’s kids!” I sobbed. “Why can’t I have nice hair like them?”
Your response, meant to discipline but not injure, will always resound. “You ought to be ‘shamed of yourself! I will not have you in my house talking like that! That’s the way God made you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Must a little Black girl be ashamed for wanting to be white like all the other little girls, even if that was all she ever knew? I couldn’t comprehend your anger because I was too young to understand, too young to appreciate the skin I was born into. It took experiences in which I was expected to fail because of my identity as a Black female to eventually open my eyes to the disparities that Black females face in education, society, and life in general. My discovery of the world around me prompted me to appreciate your lectures. Your wise words, unleashed in whatever tone, were desperate pleas for me to sit and listen. And so I did; every afternoon whenever I could.
Twelve years later, I was nineteen at the time, I asked a simple question about your first husband for a school project, and as expected, I received a lecture.
“What was your first husband like?” I asked.
Head bowed, thumbs twiddling, you answered, “I married Robert when I was twenty, and I had my first child when I was twenty-one, and then, I had Robert Jr. about a year later.”
Naturally, your answer was for the question I should’ve asked.
“One thing I’ll say about Robert, he wasn’t worth shit when he was gambling and drinking, but he cleaned up nice. He could cut you with the crease of his pants,” you chuckled. “I don’t care how drunk he was, he would put his clothes and shoes away just as neat as ever. You don’t find too many men like that nowadays.”
“Interesting, so why did you end up divorcing?” I asked.
“Another thing too, he didn’t mind doing any housework. You know, back then, women did all the housework, but Robert didn’t mind. If I cooked, he would clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes.” You paused, your mind gone to places made of memories. “I’ll never forget though, I came back from my mother’s house one day, and he was standing in the house waiting for me. You know, he had the nerve to tell me not to go over my mother’s house without his permission!”
“Really? What did you say?”
“I told him I don’t have to ask for you or God’s permission to go over my mother’s house. Now, nobody’s going to tell me when to go over my mother’s house. I dared him to, if he wanted to fight. I bet you he didn’t say anything else to me after that.” Your lips set firmly together for a moment, then you continued, “Anyways, he gambled too much. He would lose a whole day’s paycheck from gambling, and I wasn’t going to lose my money fooling with him, so I left. Don’t you let no man get in between you and your money.”
Low and behold, you were now part of the 18% of single Black mothers in the 1950s trying to their raise kids in a world favoring the needs of white people. Beyond the obstacles, you kept going. The lesson from that lecture: if you let a man or anything get in your way, “You’re like a bear, making tracks and going nowhere.”
The neighborhood in which you’ve resided for 60 years has seen the effects of pollution over the years. Currently under threat to the expansion of a local port, it too, like many predominately Black communities, faces eventual destruction.
“I really hope they don’t tear the neighborhood down,” I began.
“Well, sweetie, I hope they don’t tear it down too. The only reason they’re doing it is because it’s a Black neighborhood. If it were white people, they wouldn’t even bother. Don’t you know this whole neighborhood was mostly white when I first moved here?”
I agreed, “I wouldn’t be surprised, that’s how it always happens. As soon as they see Black people moving in, they happily move away. What happens when they move into our area? We’re the ones forced out with nowhere to live. It’s not fair.”
“When they first wanted to build that gravel mill down the street, the neighborhood made such a fuss that the community leaders held a meeting to stop the development,” you said. I could see the anger boiling in your eyes. That usually meant I was about to get lectured on something, whether I wanted to listen or not. “I went around the neighborhood and knocked on every single door telling them about our chance to do something at the meeting. And don’t you know, not a damn soul showed up to the meeting but me. I was so mad, I couldn’t see straight!”
“Well, at least you showed up,” I said.
“Yes, but that didn’t mean anything if nobody else showed up.”
Those words stuck with me. Sure, our people have come along way, but what would that have looked like had we not showed up in the first place? Indeed, the future is Black female, but this lecture taught me the importance of community. We are the future, and for us to thrive beyond the glass ceiling, it is vital that we support each other in times of need.
The story of how you first purchased your current house always prompted a lecture or two for reasons unknown. Perhaps, you took pride in being part of the slim percentage of Black female homeowners then.
“Don’t you know, I got a great deal on this house! The current owner had most of the mortgage paid off, and when I bought it, I took over the remainder of the mortgage and had it paid off in no time,” you bragged.
“So, you had this house before you met Pop-pop?” I asked.
“Sure! I bought this house with my own money. I was single then, but after I met Jim, we married, and he moved in. Then we had our last two children. But my first child had moved out by then. In fact, I found out I was pregnant with your mother around the time she got married. I thought I was going through the change back then. And ‘Tense got pregnant not too long after I found out I was expecting.”
“Well, that explains the age difference,” I said.
“Yep, that’s why she and J.R. are so close in age. We were pregnant at the same time. I always say she had the wedding, and I had the honeymoon!” You out an obnoxious giggle.
And there was that joke, I thought to myself before asking, “So, what made you stay in this house so long?”
“That cheap bastard! He would always tell me, ‘Leath, you’re always trying to spend your money.’ God, he was tight with his money. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to buy a new house and that bastard wouldn’t even look at it. I couldn’t even get him to have this porch put on the front of the house. I kept telling him how nice it would be, and all he would say is, ‘Leath, you’re always trying to spend your money.’ So, I said to hell with him and paid to have it put on myself, and you know what Jim Cannon did?”
I shook my head.
“He couldn’t keep off this porch after I had it put on. All he kept saying was, ‘Leath, this porch sure is nice!’ He sat right in this same chair every day and didn’t even want the porch in the first place.”
Well, the lesson learned from this lecture, Jim Cannon was a cheap bastard. I only wish he would’ve lived long enough to lecture me as well. I’m sure he would’ve had plenty to say. But more importantly, I learned the value of hard and self-sufficiency, enough to take care of myself. If you have to wait on a man for anything, you may end up waiting forever.
The time it has taken to listen to your lectures does not compare to the tremendous impact they have had on me throughout my life. I could never put into words just how much you truly mean to me and all of the Black females to whom you have passed on your wisdom. I have never been prouder to be a Black woman than I am now because of women like you. I remember reading your first marriage certificate and seeing the word, Negro, as your race. I hold steadfast to that image to remind me of just how far we have come and how much further we have to go. Given the tumultuous nature of our political climate, it is now more important than ever for Black females to rise and become the next leaders, doctors, teachers, president of the USA, and more. The future is Black female because we are determined to be anything but less than what the world thinks of us. I am your future, we are your future, and considering the standards you set for us, I know that it is promising and the possibilities are infinite.