Ruby Sales ~ From My Front Porch

Nonfiction
Friends receive this shar­ing of my sto­ry with the love that is intend­ed. My sto­ry: A south­ern Black wom­an’s narrative/autobiographical song

1.

Nancy and I dri­ve the New Jersey Turnpike on our way to New York. I am com­pelled to New York by Audre Lorde’s death, June Jordan’s sick­ness and Adrian Felton’s dying. I am adult tired and need to be replen­ished by the joys, mem­o­ries and warmth of my young adult­hood. The New Jersey turn­pike is a road which I trav­eled to many events and peo­ple. For me, it is a main artery into my life, the hap­pi­ness and pain marked by dif­fer­ent exits.

Exit two, Philadelphia, my aunt Martha’s home­town. Her love held me togeth­er after Tom Coleman shot Jonathan Daniels dead and crit­i­cal­ly wound­ed Father Richard Morrisroe in front of my eyes in Lowndes County, Alabama. My ado­les­cent mouth clogged up with the sight of Jon’s mur­dered body and Father Morrisroe’s screams for water as he lay in the dirt writhing and bleed­ing. Jon’s death and Father Morrisroes’s wounds silenced me, and my tongue became as heavy and still as Morrisroe’s par­a­lyzed spine. I saw death in the morn­ing and late at night. At night, I slept alone with the edges of Stokely Carmichael’s pil­low crammed in my mouth. Throughout my fear and griev­ing, Silas Norman who was my boyfriend and Project Director of Selma, Alabama tucked me in his heart and held me with a grip that would not let me slip.

I left Lowndes County and went to Philadelphia because I was bone weary from the War in the South—my inno­cence dev­as­tat­ed by White male ter­ror­ism and vio­lence which killed and maimed young Black and White free­dom fight­ers who envi­sioned a new world and gave up their youth to make it hap­pen. We were part­ners and sis­ters and broth­ers in The Student Non Violent Coördinating Committee for­ev­er yoked by our com­mon strug­gle, dreams and expe­ri­ences. We filled each other’s hearts as we filled each other’s life.

We were young. We were ide­al­is­tic. We believed in the promis­es of the moth­ers and fathers that America was large enough for every­one regard­less of race, col­or or creed. Believing this, we strug­gled to bring America to its high­est high­er self. We were crushed under the weight of white lies, white racism and white vio­lence. America’s bad faith and vio­lence marked and stretched us into tiny bits which lay on the road from Atlanta to Washington to New York to Los Angeles.

I was young, Black and female and I was an eye­wit­ness to these crimes. White vig­i­lantes turned Tuskegee, Haynesville, Fort Deposit and Montgomery into bloody bat­tle­grounds where they bombed church­es, mur­dered and unleashed killer dogs on all who “stood up for free­dom.”

Their vio­lence tram­pled my spir­it. I went to Germantown to my aunt, my moth­er’s sis­ter to recov­er. Her face and smile, so like my moth­er’s, healed me togeth­er to sol­dier in the Southern Freedom Movement again. Philadelphia/Germantown, where I ate my first hoagie. I was always a stranger there. It took me years to real­ize that it was region and class. Coming from Columbus, Georgia, Carver Heights, Carver High School and the high­brow First African Baptist Church, all hubs of south­ern mid­dle class life, I did not have famil­iar ref­er­ences for work­ing class urban Blacks and work­ing class urban eth­nic Whites. Philadelphia taught me that Black and white lives are not mono­lith­ic.

Exit Seven, Princeton, my home for six years—a book with pages filled with lone­li­ness, mixed with love, wealth, ideas, iso­la­tion, and men who demand­ed me to reject truths that I learned from oral and liv­ing his­to­ry. They want­ed me deny this his­to­ry, to recre­ate myself in their image and in their voice—wanted me to rewrite our sto­ry in a lan­guage that aggran­dized them and less­ened my peo­ple. They want­ed me to call slav­ery a “pecu­liar insti­tu­tion”, not a social and spir­i­tu­al abom­i­na­tion before God of cap­tiv­i­ty where Black peo­ple worked, and Whites stole the labor and called it their own.

Many white men at Princeton want­ed me to lie for them, want­ed me to sev­er my emo­tion­al ties with my past, to dis­tance myself from my peo­ple and to step out­side of myself and my con­nec­tions with oth­er Black people—wanted me to become unre­lat­ed. They want­ed me to use the imper­son­al they instead of the col­lec­tive we when speak­ing about us. Ultimately, they want­ed me to be a stranger at my par­ents’ table.

The white male high priests of west­ern Culture dis­hon­ored my peo­ple’s name. They called them sam­bo, slave, whore, stud, mam­my and trag­ic mulat­to. They believed that their white male­ness gave them the author­i­ty to name my peo­ple, to call them out of their names, to lessen my grand­par­ents’ images and worth in my eyes—to name their fathers and some­times their moth­ers every­thing good, brave and honorable—to name my fathers and moth­ers every­thing bad, cow­ard­ly and dis­hon­or­able. I rose up with fury in defense of my people’s names and was numbed by the heavy blow of white pow­er.

I was young Black and female, and I was a long way from home at Princeton where I car­ried in my spir­it and my heart, fresh mem­o­ries of white rage, indi­vid­ual and vig­i­lante vio­lence. At Princeton, in that citadel of white male thought and cul­ture, I wit­nessed anoth­er mur­der of Black peo­ple by the high priests of Western cul­ture who used their schol­ar­ship to dis­mem­ber and pathol­o­gize the Black self.

At Princeton I could not speak what I did not believe. I could not speak in a dis­course where the terms were already set and the stakes already won. Nor could I as some elders advised me, play the game, and give them what they want. I could not heed their advice. I was too much imprint­ed with the blood and per­son­al sac­ri­fices of Blacks and Whites in the Southern Freedom Movement.

My his­to­ry and con­scious­ness made it hard for me to speak what I did not believe. Nor could I for­get that I was at Princeton because Jonathan Daniels had stepped out on his belief in free­dom and took the bul­let that saved my life. This act pro­found­ly reaf­firmed my com­mit­ment to a life of social advo­ca­cy and an eth­ic of truth­ful­ness that encour­ages all of us to reach for our high­er selves. I could not betray this com­mit­ment at Princeton for indi­vid­ual gain. Instead, my womb knot­ted into big fibroids which sucked my blood.

Black women held me through this pain at Princeton. Their love and care pro­vid­ed safe nooks and cran­nies for me to rest. Ifetayo, Christine, Toni, Audre, Marcia, Inez, women whom I knew and loved at Princeton—mothers/sisters/ friends lovers—not to men­tion Jean Downs, African-American female Professor in the Wilson School who kissed me at Rusty Scupper’s under the big moss. I was her first female kiss. Both of us were stunned by the moment.

Even as I write this, I see her eyes flash­ing so much love and fear direct­ly into mine. I hear her laugh, a fine tin­kling sound that waltzes in her black eyes and on her smooth brown face—our inten­si­ty revealed in that kiss, a rever­ber­a­tion through­out her mar­riage and even into the class­room where Ife, my lover, was her stu­dent. She left Princeton to move up to become the first Black Female President of a major white University. She died at fifty from brain cancer—the climb to the top—a growth that explod­ed in her head. Another capa­ble Black woman dead at fifty—dead at the dawn of her menopause.

I did not cry when she died. I did not weep and wail in the tra­di­tion of my south­ern moth­ers bury­ing their dead. I did not chant the words of the great ances­tral song:

Nearer my God to thee
Nearer my God to thee
Even though it be a cross that rais­es me
still all my songs shall near­er my God to thee
If my joy­ful wings
cleav­ing like the sky
sun, moon and stars for­get
upward I fly
still all my wings
shall be
near­er my God to thee

Because I had tast­ed so much death, I was numbed into silence. I did not take her to the water to fly away. Instead, I smoothed my mourn­ing song in silence, still­ness and denial. Even today many years lat­er, I hold her in that sacred cor­ner in my heart reserved for ances­tors whose words vis­it me and come tum­bling from my pen like a cho­rus singing in uni­son ever­more.

2.

Exit Thirteen: Verrazano Bridge, the exit to Staten Island, New York, Audre’s home. Staten Island always seemed so far away from the light and col­or of Manhattan.

I crossed that bridge over and over to vis­it Audre, where she lived with Elizabeth and Jonathan, her chil­dren and Frances, her white female lover and part­ner whose white­ness I did not trust. This I said to Audre when we met in a youth­ful and bit­ing let­ter, which chas­tised her for choos­ing a white woman over Black women. I also let her know in words cal­cu­lat­ed to eat out her heart that if she loved Frances, I would not let her love me.

My ulti­ma­tum had the pow­er to hurt and debil­i­tate Audre. This I knew. I knew, too, that my words car­ried the pow­er and inti­ma­cy of his­to­ry and blood. They were laced with the con­fi­dence of know­ing that Audre already loved me. I was a famil­iar, my eyes and motions reflec­tions of her­self and oth­er Black women whom she loved. In each other’s sights, we were pow­er­ful war­riors whose tongues punc­tured holes in our defens­es.

Knowing our pow­er, we some­times hurt and test­ed each oth­er. We crit­i­cized each oth­er and dis­missed each from the cor­ners of our fear, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, ten­der­ness and pain with­out admit­ting that we want­ed and need­ed from each oth­er what the world denied us. We want­ed to be beau­ti­ful, glo­ri­ous and love­able in each other’s eyes. I did not tell her that her love for Frances unleashed a pri­mal fear: that if she didn’t love me, I, who looked like her, who would in a world, which dis­tort­ed the sound of my name? These words we did not say. Nor did I say the words, which I learned from her poet­ry:

Mother I need
moth­er I need
moth­er I need your black­ness now
as the august earth needs rain
     (from “From the House of Yemanja”, Audre Lorde)

This I did not say. Nor, did I tell her that I thought that Frances moved her to Staten Island in an attempt to make her need her—Audre did. For she was a sin­gle, Black female moth­er strug­gling not to be “[ground] into dust,” or a foot­note or stereo­type by this “machine called America”.

Frances kept the chil­dren while Audre poet­ed and played queen moth­er grow­ing the earth with her integri­ty, hon­esty, anger, love and pain. Generations of women of all col­ors blos­somed on her poems and grew stronger with­out cal­cu­lat­ing the cost to Audre. She was their hero. They quot­ed her as if her words would make them brave—brave enough to speak, brave enough to be war­riors enough to break the bound­aries of soci­ety and the lim­its of their own fears. They rigid­i­fied her in their own visions. They want­ed her to be either this or that, straight or gay, fem­i­nist or Africanist. They made of Audre some­one I didn’t rec­og­nize. They cre­at­ed her into what they them­selves want­ed to be. They gave her more pow­er than they gave them­selves. In lov­ing Audre, they made her larg­er or less than their own lives. Audre’s vision of her­self chal­lenged easy labels. She was part woman, part man, part child, part mama, part dad­dy, part African, part Caribbean and part American. She spoke “with­out con­cern for the accu­sa­tions,” that she was “too much or too lit­tle woman, too Black or too white, or too much her­self.” Audre wrote to string her­self togeth­er, to speak the sound of her name to a world that demand­ed her silence because she was a Black female moth­er, sis­ter, wife, pro­fes­sor, social­ist, librar­i­an and les­bian bisex­u­al poet.

In fight­ing for her voice and her life, she pio­neered ter­ri­to­ry that opened up the earth for all of us. Her ter­ror of her own invis­i­bil­i­ty “kept her brave.” It gave her the courage to write: “I am a Black woman war­rior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

Her brav­ery was there­fore not a metaphor­i­cal choice. It was an act of sur­vival as well as a per­son­al dri­ve toward her own human­i­ty. Audre’s poems were foot­steps to her self, prayers to “Seboulisa, moth­er of pow­er, keep­er of birds, fat and beau­ti­ful to not let, [her] pass away before [she] had a name.”

This quest drove Audre. It reflect­ed the simul­tane­ity of her life. Her mother’s hurt and joys. It reflect­ed her mother’s love and her rejec­tion, her ten­der­ness and her harsh­ness, her father’s assault and his love, the nuns’ racism and their kind­ness. Audre’s ear­ly loss­es as well as her ear­ly gains. These lessons made her both strong and afraid, ambiva­lent about ten­der­ness, afraid of her pow­er­less­ness. Sometimes they cre­at­ed in her a Black woman’s anger, which as she said was “an elec­tric thread-upon,”which she set the essen­tials of her life—boiling hot spring like­ly to erupt at any point, leap­ing out of [her] con­scious­ness like a fire on the land­scape. How to train that anger with accu­ra­cy rather than deny it [was] one of the major tasks of her life.”

Sometimes, she did not man­age this task well. I felt this fail­ure in her pos­ture. I didn’t like her stance. Audre demand­ed and stood ready to con­quer. During these moments, Audre want­ed to con­quer, to pos­sess the pow­er of very adults, who were the par­ents of her pain.

My ear­ly child­hood would not let me be con­quered. That was the war between us. I could not accept this male­ness. A pri­mal instinct root­ed in my heart and his­to­ry rebelled against this male­ness in her. I didn’t under­stand it then, but I do now.

I hear Audre read­ing in my ear. Her voice, deep and British—articulating her poems in the rhythms of her moth­er and father tongues. Her slow and exact West Indian cadence dif­fer­ent from the rapid sounds of the “New Black Poets”, Baraka, Sanchez, Lee, Giovanni, Jordan and Rodgers. Her poems are cel­e­bra­tions of the we-ness in all of us, high-spir­it­ed dec­la­ra­tions of faith, the “trans­for­ma­tion of silence into faith.” She sought “to teach by liv­ing.”

And this was not easy. Audre learned that les­son by liv­ing in the heart of a world, which grew opu­lent on Black female flesh. Audre left Staten Island to save her life. The only prob­lem was that she was already dying.

Exit Fourteen: Lincoln Tunnel and then New York.

New York. NewYork. I was young and brave and thin in New York. I played in the Village and dis­coursed on hope and change with men and women who earnest­ly cared about oth­er peo­ple. I looked direct­ly into the light of the sun and caught its glow with a dream. I loved a man in New York whose smell I do not remem­ber. What I do remem­ber is that we made love up against the walls, the cab­i­nets, in the bath­tub, on the floor, in the morn­ing and the after­noon. I desired his Jamaican Blackness and his male­ness. He was lost in America; I missed home. I need­ed his male­ness a famil­iar which remind­ed me of Southern Black men named Freddie, Jerry, Milton and Samuel, men whom I left at home.

In New York, I lived on streets named 103rd, Washington Square, Morningside Drive and Second Avenue. I loved women and men named Chris, Silas, Bill, June, Nikki, Sonia, Sherry, Iris, Adrian, Ayida, Maria, and Cynthia. These mem­o­ries come to me as Nancy and I dri­ve up the West Side through the Park to the east side to her par­ents’ home.

Nancy and I hit the street in New York. We head for the Village. The first place we go is the women’s book­store, Judith’s Room. Audre’s pic­ture is on the door with the words, AUDRE LORDE, 1934–1992. I am flung back in my foot­steps by the stark­ness of this black and white real­i­ty, Audre Lorde, 1934–1992. She is dead. The excite­ment of being in New York eas­es out of me and a funer­al dirge ris­es in my throat—I hear Audre chant­i­ng:

Our skins are emp­ty
They have been vacat­ed by the spir­its
who are angered by our reluc­tance
to feed them.
In bas­kets of straw made from sleep grass
and the drop­pings of civets
they have been hid­den away by our moth­ers
who are wait­ing for us by the riv­er
My voice joins hers.
My skin is tight­en­ing
soon I shall shed it
like a mon­i­tor lizard
like remem­bered com­fort
at the new moon’s ris­ing
I will eat the last sign of my weak­ness
remove the scars of the old child­hood wars
and dare to enter the for­est whistling
like a snake that has fed the chameleon
for changes
I will be for­ev­er.
May I nev­er remem­ber rea­sons
for my spirit’s safe­ty
may I nev­er for­get
the warn­ing of my woman’s flesh
weep­ing at the new moon
may I nev­er lose that ter­ror
that keeps me brave
May I owe noth­ing
that I can­not repay…”

I stop at the last two lines, “May I owe noth­ing that I can­not repay.” I can­not speak these words for they are too much Audre’s voice and not my own. Instead, the moth­ers who are wait­ing for Audre at the riv­er speak to me. Their voic­es col­lect in me and tes­ti­fy. They say “daugh­ter we left owing much more than we could ever repay.” Theirs is a tes­ti­mo­ny of col­lec­tiv­i­ty, a state­ment of a con­tin­uüm whose move­ment is shaped by many hands and much sac­ri­fice, which we can­not repay in a life­time or a gen­er­a­tion. I, daugh­ter, south­ern Black woman, bisex­u­al, gri­ot, sis­ter, aunt am cre­at­ed in their images, held togeth­er in this knowl­edge and shaped by their grace. I have learned their lives and sto­ries in church­es, in books, in songs and in the hills and val­leys of my own life. We are each oth­er and our­selves. We are for each oth­er, a con­nec­tion.

Their names tum­ble from my lips one by one: Ola Freeize Sales, Delia Robison Chaney Fletcher Baker Snell, Marian Pitts Armstrong, Marguerite Barnette, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Ruby Doris Smith, Anna Hedgeman, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Mary McCleod Bethune, Francis Coppin, Anna J. Cooper, Juliette Derricotte, Francis Harper, Phyllis Wheatley, Eloise Bibb Thompson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Augusta Savage, Mary Burrill, Angeline Grimke, Alice Dunbar Nelson and Edmonia Lewis.

The moth­ers have gath­ered at the riv­er to take Audre through. They stand in a cir­cle, east to their front, west to their backs. They are dressed in long white dress­es. Their heads are cov­ered com­plete­ly in white. One moth­er has a tow­el in her hands. Another moth­er has a coat to wrap around Audre for the chill of the cross­ing. They wait at the river­bank. They are Holy Ghost mamas mov­ing with the sprit and mem­o­ries of all of our lives. They have renamed Audre who came home to them to die. They named her in the heat of a hur­ri­cane Gambia Adissa.

Audre found her name. It was Black. She left the wilder­ness of America and crossed the same water, which took her moth­er to America, that coun­try, which shat­tered her into pieces, called African American les­bian female poet. The moth­ers did not let her die with­out a name, which remem­bered her back tin to self: “sis­ter, daugh­ter, lover, mama.”
The moth­ers hold open their arms. They stand at the water’s edge ready to take her through. They move and sway to the words:

Take me to the waters
Take me to the waters
to be bap­tized
none but the right­eous
none but the right­eous
shall see God
In the name of Jesus
In the name of Jesus
be bap­tized.”

They reach out to Audre who stands on the shore in clothes that the earth moth­ers have wrapped her in, long white gown and white socks. They whis­per to me, “tell her that its okay, we can nev­er repay what we owe.” Tell her that. Then take her to the riv­er, and let her go, she’ll be ready.

I can­not let her go. There is much to fin­ish between us. She can­not for­give my silence, my refusal to speak the sto­ries of what I know, to accept what she was will­ing to pass on. But, I am like her. I am a daugh­ter who is not per­fect. I do not live out her dreams; will not assume her ambiva­lence. I do not fin­ish my Ph.D. I would not be good at Princeton, refused to val­ue it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty that she nev­er had.

I am a part of her but sep­a­rate. I tell her I am me and not her. I stand her up, I avoid her glances, and I write her let­ters, which she some­times refus­es to answer. We are moth­er and daugh­ter sep­a­rat­ed by our words. She fights for the future; I fight for the present. We can­not resolve this dis­pute, this gen­er­a­tional war—cannot rec­og­nize it as the same bat­tle. Instead, we “bury each oth­er in silence and hurt.” Or we throw a hun­dred ver­bal and inti­mate dag­gers that land direct­ly in each other’s hearts.

She can­not for­give my youth­ful nar­cis­sism. I can­not for­give her unwill­ing­ness to acknowl­edge my age. I can­not for­give her con­tra­dic­tions. She can­not for­give my incon­sis­ten­cies. These issues we do not resolve. She dies with the issues still between us. She leaves me to under­stand what she already learned: there are some dis­tances that can nev­er be bridged between moth­er and daugh­ters or between generations—our strug­gle taught me that the young, as Audre put it:

need not relive my past
in strength nor in con­fu­sion
nor care that their holy fires
may destroy
more than my fail­ures…”

For now, I am their moth­er, Audre’s daugh­ter stand­ing in the light of her words and the sound of her new name, Gambia Adissa. I too, have a daugh­ter, a young Black woman who came to my door like I came to Audre’s: in search of her­self. I too, am almost twice her age. She tells me with fury in her voice that if I love Nancy, she won’t love me. To her Nancy is not friend; she is white woman whose soft words she does not trust. In her words, I hear myself, young, def­i­nite, my per­cep­tions sharp darts, which pierce hypocrisy and sham. She tells me that she is her­self, not me. I tell her she is self­ish, self-cen­tered. She tells me that I too am self-cen­tered, that I will not let her be her age—that she is not my age—we hurl ver­bal dag­gers and inti­ma­cies which land at each other’s hearts. But we do not remain silent. We speak words of heal­ing, “holy ghost words” learned from Audre’s life.

To her name we give hon­or. I stand before you Audre’s daugh­ter raised up in her work—spitting out sor­row every two months, sur­round­ed by death, a sound that last called Adrian who rocked and cried in my arms the week before she died. I am now on the mid­dle pas­sage, between the river­bank and earth. My prayers: urgent praise songs and lamen­ta­tions, call­ing out the past and pre­dict­ing the future.

I am on a jour­ney for ways of speak­ing my name, Ruby Nell Sales. I too ask that “my feet not shat­ter before my work is done.” And, in the words of my moth­ers and fathers, I pray:

When my jour­ney is done
and my work all through
and when I have done all that I can do
take the hands of me your faith­ful ser­vant
and guide me to the river­bank
where the moth­ers are wait­ing to
unite me with the fathers and moth­ers
where we will join togeth­er
in a heav­en­ly cho­rus
singing and shout­ing,
we gonna rise up holy
we gonna rise up sanc­ti­fied
in the morn­ing when we rise
Amen, Amen!

~

Ruby Sales is the founder and direc­tor of the Spirit House Project, a non-prof­it that works towards racial, eco­nom­ic, and social jus­tice. As a teenag­er at Tuskegee University in the 1960s, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) and went to work as a stu­dent free­dom fight­er in Lowndes County, Alabama. A social activist, schol­ar, pub­lic the­olo­gian, and edu­ca­tor, Sales has preached around the coun­try on race, class, gen­der and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. She has degrees from Tuskegee Institute, Manhattanville College, and Princeton University. She also received a Masters of Divinity from the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in 1998.