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