Lately, I’ve been thinking about being a Nana ( to 4 grandsons). The announcement by two close Boomer friends ( FH, SS) that they were about to enter Nanaland was the trigger for this contemplation. Like many other Boomers who are now being called Granny, Grandmama, Mima, Abuela, Baba, Nai Nai, Grandmere, Ya Ya, Oma and the super cool hip hop Gmom, my knowledge of this role comes from my interaction with my own Grandmother Rachel.
Grandma Rachel lived to be 100 plus years. No, she didn’t get her picture on the Today show smucker jelly commercial, but she did receive many accolades/awards during her lifetime. Much of it was for service in her NY community and church where she remained active until her later years.
My fondest memories of her were the summers she traveled from the big Apple to Norfolk to make her yearly sojourn down South. A native North Carolinian, Grandma Rachel had made her home in New York, but her roots ran deep in southern soil.
News of her impending visit, would always cause a bustle of activity in our household as my mother supervised our cleaning/polishing/scrubbing activity….girl you better use that comet to clean under that toilet..what you afraid of?
But I knew Grandma Rachel didn’t care about whether the house was spic and span, she just wanted to visit her children and enjoy afternoons on the porch sipping ice cold coke while she braided my long Indian rope hair and reminisced about summertime in Scotland Neck. The memory of those visits can literally turn my frown into a smile and brighten my hectic days.
A few years ago, I reconnected with my 93 year old cousin Mamie who also has fond memories of Grandma Rachel…she called her Mama. The 30 year difference in our age makes the idea of her being my cousin somewhat eyebrow raising to many, but she was in fact my 90 something year old father’s niece…talk about a family tree. Out of respect for her and the significant age difference between us, I always referred to her as Aunt Mamie which seemed more fitting.
Aunt Mamie was a phenomenon. A survivor. A Bible Scholar. A pillar of the community. Loved by many grands, nieces, nephews, blood and non-blood. She was a praying/God fearing/believing Grandma whose hands had seen many days hard work. She raised her own 5 children and those of many others including my brother and I for one year.
Her melodious voice which often reminded me of someone singing was never without a word of encouragement/praise/forgiveness for those who had the good fortune to be in her presence. She loved a good laugh and often delivered some one liners that were comedian worthy. As the ravages of old age began to invade her body, she remained stalwart believing that her God was always right there delivering her from the pain, the sickness, the dark days. He is worthy to be praised she would sing, smiling that almost ethereal smile. She was a blessing. She was Mima . Thank you cousin/her daughter Minnie.
The book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 years by sisters Bessie and Sadie Delany comes to mind when I reflect on these strong women. Their story is a testament to the strength/survival of African Americans. It is also an example of the oral tradition so important in documenting the lives of African Americans in this country.*
For the Delany sisters, their story begins with freedom and ends with an understanding of the importance, not only of their lives, but of all who struggle to comprehend our raison d’etre.
Although the Delany sisters did not experience slavery firsthand, their account in Having Our Say replicates the structure of the slave narrative juxtaposing the slave’s experience with that of eventual freedom. The color issue, ever present in this personal history, impacts the lives of the two sisters with a deafening insistence often found in African American culture, even today.
The opening chapters of the book provide an introduction to the members of the Delany family complete with a description of their physical attributes including color.
People would look at us Delany children and wonder where in the world this bunch came from. We were very different shades from nearly white to brown sugar. I (Sadie) was one of the lighter children and Bessie was browner.
Sadie’s forthright, philosophical approach to the color issues does not, however, reflect the general sentiment of other members of the race. In fact, the acceptance of racial identity is an integral part of the rite of passage of the black female in this society. Her acceptance of racial identity is crucial to survival in a world which is often hostile to people of color.
As we learn more about the personalities of the sisters, we find that Sadie is the calmer, more passive sibling while Bessie struggles with the anger and frustration brought on by dealing with a hostile, color conscious world. Adversity has made Bessie the stronger of the two. She attributes her longevity to meanness and sheer determination. This same attitude/fortitude has made survivors of many of our mothers and grandmothers.
The sisters, eventually (like my Grandmother Rachel) left the South and migrated North to Harlem. Bessie continued to battle racism and sexism by gaining admission as the sole black female in Columbia University Dental School. Sadie became her mother’s companion and spent much of her time traveling through the South. The sisters finally made their home in Mt. Vernon, NY where they enjoyed the privileges of the Negro Intelligentsia.
The sisters’ journey ended following the publication of their book…Sadie at 106 and Dr. Bessie at 104. Their memoir remains an important document in American history. It refutes the portrayal so common in history/literature of the black woman as mammy/matriarch/sex object/ or THOT.
The Delany sisters experienced the multifarious damage and distance of class and race in the segregated South and went on to battle the racism and sexism of a Renaissance North. This oral history is a testament to the determination and strength which makes GrandMamas a force to be reckoned with.
* From my book review essay published in the Afro-Americans in New York Life and History