Friday, October 23, 2020
Home Column The women who made me possible

The women who made me possible

My dad’s mom, who I call Grandma, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. She did a couple rounds of chemo, but it didn’t work for her, so she decided to stop. 

One afternoon this June, I bought McDonald’s and brought it over to Grandma’s house. I wish I could say this is something I’ve always done, similar to so many good habits I’ve picked up in 2020, but it isn’t. It’s a habit I picked up because things have gotten so bad, or so obvious, that I no longer had a choice.

We ate in the backyard. I sat in the shadow of an oak tree on a porch chair, about ten feet away from where Grandma sat on the porch in an identical chair. When we finished eating and chatting, the mood shifted, and I saw Grandma shift into her chair, settling in a little more.

“I’ve seen your pictures from the protests,” she said, “and I want to tell you a story.”

In Grandma’s backyard that June, she told me a story about her personal journey with racism. I won’t give you all the details, but her story begins with a young girl in Sedalia who didn’t think there was anything wrong with the system of segregation, and it ends with a mom in Raytown, after years of travelling the country, who fully realized the need for equality through her friendship with a Black mom on the PTA. 

In June, I started loaning out Black authored books from my personal collection for free and donating as much as my budget allows to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter on the borrower’s behalf. 

One of my first borrowers was my mom’s mom, who I call Cece. I was excited, but admittedly a little surprised. My earliest memory of a political conversation with any extended memory was with her, in the car on the way home from fifth grade, months before the first Obama election. I can’t remember the whole conversation, but I remember me not getting why anyone, not to mention Cece, who was obviously a person capable of love, wouldn’t agree with giving poor and homeless people enough money to get on their feet.

We didn’t talk much about politics after that. I hadn’t realized that I had family members who would disagree with me.

Cece left it up to me to decide which book she would borrow. I thought of the writing style and stories of the novels I’ve borrowed from her over the years, and settled on The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. My sister, Emma, and I walked over to her house, just a few blocks from our parents’ house in the Johnson County suburbs. 

Cece sat on her front porch. Emma and I sat on the grass. She thanked me for bringing the book, 

and sat forward in her folding chair.

“So what are you protesting for?” 

There wasn’t any malice in Cece’s voice, just confusion, a search for understanding. 

“What do you mean?” I asked, and she clarified that she understood the grief that comes with a person dying, but she didn’t know what Black Lives Matter wanted to change.

My sister and I did the best to explain systemic racism in the police across the country, and how defunding the police and providing other services would decrease the rates of police murdering Black people (and any people, for that matter).

On Cece’s porch that day, Emma and I got our message through to her. Since that day, Cece has told us about defending the movement when her friends try to disparage it, which I appreciate so deeply. Cece also finished reading The Nickel Boys.

On Friday, Sept. 18, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of pancreatic cancer, the same disease Grandma is diagnosed with. I’d been trying to figure out how to write about my grandmothers. I knew I wanted to do it sooner, rather than later. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing both encouraged and complicated that desire.

Like the Supreme Court justice, my grandmothers are not perfect people. But I admire them for what they’ve done to make me possible.

Let me explain. Maybe Grandma didn’t march for civil rights, but she empathized with a Black woman enough to let it change and solidify her views on racism. Maybe Cece didn’t understand the movement, but instead of writing it off, like some of my other relatives, she listened to my sister and I and embraced what we were saying.

Embracing change is something that my grandmothers have come to embody. Social change can be scary to white people because it is designed to make us less comfortable. Things that work for us and make us feel safe, like the police, need to be fundamentally changed to make BIPOC people comfortable in even the most basic ways, like the comfort of knowing a traffic stop won’t end in death. Or a night of sleep in one’s own bed.

My grandmothers have taught me to embrace change, in their unique ways. They have paved the way for me to be a part of enacting change and dismantling the rampant systems of white supremacy in the United States. I wouldn’t be here, writing to you, if they hadn’t taught me that. 

So this goes out to my grandmothers. I’m proud of them.

I’m ready to go further. I hope, when I’m their age, I can embrace change in a similar way.

knwhf2@mail.umkc.edu

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