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Women’s Her-story Month: A tribute to Old Black Women Healers

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

–Maya Angelou

So, how do you make a little black girl believe that all she has gone through does not determine her ability to take flight? How do you “teach” her that her wings are beautiful and that the risk of flying is a marvelous growth enriching endeavor? How do you make her see that her cadged song and flight will one day inspire others to freedom? How do you “teach” a black girl to fly?

You see, it’s not an easy endeavor because so many things seek to clip their wings, silence their voice, and keep them cadged. It takes a special kind of spiritual intervention to release little black birds. It is not a task for the faint of heart or for those who benevolently (i.e. good white women) “swoop” in to save de Negro children from the pathology of their colored communities. Hmmmm . . . it is a task well suited for wise black women like Baby Suggs in Beloved who said, “Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it . . . No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands . . . You got to love it,” and Minnie Ransom in The Salt Eaters who said, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well,” and my 8th grade colored school teacher, Mrs. LaVern Colvin, who said, “Now listen here, Fallon, if you do not know by now how much I love you . . . you will never know, dearie.”

Yes, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Mrs. LaVern Colvin all understand the power of wise if not spiritually medicinal black mothers—godmother, other mother, adopted mother, lesbian black mother, church mother, or just an old colored school teacher—to heal the ailing souls of black women and black girls. I know many of you reading this blog are probably saying, “Not all old black women are caring let alone wise,” perhaps not. But, it has been my experience and I will even venture to say the experience of many black women that we all have been touched by the wise words of old black women if not though the “chance” bumping into her in the hallway, reading her words in books like Audre Lorde’s Zami, or eating pound cake at her table as she seeks to reassure you that no matter what ABC News says life does not end because you are single black woman in America.

Yep, these old black women will heal you by teaching you how to fly even if it means pushing you off the ledge limiting the choices you have—either you’re going to flap or you’re going to die the choice is yours. It’s that simple. And now that I think about it that’s how I learned to fly. I was pushed. I was shoved. I was called everything my godmother knew to say while playing spades. Because I did not want to leave my cage I did not want to have to deal with my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s desperate retreat, and all of the other things that come to scare you as a little black girl in a family of unhealthy men. I wanted to be safe and my self-made cage gave me that reassurance. I was safe.

Hmmm . . . I know why the cadged bird sings.

But thank God for colored spiritual medicinal women like Marie Stewart, Ella Baker, Big Momma, Auntie Clara Mae, Fannie Lou Hammer, and my godmothers who have lived long enough in this society to know how it can make you sick and caged bound, but who also know how to heal you whether you want the healing or not. They would say, “Fallon, you have legs just walk . . . Fallon, do you want to spend your life being a 40-year old fried hair beauty queen . . . Fallon, your mother’s story is a part of your story, but it does not determine your fate . . . Fallon, you are stronger than you know you are . . . Fallon, Fallon, (shouting) Fallon.”

And somehow I started to see that I am something special and I deserve to be free. Mark my words; there is something special about wise old black women. But because we live in a patriarchal racist society, old black women’s knowledge and wisdom is greatly devalued. We see them as nagging forgetful asexual hags or as comical gun toting Madea(s) when their sheer age alone says that they sho-nuff know something about weathering a racist and sexist society.

So, the question is how do you teach a black girl how to fly? You teach her to fly by finding her some old cantankerous soul to spend a little time with because I fundamentally believe that there is healing power in our grandmother’s stories. In general, teaching little black girls to fly is a spiritual enterprise where often older black women are simultaneously doctor, therapist, mother, teacher, disciplinarian, preacher woman, and healer.

So, today on this first Friday of Women’s History Month I honor Old Black Woman Healers because without them many of us would have spiritually, mentally, and physically died long ago. So, I ask you the reader to name an old black woman who said a word or two that enabled you to continue getting your degree, that taught you to continue to fight for love, that comforted you as you shed a tear or two, that hugged you when you felt unlovable, that prayed for you when you thought you would lose your last strand of sanity, and that said, “Baby, you got legs just walk.”

So, let us honor our wise old black women today.


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