Have you ever sat down and listened to an elderly black woman share stories about her childhood? Did she graduate from high school? Did she want to attend college? How did she meet her husband? What were her jobs, dreams, successes, and struggles? What were the expectations placed upon her? How did they impact her life?
In 1848, the movement for women’s rights launched on a national stage. In 1865, the 13th Amendment passed, which ended slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Nearly 100 years later came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Woman. Black. Black woman. Oftentimes, her visibility is missing when discussions on equity and equality occur. Her voice is a whisper if heard at all. Is this intentional, or is there an innocent assumption that gender and racial movements proactively include agenda items for her specific advancement?
Although the presence of black women is requested in civil and social rights fights, she is often denied opportunities and support to lead charges in integrated circles that speak directly to her unique challenges. Should she then be content with accepting the crumbs of her collective progress? The answer to this is “No.” Any variation of that answer would contradict the sacrifices and hurdles that black women before her overcame for “better tomorrows.”
To gain a better understanding, invest a little time in hearing an elderly black woman share her life. She has valuable insight and wisdom that is oftentimes neglected in textbooks. Listen to learn, not to debate your progressive beliefs.
Elderly black women know the feelings of frustration and discouragement that exist when societal norms present obstacles designed to hinder your pursuit of greatness. Her stage in life positions her to root for you without seeing you as a threat, to calm you when your emotions are overwhelming, and to appreciate your accomplishments while teaching you that they are not yours alone. Through her eyes and in her voice, you discover a deeper identity. She, indeed, is strong and, even when “forgotten,” is steadfast in her assignment. Her existence serves as a reminder to all, but especially to you, that progress is being made. Listen to her story. Ask her questions. Make a friend.
When you think about the environment in which black women lived before your birth, how can you not be amazed by her strength? The jobs mostly available to her were domestic in nature. Her employers were mostly individuals with a reputation for maltreatment. Laws intimidated her. Imagery and messaging insisted that she believed that she was less than. Still, she sheltered children to the best of her ability. She dreamt of a better life for them. In her way, she continued to work for the progress we see today.
If you have not taken a moment to sit with an elderly black woman, consider making this a priority. She may already be in your life. She may be your mother or your grandmother, although she does not have to be someone you know well or talk to often. Maybe she is someone with whom you exchange pleasantries at your place of worship? Maybe she is a neighbor?
Do not disregard the treasure of elderly, black women. Remember, what you do unto others may come back and be done unto you.
Keisha Bell is an Attorney, author, and public servant.