Dorothy I. Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) who fought for most of her life on behalf of women and blacks, died at the age of 98.
The last time I saw Ms. Height she was in her wheel chair, poised, eagle-eye alert, wearing her signature church lady wide brim hat, and in full control of everyone and everything.
President of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years, advising presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton on both civil and gender rights, Ms. Height helped advance landmark legislation on school desegregation, voting rights and equality in the workplace.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Make no mistake about it, Ms. Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage in the years after World War II, often standing alone as a woman amidst a den of black male preachers, challenging sexism, decrying foolishness, negotiating between factions, calling egos on the carpet, making deals without losing her soul, and calling movements to moral order.
I remember the first time I met Ms. Height. She called me on the phone to invite me to speak at a NCNW meeting. I couldn’t believe it was Ms. Dorothy Height on the other line. It was 9pm where I was, 10pm there in her office in DC. She was in her 80s back then. “Ms. Dorothy, what are you doing in your office this time time of night?” I asked incredulously. “Where else do you suppose I’m supposed to be, Renita?” “Yes Mam.” I answered.
A few weeks ago after speaking at Howard University Rankin Chapel I was greeted by my mentor and friend, Dr. Marian Wright Edelman who mentioned that she was off to visit Ms. Dorothy who was in the hospital. “How’s she doing” I asked. “Ms. Dorothy is doing what she’s always doing –even from her sick bed– in charge and giving out orders to everyone.” We laughed. “She ordering even you around, Dr. Marian?” I asked. “Child, all any of us can say in reply to anything Ms. Height tells us is, ‘Yes Mam. That includes me!’”
You have to admire a woman who didn’t mind taking care of business.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for fire-breathing, justice loving, loud mouth, nappy head, community organizing, Spirit conscious, passionate, opinionated, thinking women of faith. Whew! The year’s momentous events gave us lots to talk about, marvel over, yell and scream at each other about, pray for, disagree about, organize for and against, be grateful for, be pissed about, mutter under our breaths over, laugh about, dance about, and give God thanks for.
There were days I couldn’t wait to get to the blog to weigh in on a topic. There were other days when I’d rather cut a vein than face the computer and think up something to blog about. Some discussions here on the blog got so heated, contentious, and snarky, well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing it all took place in blogosphere instead of face-to-face, across the kitchen table. Those who couldn’t take the heat stomped away vowing never to return. Others slumped back and took the “high road” of righeous silence. While the rest of us stayed in to hash it out, not caring whether we ever agreed or saw things the other’s way, just content to have somewhere to say what was on our minds. On other occasions and on other topics close to our hearts as women, we were each others’ confidants, cheerleaders, prayer partners, soul sisters, and ace boon coons.
Thought I’d list my Top Ten favorite discussions from this past year (not in any particular order).
The discussion that ensued as a result of the post I did on the mother daughter conflict between writer Rebecca Walker and her larger-than-life writer mother Alice Walker, and the daughter’s tell all accounts about Mommie Dearest and her maternal flaws.
My rant about black women’s up-in-arms outrage over the sexist and misogynistic attacks against Michelle Obama and their teeth-sucking, hypocritical silence when similar attacks were directed at Hillary Clinton.
“Them Baptists” was my tirade against the Southern Baptist church and misogynism that gets cloaked under talk about biblical authority so as to protect itself from scrutiny and de-construction.
All of us in blogosphere have the 2008 Elections to thank for sharpening our writing, our thinking, and our understanding of American politics, American culture, and American religion. Click on anything in the archive about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin and you’ll find sparks. You’ll also find out why Americans love to evoke the First Amendment when their insensitive, ill conceived comments get backed up against the wall.
Prop 8, homophobia, and the black church is a favorite because it gave me a chance to think out loud, theologize on the run, and stand back and see for myself what I believe and where I stand as a Christian, minister, and biblical scholar on the topic of homosexuality.
Jessica’s “Sunday Morning Confession” guest blogpiece on not being able to endure Sunday Morning church services anymore kicked up a lot of dust on the blog and caused sparks to fly.
Women mentoring women is a topic that never fails to get my goat, as they say. And I want to thank the Young ‘uns who read this blog for coming on with hands on the hips and getting us Ancient Ones straight on where we have failed them. Cough. Cough.
Excuse me while I pat myself on the back. I love the blogpiece I wrote in defense of Silda Spitzer, Carlita Kilpatrick, and wives who stay with cheating husbands. That one is for big girls. Pour the wine. Hmmm…I really gotta get going writing a book about love and the loss of innocence. I really wax eloquent when I’m on that topic.
And then there’s the discussion about Barack Obama, Rick Warren, and who’s a Christian and who’s not that had everyone’s religious drawers in knots. We will have occasion to revisit this topic again in January, I’m sure.
Blogging has taken up a lot of my time. Special thanks my friends who have done without my friendship on occasion and my family who has had to do without my ministrations because they love someone who is blogger. The husband that lives in my house just shakes his head and makes up the bed himself. The teenager who lives in my house can’t figure out why anyone would sit before a computer and voluntarily write anything that causes them to anguish over grammar, punctuation, syntax, or organize their thoughts before blurting them out.
Finally, despite the time blogging has gobbled up, I’ve learned a lot from readers and appreciate the virtual friends, the sho’ nuff colleagues, and the flesh-and-blood devoted and not-so-devoted blog readers I’ve gained over the year. Heck, I’m even grateful to those of you who drop by to let me know that you disagree adamantly with my views, my right to speak, and my very being. You have helped make me the headstrong, clear thinking, confident women of faith I am today.
Thanks and Happy New Year to everyone.
And now I close with a song I’ve been dying to post here on the blog even though it has absolutely nothing to do with anything we’ve been talking about lately. But you all know how much I love me some “heartbreak” ballads. Big girl music. It’s the kind of record a woman plays on the last night of the year for the last time, just before turning the page to a new chapter on her life.
(I’ll be back on Monday, January 5th. I’m off to cook my black-eye peas and candied yams before the New York comes in, and then off to Watch Night service to see the New Year in with the rest of the saints!)
The feral attacks against Michelle Obama over at FoxNews bring to mind a question as a black woman I’m asked a lot. How do you know when it’s racism or when it’s sexism that’s driving people to react negatively toward you? Of course, it feels like racism when the white media is doing it. Who can forget Bill O’Reilly’s lynching comment last February where he thought nothing of talking about Michelle Obama being lynched for some position he disagreed with. Then there’s the reference in recent days by the cable station to Michelle Obama as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” an expression which everyone knows (including Fox) is short hand in hip hop lingo to the unmarried mother of a man’s child. The slur that really got to me was the one by Fox guest commentator Cal Thomas who opined recently that of all the insufferable things being shoved at America right now, the first woman having a credible chance of being president, the first African-American having an even more likely chance of becoming president, the possibility of having an “angry black woman” as the First Lady is one that equally dismays him.
Let’s all agree that its open season this election season on women, but especially on women of color.
One thing experience has taught me. There’s something about being black AND female that drive some people insane. Being black and female makes you the object of folks worst fears and basest fantasies. People think that they can say and do whatever they want to you, because… they can. Black women may be praised for their strength and applauded for their courage. But none of that is the same as being respected. How does a black woman get respect in this country is the question that deserves asking?
Who can say for sure whether it’s blackness or femaleness that’s despised most in this country? Meaning, there’s probably no way to parse out which part of you is under attack when as a black woman professor you sit reading the vicious evaluations of your students, or you discover as a black woman in ministry that the church you candidated for chose a man with lesser qualifications than you to be their pastor, or as the wife of a black presidential candidate you hear a television commentator you never met impugn your morality and characterize you as an angry black woman.
Whether it’s because you’re black or female –when it comes to what makes people look up from what they are doing when you walk in the door and decide they’re under no obligation to treat you with civility will have you sitting crouched in a basket like a woman without a god if you let it.
Don’t ask why, but my mind has trailed off to the many stories in the Bible about foreign women and the enormous prejudice directed against them. The foreign woman is both exotic and threatening, desired and despised, a wealth of insight and an object of mystery.
She had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may have well have invented herself.” (Toni Morrison, Sula)
What does it mean to be a black woman in this country? It means that you understand race and sex have always been overlapping discourses, and you’ll be wise to take nothing at face value. You understand the nature of oppression, and the interlocking nature of oppressions especially, and how those in power benefit from keeping oppressed groups at each other’s throat. You understand that people fear people who are different from them, and notice how difference is exoticized and exploited by the media.
Albert: Who you think you is? You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all! Celie: Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail! Albert: I’ma knock you under… Celie: Everything you done to me, you already under, you. I’m poor, I’m black, I may even be ugly, but, dear God, I’m here, I’m here!
What does it mean to be a black woman in this country? It means that you are not crippled by the knowledge that you live among people who despise the likes of you. Like Rahab and Ruth in the Old Testament who did not let others’ assumptions about their ”foreignness” deter them from making their impact and like the Canaanite woman who thought nothing of taking on Jesus’ own prejudices for her daughter’s right to be healed you learn how to use your space of marginalization and invisibility to your advantage and that of the cause you are struggling for. It means like Celie you figure out that there’s no shame in being black and female, and ain’t no devil in hell nor one around the dinner table gonna intimidate you into thinking and acting otherwise.