What My GrandMother taught me about black history

(published in the Detroit News, February 28, 2022)

My grandmother lived in a tattered, old house with stairs that sometimes creaked when it rained. She was poor and, some might say, downright “country.”  She said “yestidid” for yesterday,  “chillen” instead of children and had never made it past the fourth grade.

None of it fazed me. Every chance I’d get, I would spend the night at her place, eating warm tea cakes or chunks of the hot water corn bread she baked once a week. We would talk for hours, my grandmother and me, and I’d try not to giggle whenever she repeated the same old story about the time she was so ill she had to rely on a cane or, as she put it, “hop on a stick.”

I loved her down-home dialect, her deep spirituality and to this day, I still recall almost every biblical scripture I ever heard her recite. But I do have one big regret. I wish I had known that, like most elders, my grandmother was a veritable library and when she died, as the African proverb goes, that library would burn to the ground. 

If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked far more questions of the woman who was respectfully addressed in her community as Evangelist Willie Mae Flennory from the Usher Board of East Lake Missionary Baptist Church. Back then, when she was rubbing olive oil on the palms of nearly everyone who visited her, prophesizing about their future and joining them in solemn prayer, I would have dug deeper into her past.

What was it like for her as a little colored child getting her sun-chapped fingers bloody, picking cotton all day on a Mississippi plantation? How did her family cope when gun-toting plantation owners evicted them from the land to avoid paying her sharecropping father what he was owed?

More important, I would have inquired about my humble grandmother’s “second family” – the white Grosse Pointe residents who depended on her to cook, babysit and tidy up their home.  I guess I sort of knew about them. How could I not notice the photo on her dresser, the teenager with the dishwater blonde hair smiling from a silver frame? In my defense, I did broach the subject once. My grandmother told me her name (which I quickly forgot) and explained that she loved the girl in the picture and the girl loved her. Of course, I was puzzled. But, for some reason, I didn’t feel the need to probe.

So, that aspect of my grandmother’s life remained a mystery. Until I saw the movie, “The Help.”  The moment Cicely Tyson made her slow stride onto the screen, I noticed she wore thick, white socks and had them rolled all the way down to her ankles. One arm was tucked securely behind her back. Immediately, I burst into tears. This was a facsimile of my grandmother. That was her walk, her style of socks, her carefully-positioned elbow. And this was the other world she had inhabited for years.

“The Help,” which was a brief journey through one segment of Black History, offered me insight into the alternate reality of the revered matriarch I’d admired since I was a child. It showed me that although I thought I knew her well, I hadn’t had so much as a glimpse at the subservience  she had silently endured, the submissiveness that I would have found degrading. I learned, while sitting and sobbing in the back of a suburban movie theater, that all my grandmother had ever known was servitude. It had shaped her outlook, her demeanor, her docile ways. Her compliant behavior, along with her body language (slightly bent and only displaying one hand) were a form of servant etiquette that had eventually become ingrained habits and a testament to her quiet strength.

If she were here with me now, we’d have a lot to talk about, and I’d understand why she didn’t always understand some of the pettiness I called problems. I had more education than my grandmother ever thought possible and I traveled to parts of the world she didn’t know existed. But if I live to be 100, I can only hope to have an ounce of the patience she demonstrated, the unwavering faith she lived by and the wisdom that shone from her countenance like the sun. Willie Mae Flennory was far from worldly, but she had a generous heart and not a single trace of bitterness.

So, as Black History Month comes to a close and Women’s History Month begins, I’m paying a long-overdue tribute to a simple, kind, bible-quoting domestic who didn’t have much book learning but taught me all I needed to know about the power of love.

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