I recently spent a few days with four white women friends. A real vacation of the kind I rarely take. No plans except to do whatever we felt like — or nothing. After 24 hours we fell into an accommodating rhythm. The coffee and plans got made every day. We ate. We walked. We talked.
The talking was the best. Collectively, we had over 150 years of social activism experience. Death penalty defense, reproductive rights, domestic violence, immigration, racial justice — we’ve fought many battles. Inch by inch. We’re the graying poster people for persistence.
After a couple of days we began the “untold” stories part of the conversation. The personal struggles and abuses we kept silent about because we put our hurt on a scale with those whose welfare was our primary concern and it wasn’t even close. We put our pain aside and closeted parts of our story — and because we were good southern women — put on our lipstick and a smile and went back to work. We didn’t even whisper “me too.”
We aren’t martyrs. We knew what we were getting into. Standing up for change in a minefield of ignorance and fury. We were NOT popular, but then we didn’t expect praise or gratitude or awards. There’s this sensation when truth settles deeply inside, when our souls speak to us of work we must do. There’s no turning away when it gets hard. When the hand you’re trying to stop is around your throat. Or between your legs.
Now that we are old, we can tell more of our own truth. My pals and I debated whether or not anyone would be interested in these stories of what we kept quiet about. We thought not but then the boldest member of the group says: “Who cares. They’re our stories.”
Here’s a small part of mine.
Recently I did a presentation about race with a friend. We talked about “estuary people”. Estuary people is how I refer to those of us that live in between. Those of us that must be both/and. My son is biracial. I gave birth to him 31 years ago this year. I am a single mom now as I was then.
Many people — almost everyone we came into contact with— felt entitled to an opinion about us. During my talk about race and “estuary people” I read a list of things people have said to me about my family over the years. I read them like celebrities read mean tweets. Just neutrally without any of the emotion they engendered when they were spoken to me. I probably won’t recite these unthinking and unfeeling comments again but I am glad I did it this one time. Someone asked me if I had written them down as they happened, wondering how I could remember these hateful words. There was no need to write them down. They were etched, carved, tatooed on my heart. The awareness that while we shopped or celebrated, went to school or church, people saw us and thought we were a mistake — a whole collection of mistakes, wrapped around a core of immorality.
I sometimes recall all of the “me too” moments I could have spoken up about. I didn’t. I learned early that there was little point. There was no help coming and, because I had a longer term agenda, I wanted to hold on to whatever power and position I possessed while I held the door open for others. Years ago, a younger, more ambitious woman I hired, when learning of what some of us endured said, “I have more self respect. I’d have never put up with that kind of treatment.” It hurt. I reminded her that had I not “put up with it” there would have been no one to hire her, because the person who came before me would not have. We endured so you could persist. You must persist so others may breathe freely.
I listen with tenderness and concern to young people trying to make a more just world and I wonder if they know how long it takes and how cruel and difficult their adversaries will be. I want to ask: Do you know how much personal pain you will need to manage? And do you have a good pain management program?
I don’t have much more to say about struggle except this: one day you will be old. It is unlikely you will regret anything at all you did on behalf of others. But you will need your friends. You will need small gatherings where you blurt out the truth about what it was like for you. While you were standing up for others.