Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Want To Be Like Her When I Grow Up, Part 2

Last week, I paid homage to some amazing Black women in history who have inspired me to be a better woman and are living proof that anything is possible if you want to achieve it badly enough. I wanted to close the month by continuing that tribute further - it's hard to pick and choose since there are so many great Black women in history but I am hoping that after reading this, you will be inspired to go out there and learn more about them and about other phenomenal women of color.

"It's the little things citizens do. That's what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees." ~ Wangari Maathai

From a very young age, I wanted to change the world, somehow, some way. Quite a big dream for a young child but I think many of us have had these grand ideas about doing our part to make the world a better place. While in college, I went through a phrase where I was an activist, protesting tuition hikes as well as trying to educate the public on environmental issues and doing their part in helping the environment. During this time, I took a women's history course and had the most eclectic, odd but wonderful professor who had dreadlocks and wore Birkenstock sandals and just a sweater in the dead of winter. Here's the kicker... he was a man AND he was white. Of course, I gave him the side eye when I first sat down. Then he wrote on the blackboard: Who is Wangari Maathai?

I shamefully admit that at the time, I did not know who she was. And I was not alone. He proceeded to talk about this great woman from Kenya who was determined to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place. This was a woman who was so determined to change the world that she created her own movement called the Green Belt Movement in 1977. With the Green Belt Movement, she worked with women to better their lives by helping them obtain better access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water and became an advocate for women's rights.

Wangari Maathai went on to become the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. I went to college in the 90's and kept up with Dr. Maathai after attending college via the media. Her constant achievements and gifts she gave to the world through her service and tireless work always gave me inspiration. They instilled my motivation to keep going and never give up. I remember sitting at my desk at work on that day in 2004 when I read online that she had received the Nobel Peace Prize and just putting my fist up in air and saying out loud, "YEAH!". Sadly, she died of complications from ovarian cancer last year but her legacy lives on through the Green Belt Movement and all her other successes that will never be forgotten.

"The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom." ~Phillis Wheatley

I remember the first time I read about Phillis Wheatley while at the library. I was 9 and was so moved by her story, to the point where I sat in my favorite private corner in the back of the library and cried. It really affected me because of how her life started and ended. She became the first African American writer to be published during a time where most slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write. She was taken from West Africa and brought to America to be enslaved when she was around 8 years old. She was bought by a prominent Boston family (the Wheatleys) and was fortunate enough to be bought by a family that treated her as if she were part of that family. She actually was not forced into any kind of hard labor. Instead, she was taught how to read and write English by one of the Wheatley daughters. After almost a year and a half of being taught, Phillis was able to read difficult passages in the Bible. By the time she was 12, she was learning how to read Latin and became well-versed in history, geography, English and religion.

When Phillis was 20, she was sent to accompany Nathaniel Wheatley on his trip to London. While there, she became popular with British society and a collection of her poetry was published during this visit. As a result of that London trip, Phillis went on to have more poetry published. For someone so talented and brilliant, her life was short and did not end on a good note. At the age of 31, her husband was imprisoned, leaving her to fend for herself with a sick infant son. She was forced to ironically work as a maid to support herself and her son, the very labor that she unintentionally avoided while being a slave. She and her son died shortly thereafter her husband's imprisonment and her grave stands unmarked at Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.

It makes me sad to even think about Ms. Wheatley and how in the end, she ended up with an unmarked grave. This is why it is so important to know our history and celebrate those who paved the way for us. Even if you are not a poet, this is a Black woman who broke barriers and accomplished things during a time when it was unheard of for a slave to even read and write! Ms. Wheatley believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable and every Black poet that has come after her is an example of that. Thank you, Phillis Wheatley for the legacy you have left behind.

“I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring, I will step into the pool.” ~ Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth is someone that when I think of her, I get pumped up and my determination knows no boundaries. When I say "anything is possible if you want it badly enough", Sojourner Truth is the epitome of that statement. She is one of the most famous nineteenth-century Black American women. If you don't know why...she was a former slave who was uneducated but she never let her lack of education stop her from speaking out against slavery, which she actively opposed. She never learned how to read or write. However, Sojourner Truth became a major speaker against slavery and for women's rights. When she was 29, she fled with her infant daughter to be free and that was not all. She went back to get her son and found out he was sold to another family. So she went to court to get him back and became the first Black women to win in court against a white man. Okay now! Sorry, I am getting pumped up just by writing this.

She was a woman who not only expressed her opinion but put action behind her words. She was not afraid to speak up for what she believed in and worked tirelessly to make a difference as best as she could. Her most famous speech titled "Ain't I a Woman" was delivered at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851. What set Sojourner Truth from other abolitionists was that she spoke about reason and religious understanding as resolutions for ending slavery. She was not about violent protests or uprisings. She felt it was her mission to preach the Word of God.

When she spoke, she spoke from the heart. She would speak about her own experiences as a slave and her down-to-earth style of speaking helped her in calming hostile crowds. What led her to become an outspoken advocate for women's rights was when she learned that while women can act as abolitionists, they could neither vote nor hold public office. She continued to lecture and speak as well as fighting for the rights of Blacks and women until she became ill. She was then forced to retire to her home, where she passed away November 26, 1883.

These women and so many others have paved the way for us to be inspired and add our own footprints to history. With the end of Black History month almost upon us, I cannot stress enough that despite the month ending, learning about our history should not end on February 29. Knowledge is power and that knowledge is within our fingertips. I promise you that once you start reading and researching history, you too will be as inspired and pumped as I am when writing or talking about Sojourner Truth and all these other brilliant women I paid tribute to for the last 2 weeks. For me, they were heroes that gave me hope that my life would be just as important in the world. They are proof that anyone can be a hero, if they want to make a change in the world, just by getting out there and trying to make that change happen.

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