The cherry blossoms are coming to DC and I’m excited about finally seeing them. I rather like how February gives way to March, surreptitiously budding Black History into the full bloom of Women’s History Month. And because I’m both Black and woman, Women’s History Month means (you guessed it!) more Black history! I’ve been reading the autobiography of Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road. The book is a history lesson for me in a few ways: language/culture (Zora was the consummate anthropologist), Zora’s own story, references to historical people she knew personally, and a reminder of how far women have come. Zora reminded me of what education used to be like for Black girls.
I forget sometimes I am a woman. Oh, I know it seems impossible with me being all #blackgirlmagic and #blackgirlsrock, but it’s true. I teeter precariously on the shoulders of the women who came before me and still somehow take it for granted. Far too often, I think deeply without pausing on the gift of my education. I am a Black, educated female in the United States because so many have worked to make it so.
It’s a privilege to take girls’ education for granted.
According to her autobiography, Zora Neale Hurston’s mother died when she was very young. Her untimely passing wreaked havoc on the family. Zora’s Baptist preacher father ended up shipping the children hither and yon for school, whereas they had previously attended in their hometown of Eatonville, FL. Zora landed in Jacksonville with her siblings with no way to pay for school. She was a preteen. This would have been the early 1900s.
The next few years of her life saw her an indigent, nomadic child. Because of her vulnerable status, her desire for education often conflicted with her physical needs for shelter, food, and clothing. She was responsible for herself at an age that would be inconceivable to me. It reminded me how childhood ended early for many children back then, especially Black ones. Finally, she found herself at Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Black educators there gave her work to support herself through high school.
The idea of free education is a relatively new one in the world. Knowledge used to be the purview of the elite, those who could afford to spend time studying instead of worrying about their sustenance. It still is, in many cases. Small wonder education for poor, Black children is a hot-button topic in US politics right now.
Also, in reading Zora’s account, I remember girl children were never supposed to be educated. Girls and women around the world still fight to learn they can be more than mothers and wives if they so choose. I once read a right-wing Catholic site that suggested families should not send girls to college. Why? Education makes women want more out of life and an educated wife might question her husband’s infallible authority.
Once I stopped laughing hysterically, I kind of saw the truth in that. Education fills a hunger to learn with more hunger to learn. Knowledge is the beginning of freedom; why else would slave owners prohibit reading? If I didn’t have education, I wouldn’t know to want more. I wouldn’t know more existed.
Wanting more vs. not wanting enough
I imagine myself a Black girl Icarus. At times, when I am really struggling with the coexistence of my desire to both write and mother, I curse my ambition. But my education means the sea laps below me if I don’t reach high enough. Inertia feels like a spiritual death. But in honoring my compulsion to write, balance becomes the sharp question of my life. “Giving in” to the gulf of motherhood or aiming “too high” toward writing ambitions and melting — my wings only soar somewhere in the middle.
Often, I think about the patriarchal ideal that men can have a variety of creative careers and women must use their creativity in just one arena: the home. I struggle with having ambition as a woman. I was telling a friend that wrestling with the Judeo-Christian ideal that my sole purpose as a woman is The Help. Not just that God created in me a unique ability to be helpful, but that’s all I’m here for? All this soul? For a man or child’s comfort?! And what of my own yearnings beyond that? God might as well have made me R2D2, because if robotic function is the only reason for my existence, He programmed me wrong, bruh.
If ambition is the hidden side effect of my education, then I accept the sun with all its warmth and danger. I am deeply grateful for everything I have learned and continue to learn. I do not see God in consigning women to darkness for men’s comfort. The truth shall make you free and I choose freedom, even if it means I have to learn how to fly toward the sun without crashing. I will rise to the occasions of both motherhood and the charge to tell stories. My foremothers who bravely reached for that light wouldn’t want it any other way.