“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”: Unearthing Grandma’s Black Feminism

I was an 18-year-old fresh(wo)man at Florida A&M University when Grandma Rose died. Cancer. I don’t remember if I had yet told my family I was lesbian—altho I had been planning my comingout story since I left my parents’ home. I planned to tell them I am “pansexual”—a term I read w/which Alice Walker identified over 20 years before Janelle Monáe popularized the word. Being “pansexual” felt humanistic in a way that my parents would find my sexual interest palpable. But my comingout story is for another blog post. This piece is about Grandma Rose, who died 22 years ago, but has been most alive in this #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #blackgirlmagic space in which I have been pensively engaged.

I think of Grandma Rose often, & I think of her beyond watching Star Search, The Golden Girls, & Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) w/my sister & me every Saturday night; beyond her insisting we use both a fork & spoon to coil our spaghetti; & beyond her decorating her home w/Asian influenced furniture, juxtaposed against African-American art & figurines—all of which were situated inside a Southern luxury accented by novelty tea kettles, vintage telephones, & a round bed. (Yep, Grandma Rose had a ROUND bed.) She also had a fertile rose garden, two Cockatiels (she let me name Miles & Mia), & a pungent tongue: I was in earshot of hearing Grandma Rose telling stories of a woman being “as nervous as a hooker in church” & of Irvin (the man w/whom Grandma eloped while in Las Vegas) sitting at home “w/the white mouth,” hungrily waiting for Grandma to come home to cook dinner—two phrases I have carried & used in my own storytelling, not realizing the implications of race, class, & gender to which each phrase points. It is in that space, in the intersectionality of race, class, & gender, that I am thinking of Grandma Rose & realizing the historical significance of her unconventional behaviors—realizing that Grandma Rose was a Black Feminist, for many reasons. The first, for changing her name—a practice in self-definition, says Patricia Hill Collins, that is essential to Black women’s survival.

grandma & cookie
Grandma Rose w/her youngest of four children. Circa 1960s

Grandma Rose was born Pilate May McKenney in 1926, & 20 years later, post high school graduation, she changed her name to Rose. I thought Grandma Rose, who was originally named after her father, changed her name because she didn’t want to be associated w/the Biblical Pontius Pilate who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. I reckon such naming felt akin to one being named Hitler. However, my mother, Choling—who Grandma had two years after high school—says she remembers Grandma claiming only to not liking her name at all. I trust, therefore, that altho during my Grandmother’s era, many women were given male names—one of Grandma’s girlfriends is named Eddye—a woman given a traditionally male name is an unnecessary insult, despite his notoriety (or even his legacy). Whatever the reason, Grandma’s renaming herself is a move I always thought peculiarly non-traditional, especially since in 1946, circa the time Grandma legally changed her name, Black folks didn’t have time to be so self-serving, if you will: Richard Wright had recently published his Native Son; Margaret Walker, her For My People; & John H. Johnson, Ebony Magazine, while Tuskegee Airmen were organizing, Southerners were migrating, & Blacks were dying in Detroit Race Riots. Aaaaaand, Grandma was a single, teenage-ish parent. Oh, but so little did I know—about everything, especially about being a Black woman.

In What’s Love Got to Do with It? the 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s 1987 autobiography, I, Tina, Tina Turner, played by Angela Bassett, asked the judge presiding over her divorce from Ike for the rights to her name. She wanted nothing else. While Ike argued that Tina could not have his daddy’s name, Tina insisted on the right to that name, that, altho “belonged” to Ike’s daddy, belonged just as much to her, for it named the Tina Turner identity that centered & made visible a marginalized, if you will, Anna Mae Bullock. By taking ownership of her stage name, Tina Turner took ownership of herself. Tina wasn’t performing Tina; she was Tina. & so, once Tina could own her name, which allowed her to own herself, she was freed from a patriarchal naming that defines her as everything other than herself. Trudier Harris, in her 1982 From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature, explains it thusly:

“Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

Mammy caricatureHarris’ quote serves as the epigraph to Patricia Hill Collins’ “Mammies, Matriarchs, and other Controlling Images,” in which Collins examines controlling images (mammy, matriarch, welfare mother, welfare queen, Black lady, jezebel, & hoochie) in relationship to race, class, & gender, then explains how social institutions (schools, government, popular culture, & Black organizations (church, HBCU, family)) maintain those images. Then, in her following chapter, “The Power of Self-Definition,” Collins provides her readers a resolve: Black women can redefine themselvewelfare queen images. Collins does not suggest Black women legally change their names like Grandma Rose did (& Ntozake Shange, & Maya Angelou, & Toni Morrison, & Alice Walker, who added her grandmother’s name to her own). But she does argue, by circumventing the controlled images white folks have placed on the Black woman’s body, she can realize herself. No. Black women are not mammies nor matriarchs, & she is not the world’s mule nor its jezebel. & altho she may take her husband’s last name, she is not Mr.’s so-&-so’s wife, either. She is herself, & says, Nikki Giovanni, only she can measure herself.

Grandma Rose had a high school education, but she embodied Black feminism w/out

Grandma Rose eating
Grandma Rose, circa 1980s

having to know the theory at all. She didn’t want to be called Pilate, so she changed her name. Grandma Rose changed her name, not because she felt controlled by traditional images that have served to denigrate, humiliate, & dehumanize Black women, but because she controlled herself—& there’s nothing selfish about that. As a matter of fact, by centering herself in a white supremacist patriarchy that would have her perform day labor before she became a lab technician, Grandma Rose was claiming her humanity: “Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions,” says Collins, “the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women’s power as human subjects.” In that way, Grandma Rose was a pilot after all—navigating the world on her own terms, seeing herself a rose, & demanding others to call her by that name—to know her as such. For tho “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Grandma Rose understood the power in names & the significance of defining her Black woman self in a country “felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

I am here for it.

 

 

 

 

 

a poem for Yakini (because there’s something about her aura)

& I think about how beautifully black you are // so black ur bright // beaming // glaring // glistening // shimmering like Shug Avery’s shimmy // shining brighter than the brightest light // wondering if I touch the tip of ur locs // like touching the hem of His garment // will I will shine too? // but you don’t see me // staring at ur beautiful black self // wanting & longing to be in ur mind // to engross ur thoughts // to feel ur skin // to hold ur hand // all the while hoping you’ll lead me to the mountain top.

& I think of you in church on Easter Sunday // wearing a too pink pink dress that reveals ur scrawny black legs scarred by last year’s chicken pox & wounded by limbs of the oak tree that shades grandmother’s front porch & provides a place for drinking moonshine // playing cards // watching passersby pass by // they shutter // they scuttle // & they scuffle // & ur sitting in church // staring at that white jesus // knowing that he’s not ur savior // marveling at big women wearing feathered hats // crying jesus’ name // questioning how grandmothers can be so jubilant about a god they’ve never seen // who allowed their daughters to be raped // their sons to be stripped of their manhood // & why do you have to recite a speech regarding this faith you find unfaithful?

& I see you // growing thru hopscotch & double dutch // coconut milk & vegetable patties // wearing beautiful black pigtails // eating summer’s red watermelon // not caring if they call you pickaninny // because ur beautifully black // & that’s all that matters // going to school where history’s lessons are not ur story // daydreaming of Marcus Garvey & Booker T. Washington // wanting to gather ur bootstraps & march all the way to the Mother Land // so you march in ur thoughts // & ur daydream is ur movement.

& I see ur Afro wearing // dashiki flaunting // beautiful black self // changing ur name // still knowing the pride in mother’s offer // but wanting black to resonate off the tongues of those who call ur name // & maybe the world will holy ghost when it hears how beautiful black sounds // intone ur name in hopes that you will save it from the lynchings imposed by hoover // lynch // & crow // spiriting a revolution that black folks won’t be afraid of.

& I see you // mothering daughters // braiding beautiful brazen black hair // sewing dresses // mending wounds // singing “to be young gifted & black” // playing “Mississippi Goddam” // teaching beautiful black babies how to be humane under inhumane conditions // knowing that freedom’s void in integrated schools where black teachers are rarely visible to show black students how to be freedom fighters writing in the name of heroes unsung but not forgotten.

& I see you becoming Big Mom // standing on a mountain top // overseeing w/out being an overseer // gray locs falling down the strength of ur back // they lending wisdom // feeding thousands // holding the burdens of ur people in each strand // their salvation // ur strength // humming liberations // wading thru waters // baptizing the lost // curing the ill // pouring libations // thanking the spirits of those before us—

& when I lay me down to sleep // praying that the moon does not turn blood red & the stars don’t fall to the ground making earth void of light // I think of you reading In Search of Our Mother’s Garden // drinking ur red wine // cooking ur tofu // listening to Coltrane // being in ur sentimental mood // thinking ur black thoughts // being ur beautiful black self // it is then I’m lulled to sleep // wanting to wake up to be just like you.

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A version of this poem was awarded the College Language Association’s 2011 Margaret Walker Memorial Prize for Creative Writing.