She could hear the train whistling in the distance as she stood there in the 90-degree Mississippi heat, her body aching from picking cotton. As a sharecropper, her work was hard and her hours were long. She watched the train pass by and thought, “One day, I’ll be on a train to somewhere.” She went home and looked at her husband and three children in a way that those in the Deep South usually didn’t. She saw them as equal to others despite the segregation laws and the derogatory words they were subjected to daily. She knew they deserved better. It was then that my grandmother decided to move her family for a better life.
She walked into the highly recognized computing company known as “Big Blue” (knowing it should actually be called “Big White” because of the many faces she saw that weren’t like her own). She went for her job interview with an assimilated look—her kinky hair straightened to resemble that of flowy blondes; her suit giving her a “corporate” appearance. She seemed like she wanted to fit in and wouldn’t cause trouble. But this was the late 60’s, and she knew how to play the game by then. So, when my mother returned to the office after landing the job, she came in with an Angela-Davis-sized ‘fro, wearing her kinky hair with pride. Her daishiki reflected her dignity in her African ancestry and she had a look of determination that said, “I’m Black and I’m proud.”
She grew up not knowing she was supposed to be inferior to some of her classmates. She didn’t know she was supposed to be “different” until a classmate called her the N-word. “Momma, what’s that?” was the question she asked. And so began the discussion no parent wants to have with their child—especially a Black parent. Fearless, she knew she was destined for greater. She did things that only her white counterparts were supposed to do: she triumphed in school, she excelled in theater, she traveled to Europe, she had friends from every walk of life. She owned her own businesses. She is me.
Many years after moving her family to California, my grandmother eventually got on a train, the Napa Valley wine train, where her family celebrated her life and the sheer joy in her eyes to travel aboard a luxury train car, viewing the best countryside in California. Doing what white people never thought she was worthy of doing.
My mother spent nearly 30 years at Big Blue breaking the color barrier and the glass ceiling as best she could. She was punished for her efforts by denials of promotion within the company, but she fought on. And it opened the door for people of color to come through in all fields. She left an unknown but lasting legacy.
These women taught me to be proud of who I am. To know that I am equal to or greater than the sum of other peoples’ perceptions of me. I am living my grandmother’s dream of a better life and have done more than she ever could. I have taken my mother’s passion and continued to open doors for myself and others, kicking in the glass ceiling and owning my seat at the table. I’m paying it forward and empowering others to do the same.
I learned that I don’t always have to build my own table or bring my own chair. I’ve learned to discern when to come to the table and just sit. Because of that, I’ve held space at every table that I chose to sit at, whether I was invited to it or not. Then, I move aside, opening a seat for someone else to sit down.
I’ve taken my family from picking cotton to picking what dreams we will choose to fulfill for ourselves. Because of grandma, I can. Because of mom, I have. And, because of me, someone else will.Leave a Comment