My Nana is not one to joke around. Like many black women her age, Virginia Louise Evans is usually quite stern and, at times, blunt to the point of cruelty. At 69, she has earned the right to say whatever she pleases.
But she was cheerful last Thursday evening, when I sat down with her to talk about the election, and about politics and blackness more broadly. We’d been laughing and chatting over pasta salad and Cheerwine for a few hours when she looked at me from across her big wooden kitchen table, which is crowded into her small kitchen. Her large brown eyes the eyes she passed on to my mother and me dulled a bit as she asked, “You ready?”
“Let’s start with what you think about Donald Trump,” I said.
Nana was born in 1947 in Lexington, North Carolina. She never attended an integrated school and graduated from the segregated Dunbar High, named after black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, in 1965. Her experiences as a black woman born and raised in the Jim Crow South shaped her political identity. She learned to see the smallest of blessings, saying that life as a black woman in Lexington wasn’t as bad as it was in Birmingham, Alabama.
Nana, like many elders, is a living link to the past. She’s wise and prides herself on knowing what she’s talking about. The first thing she noted about Trump was his lack of political experience and personal honesty.
“He’s talking about Hillary Clinton with the emails, but he never said anything about his taxes. He never said anything about messing with these young girls he never brought any of that up,” Nana said, her voice rising. “But he always brought up everything that everybody else had done. But nothing on him. So I don’t think he’s fit to be president. If you gon’ talk about somebody else’s deal, talk about yo’ deal.”
“I hope that he will be able to run the country without being prejudiced about anything. Because he said all through his campaigning about the Mexicans, the blacks and he’s racist to me.”
I pivoted to a happier topic: President Barack Obama. I wanted to know how Nana felt when he was elected in 2008.
“I loved him,” she said. She abruptly stood up from the table, returning a few minutes later with the family Bible. The large white book with gold-edged pages includes a list of family names dating back to Columbus Fortune, a former slave born in the mid-1800s. Nana became the keeper of this information in 2012 after the death of my great-grandmother Muss, who raised Nana, my mother and me.
Nana slid her finger down the table of contents and then flipped to Judges 4:4, a verse she has underlined.
She read aloud: “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth–el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh–naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying, ‘Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?’”
She turned her head to face me. Her tone grew a bit more serious.
“Deborah called Barak to help get the nation up out of the situation that they were in. She called Barak to help get Israel out of their misery,” Nana said.
To her, Barack Obama was a gift from God.
“Did you ever think you’d live to see a black president?” I asked.
“Nope, I never did. It’s like it wasn’t possible, but God has a way of turning things around,” she said. “It was always white men in there. … Obama stepped out on faith, and he won.”
I followed up: “Why do you think it’s important for little kids to see Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in the White House?”
“It gives them encouragement to step forward and say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it. If he can do it, I can do it.’ He’s a role model. Anything is possible,” she said.
I told her that when I was little, I had asked Muss if I could be president. Muss looked at me and said, “Yeah, you can do anything that you wanna do.” But that didn’t really seem possible until Obama. Now, I said, “You can point to a picture of Barack Obama and say, ‘Yes, you can do this.’”
“God told Jeremiah to walk around the wall seven times, and the seventh time blow the trumpet and the wall would come crumbling down,” Nana said. “So Obama blowed the walls down.” And she threw her head back and laughed.
Then she got serious again, flipping the pages to Revelations 1:14.
“Now help me interpret this,” she said, reading a passage describing Jesus. “’His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.’”
Her eyes returned to me: “We got wooly hair.”
She continued, “‘And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.’ Now what that sound like?”
“It sounds like black skin to me,” I said.
I asked Nana about the state of black life in America. Do black lives matter?
“All the time,” Nana said. She added that all lives matter, but that the conversation deservedly focused on black lives, given ongoing police violence and the lack of justice afterward.
“Black lives have always mattered, even when they brought our forefathers over here from Africa,” she said. “They had to come on a ship and went through a whole lot of stuff. That’s why I say it’s important for us to vote and have our voice in there because our forefathers fought and died for this stuff got beat up, whipped up, killed up, all of that.”
“What about the way black protesters are treated?” I asked, pointing out that even peaceful demonstrators can be pepper-sprayed or arrested for very minor infractions.
But Nana chose to comment on on another aspect sometimes present with public protest.
“As long as they’re out there protesting peacefully, I don’t see anything wrong with [protesting] at all. But throwing rocks and wanting to hit people and stuff that’s not protesting friendly,” she said. “Going back on Martin Luther King, he protested peacefully. Even though he got put in jail and got beat and all this stuff, he still didn’t do violence.”
“Also, why you tearing up your own property, burning your own building, breaking into your own stores and stuff?” she continued. “Just protest peacefully because these people got to still live. And you just tearing up your own black folks’ property. Don’t do that. Just protest friendly and the voice will still get heard.”
I asked her whether it mattered if the stores were not owned by black people, if they were places where the protesters had been racially profiled. Her opinion didn’t change. I knew it wouldn’t.
Black elders often encourage young folk to ascribe to respectability politics the idea that black people should behave a certain way to somehow show they’re worthy citizens. They tell us we should exercise our right to vote because our ancestors died for us to do so, and we shouldn’t be “tearing up our own neighborhoods” during protests against police violence.
I wasn’t going to debate Nana on this or get into how being “respectable” doesn’t save black folks from experiencing racism. It wasn’t the point of the conversation and I understood she had grown up in a different world.
Instead, I asked her to recall the first time she was called a “nigger.”
She didn’t remember, she said, because the slur was thrown around all the time. “White people just liked to call you ‘nigga.’ They ain’t have no shame in they game. ‘There go that nigga.’ ‘That nigga this, that nigga that.’ That’s been all our life.”
“It didn’t really have to be a situation,” she continued. “That’s just how it was. And some of them do it today. That has not changed.”
I told her I remembered the first time. “I was 11,” I said. “This white boy in social studies called me and my friends ‘nigger bitches.’ And we jumped on him, beat his ass.”
Nana stared at me for a few seconds. “Back then we had to take it,” she said.
I waited until the end of our conversation to ask about black womanhood, so that she had loosened up a bit. This was the most important part of our talk. The value of defining black womanhood for myself had been a hallmark of my upbringing, and I had been raised to be outspoken and brave. I asked her what it meant to her.
“It’s a strong black woman. I learned that from my father and my mama,” she said. Muss and my great-grandfather had both been raised on farms, working in fields picking cotton and tobacco, tending vegetable gardens. They grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression, and to Nana, that had made them strong.
“Today we take that as nothing ‘cause you can go in the store now and buy what you wanna buy,” Nana said. But living through that kind of privation “made them strong.”
“My mama was a strong black woman and you know that for yourself,” she said. “Stand on your own two feet, hold your own ground. That’s why I’ve been strong all my life.”
I asked her what she would want any future daughter of mine to know.
“Be strong. You have to learn to be a strong woman, have strong issues, have strong opinions, have a strong mind and speak your piece,” she said. “Muss would always say, ‘I ain’t gon’ hold my piece because I’ll have a heart attack. And I ain’t gon’ have no heart attack. I’m gon’ say what I got to say.’”
She paused briefly, giving us a second to laugh together at my great-grandmother’s over-the-top descriptions of why she was or was not going to do something. “They say a woman is supposed to be silent, but sometimes a woman has to speak out because a man won’t speak out,” Nana continued. “Some of them are weak. You got some weak men. So the woman has to speak out.”
We sat at the kitchen table and talked for a little while longer. Then I asked my final question. “Nana, are you proud to be black?”
“You better believe it,” she said. “I was born like this, so I have to uphold my heritage.”
She turned my question back on me. “Are you proud to be black?”
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