When I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, I was invited to a Halloween party. There was a costume contest and each of us had to say who we were and give some kind of blurb. Inspired by my mother I went as an official, working for some department (I can’t remember now) and my work had to do with justice and equality. I received the prize for most original costume. At a party full of superheroes, fairies, and movie characters, perhaps a public servant was a truly original costume. Often, though, when I think about it I feel that those parents felt sorry for my quite nerdy self. I don’t regret it – my mother continues to be my shero.
At this intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I think about how histories, ancient and as modern as just yesterday impact our present and our future. Then I got to thinking about my mother and her sisters and their influences on me, both overt and covert. They figure among the building blocks that make me.
When my grandmother was a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe, she traveled to the United States on a trip organized by the YWCA. When she returned home, her telling of her experiences, especially her trip to the Statue of Liberty, inspired her daughter, my mother, to go to the United States for college. I write this casually, like it was an easy thing for my mother but at the time, in her own country, she did not even have the right to vote, and needed permission to get a passport. Somehow, she figured out a way and she started out at the University of Rochester before she transferred to Mount Holyoke. It would be cute if she decided to attend one of the Seven Sisters because she herself was one of seven sisters but I am guessing her decision had more to do with her boyfriend, a fellow Zimbabwean whom she had met at a party in New York City and was getting his master’s in geology, down the road, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After Mount Holyoke, she too went to UMass Amherst and got her master’s in education, and they soon embarked on their next adventure. My parents moved to Zambia where my father worked as a geologist for an American company and my mother taught high school history at the International School of Lusaka. I once came across a yearbook from the International School in one of my mother’s storage trunks. In it, under her photo, her quote was “I am a citizen of the world” and I imagine one reason she felt that way was because she was barely seen as a citizen of her own nation.
After my little sister passed away, in February 2019, I spent several months in Zimbabwe with my mother and her sisters, appreciating anew what phenomenal women they are, and learning more of their histories. After my parents attended university, they decided to pay it forward, each helping a sibling to get to the United States for university. At the time, Zimbabwe was still not independent, and my mother’s younger sister could not get a passport. But she was determined to get out and go to school. At a point in her journey across the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, she was hidden in the back of a long haul truck, among crates of dried fish and rice. When she finally reached Lusaka and my father went to pick her up she was so frighteningly unrecognizable that my father, fearing the experience might cause a miscarriage, took my aunt to get washed up and changed before my then heavily pregnant mother saw her sister. After my aunt made it to the United States and university, she too paid it forward and brought another sister over for school.
Hearing the histories that my mother and her sisters shared I realized that, as with many marginalized peoples, we often do not hear about their struggles but we reap the benefits of their perseverance. I was with my mother during an impossible time and it was also a time to look at my grandmother’s daughters and see how I what they have done has made me. It was a time to be reminded how they have lived lives where, like the Coles sisters, they follow their desires and won’t be deterred and that is a spirit they have encouraged in their children. It is also a spirit that stands strong for what is right and a spirit that believes in the power of community. When my mother visits us in New York, she loves to take daily walks alone. I have no idea what she gets up to but it must involve a lot of chatting because, long after she leaves the subway station guy or the grocery store employee asks after her. She builds and maintains communities, believing that this is how we all help each other achieve what we seek. And she does do this, starting with the formidable core of her sisters.