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Liberated Voice

By: Alishia McCullough

I stand by the Maori proverb that says, “My success is not mine alone, it is that of the collective”. This quote helps me remember that as I grow, I am not alone, there are countless other women and ancestors that have paved my way. I know that their legacy lives within me, they are cheering me on, and that one day our voices will unite and continue to cheer on the next woman. A woman that inspires me is my paternal grandmother, she was born November, 18th 1924 in a southern rural township in North Carolina. Her father passed when she was younger and her mother often worked long hours to provide for the family. Most Black women and girls in the south during that time could only work as nannies, housemaids, or “laborers” and most Black men enlisted in the military service or worked as “laborers” on the saw mill. There was a strong emphasis on being able to survive and provide for the family financially, and education was not accessible or a privilege that many black people had or were aware of. From a young age she shared the responsibility of being a caretaker, and completing chores around the house, all while finishing elementary and middle school. My grandmother left school with an 8th grade education and continued to support her family and contribute financially to the household until she married my grandfather when she was about 21 years old. Shortly after she married my grandfather, she began her own family and birthed 12 children, 6 girls and 6 boys. My father was the second to last to be born in 1965. It was essential to have big families that could continue the family legacy and help out with the financial burden. My grandmother loved to garden and fish and would often use fresh produce from her garden to cook for the family. She would wake up every day, take care of her children, and ensure that breakfast, lunch, and dinner was cooked at home. My family still sings her praises when discussing her innovative recipes and how delicious her meals were. My grandmother also believed in community care and would often offer her meals to other family and friends in the neighborhood. My parents laugh when they share stories of her fearlessness as she would often cook on a wood stove and stick her bare hand in to get the food out. They also speak of her courage and strength as she would have to walk 30 minutes to and from work in a white only neighborhood to clean their houses and take care of their children. My grandmother was met with adversity growing up in the south, as she would often leave the safety and comfort of her home to step into spaces that were often demeaning, hostile, and unsafe. My father recalls a specific encounter when my grandmother was younger and had to walk in the rain and snow in order to get to work. When she arrived, the family made her stand outside in the rain and snow while they finished eating breakfast because they shared that she was “too nasty” to walk past their kitchen table. My grandmother had to wait outside for some time until they were done with their meal before she was expected to clean their clothes and wash their dishes for that day. After a while of standing outside in the cold weather she decided to walk back home. A few hours later the white woman drove to my grandmother’s house and asked her mother “Why did your daughter leave work today”? My grandmother’s mother replied, “She told me that you made her stand in the cold and rain, and she will no longer be returning to work for you”. The woman replied, “You got all of these children and no husband, you know that she needs a job”. To that, my grandmother’s mother replied, “She might have to work, but she will never work for you again”. As I connect more to her story and the experiences of my ancestors, I can feel her pain and despair in those moments, and I am grateful that she was able to leave that job and find a new family to work for. My grandmother passed away at the age of 80 when I was in 5th grade. My fondest memories of her are listening to her sing and read the bible, watching the “stories” on TV with her, helping her cut off the stems to prepare collard greens, and eating her hearty southern meals. My grandmother was gentle and always made sure that everyone had their basic needs met. Her advocacy looked a lot different from what we may think of now as women with more privilege, social reach, and mobility; nonetheless, she had a huge impact on her family and others in her local community. I wanted to share her story because I think that it is important to center and uplift voices of women who often go unheard. Her advocacy inspired me not only to finish high school, but to enroll in a university and graduate with both my undergraduate and graduate degree. Her passion for care and justice inspired me to pursue a career in the mental health field as a therapist so that I can support people as they heal their minds. During that time, I can imagine that no one was checking in with my grandmother to make sure that she was mentally well. No one was helping her deal with the impact of racial trauma, anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns. I also think of her intersectional identities with being both black and a woman living in the south during segregation and normalized sexism. Her priority was taking care of her basic needs for survival and being a co-provider for her family. Social justice is at the foundation of my clinical practice, and one facet of the work that I do is help people work through ancestral and intergenerational trauma because as we heal ourselves, we are also healing those that came before us. I know that if my grandmother was physically here to see all of the opportunities and accomplishments that I have been afforded she would be proud. Her courageousness also inspired me to be vocal about injustice and never settle for mistreatment from others. My grandmother walked to work without the awareness that her prayer and steps would be the foundation for my ability to be a college educated woman that would embody her values of care, resilience, and strength to ultimately help other people heal and develop skills to take care of themselves.

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