There were times my exhausted body wanted to go home after I put in my eight hours of work. I’d wrestle with myself trying to justify reasons I should skip class. Overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame for wanting to. Knowing skipping class was tantamount to betrayal. I could not live with these feelings. Feelings stronger than the exhaustion I felt. Always In the midst of my exhaustion I felt an internal tugging and heard their voices gently whispering to me. The voices of those long dead. You can do it. You must do it. Hold on. Hold on. Lean on us for strength. We are here. It won’t be long they would say. You must light the path for those coming behind you. You will make it better. You will make it better. Fueled with an unearthly determination I’d rush off to class. Reminded I am not my own. I am their will, their dream, their inherited living flesh.
The end of every college and grad school semester found my body thrown to the floor sobbing. My body finally free to let go. Release and relief met an abundance of gratitude. Embraced by the loving presence of the eternal spirits of my ancestors. I was one step closer to fulfilling their hope. Accomplishments cursing the whip’s lash and the lynched swinging from Billie Holiday’s poplar trees, if caught reading or attempting to. I imagined dark trembling fingers and terror caressing pages filled with words they did not recognize nor understand. Believing this reading and knowing would bring freedom.
When I was a young woman I would sit at the feet of silver haired women and listen to their stories. There was an urgency in their voices and the words they spoke. I have inherited their stories. Now I am silver haired and the young ones ask to sit with me. The young ones listen quietly and intently at the stories of this silver haired woman seated before them. They’re eager to learn. I never lie to them. In the beginning they were puzzled by my questions. Questions like have you ever seen, read, were taught or told of diplomas, degrees, certificates and doctors operating elevators? I have. What about pale folks kitchens and spirits dwelling in empathetic and imprisoned mops? I have. Crushed dreams, broken hearts and missing families? I have. I speak of mops, aprons, cleaning, cooking, and freshly scrubbed pale babies smelling of clothing, rent, and food. Their chubby little legs and feet reminding me of my own babies left at home. I turn to them during my telling, our ancestors sacrificed for us. They promise, as I did in my youth, to hold these stories close to their hearts but more importantly to never forget.
Michael Brown, Billie Holiday Mop,
2008 Mop head and melted Billy Holiday records
54 x 12 x 12 inches