When I was a little girl, my grandmother washed ‘white people’s clothes’ for a living. I put that in quotes because that’s how she described it. My Grandma Leola left my grandfather because he wouldn’t stop drinking and beating her. She was my first role model. She had the strength to raise five children after World War II and she did it on a washer woman’s salary. Grandma Leola told me horrible stories about what it was like growing up in Louisiana and how much better she thought California would be for her family.
What she found, instead, was that she had arrived in a state during a time of war and she was left to care for the house and kids all the while managing to wash other people’s clothes.
When I was about five, I remember being at her house when an older white woman stopped by for a visit. When I opened the door, the woman asked who I was and when I told her my name, she asked me who I was visiting. Even at that early age, I knew what surprise looked like and this woman was clearly surprised to learn that I was the granddaughter of this black woman who, I learned later, had done the laundry for this woman almost 30 years before.
When the woman left, my grandmother told me that, together, they had boycotted a local store that refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s assassination by at least closing their store for one day. That store, a local grocery store, was the only one in the neighborhood that did not close and my grandmother refused to shop there for almost 30. Only her death ended that particular boycott.
Throughout my childhood I was shown different images of what it meant then, and in many ways, still means now to be black in this country. I can pretend that being black is no different than being white, but I would be lying. Just as I would be lying if I said being rich wasn’t different from being poor.
What doesn’t change is the character of a person, regardless of color of class. You see the most considerate people from all walks of life, and you see the most horrid people from those same backgrounds.
When my grandmother decided to have me live with her for a couple of years, she took me to church all the time and she exposed me to a boycotts and petitions and change. When I think of all of the things she taught me, some of the most important things were about change and being able to measure the character of someone as essay on their whole lives, not just parts.
She would have been beside herself with joy today as we celebrated the 2nd inauguration of President Barack Obama. She would have told me stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall and so many other names most of us will never read about in books, but without who, there would be no chance of a biracial president.
My grandmother would have told me that President Obama is a sign that we’ve come so far, but she would have tempered that euphoria with a reminder that we still have so much further to go. She would have learned just enough Spanish to say ‘Si, se puede!’ and she would have smiled at all of the talk of inclusion in a world that told her that the color of her skin, and that of her children, made them less important than other citizens.
I miss my grandmother on days like today. Hell, I miss my grandmother every day.