ESSAY #16 12.24.20 Posted 7.22.21 Old Black Women and Old White Men

Old Black Women and Old White Men

Names, titles, and assignments of character such a “Old Black Woman” and “Old White Man” can leave us relating to individual or shared stereotypes, rather than to the actual people in front of us. Who we relate to will often depend on how we define people, based on our own presumptions and memories. But what happens when we redefine who people can be?

Old Black Women and Old White Men

Before I get to the substance of what I want to say in this one, I am going to have to clarify some definitions, and explain a couple things. The first is that I am using the word “old” in this essay based on what I learned from my granddaughter, when she used the word about 15 years ago, as a nine-year-old. She was explaining to me why her parents didn’t really understand contemporary life.

“They’re old, Grandpa!” she said. They were in their mid-30s at the time, and I was in my mid-50s.

“So,” I said, “if your parents are old, what does that make me?”

“Ancient,” she responded, without the slightest pause. She was attempting to teach me about the relative nature of age, and I had to respect her wisdom because she was my go-to guy when I needed to know how to operate my phone.

So, when I use the word “old,” it is a sign of respect for the wisdom that comes with living. It’s less about chronological age than it is about experience. For those who have been single moms raising children while working or attending school, for those who raised their grandchildren while still raising their own children, and for those women and minorities who acquired advanced degrees in a world dominated by white men, wisdom comes early. So, in this essay, “old” is a term of respect and admiration, which black women, in general, have earned.

Regarding generalizations—they are never accurate, and black women are not a monolith of beliefs and attitudes any more than white men are. However, there are certain things that most black women, as an identifiable segment of our society, have had to deal with in their lives, and on the whole, they have handled them extremely well.

Old Black Women

This may be the most difficult piece I have ever written, for two reasons. The first is that I want to ask Old Black Women for their help, and I don’t think that I, nor anyone else, for that matter, has the right to ask anything of them. The second is, I don’t yet know what it is that I want to ask of them. I am hoping that it shows up in the process of writing this essay.

But it is hard to imagine how life would work without black women doing what they do, especially those who didn’t have the opportunity to advance their education or technical training. They are the backbone of the service industry, in the broadest sense. Retail couldn’t survive without black women, and call centers, utilities, and other service centers rely heavily on black women to care for their customers. Even as their numbers grow in the teaching, medical and legal professions, you will find that they are still taking care of others. Black women have been caring for others for a very long time in this country, and it would be a stretch to say they are well appreciated, if you look at the way they are paid.

There are multiple ways to look at our history, and each way of looking embeds thoughts and emotions in memory banks, and those memories seem to impact our experience of ourselves in our lives. As slaves, black women were subjected to the worst kind of violence, beaten and raped by their masters and by other white men who had control over them. And the violence did not stop after slavery was abolished. There is a reason why present-day immigrants from the central regions of Africa are so much darker than the average black American today.

Black women have also had to watch their men folk be abused and murdered at the hands of the white justice system for years, with no place to appeal for justice, or to even be heard. Black women, for years, have experienced the indignities of not being allowed to use the toilets in the homes of those they served, and of being subjected to cruelty in exchange for the skimpiest financial security. And yet, when depressions and recessions have plagued the nation, the burden of survival has fallen the hardest on the black community, and especially on the black women who stretched soup bones to feed their own.

Old White Men

Those things happened. There is no denying it. But sometimes, we Old White Men think that that is all ancient history, and that it doesn’t matter anymore. “Why can’t you just leave all that behind?” we whine. But Old White Men have a history, too, and it seems to stay stuck in our memories, as though it happened yesterday. And, like all memories, ours are inaccurate and tend to color our present day, and serve our ideas about what life is supposed to be like. We remember the rebel flag as a part of our heritage, for example, but we forget that it was only reprised in the ‘50s, in the dying days of Jim Crow, to remind everyone about who was still in charge. We remember busing in the ‘70s, when the federal government forced us to go to school with Blacks—we don’t like it when people who have more power than us tell us what to do. We also remember when affirmative action took jobs away from us and gave them to black people, and even worse, to black women—that was so unfair.

I feel bad for Old White Men who are hauling all those memories around, creating a burden that they pick up every day and use to see their future. I can’t see how that burden serves them or helps them in any way. Some of that stuff happened, some of it was probably unfair, but it certainly wasn’t something that black people did to white people. It doesn’t help that many Old White Men see black people through the lens of historical inaccuracies, and it doesn’t help that some have adopted the values and beliefs of a time that has long passed.

Sometimes I wonder what we can do to unburden them from the things they believe, the things that hobble them in their day-to-day life. Years back, in my corporate consulting days, we used to say, “What happens if you program a computer to search for even-numbered zip codes?” The answer, of course, is that it will find even-numbered zip codes. If you are programmed to believe that the world is oppressing you in some way, you will seek and find oppressors, and you will look for proof to support your belief that someone out there is doing it to you. Following this programming is just the human thing to do. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it.

Old Black Women in history

Above, I presented one way to view the history of Old Black Women, and now I would like to present another. When the underground railroad was established by Blacks and sympathetic Whites to aid black slaves in their escape from slavery, it was an Old Black Woman (barely in her thirties), Harriet Tubman, who stood out. She escaped slavery on her own, and then returned to slave territory 13 times to lead 70 others to freedom.

Ida B. Wells was only one of many black women to take an active role in women’s suffrage, at a time when a black man could be lynched for attempting to vote, even though it was a legal act promised him by the US constitution. Ida didn’t represent the cause meekly. She insisted on walking in the front, which was not what the white women wanted.

It is also a well told story that, during the Great Depression, when a desperate white man needed food, but had been shunned at the doors of white homes, he would seek out a home kitchen in the black part of town. And those who rode the rails in search of work could count on the generosity, compassion, and understanding of Old Black Women.

A request

We are at a crossroads in American history where we have the opportunity to become a post-racial society, and to see that no child’s future is burdened by race, color, or ethnicity. The question is whether or not we can accelerate that movement so that it will be measured in decades rather than centuries.

Before I say more, I need to clarify some demographics. There are a whole bunch of white folk who are already in favor and supportive of what needs to happen. There are also a whole bunch that are going to oppose anything, because that is just what they do. Then, there are a bunch in the middle who aren’t sure about the facts or the issues, what needs to be resolved or doesn’t, or what the resolution might look like. But they are willing to listen, and are essentially good-hearted folk who will sign up for what is best for all of us. Now, I don’t know what to call this last group of people, but if you just think of them as Old White Men and you speak to them, you will hit the necessary target audience.

So, I guess this is what I wanted to ask Old Black Women, and for that matter, anyone reading this, to do: help Old White Men let go of whatever it is they are afraid of, so we can get out of this societal stall we have been in for a while. Somehow, you are going to have to take the courage, compassion, and understanding with which you have approached your life, and make it available to Old White Men who are afraid of the future they see, due to old thought processes and memories.

I don’t know what it will take. You might have to shift some of the thinking that keeps you stuck in parts of your life, where you don’t feel powerful and effective. You might have to get them to say what they are really afraid of, and then listen to them, and help them listen to themselves. Someone needs to listen to them gently, without reacting, no matter how incomprehensible the expression. I know this is a ridiculous thing to ask, but we need a few of these Old White Men to open their hearts and minds and begin to understand things that are inimical to their current thinking. They are not bad people. They just misunderstand a few things.

I don’t know what is to come. Maybe there will be demonstrations, symposiums, and great teaching moments, harnessed for the masses. There is a change afoot, and we need to grab the moment. Our children are too important not to.

As for Old Black Women, though I made a huge request of them in this essay, history tells me that they don’t really need anyone to ask them before they help. I am going to trust history. In every moment of our history, Old Black Women have brought their intelligence, courage, wisdom, compassion, forbearance, and understanding to support what needed to happen. Whatever the situation demands, they will bring what it takes.

Just give it some thought.