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Oriflamme - Essay VIII

Over 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic. In contrast, my season of unemployment came with the privilege of choice. My choice was to bow under the authority of racism, to loosen my grip on integrity or to lose my job. Before six-foot social distancing, before the high demand of face masks and hand sanitizer, I accepted my first job here in the Twin Cities and was hired under the guise of racial inclusion, encouraged to think creatively about equity.

However, it wasn’t long before I found myself burdened with this great responsibility alone. Inviting my colleagues to join me, I explained that corporate anti-racism is only attained when the deep roots of inequities are cut from the source and the undervalued are intentionally prioritized by all. I requested the time, resources, and collective attention needed to accomplish what I was hired to do. Yet, I was thwarted. When my efforts became disruptive, I was silenced and told to return to my work. Like storm clouds rolling in, I slowly began to comprehend their tolerance for injustice in pursuit of profit. I was expected to collude with these inequities that disadvantaged Black and Brown bodies to the benefit of white folks. Their minimization of the value of Black life was justified by profit gained.


Using poetry to make sense of this, I wrote:


I feel this pulling, this gravitational suck. The weight of their perception of my Black womanhood bows my body until I submit. Below. No choice. Expected to serve, to sacrifice without complaint.


My options were to bend or break. So, I opened myself to breaking. I gave notice, ridding myself or their abusive expectations. The night of my resignation I fell asleep with some relief. The next morning, I awoke unemployed. As weeks passed, then months, my applications and interviews were met with silence. The ache in my joints grew until it ached in my stomach and pulsed in my head. Who was I without a title? How could my worth be measured without income to reflect the value of my work? Worse still, what if they were right? Their actions spoke of their internalized understanding. They believed me to be inferior. What did I believe of myself? The sky would not stop falling. The rain would not stop pouring. The pain of uncertainty beat down on me like droplets so thick, I lost all sense of direction. I became acutely aware of what I could not control. The gravity of submission no longer burdened me. Yet, I felt myself still shrinking back, recoiling from the downpour that had become my every day. Born in 1797, Isabella Baumfree watched her Mammy look up at the sky. A lifetime later, at 66 years old, she recounted, “I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old Mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’ And she would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!” - Sojourner Truth


Moved by these words, Black woman, editor, poet and educator Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote in a 1920 issue of The Crisis, Oriflamme,


I think I see her sitting bowed and black, Stricken and seared with slavery’s mortal scars, Reft of her children, lonely, anguished, yet Still looking at the stars. Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons, Pounding our stubborn hearts on Freedom’s bars, Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set, Still visioning the stars!


As I read this poem, in the season of everlasting deluge, I understood that in spite of the storms of their circumstances, these women groaned, pounded, and refused to unclench their hands from the knob of freedom’s door. By grace they did not bend or break or submit to the silencing of this abusive world. They spoke aloud their words that gave me language to describe my own circumstance. That language gave me clarity. Clarity brought resolve. And I remembered my inherent power. My birthright. From that place of remembering, I began to dream. I am not the only woman who knows the pull of racism. So many Black and Brown girls ache with the internalization of these violent racist episodes. I am building a place for our healing. Like every mother, every mammy, aunt, sister and brown woman that weathered the storm before me, I will not shrink back. I will find the words and find my footing. I will withstand the down pour when it comes. I will name the injustice when it floods in, and give the little girls watching me some insight of how to navigate the storm.

Oriflamme / noun / a principle or ideal that serves as a rallying point in a struggle. As so many of us face this storm, be it unemployment, intricate systems of white supremacy, or the unintentional but no less abusive dehumanization of undervaluing Black life, let us fight the gravitational pull. Resist the temptation to recoil. Disrupt the internalization of embodied racialized trauma and care for ourselves, take up space, address the aches and the soul-tired pain. Render Free is a community of Black and brown women who will remind one another, as our ancestors remind us still – it is your birthright, to be well + free.


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