Liberation from Within
Celebrating the Extraordinary Who Are Relegated to Ordinary: A Tribute to Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson

This article was originally published on The Feminist Wire.

Nana (Rebecca White Simmons Chapman)
Nana (Rebecca White Simmons Chapman)

Too often, we do not celebrate the extraordinary individuals who, because of their race, gender, and/or socio-economic standing, lived what appeared to be ordinary lives. This year, I am paying homage to my paternal and maternal grandmothers’ lives and legacies. I proudly stand upon the shoulders of my Nanas—Mrs. Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Mrs. Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson—whose lives were remarkable.

My grandmothers grew up in abject poverty in Rock Hill, South Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee. Nana Chapman was the third of four children born to Jack White, Sr., and Maggie Pagan White. When she left school in the fourth grade to financially support her family by working as a domestic cleaning white people’s homes, she was forced to abandon her dream of becoming a nurse. Alone with limited financial means as a domestic laborer in the 1930s, she moved from South Carolina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when she was 12 years old.  Nana Watson’s formative years were also quite challenging.  She was the 9th child of 10 children born to Mattie Garrett Cranford and Henderson Cranford. She was orphaned early, losing both of her parents as a very young child. Both her paternal grandmother Mrs. Francis Macklin, and paternal aunt, Mrs. Florence Cranford, raised her and her siblings. Nana Watson was an excellent student who completed the 11th grade during the Great Depression.  Never overzealous with their Christian faith, Nanas Chapman and Watson were active and engaged members in their churches—Jones Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church and Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, respectively. Neither woman subscribed to the belief in a vengeful God who would bring His wrath upon those who didn’t follow (human interpretations of) His will. Nana Chapman always taught and believed that “good deeds are their own rewards.”

During World War II, Nana Chapman worked at the Budd Automotive Company, then subsequently began working at Sichek Clothing factory in Philadelphia, where she quickly rose to floor manager. Throughout her tenure at Sichek, she was an active union member and a shop steward.

During that same period, Nana Watson became a pioneer by breaking the virulently racist Jim Crow color line by becoming the first African-American woman to write laundry tickets for Memphis Steam Laundry and Cleaners.  Prior to her, no African-American women worked in this position because it required collecting money from and interacting with white customers during a time when racial segregation was strictly enforced. This type of work was reserved for white women.  African Americans, nevertheless, endured and resisted this U.S.-sanctioned domestic terrorism.

Nana Watson valiantly persevered despite the racism that I can barely imagine, much less stomach, that she endured from most of the white women customers who didn’t want to accept laundry tickets from a “Colored Woman.”  While it was not her intention, she was a trailblazer who broke ground in this field and paved the way for those African-American women who followed her.

With the first African-American President of the United States in his second term, many will probably not view Nana Watson pioneering job as an extraordinary act. However, one need only talk to the surviving elders from her generation and earlier to learn first hand about the horrid impact of the brutal, state and locally inhumane, racist and sexist Jim Crow laws. These were the laws of the Confederate states from 1876 to 1965. Some of the many seminal award-winning works that document a plethora of historical accounts of the era include: Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, Paula Giddings Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Barbara Ransby’s  Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Danielle Maguire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years: 1954-1963, the Hands on the Freedom Plow:Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC anthologyBlackside’s PBS television series Eyes on the Prize, and Duke University’s Beyond the Veil: African-American Life in the Jim Crow South.  These are a few thoroughly documented references that underscore what Nana and all African-Americans experienced daily during Jim Crow reign. Being the first African American in any type of employment that was his/herstorically reserved for white women and men was no small feat.

And yet, there was no fanfare for the pioneering work of Nana Watson and Nana Chapman primarily because we live in a classist society and the work of laborers, most especially Black women laborers is not valued or respected. They, like so many African-American women of their generation, were unsung and very quiet extraordinary sheroes.

Challenging the racial and gender stereotypes of the 1950s and 60s, Nana Chapman demanded that all strata of society respect her and her family. She was committed to supporting African-American health care professionals, attorneys and other business people throughout her life. She was particularly proud that her two sons’ first doctor was an African-American woman.

In 1962, Nana Chapman was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and was given five years to live. She wasn’t daunted by the prognosis. With her faith in God, along with the unlimited emotional, psychic, and financial support of her husband, Willie L. Chapman, my (step)grandfather, Nana outlived this diagnosis by 39-years. Over a 30-year span, the illness caused her to be hospitalized on average of every 18-months. She was exposed to an inordinate amount of radiation, which made her bones too brittle to be exposed to extended sunlight; and she was often in excruciating pain. In spite of these major impediments, Nana insisted on and lived a normal life.

In the 1970s, Nana Watson and her second husband, Reverend Granville Watson, established their own cleaning business, which provided quality janitorial services for Hobson-Kerns Realty for many years.  After her divorce, Nana continued providing cleaning services for this and other companies for decades until her retirement at the age of 80.

Both Nanas Chapman and Watson were hard workers who held life long desires and quests for knowledge. They were avid readers with homes filled with books, magazines, and newspapers. Neither woman defined herself in terms of education or paid work. Rather, each saw her quality of life determined by what kind of sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend she was to those she loved.

Long before I had ever heard of and encountered my teacher, mentor, and big sister friend Toni Cade Bambara, Nana Chapman was my teacher and mentor. Until I was 21-years in this journey called life, there was hardly anything that I could not share with her. With the exception of one big secret, I talked to her about almost everything –religion and spirituality, reproductive freedom, politics, my queer sexuality, education, and friendships with my peers. During my turbulent pre-teen and teenage years, Nana and I would talk on the phone almost daily for hours at a time. She was my “Nana Banana” and I was her “Apple Pie.” I never felt like she didn’t have time for my issues, concerns, thoughts, ideas, and/or fears. For many years she was literally my emotional and psychic lifeline. She never used the words “Black feminist” to describe herself, but she played a major role in teaching me Black feminist principles. She always made it explicitly clear that there were no limits to any goals that a woman sought to achieve.  She would always tell me, “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t,’ Pie.” These conversations played a pivotal role on my current quest to write about and document the struggles of African-American women and other women of color.  With a fourth grade education and a PhD. in life experience, she was my intellectual adviser, my trusted confidante, sought after consultant, and my friend.

Aishah & Nana (Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson)
Aishah & Nana (Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson)

I will not be a revisionist and say that Nana Watson and I were extremely close because we were not. There was deep love and affection shared between us. However, very unfortunately, with the exception of one-year when she came to live with my mother (Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons) and I during my adolescence, we never lived geographically close to each other. Over the years our relationship was really relegated to phone calls and brief visits over holidays or during birthdays. And yet, she always traveled to Philadelphia to attend major milestone events in the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. While she didn’t think that rape was something to be discussed in public or even private, Nana made several financial contributions, which supported the making of my film NO! The Rape Documentary.

Nana had a will power that would not be denied. When she set her mind on something, there really wasn’t anything that you could do to change it. Even if she changed her mind, it was not because someone forced her to do so. As her health declined over the years, she was not aware that she could no longer fully take care of herself.  In her mind’s eye, she was still the same Mrs. Juanita Watson she had always been, just slightly older. I write this because it is difficult to come to grips with the fact that someone who has taken care of you is in need of care. It is often hard to face the sobering aging process. Additionally, it is very challenging to do this work when our aging loved ones don’t believe they are in need of care.

Both of my grandmothers died in the Chinese Astrology year of the snake in 2001 and 2013, respectively. I am moved that they died within a 12-year cycle.  I don’t know what the timing all means. I know that being with both of them in their deaths transformed me as much as knowing them when they were physically alive.

I was alone with Nana Chapman during the last three days of her life in 2001. She beat cancer, but not Alzheimer’s  disease. I rubbed her body, combed her hair, played African-American spirituals and gospel music in rotation, and called upon her ancestors to welcome her. She wasn’t conscious, and yet, she was present. Recognizing that the end of her human form was imminent, I found my voice to share with her the one secret that I kept from her for over 20 years because of spoken loyalty to my parents and unspoken loyalty to my grandfather. I was molested over a period of two years. I don’t know what she absorbed, if anything, during my highly emotional disclosure. What I know is that a shift happened within me, and my incest burden was slightly lighter. I wasn’t with her when she transitioned from this realm to the next.  I left five hours before her last breath. At that time, I didn’t have a full understanding of the process of dying nor did I have a grasp that she was departing. I told myself that I would return to the hospital the next day. Knowing what I know now, I firmly believe that I was afraid to witness her death. I knew she transitioned somewhere between 4:00am - 5:00am on December 22, 2001 because I was awakened by an unexplained loving presence in my bedroom. I knew it was her presence. She was no longer here in the physical form.  When I received the call several hours later, I said to my dad (Michael Simmons), “I know. Nana has passed on.”

Now here I am;

and there I am;

and all I am;

Free to be anywhere at all in the Universe.

~ Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

The experience of being so close and yet, missing her transition sent me on a spiritual quest, which ultimately led me to my practice of vipassana meditation –an invaluable and non-negotiable anchor on my life’s journey.

Only one month ago, I arrived in Memphis during the last 26-hours of Nana Watson’s life. During those sacred hours, I came face to face with the fact that I missed so much with my maternal grandmother. Simultaneously, I also realized that it was not a time for guilt, but a time to support and witness the final stages of her transition into the next realm. I was by her side in deep prayer in her religious (Christian) tradition and in deep meditation in my spiritual tradition. Unlike in 2001 when I was with Nana Chapman, I came prepared to be completely present during Nana Watson’s transition. She was no longer conscious, but I felt her presence. I rubbed and massaged her body and called upon her ancestors to welcome her into the next realm. I shared and reflected upon many things that I’m not comfortable sharing in this article. I practiced Mettā meditation. I played what was perhaps a continuous stream of African-American spirituals and gospel. She made her transition at 4:00AM on April 6, 2013. The song that was playing around the time of her transition was Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Come by Here”— arranged by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. I sat and stood prayerfully and meditatively in silence with Nana Watson’s body being acutely aware of the universal law of impermanence.

And again, I hear Toni Cade Bambara’s words:

Now here I am;

and there I am;

and all I am;

Free to be anywhere at all in the Universe.

~ The Salt Eaters

About 45-minutes to an hour after her transition, the Hospice nurse, my mother, and I bathed Nana’s body before the undertaker arrived. It was an incredible ritual. During the bathing, I saw an 89-year old version of my own body. I am flesh of her flesh and womb of her womb in this lifetime.

I am grateful that Nana Watson entrusted me with the profound gift to support her crossing over and witness her final hours in the physical form. This gift has left an indelible imprint on me. I am forever changed.

In life and in death, Rebecca White Simmons Chapman and Juanita Cranford Robinson Watson have directly and indirectly impacted my journey called life. I inherited and now walk with their Black feminist warrior legacies

I close with an excerpt of Dr. Delores S. Williams’ timeless words featured in Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles’ edited anthology My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality:

“…Whenever I reflect upon the sources of my spirituality as a Black woman, I think of love, struggle, work, self-sight, justice, and celebration taught to me by so many Black voices, most of them female. For this I continue to be deeply grateful. For this I celebrate the very force of Life itself.”[1]

May Nana Chapman and Nana Watson be peaceful, happy, and fully liberated.

Sadhu. Asé. A(wo)men. Ameen.


[1] Delores S. Williams’ “Sources of Black Female Spirituality: The Ways of ‘the Old Folks’ and ‘Women Writers,’” in My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality, ed. Gloria Wade-Gayles, p. 191

 

After a very long and extremely necessary hiatus, I am returning to the director’s chair to complete Liberation from Within - The (short) Documentary Film. I am grateful to my Sis tiona.m., who is an award-winning filmmaker.  Her support expressed in a myriad of ways and her technical/creative expertise, will help me womanifest this vision that has been in gestation for three-years and counting…

After a very long and extremely necessary hiatus, I am returning to the director’s chair to complete Liberation from Within - The (short) Documentary Film. I am grateful to my Sis tiona.m., who is an award-winning filmmaker.  Her support expressed in a myriad of ways and her technical/creative expertise, will help me womanifest this vision that has been in gestation for three-years and counting…

How do you refrain from harming yourself AND others while striving to equanimously AND compassionately swim with unavoidable sharks in the ocean of of life?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
I wish we could be as passionate about ending rape & rape culture as so many of us are about protecting those who rape or those who promote rape. In the specific instances of people of color and anti-racist white people, it’s uncanny how so many us are absolutely clear and razor sharp with our analyses about the horrid impact of racism and white supremacy upon our communities. And yet, when it comes to sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence perpetrated against cis/trans women and all gender non-conforming people, the response is too often a combination of crickets, a rush to blame the victim/survivors, and/or a rush to protect/contexualize the behavior of perpetrators.

“I awakened thinking about and holding deep compassion for all of the victim/survivors AND perpetrators of various forms of (emotional, psychological, psychic, spiritual, mental, religious, verbal, physical, sexual, armed) violence.
What this would this world look like if each one of us believed and did everything in our power to ensure that all beings everywhere, and without exception, had the right to be free from enmity and danger, hatred, ill-will, evil, and live with peace, compassion, and infinite *non-attached* *selfless* love? HARD and at times SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE WORK that beigins with ourselves and then outward.

It’s quite feasible that this world in which we all inhabit would be humane.”

My heart deeply mourns for the children in Connecticut who were murdered and their surviving parents. My Goddess.

I also deeply mourn for ALL children who are senselessly murdered at the hands of our tax dollars #DRONES #WARS #CollateralDamage and our #GREED, which results in children around the world working in this most inhumane and wretched conditions.

Are my hands clean?

I’ve definitely posted this video several times on my tumblr blog(s) and elsewhere. However, it feels most appropriate to post (again) today (December 9, 2012) because this is the 17th anniversary of Toni Cade Bambara's transition from the physical realm to the spirit realm

Dedicated to the living legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, “For Women of Rage & Reason” is both a stand alone video & it’s closing sequence of NO! The Rape Documentary. (Read my post on Toni’s insights on Women and Rage)

Producer & Director ~ Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Co-Producer/Director of Choreography ~ Tamara L. Xavier, Dancer ~ Moon Wisdom, Director of Photography and Editor ~ Tina Morton, Music ~ Giscard “JEE EYE ZEE” Xavier and Felicia Webster, Lyrics ~ Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Jaimie Pyle, Lead Vocals ~ Felicia Webster and Jaimie Pyle, Background Vocals ~ Tamara L. Xavier and Aishah Shahidah Simmons 

Toni Cade Bambara on Women and Rage

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PRESENTE TONI CADE BAMBARA (March 25, 1939 - December 9, 1995)

"Rage. Meditation. Action. Healing. Ase’." ~ A State of Rage

Toni Cade Bambara was a catalyst for the creation of NO! The Rape Documentary through her profound insights on “Women and Rage.” In one of my last scriptwriting workshops with Toni Cade Bambara, at Scribe Video Center, the vision for what evolved into NO! The Rape Documentary was fully conceived.  In Toni’s workshop, I expressed tremendous frustration and difficulty with transforming my thoughts and my feelings in my head about NO! to images on paper.  In class Toni challenged me to go home and “free style” my feeling about NO!.  She followed up with a voice mail message telling me not to come to class empty handed. That evening my choreopoem “A State of Rage”** was conceived in my apartment.

In response to my choreopoem “A State of Rage,”** Toni wrote the following:

…Your piece can be useful in giving women permission to be enraged and outraged. An angry woman, like a laughing woman, is often perceived as a danger to status quo. A laughing woman might be laughing because she sees the hoax, the ridiculousness of the set up, and may next use her humor to point a finger and bring the whole thing down. An angry woman may be angry because she has peeped the scene and will now use her rage to mobilize others to topple the regime. Both kinds of women are threats and are therefore called “mad,” “out of control,” “strident.” We are taught(women especially) that anger and rage are unhealthy that we need to muffle it; medicate it, deny it, flee it. You clearly don’t think so. Good. Apathy, despair, and amnesia would be the unhealthy responses in the project’s “universe,” and anger the most use-full.

            Rage is fuel. It can leave the person smoldering. It can consume the angry one. Or it can locomote the feeling toward foolishness or usefulness. It can be a tool with which to access the power of the unconscious. It can point a way as well as point a finger, your piece seems to say.

            Rage can be red (cholera, flames) white (white hot heat, light), a laser, a pen light, a snarl, a growl, percussive and off-axis movements, etc.

            We don’t usually associate rage (scary, noisy, frightening), with meditation (contemplation, solitude, tranquil) thus you have an opportunity to harness seeming contraires to produce surprises.

            (Aishah) you have a very powerful project here, and you’ve clarified to yourself the most import issues—where you are in relation to material, what your motive impulse is, what you hope to effect, what content elements are available as a vehicle. Do start laying in some images. If you are having trouble generating visual sequences, trust your voice and simply begin as you intended to narrate the whole piece; then go back and substitute what we will see for what we can hear. Hope this has been helpful… -Toni" ~ (from) Asserting My In(ter)dependence: The Evolution of NO!, Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall, editors

**A State of Rage is featured in Shout Out: Women of Color Respond to Violence, Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige, editors


Postscript: It is absolutely uncanny how Toni Cade Bambara’s words written to me in December 1994 are speaking directly to me in these December 2012 moments as I navigate observing my own deep pain and rage connected to abuse I experienced from someone (else) who was a sought after trusted Teacher/(Big)Sister Friend and my (incorrect?) perception of the cover-up…


Rather than completely and *very* metaphorically “blow up” the spot, I’m striving hard to handle all of this with compassion and metta (infinite loving kindness). 

The only *successful* way I presently know how to do this is through a committed practice of vipassana meditation (http://dhamma.org/).

The only way out (of misery) is deep within.”

PRESENTE: Toni Cade Bambara (March 25, 1939 - December 9, 1995)

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Today (December 9, 2012) marks the 17th anniversary of the physical transition of  Toni Cade Bambara,  who was a cultural worker extraordinaire (daughter, mother, award-winning author, screenwriter, teacher, activist, community organizer). If you don’t know who she is,  Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall, really gives one the opportunity to get a grasp of the impact of her contribution to make this world a more humane place and her ongoing living legacy.

I was fortunate…blessed to have Toni’s presence in my life at such a critical time in my life.  In February 1990, at the very ripe age of 20, I shared my feelings of alienation, and inadequacy at Swarthmore College combined with my frustration with the racist and sexist Eurocentric film department at Temple University— things like watching and critiquing camera techniques, without any social commentary, of films like “Birth of A Nation” and “Imitation of Life” with Toni.  After hearing my frustration and disappointment with my undergraduate studies at Temple University, Toni told me to come to a place called Scribe Video Center to take her scriptwriting workshop.  I told Toni I didn’t have any additional money to take a scriptwriting workshop. Her response was “I didn’t ask you if you had any money, I told you to come to Scribe Video Center and take my scriptwriting workshop.”  Toni’s response forever changed my life.  Foremost it marked the beginning of one of my most profound mentorship’s that lasted, in the physical form, until she made her physical transition on December 9, 1995.  Secondly and equally as important, it marked my introduction to this place called Scribe Video Center…" ~ Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Asserting my In(ter)dependence: The Evolution of NO!, Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara

Every year I grapple with how I will spend this holiday, which I view as Indigenous Peoples REMEMBRANCE DAY. Since being an adult, I’ve spent it both with my family of origin and my chosen family. I’ve also spent it in deep meditative silence. It’s a complicated holiday because I know it is a time of the year when many are able to come together to spend time with their loved ones. And yet many are not able to enjoy the full day and evening, especially if they’re working for retail stores.

This year, I am intentionally spending it alone to fast in solidarity with the women, children, and men in Gaza. I also fast in honor of Indigenous peoples on this land mass known as North America and everywhere in the world whose land has been confiscated and lives have been murdered for the sake of greed.

I also refuse to do ANY shopping for material goods over this frenzied period known as “The Super Bowl of Retail” aka “Black Friday.” It’s one (very small) way to RESIST this vicious and inhumane capitalist carnival

Aishah Shahidah Simmons