Category Archives: women

Mighty Mighty Mattie

Mattie Butler

My cousin, Mattie Butler, passed a couple of weeks ago. She was small in stature and physical features but huge in courage and compassion. She was a saving grace and a rescuer. Everyone in the family and otherwise had a code to use when they needed serious help: “Call Mattie.” 

We’re all elated that she was recognized for one of her greatest accomplishments before she passed:

Woodlawn was once neglected, disinvested, and considered a dangerous south side Chicago area beset by violence, and filled with at-risk, in need of repair properties. But a determined, fierce neighborhood advocate, Mattie Butler, stood tall, confronted, challenged, and changed the prevailing deceptive narrative with her community building and investment efforts. Throughout her life, the indomitable warrior fought for social equality and housing affordability for marginalized residents.…

Many of us grew up and often heard our elders declare, “Give me my flowers and accolades while I can enjoy and remember them.”

Recently, Mattie Butler was the surprised and elated beneficiary of such an effort because whatever she’s done for others, it’s always done exactly right. Butler was recognized for vital contributions to the same Woodlawn community, during her more than 45-year residency. Two newly renovated affordable rental apartment buildings were named in her honor.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined 1st District Congressman Bobby Rush, Chicago Housing Department Commissioner Marisa Novara, other public officials, religious and community leaders and scores of local residents on May 26, 2022, highlighting affordable housing opportunities for Woodlawn residents during a news conference celebrating the meritorious work of advocate Mattie Butler.

“Thanks to Ms. Butler’s strong leadership, we generated a workable Policy Roadmap which reflects our shared vision for Woodlawn’s future. Preservation of housing affordability was key. Further, the inclusive, open process incorporated input and feedback from diverse local community stakeholders, residents, governmental agencies, non-profit, civic, religious, and private sector partners. She commands my utmost appreciation and respect,” said Mayor Lightfoot….

Congressman Bobby Rush who has partnered on grassroots initiatives with Butler and WECAN for years, laughingly recalled, “Over the years, as an activist, former Black Panther, Chicago Alderman, and U.S. Congressperson, I’ve confronted formidable high-profile and little-known opponents. However, I admire and refuse to tangle with Mattie Butler. She has a deceptively warm and sweet demeanor – at first. She’s always armed with irrefutable facts, figures, and contingents of devoted supporters, remaining staunchly unafraid. Mattie’s a strong social advocate, a modern-day Harriet Tubman. I will always respect that.”…

Reverend Dr. Byron T. Brazier, pastor of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God praised Butler’s tenacious, dynamic spirit. “She’s been WECAN’s driving force, developing housing for neighbors, the homeless, organizing drug rehabilitation programs, delinquency prevention, numerous education, and support services programs, launching a food pantry serving hundreds of people. Butler also greatly influences developing sustainable local, statewide, and national public policy initiatives.”…

Acclaimed Black author James Baldwin once expressed: “Your crown is already bought and paid for…All you must do is put it on your head.”

Mattie Butler’s crown of successful achievement rests comfortably and regally on her deserving head. Equally important, she’s alive to receive it. Grateful Woodlawn locals believe it will forever stay there. She’s always stood for them. A few days ago, they returned the favor, standing united to praise and illuminate her altruistic, benevolence. What a profound living legacy.

Read full article, “Chicago’s iconic affordable housing advocate Mattie Butler honored,” on The Chicago Crusader Newspaper site

Let Go

A few years ago, I moved into a smaller space, and I had to make judgments about what of my accumulations from over the years to keep and what to let go. Recently, I looked for a favorite fall jacket and when I couldn’t find it, I realized that it didn’t make the cut when I decided what to let go.

During the process of downsizing, I was faced with decisions about clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes. I also had a huge store of files with articles and papers that I had accumulated over a 50-year career. Two large storage cabinets and five upright file cabinets were full of what I thought were important pieces of information that I might want to reference at some time in the future. At the time that I stored these items, I thought that they were too important to let go.

The files were alphabetized, from the first file cabinet on the left to the fifth cabinet on the far right. When I would pull out the top drawer of the first file cabinet, the first quarter of the drawer held folders that were all labelled affirmative action. The folders held articles that I had written about affirmative action starting in graduate school, as well as many articles written by others that I collected over the years.

Recently, when I heard news about arguments on affirmative action at the Supreme Court, I was prompted to go to my new downsized file cabinets to review some of the papers and articles on affirmative action.

I was stunned to find that I had let go of every single folder labelled affirmative action! In fact, it was a surprise to me that in the top drawer of my new alphabetized first file cabinet there were no folders containing topics beginning with A, B, or C. With the first folders now beginning with the letter “D,” I found “diversity” folders in the place “affirmative action” folders had once been.

This single word—diversity—and its many connotations has been the single thread and lifeline to maintain the spirit of affirmative action, particularly, in selective colleges and universities. In making the argument for the value of diversity for all students, colleges and universities had to let go of race as a prominent qualification in admissions considerations.

With the anticipated decision of the Supreme Court on affirmative action, I want to believe that there is no entity more capable of finding a way to keep the original intent of affirmative action/diversity alive than higher education. To let go of diversity—not only as a compelling interest for all students, but also as a way to ensure that Black students, faculty, and staff are well-represented participants throughout higher education—has huge current and future ramifications for the whole of U.S. society.

Notwithstanding the probable decision of the Supreme Court, let’s hope that colleges and universities will not let go of the spirit of affirmative action/diversity with the construct of race at its center.

Warriors

A lot of deserved attention is being given to Viola Davis, who stars in and produced The Woman King. Before I get into more about Viola, I want to draw attention to the director of The Woman King and other more-than-noteworthy films. Her record is one of excellence in creating films that have strong moral and positive messages.

Historically, women have not been in the director’s chair. For a Black woman to be in the director’s chair the number of times Gina Maria Prince-Blythewood has is truly an amazing accomplishment. Thank you, Director Prince—Blythewood, for your contributions to the film industry and to our culture.

Although the focus of The Woman King is Black women warriors, another warrior who ran up against a ceiling created for Black folks is John Boyega. Being a man, notwithstanding, John Boyega has felt the oppression of being Black in a world acculturated to seeing only White people as heroes in films. This was the reality that fueled what some saw as a backlash against having a Black man as one of the heroes in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Thank you, John Boyega, for sharing your talents as King Ghezo in this epic film that focuses on Black women warriors.

As Viola Davis and the other stars of The Woman King make appearances throughout the media universe, Viola shares strong messages that refute the endemic negative messages that Black girls and women have historically received not only from folks who were not Black but also from Black people who put down women because of their particular shade of blackness.

Here are snippets of messages that Viola sent that resonated with me:

Clear up space for yourself.

Do not disappoint yourself; disappoint others instead.

Don’t say “Yes” so people will love you. They don’t love you.

… weighed down with a cultural history that tells you that you are nothing.

Life is a relay race and you run every leg of it yourself.

I have a new term—“I’m worth it!”

If you have not seen interviews with the stars of The Woman King, I recommend that you take a look at some of them to hear about the six-year experience of getting the film from concept to reality.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, in response to an interviewer’s question, responded that she hoped that women would see themselves reflected in the film. She also hoped that when they leave the theater after seeing the film, women feel enlightened, inspired, and empowered.

A constant refrain that remains with me after seeing The Woman King and hearing comments of those who made the film possible is “spirit of the warrior within.”

Thank you, Viola Davis

Viola Davis is the only African American to receive what is called the “Triple Crown of Acting”—Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award. She has been in close to 30 films and has numerous television credits.

I’m no professional critic and won’t attempt to critique her films. I just want to say: Thank you, Viola Davis, for being real Black for me, for portraying Black women in all our pain and glory.

Shifting models of beauty

The saga of the pandemic continues to have innumerable impacts on people all over the world. It seems that not a day passes in which we don’t hear about some change resulting from the pandemic’s effects. From the exacerbation of mental health disorders and COVID long haulers to people refusing to return to work, the pandemic is leaving its mark.   

One seeming universal change is the great technological revolution available to ordinary people as well as organizations. This technological wizardry gives people the ability to not only communicate with one another and participate in meetings and other group discussions through voice but also visually. The downside to seeing one another is that people can also see themselves. People who didn’t like much about their facial features before the pandemic now spend hours looking at their own faces on various virtual platforms. Some people dealing with this “Zoom dysmorphia” don’t like what they see and decide to do something about it.

One of the most prominent facial features on a virtual meeting platform is the nose. Back in the 70s, one of my White friends had rhinoplasty. Before the surgery, her nose was naturally straight and narrow like many White people’s. After the surgery, the tip of her nose turned up slightly showing more of her open nostrils. I didn’t think that this was an improvement, but I kept my mouth shut.

On the topic of change and noses, I read an interesting article written by Mridula Amin for Quartz titled, Nose jobs: Breaking the beak. Assuming that a large percentage of nose surgeries are for cosmetic rather than health reasons, I was still surprised to see the following statistics:

              2.5 billion: Number of uses of hashtag #nosejobcheck on Tik Tok

              352,555: Nose re-shaping surgeries performed in the US in 2020

              67.9 %: Share of total rhinoplasties that are performed on 19–34-year-olds

I would wager, with a great sense of certainty, that the number of rhinoplasties historically and currently have been to change the nose to be more like what is considered attractive in noses endemic to Caucasians, and that’s why “approximately 66% of nose job patients in the US are white.”

The Quartz article mentions that “ethnic rhinoplasty” is “gaining popularity among people of color that aim to preserve their ethnic identity with their noses.” The idea of ethnic rhinoplasty is confusing to me. If one already has a nose endemic to one’s ethnicity, why is it necessary to have nose surgery to preserve that identity? Confusing or not, it may mean that fewer people of color are wishing that the bridge of their nose was not as flat and that their nostrils were narrower.

In describing what he calls the “Instagram Face” ideal in The New Yorker, celebrity make-up artist Colby Smith says, “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone [for white people], a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern.”

The pandemic changed a lot of things, but it didn’t seem to change the fact that people still want to look like what the majority holds up as models of beauty. It’s at least encouraging, as one can see from Colby Smith’s quote, that today when people opt for facial plastic surgery or choose makeup to emulate what they see as attractive, there is ethnic and racial diversity.

KBJ: Portrait of Black Women

The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.

Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.  

I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.

Unsung Hero

One of my happiest memories was when my mother and I studied together. I was in high school and she was working days and attending Marion Business College on Madison Avenue in Chicago in the evenings. It was quite a hike on foot, but she made the trip with a spring in her step. She wanted to acquire secretarial skills in order to be qualified for an office job.

To study, we would close the door to the kitchen to lessen the sound of the television in the living room. In my memory, my grandparents were always watching the western, Gunsmoke.

Sometimes my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table next to a cold radiator because, more often than not, there was no heat. This inconvenience did not deter us from studying, however.

We would turn on the gas for the stove, strike a match, and light the oven. We would keep the oven door open to try to keep warm.  When it was too cold to study in the kitchen even with the oven door open, we would take our books to my mother’s bed and wrap ourselves in blankets and enjoy the warmth of our shared body heat. Rather than complain about the cold, we sometimes would exaggerate the chatter of our teeth when we tried to talk and laugh so hard that our eyes would water.   

Muhdear, as my siblings and I called our mother, was her best self when she was learning. She was excited about learning the Gregg Method of shorthand. I would quiz her by reading sample passages typically used in a business office and she would rapidly transcribe them into shorthand. I was fascinated at how easily and quickly she learned. She was so smart.

This photo of her as she exited the school with her certificate of completion captures her joy of achievement against so many odds.

I am so proud of her.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.