By ANTONIA WILLIAMS-GARY
“I’m a nasty woman … I’m nasty like the battles my grandmothers fought to get me into that voting booth.”
The poem, written by then nineteen-year- old Nina Donovan in response to an utterance from Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, lists a wide variety of ways to be a nasty woman, including being a working black woman earning a fraction of the dollar as a white woman.
A whole lot of nasty women (and enlightened men) marched around the country and abroad this past Saturday, and in New York, Ashely Judd recited the nasty woman poem to thunderous applause.
And so I too claim to be a nasty black woman; still struggling to be accepted and treated equally under the law, and by societal measures. In fact, I’m descended from a long line of such: my mother Bettye Carey Williams was a nurse, with a degree, always fighting for her due pay and recognition; her mother operated a restaurant after having nine children; and my great-grandmother was a tailor who owned real estate in Key West and Miami. All nasty women.
In lieu of marching in nearby Baton Rouge where I had gone to visit, my protest energy was spent at the Whitney Plantation Slave Museum, housed on the grounds of an eighteenth century sugar cane plantation, several miles upriver from New Orleans.
I think I made a good choice. It was a profound and moving experience.
The slave museum invites us to pay tribute to the ancestors: men, women, and children, who were enslaved in service to support that blood-thirsty enterprise of growing wealth for a very small minority. That the slave population outnumbered free whites, indentured whites and others (except perhaps natives Americans) is fully documented. Yet, by the whip, chains, maiming, murder and other calculated brutalities, the large African population was reduced to submission.
Some resisted. They were beaten. Or branded and mutilated. And killed. On this plantation, the most serious resisters were decapitated; their heads put on stakes in a public display of warning and intimidation. Children died in great disproportion. Their names were engraved on a granite wall in the Fields of Angels, overseen by a life-size bronze winged female figure – another nasty woman – holding an infant in her hands.
There was more than enough human suffering on that place to spawn a whole mess of nasty women over successive generations.
More than twenty years of research by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (another nasty woman) yielded over one hundred thousand names of enslaved people in Louisiana alone, whose names are etched in granite on memorial walls. In her award-winning book, “Africans in Colonial Louisiana”, Midlo Hall recounts how women died at a higher rate on slave ships and/or in child birth. Some of the survivors’ testimonies were engraved on those granite walls in which they gave an accounting of fifteen or more births to a single woman.
Unfortunately, Dr. Hall, author of several other scholarly works, retired before she finished her account of Africans used as slaves throughout the nation.
Yet, of all the memorials, sculptures and narratives to the ravages of slavery, it was the statutes of the children that moved me most.
Renowned sculptor, Woodrow Nash, was commissioned to execute several dozen life size bronze replicas of young children, and how they might have looked on the day of emancipation, who were scattered around a welcoming church. We were advised to see the plantation from their vantage point and challenged to experience what their life may have been like on this prison farm. Each image was transformative in its depiction of their tattered attire, shoeless feet, and unkempt hair.
I was assigned to a little girl, Frances Lewis, sweet, beautiful and bashful.
I imagined Frances on the day of emancipation, ready to continue in the legacy of her ancestry and to work for her own, and our, survival for the continuity of the race.
I encourage you to dig deeper into your own ancestry, to learn more about the history of slaves and their legacy, and to find the thread of women in particular who paved a way for you to be as nasty as you need to be.
That should keep your protest spirit sparked. We’ll need it for the next four years!