Before Women’s History Month draws to a close, it’s a great pleasure to host a wonderful piece from Joy-Ann Reid, Editor of the Reid Report (@TheReidReport on Twitter). Joy is an extraordinary Twitter follow, if you’re not following her already, and her blog is a treasure trove for great political insight. She’s a political columnist for the Miami Herald and a contributor for TheGrio.com. It’s really a great honor to host her contribution.
With just a few hours left to go in Women’s History Month, allow me to salute three women you don’t know.
There’s Philomena Carryl Lomena, born in 1929 in Georgetown, Guyana , who taught school in London before moving first to Iowa, then New York, then Denver Colorado.
She waited to have kids until her 40s, earned a PhD and held down a second job while working as a college professor in Greeley, Colorado. A single mom, she and her kids tooled around the country in a station wagon like the Wild Thornberrys – to the Colorado mountains, tp Wyoming, and Utah; to the opera and the Renaissance fair. When they were low on funds, they’d check into a local hotel and pretend to be on holiday.
Phil and her three chickadees (and their station wagon) spent a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico so she could write a chapter in a colleague’s book on the dietary habits of the impoverished people of the Colonias, When she threw dinner parties, her kids sneaked coffee with cream, and could chat at length with grown-ups about politics. She’d let them stay up late weeknights, but only to watch “Nightline.”
In the last year of her life, she insisted her girls visit Europe, and scraped together the money to get them there.
Rita LeJeune Bradford was Phil’s best friend in Denver. She insisted Phil’s kids call her LeJeune – no “auntie” as West Indian kids are taught to address adult family friends. When she was at the University of Chicago as a young black woman in the 1940s, LeJeune hung with the Communists, because they were the ones talking black and gender equality. She later decided that any idea that ends in “ism” is clearly not worth a damn.
When she was young, the stunning LeJeune got married. It lasted a few months – about the time it took for her to realize she preferred her freedom. Her house was a treasure trove of photographs, antiques, and enough books to fill a library.
A chain-smoking technophobe who refused to buy a computer or trade in her 1972 Buick, leJeune’s favorite saying was, “we are living in the age of primitive man.” She traveled, cooked exotic meals for her friends, and kept the most fabulous backyard garden.
And there’s Bernice Rassoules, Philomena’s best mate at NYU – the Malcolm X to her MLK. As two black, immigrant women in the 1960s, Bernice and Phil spent as much time battling professors as learning from them; teachers who started black students with “Cs”, or who failed to give them the same time or personal instruction as their peers. White students wouldn’t share a cab with them, so they palled around the city on their own. Bernice, a feisty Jamaican whose nickname was “Nicey,” raised so much hell, running interference for her with red-faced faculty became Phil’s part time job.
Bernice was one of the few black women to work at the cash register at Bonwit Teller in the 60, where once, she met Troy Donohue. She took in all her siblings’ children, and when Phil passed on, she fulfilled her role as godmother by dropping the “god.” She married a Greek, bought a two-family house, and taught school in the Bronx for 25 years.
None of these women were famous. None rich. But all three – my mother, Phil, her good friend, LeJeune and my godmother, Auntie Bernice, who’s still giving them hell in the Bronx, were and are powerful in their own ways.
They exemplified independence, self-determination, achievement, and compassion. And feminism. They modeled that, too. They encouraged a healthy respect for debate, a fierce sense of civic duty, and a belief that children could be heard, and not just seen.
And this child is grateful.