“I had known, number one, that there would never be any role for me in the leadership capacity with SCLC. Why? First, I'm a woman. Also, I'm not a minister. And second, I am a person that feels that I have to maintain some degree of personal integrity and be my own barometer of what is important and what is not.” Mrs. Ella Baker, 1968 Oral History Interview
willful /ˈwilfəl/: having or showing a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences or results
Uh oh! Here comes a willful woman. You see that definition? Everything starts off all fine and dandy, “having a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants,” but then, the entire tone of the definition shifts “regardless of the consequences or results.” So, willful folks do have a strength; they stick by their beliefs and decisions. But, then there is that dark side. Willful folks sometimes harm the people and things around them because of their stubborn insistence upon doing things their way, no matter what the consequences. And, when black women act that way, we are really in for some trouble. Many of us will remember the scene from “12 Years a Slave” in which Patsy finally decides to stand up for herself. For those who have never seen the film, Patsy was an enslaved woman, portrayed brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for the role. Patsy was consistently hard-working, she could pick more cotton than any of the other enslaved people on her plantation. For her efforts, she was praised and well-regarded by her master. However, the other side of Patsy’s experience was the experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her master. Patsy’s body bore more pain than any body should. But, things changed when Patsy realized that she had a body and that her body had worth. In that moment of discovery, Patsy became willful, and Patsy decided she wanted the most basic human luxury, to bathe. She left the plantation to get a bar of soap, and she was willing to take a beating for it. Sometimes you just need a bar of soap to get the dirt and grime off, and you will risk life and limb to feel like your own person, to feel free, or perhaps in Patsy’s case, it was all about just feeling like she was human. No one else loved her enough to care for her body, but she loved herself enough. And, for a woman who is not supposed to know her worth, that’s radical, that’s willful, and it ought to be celebrated!
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate a willful man. A man who recognized that we are all inextricably connected to one another, a man who was willing to call out racism as sinful, a man who understood the connection between all marginalized peoples. Yet, we also have a moment to call out his blind spots. These blind spots did not belong to him alone; they were the blind spots of an entire generation of men, and some women, who believed that power in the black community ought to be concentrated in the hands of a few elite, well-educated, Christian family men and their young protégés. Black women were the silent transformers of the Civil Rights Movement. Their efforts are finally being recognized in the first telling of their stories through films like Hidden Figures. However, the reality is that there are still so many stories waiting to be told. One woman who refused to remain silent in her day was Mrs. Ella Baker. The statement above from Baker demonstrates a candidness that few women dared to have publicly during the Civil Rights Movement. It is a candidness that few women dare to have publicly even during the Civil Rights Movement that is happening all around us. She was brave enough to call out the sexism that was running rampant in the movement. Not only was she brave enough to call it out, but she was also brave enough to do the work of dismantling it. As a middle-aged woman, she was instrumental in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which was student-led. She taught the students to advocate on their own behalf. Why? Because she thought the male ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference should not be the deciding word on how the Civil Rights Movement should, could, or would appear. Some of the biggest gains for Civil Rights happened because of student-led action. Who could forget the power of sit-ins in cities like Nashville, or the Freedom Rides that captivated the nation and helped them to understand the terrors of racism? Student leaders coordinated the march in Selma in 1965. One of the most influential young students of the era was (now Congressman) John Lewis who tirelessly continues to speak out on behalf of the issues facing black Americans to this day. Although the President-Elect has tweeted to the contrary regarding Lewis, his past and present right to ensure equal rights for all people has made a positive impact, and, no doubt, he is the man that he is today in large part because of the influence of Mrs. Ella Baker.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, my hope is that we consider our blind spots. We must, remembering what Dr. King taught us, consider the inextricable bonds between all of humanity. We must provide a seat for all sorts of voices at the table, recognizing with humility that we do not have the answers to every question. We must, even if we are those engaged in the work of activism, allow ourselves to be challenged, questioned, and transformed by the people around us. To be clear, what I mean to say is that we must be humble. When I use the word humble, I do not mean to say that we must think of ourselves as lower than other people, rather I mean to say that there is a time to step back, to show deference, to listen to those who define willfulness. As a Christian woman, I show that deference to God first. Deference to God also allows me to show appropriate respect to all of God’s Creation. I can learn even from the wind, the water, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. All of God’s Creation is willful.
As I consider the life and legacy of the late, great, Baptist minister who was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I remember my own great responsibility to draw the circle even wider than the social constraints of his time allowed him to do. He could not see all the intersectionality that so many great ministers see today. And, our generation must understand that we too have blind spots, and if we are open to instruction, we can broaden our imaginations. Despite the barriers that sexism and racism continue to place upon all black women, I recognize that my education has now made me a gatekeeper. Mrs. Baker’s leadership opportunities were severely limited because of her status as a willful laywoman. On this day, during which we celebrate the life and legacy a profoundly gifted and flawed black minister, I desire to step out of the way for the folks who, through their lives, potential, intellect, skill, and passion define willfulness. Today’s world calls out, eager to receive willful people. The world needs more people who stubbornly persist in doing what they feel called to do regardless of outside agitators and naysayers. Mrs. Ella Baker’s life was the very definition of willfulness. Is yours? See you next Monday.