By Robert R. Thomas
Four women of color engaged an audience of 20 at the Flint Public Library recently in a Tendaji Talk titled “What my Mother Told Me; What I Told My Daughters.”
Co-hosts Alexis Murphy-Morris and Trina Sanders, both African American, were joined on the panel by Rev. Mary Covington, also African American, and Petra Kersey, who is Hispanic.
Although not all were born here, each has strong Flint ties. Each told her stories of the mothers and grandmothers who tutored them in life’s lessons. So important were those learnings, they said, they feel responsible to pass on the wisdom of the elders to their children.
Sanders spoke of her mother’s regular challenge “to be the people in our community to make change.” You have to work hard, Sanders said she was taught, to make sure history does not repeat itself.
“It’s up to us to educate,” said Sanders. Her mother also warned her to not be silent. “Get out in your community. Be an activist for change to better our community.”
Kersey, who is the child advocate at the Flint YWCA, offered a sample of testimonies from residents at the YWCA.
An 18-year-old African American woman told of the advice she received from her grandmother: “You’ve got two strikes against you in this world. You’re black and you’re a woman. But don’t be a statistic.”
Another young woman said, “My mother taught me that you have to work twice as hard since you are a black female and four times as hard if you are a black male. Work hard. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated as an equal citizen, but understand that everyone will not do the same.”
Kersey then spoke of her own mother who had worked at Arby’s restaurant until her retirement in 2013. Kersey said her mother was the oldest employee to have ever worked for Arby’s. Today she is 89 years old. Kersey described her mom as “awesome.” Growing up as a little girl in Flint, she said she was always taught to respect others. When she began having her own children, she taught them the same as her mother had taught her.
“To want change together, we have to be the change makers,” said Kersey. “Every adult here sets an example to our children to some degree. I ask myself and I ask all of you, Are we doing our job?”
Murphy-Morris added, “I can’t change you, but you can change you.”
Reverend Mary Covington was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but raised and educated in Detroit. She described spending her summers in Mississippi with her maternal grandparents where she was almost Grandma’s kid. This arrangement, said Covington, “was frequent, almost common in the black community at that time.” She emphasized how very, very influential Grandma is in the black family. “She is the matriarch.”
Covington’s mother, who had worked in what was called “private family” as housekeeper/maid, always told her that “nobody’s any better than you, based on your skin color or not.”
Experiencing both Detroit and the Jim Crow South gave Covington what she described as a “dual raising” offering unique views of racism from each side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“Growing up in Detroit was marvelous,” said Covington. A big emphasis was education. She graduated from Cass Technical High School—science curriculum; then Wayne State University. For the last 17 years she has been a founding board member of the Burton-Glenn charter academy in Burton, Michigan.
“My love for books came from my mother,” Covington said. She elaborated that in Mississippi a textbook was a sacred document in the black community because they did not get them in the colored school district until long after they had been in the white school district. By then, as Covington pointed out, many of those textbooks were obsolete when they first appeared in the colored school district.
Sanders, a teacher whose mother was a teacher, added how important it is that we continue to educate everyone.
“We as females, it is our obligation to inform our youth,” Alexis-Morris said. “If we don’t teach it, it is not going to get taught.”
Covington said, “No matter where we were raised, there was a common teaching. You heard your momma tell you, ‘Be home before those street lights go on.’ I heard the same thing. This commonality within the African American community was what I think helped to get us to this point.”
Another audience participant said: “One thing I learned that I have tried to teach my children, now 45 and 43, is that we have a responsibility. And my responsibility for you is to treat you (well) and to show you what the world is and to be caring of whoever it is that you are with regardless of the color of skin and nationality. And so I have children that respect that. And that pleases me.”
The conversation concluded with the announcement that the Tendaji Talks will be partnering with the McCree Theatre, details pending. Further developments are expected to be announced on the McCree website.
The panel was a continuation of a series sponsored by Neighborhoods Without Borders. Tendaji W. Ganges (1948 – 2015) was one of the cofounders of NWB, whose goal is dismantling systemic and institutional racism. The talks commemorate his life and work.
According to Tendaji Talks spokesman Hubert Roberts, the partnership is an attempt to get the messages of the Tendaji Talks out in the community via artistic expressions.
“We want to get out into the suburbs. It is really critical with this conversation and this information,” he said. “Basically we are all the same to some degree.
“We are born into the lie of white supremacy and black inferiority. And it is a systemic problem that has impacted our community— not being concerned about the village and how we have to take care of each other,” Roberts concluded.
EVM staff writer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.