National Geographic : 1989 Aug
Wright In 1965 Edelman (left) became thefirst black woman admitted to the Mis sissippi bar. She is founder and presidentof the Chil dren's Defense Fund. "We lose about 10,000 children every year to pov erty. But where is the outrage? "Children cannot eat rhet oric. What I want to do is see that this countryfeeds hungry kids. The legacy I want to leave is a child-caresystem thatsays no kid isgoing to be left alone or left unsafe. "Ordinary women of grace are, in a sense, my real role models. They had the capacity to keep struggling. I think that is a message that this quick-fix culture needs." "Primadonna assoluta" Price(page209) is the first black woman to achieve this worldwide status. Her 1961 debut at the Metropolitan Opera won her a 42-minute ovation. "The way I was taught, being black was a plus, al ways. Being a human being, being in America, and being black, all three were the greatestthings that could happen to you. The com binationwas unbeatable. "In some of my operatic roles- maybe the strength of my portrayalofAida-I re veal the wonderful thing that it is to be a black princess." THEY CAME TO STAY BY MAYA ANGELOU lack women whose ancestors were brought to the United States beginning in 1619 have lived through conditions of cruelties so horrible, so bizarre, the women had to rein vent themselves. They had to find safety and sanctity inside themselves or they would not have been able to tolerate those torturous lives. They had to learn to be self-forgiving quickly, for often their exterior exploits were at odds with their interior beliefs. Still they had to survive as wholly and healthily as possible in an infectious and sick climate. Lives lived in such caldrons are either obliterated or forged into impenetrable al loys. Thus, early on and consciously, black women as reality became possibilities only to themselves. To others they were mostly seen and described in the abstract, concrete in their labor but surreal in their humanness. They knew the burden of feminine sensibil ities suffocated by masculine responsibilities. They wrestled with the inescapable horror of bearing pregnancies that could result only in issuing more chattels into the rapacious maw of slavery. They knew the grief of enforced separa tions from mates who were not theirs to claim, for the men themselves did not have legal possession of their own bodies. And men, whose sole crime was their hue, The impress of theirMaker's hand, Andfail and shrinking children too, Were gatheredin that mournful band. - from "The Slave Auction," Frances Ellen Watkins Harper The larger society, observing the wom en's outrageous persistence in holding on, staying alive, thought it had no choice save to dissolve the perversity of the black wom an's life into a fabulous fiction of multiple personalities. They were seen as acquiescent, submissive Aunt Jemimas who showed grinning faces, plump laps, fat embracing arms, and brown jaws pouched in laughter. They were described as leering buxom wenches with round heels, open thighs, and insatiable sexual appetites. They were accused of being marauding matriarchs of stern demeanor, battering hands, unforgiv ing faces, and castrating behavior. When we imagine women inhabited by all those apparitions, it becomes obvious that the women themselves did not halluci nate, but rather that they were national, racial, and historical hallucinations. Those contradictions stump even the most fertile imagination, for they could not have existed despite the romantic racism that introduced them into the American psyche. Surpris ingly, above all, many women did survive as themselves. [In these photographs] we meet them, undeniably strong, unapologeti cally direct. The photographer, Brian Lanker, pos sesses an acute eye and a brave heart. He has discovered women whose images show us the high cost of living and the rich reward of thriving. Lanker intends to capture the viewer with the twin magic of his camera and the women's faces. These women re gard us, understand us, gaze through us into a beyond, alien to our most common view. Each seems to know something we have not known. The sameness of their gaze informs us that they will not be removed, that in deed although they are shaken, bruised, and uprooted, they are determined to remain. This foreword does not mean to be an explanation of the black woman's stamina. Rather, it is a salute to her as an outstanding representative of the human race. Here educators, athletes, dancers, judges, politi cians, artists, actresses, writers, singers, poets, and social activists dare to look at life with humor, determination, and respect. Their visages do not entertain hypocrisy. To those who would desire chicanery, the hon esty of these women is terrifying. The heartbreaking tenderness of black women and their majestic strength speak of the heroic survival of a people who were stolen into subjugation, denied chastity, and refused innocence. These women have descended from grandmothers and great-grandmothers who knew the lash firsthand and to whom pro tection was a phantom known of but seldom experienced. Their faces are captured here for the ages to regard and wonder, but they are whole women. Their hands have brought children through blood to life, nursed the sick, and folded the winding cloths. Their wombs have held the promise of a race that has proved in each challenging century that despite threat and mayhem it has come to stay. Their feet have trod the shifting swampland of insecurity, yet they have tried to step neatly onto the footprints of mothers who went before. They are not apparitions; they are not superwomen. Despite their majestic struggle they are not larger than life. Their humanness is evident in their accessi bility. We are able to enter the photographs and enter into the spirit of these women and rejoice in their courage and nearness. Precious jewels all. Thanks to their persis tence, art, sublime laughter, and love we may all yet survive our grotesque history.