Posted in Black History Month, tributes

Short Bios for Black History Month

carribean woman

Dear Readers,

I want to do some illustrated short pieces for Black History Month-I hope you enjoy these.

Today’s bio is on Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La Mama Experimental Theater Club & off-Broadway theatre. She was born in 1919 in Alexandria, Louisiana. When she came to New York to study fashion, she was hired by Saks to run the elevators, “the highest position a colored person could get.” Later when she became a designer, whites wouldn’t work with her because they couldn’t stand to have an African-American boss. It was Jewish women who had survived the Holocaust who worked with her, and for her, as designers.

Stewart brought a new focus to the actors themselves as catalysts and performers; it was the people who made the vibrational essence of the play.  She shared, “I’m interested in the person. If the person beeps, we do it.” She was radical and influential-so much so that African-Americans rejected her because she didn’t focus solely on black culture. “La Mama was boycotted by blacks because I was not a black theater. My life was threatened. I think our public is about five per cent black after twenty-five years.” The Syrians LOVED LaMama, and Stewart eventually decided to move out of the US. She relocated to Italy.

Stewart seemed fearless when she said, “I get invited to fly my broom to all kinds of places to be with people to create, to make workshops.”

She died in 2011 at the age of 91.

Long live creative people!


Posted in tributes, Writing for healing

A Farewell to Peachie

Dear Friends in Cyberspace,

Do people even use that word anymore? Somehow “cyberspace” sounds totally out of date, but hey, if I worried too much about being current I’d never attempt to write anything at all.

I’ve missed you!

My mother- in-law, Ophelia, better known as Peaches, or Peachie, passed away on the 14th of September. It was on a Monday, late in the evening. She was 90 years young.

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Not too many people can say they are tight with a mother-in-law, especially women. I adored mine. We had some great conversations and I enjoyed all of them even when she lectured me with her strict interpretation of The Bible and Christianity. She belonged to the Church of Christ and obeyed all the rules: instruments are not allowed in services and women don’t preach. No candle-lighting or  dramatic skits permitted. Definitely, no dancing.

At times when we would be deep in talk about religion, life, and her beliefs, I wanted to argue:

“But how do you absolutely know what God said?”  I’d suck in air, tightly holding my breath. Was I in trouble?

“It’s in the Bible!” she’d respond. She thought I was a total moron.

 How could I not agree with her? How could I not know exactly what God said?

“Mmmm. Okay.” I paused. “I get it now.”

I experienced a slight tingle in my solar plexus, like the feeling you get when you fall in love. It was a sensation similar to being completely unsure, but filled with affection and anticipation at the same time. I would never argue with such a devoted soul. Peachie stood maybe five foot two, with gorgeous brown button eyes. She was lovely with her mahogany skin tone- of African-American/Cherokee lineage. Her father and mother were both born into large families, only one generation from slavery. The African lineage was  Hausa-Mandingo.

Peaches was born in 1925 and recounted how treacherous life could be. In the South, one misstep or perceived slight to the wrong (white) person might mean a lynching or meeting with a fatal “accident.” Peachie was raised in Mississippi on fertile delta soil. The family had all the food they needed on the farm they owned.  They hunted and fished, along with gathering wild greens and poke salad. Life was often lonely. “We didn’t mix with other children much, ” she said. “We stayed to ourselves and only saw other families when we pitched in to help with their crops or when we went to church.”

A white man wanted her father’s land and figured out a way to steal it. In the end, Grandfather Nicholson lost his land due to “back taxes owed.” It was a swindle.  Nothing could be done about the deception. There were no lawyers, no advocates, no media coverage. Such options did not exist for rural people of color. Losing the land made Grandfather Nicholson downright mean and paranoid. But that’s how it was. They just came in and took it all slowly, starting out with a cow or a pig, or some chickens. There were no papers, no decrees.

Family stories were often not pleasant.  “My daddy taught us to fear,” she used to say. “You had to look like you were going somewhere when you were out on the road. You couldn’t linger or wander out in the woods. Daddy talked about ‘haints’ or haunts, you know, places where spirits lurked about. You could get snatched up by the boogie man. You didn’t know what was out there.”

Peachie had an indomitable spirit. We are still devastated at losing her, even though we knew her time was coming.

Right up until the end, and for as long as she was able to, she sang. Gospel music and church were her biggest loves. She also loved pecans, walnuts, Brazil nuts, peanuts, and candied orange slices.  Ophelia Jones was never a bitter person and she made me want to be a better human being.

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 In our thirty years together I’ve filled my notebook with  Peachie’s stories. Some will be in my memoir, but most will be in a separate book just for her.  She is my s/hero and I will always love her.

Journal Prompt: write about an in law. Did you, or do you get along with your in laws? Use photos, stories, or any other media that adds to your journal entry.

Copyright ©2015 by Susan E. Rowland

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Aunt Alyce Jones and Peaches Jones