My Turn: Black women rising

Tolley M. Jones



Published: 02-07-2024 7:08 PM

The other day I was in my office working on a grant report with my door closed, when suddenly loud and joyous laughter exploded in the hallway. My fellow brown female coworkers were laughing the way brown women laugh when they are surrounded by other brown women, safe to be themselves.

I have often been part of that laughter in this office, gleeful eruptions of mirth that leave us weak, tears in eyes, holding onto the wall because laughter like that is a full-body workout. Our director has made it her mission to carve out and then defend space for brown and Black staff to be hired and to thrive, and the result is that on any given day, laughter as it is meant to be laughed spills over onto the otherwise rough edges of the day.

Conversely, in all the other jobs at which I have worked, I have been the only Black woman present, or perhaps one of two brown people in the building. In these white spaces, I have been called loud. Too loud. My voice is too loud. My laughter is too loud. My opinions are too loud. My anger is too loud. My presence is too loud.

In those white spaces I learned to laugh to myself and doled out my apparently loud and offensive opinions about my own experiences to my own detriment, until I finally escaped, elbowing my way out of the confinement of the policed tones I was ordered to emulate.

When I was at my grandmother’s deathbed for four days in November, my female cousins were there alongside me as we rubbed lotion into Grandma’s elegant hands, moistened her silent lips, and tucked blankets around her frail shoulders the way she did for us when we were small. Together we filled the space with Black female energy. Comfortably, we spread out across the chairs and tables in her room until it was just like my grandmother’s living room.

We ate dinner off of paper plates, passing coleslaw back and forth while my grandmother listened to our voices. My cousins and I sang songs together — Amazing Grace, Glory, Glory by Odetta, Silent Night by Mahalia Jackson, and then, hilariously, Gold Digger by Kanye West when my cousin Kelly said my grandmother loved to rock out to that song in the car. We harmonized loudly and without care that we were in a room in a hallway filled with nurses and residents — we scarcely noticed, and no one came to tell us we were too loud.

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And we talked: about family members lost, and my grandmother’s hard life. We talked about childhood memories of spending time being loved by her. And we laughed, helplessly. We made jokes about death and then cut eyes at each other across her still form laboriously breathing inches away from us, pretending to be scandalized by each other’s irreverence but knowing full well that we learned gallows humor from our own elders.

There were nine of us in the room, plus my grandmother. My 8-year-old cousin danced and sang by her bed. At turns, we grew silent and drew close to Grandma’s bed to stroke her hair, kiss her cheek, and lay our own head close to hers on her pillow so we could whisper to her all the things we wanted her to know about how special she made each of us feel.

By the time my grandma took her last breath, that room was full of the profound energy of a clan of Black women with power drawn from the history of thousands of Black mothers and grandmothers generations down our line singing the same songs we sang to fill up the room with spirit and soul.

The power in the room was undeniable, and was unable to be contained. We were no longer just the nine of us alone in that room with her, our Black female energy called the others from across time to be there with my grandmother and with us as she crossed over.

I thought of all of this as I listened to the unstifled laughter ringing out in the hallways as compellingly as the bells of a church calling worshipers to assemble. I thought of how that laughter makes me want to get up and join them in the hallway, and how even if I don’t, my day is better because they wove their joy through the air so I could feel it. I thought of how other Black and brown people come to our center and are as startled as I was when I first set foot in the doors to see that the majority of people in the building look like them. And how that makes them want to come back. And I thought about how the Black and brown women left every workplace at which I have ever worked before now because there was no room for their loud laughter or ideas.

And I understand now that Black and brown women are feared because there is power in our collective presence, power in our loudness, and power in our unfettered confidence. We can summon ancestors with our laughter.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton and works in Greenfield. She writes a monthly column.