Snap. Snap. Snap. As a small child I practiced over and over again. Insistent. Determined. Until, with the passing of years, the passing of my second finger down the side of my small thumb converted itself from silence to thunderclaps. With each unexpected eruption of noise I sent out a tiny warning signal to the world that within the heart of this small child there rumbled a revolution.
Snaps. I worked hard on them. I knew that I would need them someday.
Now when I snap, I can command your attention across a crowded room. Yet, I choose to use that power not for commanding respect but for giving respect, so that I might give the poets their honor due. My snaps do not stand out, they meld into a wave of sliding fingers, crashing on the shore of inspiration, then receding into silent and expectant attentiveness.
Night after night, I listen for those voices that can change the world. I listen for the sound of truth, for the sound of justice, for the sound of change. I listen for the rumbling of the verbal revolution that matches the rumbling in my heart.
I know when I have heard a voice that must be heard at The Shout.
Sometimes when you speak, I fold ever so slightly as if a punch has tightened my gut. As if a string extending from a spot just below my chin all the way down to my belly button has been snapped taut. Tightened. Strummed.
Sometimes when you speak, it feels as if someone has reached right through me to grab my spine and set it straight, heightening my posture, commanding me to own the space where I stand.
Sometimes when you speak, your words shoot right through me, piercing me with their familiarity, making me wonder if words so long a source of betrayal can be redeemed. You drop allusions to words that promised us freedom and left us beaten, and leave me wondering, ‘can these dry bones live.’ You drop allusions to a national pledge recited long before there was or is “liberty and justice for all.” You drop allusions to the very words that condemned my calling for two of the three decades I have taken up space on this earth; whispering “the woman shall not speak” in our ears until we cannot help but shout!
Oh reckless poets, doing verbal battle with the very issues that silence the voices of your peers. I hear you trying. I hear you succeeding. I hear you boxing and wrestling for the win. And when you win, we win with you.
My eyes wander around the room, asking silently in the midst of your unsilenced voice, to those surrounding me, “Can you feel this without being moved? Without moving? Without acting? Without demanding action?”
You make me want to pick up a pen and write notes in the margins of my books, like my momma did in church when I was a child; inserting written words among printed words to preserve the power and to fight ever forgetting your spoken words.
You make me want to stand up and sway like I did at my first concert.
You make me want to dance in the aisle like they do at that funkadelic Sunday worship party we call church.
You make me want to change everything around me – until the things I see match the the words you speak.
You make me believe change is possible. For why else would your words hold such power if we were not able to make those words flesh.
I believe in the power of what you do. I believe that together, the poets and the dreamers and the activists and the thinkers, might just change the world. Because they understand something that not everybody understands: we have no other choice. Words must be spoken. Actions must be done. Community must be built. Change cannot be stopped.
This is why, as a small child, I worked so hard to learn to snap. I must have known someday I would find the voices that would match the rumble in my heart.
Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to have a guest post from my Irish grandmother, Edna Marian Ferguson Bell Bonner. Although Edna passed away in the 1980’s, I have realized more and more as time goes on, that her soul prepared the path for the life I live now. In the 1920’s, while in high school, Edna went on a school trip to Washington, D.C. When she began to board a city bus with other students, the bus driver indicated one of her African American classmates and said, “She can’t get on. We don’t take blacks on this bus.” Edna stepped off the bus, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Then we will walk.” The two women remained devoted friends for the rest of their lives.
The Irish mother who brought Edna from Banbridge, near Belfast, taught her to treat all people with love and respect. The love that those women shared with their community was returned to me as a young child. Thus, I offer to you below, the story she wrote of the love between a mother and daughter.
My Father came to the United States in the late 1800’s. He returned to Northern Ireland to win his childhood sweetheart.
Mother and Father, Sarah Radcliffe and William John Bell, were married on March 16, 1900, in Banbridge and came immediately to the United States. They lived on Daggett Street in Southwest Philadelphia for a short time and later lived on Springfield Road, Darby. Their first children were twins who were born prematurely. William McKinley Bell died shortly after birth and Sarah Wilhelmina lived a short time longer. They were buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery, Darby…
After the death of the twins, Edna Marian Ferguson (myself) was born there on May 25, 1906. In 1907, my Father expressed his desire to return to Northern Ireland…
They apparently remained in Ireland for about five years. Sarah Wilhelmina was born on April 22, 1911. Mina was injured at birth and Mother had surgery the following day. My parents had planned to return to the United States after Mina’s birth, but her need for special care made it necessary to leave her with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Edward who loved her dearly and gave her excellent care. My parents planned to bring Mina to the United States as soon as they were settled and Father’s United States Citizenship was final.
Only a short time after their return to the United States, my Father’s kidney problems developed to a very serious point (he had typhoid fever as a young man and that was named as the cause of the kidney condition). I recall the swelling of his legs and seeing him applying support bandages each morning. Mother knew time was running out. He was taken to Philadelphia, and he died there on January 4, 1919. Mother was devoted to him during the entire period of his illness. Her loving patience with never a cross word was beautiful to witness. Father was buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery in Darby, beside his brother, Ferguson. Mother joined him there in August, 1944…
A beautiful relationship of love and devotion existed between my parents in their short marriage, March 1900 to January 1919. Father was so proud of her. They both had a strong faith in God and were able to meet life together…
After my Father’s death, Mother went to the Delaware Country Court House in Media to inquire as to the possibility of obtaining her American Citizenship on my Father’s original application. He had received notice to be present for his final swearing in as an American Citizen, but he was too ill to appear. In answer to Mother’s request, Mr. Daltry at the Court House said he was sorry, but he had waited the full period of time before returning the papers to Washington and there was nothing he could do about it at that time. Mother then showed him a card which had been sent to Father. Mr Datry was delighted, that was all he needed to have the papers returned to Media. Sometime later Mother was one of the first women in Delaware County, if not the first, to receive her own American Citizenship. A proud day for her.
Plans were in her mind now to return to Ireland and bring Mina back here with her when a letter came from Uncle Edward that Mina had died from appendicitis. On our visit to Ireland in 1961, we placed flowers on her grave. Thus, I was the only one of the four children born to my parents left.
I recall the long winter evenings during my childhood when Mother, Father and I sat by the open fire reading or singing the old hymns they loved so much. “Nearer My God to Thee” seemed to be a favorite. I remember thinking that hymn made them recall their acquaintances who had been lost when the Titanic sank. The passengers had joined in singing that hymn as they clustered together on the deck of their sinking ship.
There were many occasions when I was aware of the respect in which my parents were held. You never knew when Mother would return home from her trip “down town.” Everyone stopped to talk with her. Two black people, Priscilla and William, “Aunt May Baker,” Mrs. Baker, and certainly Charley Wade had always been devoted to her.
Mother’s heart was full of love for everyone, so when her grandchildren arrived, it was love overflowing. I recall when she first saw Marian and she said, “ Now you are a mother and your life will never be the same again.”
How proud she was to take Marian and Hugh for a walk! I am grateful she lived to see Billy. Her last act was to hold him in her arms. That night she went into a coma. One of her few statements during her terminal illness was “Little darlings” as Marian and Hugh came to her bedside.
I recall passing her bedroom door at our South Avenue home and hearing her say as she prayed, “Give me a little longer to serve.” I truly believe that was the foundation of her life – service to others.
Dr. Benjamin of the Methodist Church of Media said at her funeral service, “to enter her presence was to receive a blessing.”
She never forgot a kindness extended to her by anyone. She became ill shortly after Bill’s birth. On an occasion as I did some little thing for her comfort, she said, “You’re wonderful, I don’t know how you do it.” That will always live in my memory.
“Agua! Agua, por favor. Para mi bebé,” the young mother boarding the bus pleaded, catching my arm. Not knowing if I would have time, I sprinted across the bus terminal to the vending machines. My friend Jasminne explained that this woman had been unable to obtain water for her infant because she did not have the right bills. Having traveled internationally, I knew well the struggle of figuring out how to use unfamiliar currency. Hurriedly, we dug through our pockets and wallets. “I have it. I have it,” I exclaimed as I slid two crumpled one dollar bills into the hungry mouth of the Aquafina machine. “What button do I push?,” I asked Jasminne in a panic. “Any button! The whole machine is water,” she responded.
Grabbing the bottle that dropped smoothly down the slot, I rushed back across the terminal, and thrust the water into the woman’s hand just before the bus doors slid closed. Our eyes met. My lips formed the words, “Vaya con Dios.” Her lips formed the word, “Gracias,” but it was the eyes that said it all.
It is always the eyes that say the most. Whether I spend two minutes, or twelve hours with a family, it is always that last glance that says the most. Gratitude and sorrow and fear and courage. At the close of a day filled with last glances, I shut my eyes and they are all I can see. Those moments imprinted on my memory; those moments when we say everything that the language barrier and our own guardedness has inhibited.
Days like this are never expected or planned. They start with a rapid succession of phone calls and texts. “Hannah call me back…Hannah call now…Hannah, a group of children came in. There’s a lot of them. Get here as soon as you can.”
When I get a call like that, a few things go through my mind. First, I know that a couple hours ago children, and likely their mothers as well, were released from a nearby detention center in Texas and sent to stay somewhere until their trial and – more than likely – their deportation. Second, I know that they are exhausted, hungry, and just as confused as I would be trying to navigate a public transportation system in a language I do not know. Third, I know that they have a long journey ahead of them and it may be a few days, or longer, before they can get a good night’s sleep. Fourth, I know that they have likely already experienced trauma, possibly even before their arrest and detention; and all measures must be taken to make them feel safe, loved, and respected.
The psychological reality for children who are two years old and four years old is chilling. Even more alarming is the messages being received by the eight year olds, and the twelve year olds, and the fourteen year olds, some of whom have grown up in school in the United States and now are being told they cannot stay. Now they are being told we do not want them. Now they are being told they are not a part of the family after all. In Guatemala, I spent time with some of those who have returned. While they focused on empowering those around them and celebrating their culture, some still carried with them scars inflicted by the nation of my birth: scars similar to a child whose parent refuses to claim them as their own. They loved us, and we cast them out as if we did not know them.
So when the call comes in, I go. I drop everything, and I go. I spread the word to those in my network that we have family in town, and we do not have much time to make them feel welcome. We might have two minutes to sprint for water before the next bus leaves. Or we might have twelve hours to collect supplies for the journey and share meals and laughter and stories.
Sitting across the bus aisle from the woman with the thirsty baby, was another mother with a young daughter. She had arrived on an earlier bus and so her transfer had not been quite so erratic. We had a two hour head start on understanding her situation and her needs. However, even with all that time, as I looked around the room at the other two dozen women and children, I could not gather my mind clearly enough to understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept saying something about “tres dias” and I just nodded politely, unalarmed. (The average length of time that these women and their children will be on buses is two to three days, sometimes four.)
Thank God for Jasminne, who came over and with her profound fluency was able to understand that the woman was worried because her cousin would only let her stay for three days when she arrived; after that time she did not know where she and her daughter would stay.
Thank God for Jordan, who lived in the city she was traveling to and answered his phone immediately. “Pastor Hannah!,” my former church member and current colleague exclaimed. I hurriedly explained the situation and left it in his relentlessly compassionate hands, as I turned my attention back to the other eight mothers traveling that day.
I am rarely that fortunate; often I do not get an answer soon enough, and I do not have the luxury of time. That day, however, Jordan did answer the phone and did have the ability to help. So, as I slipped that bottle of water into her seat mate’s hand, she slipped her name and her cousin’s phone number into mine. I would spend the next couple days praying that that information, along with the picture I had taken of her on my phone, would be enough for Jordan to find her when she arrived on the other side of the country.
The bus departures continued throughout the day, more leaving every couple hours. We organized triage so that we could deal with the needs of families case by case: focusing on the needs of those leaving the soonest first, and working our way to the midnight departure of the final group.
Contacts from throughout Houston came in shifts as they were available throughout the day, bringing what they could. Comfort food from a Honduran restaurant arrived first in the hands of Jasminne. Then a coat in the hands of Marianella. Clothes in the hands of Lupe. Hats and gloves for the snowstorm they were driving into from the hands of Brandi. New clothes for the mother whose clothes did not fit in the hands of Jenny. Resources in the hands of Mia. And one final late night delivery by Elaine to meet the requests of the midnight departure.
As I rushed about, I was pulled to the side by a gruff, Texan man with a baseball cap and boots. “I see you are helping these mothers,” he said. “The thing is, I lost my own wife to a brain aneurysm earlier this year, and it would sure make me feel good to be a part of helping.” With that he slipped a twenty dollar bill into my hand, and I slipped it into the hand of a nursing mother.
I drove across the street to get cheeseburgers for the group, and as I pulled up to the window to pay, the cashier told me that the woman in line ahead of me had already paid my bill. I made eye contact with her in her rear view mirror and mouthed a “Thank you” to accompany that last glance.
Back at the bus station, there was one pair of eyes that remained downcast throughout the day. Probably about fifteen, he was the oldest minor present, and he seemed to feel the weight of it, and the weight of caring for his younger brother and sisters.
As this family climbed on the bus in the late afternoon, I called out softly, “Vaya con Dios,” and the young man’s head whipped around. He made eye contact with me for the first time and the last time; and “Thank you!” were his first and last words to me as he finally raised his head erect and his mother’s eyes welled with tears.
There it was. The last glance. Varied in intensity, but still the same every time. A glance of gratitude mixed with sadness. A dropping of the guard carefully maintained. In that last moment, getting on the bus unhindered and realizing they can trust us; while at the same time realizing they are walking away. Safety found in the moment it ends. Heart wrenching. In that last glance, they release all they’ve been holding back. Tears well in their eyes. Mouths say words I do not always understand.
I do not know what will happen to them, and it breaks my heart every time.
I wonder what they see in our eyes. I hope they see love. I hope they see respect. I hope they see that my eyes reflect the pain in theirs, and commit to carry a little bit of it with me. I hope that solidarity makes their own burden just a little bit lighter.
Two days later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Jordan. “We found her!!” Jordan had arranged for housing, clothes and support for the woman who did not know where she would live in three days; he had found her at the bus station. For the first time, the last glance would not be the final word.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)