Small and Fierce and Woman

by Leslye Joy Allen     Weary Self-Portrait 2

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

When I received the news that actor Ruby Dee had passed on, I immediately grabbed the phone and called my cousin and her good friend director-actor Billie Allen.  These two women made history together and enjoyed over sixty years of friendship.  I fondly remembered standing between them and feeling quite tall, although I barely stand 5 feet 5 inches tall myself…

Both of them are/were quite short—Ms. Dee barely stood 5 feet tall, and Billie is not too much taller. Yet, there was always something so big about both of them. Ruby Dee was one of the biggest women I ever had the pleasure to meet and my cousin Billie remains like a bottomless reservoir of wisdom…and then something hit me about both of them.

When a woman is quite small in physical stature, it is quite easy for folks to underestimate her.  As Billie and I reminisced about Ruby, she reminded me of Ms. Dee’s fighting spirit that she demonstrated on more than one occasion. Ruby Dee was talented, brilliant, warm and loving and she took no mess!

I laughed, trying to imagine Ms. Dee—a waif of a woman who made damned good homemade soup, by the way—getting in anyone’s face. Yet, her entire existence of artistry and activism, coupled with her intellectual, culinary, and maternal gifts demonstrated that there is always a subtle beauty and power in being a woman, but an even greater power in being a small woman…No one really expects you to stand your ground until you do it.  I know.  I have encountered a few bullies (male and female) in my lifetime.

Ruby and Billie’s friendship and tenacity never had anything to do with their height or size, but rather with a spirit, a certain fierceness that defied size and gender.  If that fierceness was unleashed at the right moment, it could either empower you or scare the hell out of you—and in that glorious combination and contradiction of both empowerment and fear is what it really means to be a real woman.  This is a lesson that only a woman can teach you and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that lesson.

Billie Allen and Ruby Dee at “Fences” in 2010.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

CCThis Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.  All Rights Reserved.

Saying Goodbye to Gayleatha

by Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I learned late on Monday, 17 June 2013 that one of my Aunt Minnie Belle Veal’s protégées passed this April 2013.  She was Ambassador Gayleatha Beatrice Brown (June 20, 1947 to April 19, 2013).

A Howard University alumna, “Gay,” as I called her, was the first person I knew that worked for Randall Robinson’s TransAfrica, the first person who wore braids before they became popular. In her usual “I-will-not-have-any-of-it” style, my “Aunt Beh Beh” (Minnie Belle Veal) drove from Edison, New Jersey, all the way to Gay’s graduate school, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, after someone there mildly suggested that Gay, a Black girl from a working class family in New Jersey, should not seriously consider a career in Foreign Service.  And then—with the hell-and-be-damned-with-you that is the best of Black America—she became a diplomat and later an ambassador.

I remember her as someone who loved my Aunt Minnie Belle more than life.  The book she gave Auntie in 1969 was The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  I ended up reading the copy of the book she left for my Aunt.  I remember Gay as someone who liked her eggs scrambled hard, like me.  I fixed them several times for her and myself on one of the extended visits to Atlanta that she took with my Aunt Beh Beh.  The last time I saw her both of my parents were still alive, but my Aunt Minnie Belle had just passed and Gay had arrived for her funeral.  Now, all of them are gone. 

In the usual routine of graduate students and, I guess, members of the foreign service, Gay and I lost contact with each other due to moving around.  She quickly went from being a U. S.  Diplomat in France to her later years when she served as Ambassador to two countries on the continent of Africa, Burkina Faso and then later Benin.

I received an email earlier in the day from a former female student of mine.  This student was about to embark on studies that are not so traditional for women in general, to say nothing of Black women.  Later in the evening I decided to look up Gayleatha on the Internet.  I had found her before and quickly forwarded the hyperlinks.  This time I found her again, but what came up first was her obituary and the Funeral Service for Gayleatha Brown, which I did not expect.  I thought about my Dad, who has been gone now for twenty-six years, who was as proud of Gayleatha as he was of his sister Minnie Belle.  As my head raced, my first impulse, in the wee hours of the morning, was to call Mama to tell her that Gayleatha was dead.  It dawned on me, as I reached for the phone, that Mama was also gone.

With the exception of a few cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, most of the people that I knew whom Gay’s passing would upset, have already passed on themselves.  I would tell you how I am holding my chin up, trusting in God and all of the usual stuff that people say at a time like this.  However, I have had about as much death as I care to take in one year.

I lost Mama, a beloved cousin; and while I have two loving families, I had a couple of family members who decided that I made a good emotional punching bag since they could not vent their dissatisfaction with themselves on anyone else.  Additionally, someone who I thought was a friend proved to be anything but one.

Now, I know that I have not earned this and that I have no control over any of this.  And in spite of how truly bad I feel, late Monday into the wee hours of Tuesday morning were not completely awful.  After all, I heard from a former student who is planning to study and do great things; and I made a quick acquaintance of a Vassar College Professor who likes my blog and who does his own bit of social commentary.  I just wish that the day had ended on a better note.  Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that I learned of her passing, I remain grateful to have known Gay.

So, all I ask is that you pray for the family of the late Ambassador Gayleatha Beatrice Brown.  Pray for my students and for all young people who desperately need her example to do the kind of work we all need them to do.  As for me, I am, right now, not much in the mood for anything.   And I make no apologies.  That is just the way it is, for now.

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

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