Updated: Feb 16
By: Kristyn Byrd
“I’ve made it”.
Those three words alone sent tears trickling down my face as I held the phone up to my ear. I covered my mouth trying to muffle my cries, after all, today is supposed to be a happy day. Today is my great grandmother’s 101st birthday.
I was laying in my bed when I received the text: It’s Grandma’s birthday, everyone should give her a call! She would appreciate it! My uncle and the rest of my family are early risers, so when I saw he had sent the text at 6:00 a.m., I knew I was probably the last person to call her in our group chat. “I’ll do it later” I thought. I did my morning routine and prepared myself to call my grandmother. To be honest, I was always a little nervous to call her. Mostly because I had to yell at her over the phone to talk with her since she’s hard of hearing. But there was no one around, my roommates left home for the weekend. I started to slowly dial her number.
The phone rang four times before she picked up. She lives on the east coast, three hours ahead of me, so sometimes I accidentally call her at inconvenient times. “Hi sweetie, how ya doin’?” she answered in her kind and upbeat manner, as she usually does. “Good, I actually wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday Grandma!” I said half yelling into the speaker. “Oh, darlin that’s too kind of you, how’s your school?” We continued to make small talk; she was mostly confused why I would be taking oceanography instead of other courses directed at my major. Trust me, if I could bypass my physical science requirement at school, I certainly would have. I asked about the weather, a safe topic. The weather is always different in Maryland than L.A. “Oh honey, it’s been snowing here for the past three days!” I pause. “Hey grandma, are you going to build a snowman?”, hoping she’s seen the movie trailer for Frozen. “Oh no, I can barely walk let alone build a snowman honey”. I guess that was the downfall of living to be a centurion—limited mobility. And then the conversation took a different turn.
“You know, when I was little, I didn’t have no formal education, but I was still able to move around. My first job, I worked in the hospitality industry, doin laundry for other folks. Then I moved onto do some day jobs. You know what day jobs are, right?” I was a bit confused; did she mean part time jobs at hospitals, restaurants, or hotels? “No” I said, hoping she would explain in more detail. “Oh, well I did those for a number of years and then I worked in a factory, operating a forklift, you probably don’t know what a forklift is, but—” “Grandma!” I interjected, laughing, “of course I know what a forklift is!”. After that, I made a mental note to see if day jobs were just part time jobs. “Well, I operated a forklift until I retired. I didn’t have a good education, but I’m glad to see that my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren go to school.”
“Wow, you’re very strong grandma.” I said smiling, knowing that my grandmother had also raised two children on her own before remarrying her second husband.
Then my grandma went silent on the other side of the phone for a second. Maybe she didn’t hear me, maybe I just needed to repeat myself.
“You…think I’m strong?” she replied.
I was bewildered. Why didn’t she think she was strong? My great grandmother was born in 1921, when Jim Crow Laws were still well endowed.
As a refresher course, Jim Crow Laws were created to discredit the 14th Amendment and marginalize African Americans by denying them several rights, such as, the right to vote, hold jobs, and even go to college. These laws were unjust by nature, but I think we all know what happened if people tried to defy the Jim Crow Laws (hint: jail).
Beyond all these radical injustices, my great grandmother refused to be brought down by these obstacles. She was a woman in the workplace, more specifically, she was an African American woman in the workplace. Her chances of acquiring employment were supposed to be statistically low. Yet she defied those statistics by staying employed, contributing to society, and being an overall outstanding citizen.
She faced racism in all of its ugly glory, it sneered in her face and relentlessly begged her to fail at every turn. White citizens constructed a society that put all P.O.Cs at a disadvantage, but forced African Americans to remain as lower class citizens through economic, social, and lawful restrictions. I can only imagine the backhanded compliments, taunts, insults, sneers, disapproving eyes, and yelling my grandmother had to face throughout her life. She had to live in a time where the people in power saw her no more than a criminal, a peasant, a low level worker—a slave. Imagine being born into a world, where people hated you since your conception, all because of the color of your skin. Imagine going to a colored school, because all the white kids hate you. Imagine using a colored bathroom, because coloreds are dirty. Imagine not being able to go to college, because being colored makes you inherently stupid. Imagine if you were her—do you think you could have been as mentally strong?
Despite these odds, she prevailed, and she did so with such tenacity. Through her strength, all her grandkids would go to school and become executives of top technology companies, managers of life science research conglomerates, and Central Intelligence Agents. This Black woman had WILLED her success onto her future generations and yet she sits, on this phone call with me, and asks me if I think she’s strong?
Grandma, physical strength has nothing to do with the strength of someone’s character and legacy on this world.
“Of course, I do grandma! You raised a family! You own your own house, your own property! You’ve successfully held so many jobs and were able to stay afloat during some of the worse times in the U.S. You survived WWII, you lived through the civil rights movement, and you witnessed the first Black President of our country! That’s impressive to me.” At that point, the tears already started to build up, what can I say, I’m an emotional person.
“Oh well, I just wanted to tell you my story. I wanted to tell you, that I’ve made it.”
Yes grandma, you’ve made it. You’ve made history. My grandmother may not have been a high ranking business executive or technology innovator, but her presence alone is history in the making. Her success threatens racism, with her very life being proof of its failure. We still have a ways to go on racial equity, but my grandmother, and many others, have proven that change is possible.
Happy Birthday Grandma, to several more years of you sharing your story on this planet.