When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room

Today’s post is a #throwback from March 5, 2019. Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, VP of Strategic Affairs and Diversity at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) shared a beautiful essay on Good Life Detroit that she wrote in honor of Black Women’s History Month. I thought this piece would be fitting to reshare in recognition of Black Lives Matter and the current 2020 movement in seeking reform of systemic racism and other social injustice issues Black Americans have been facing.


Written by Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke

In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Eula Sirls and Elizabeth Pratt. Grandmothers meeting — one from America and one from Africa

When a Black woman walks into a room, something happens.  For how could it not?  For when we walk into a room, we bring the ancestral power of generations, centuries of Blackness and Womanness — intertwined, inseparable, immutable.

When we enter a room, we bring memories of oppression; memories of racism; memories of sexism; memories of poverty; memories of disrespect; memories of disenfranchisement; memories of disregard; memories of moments when we were minimized, marginalized, and dehumanized. Those memories walk in with us, for they are stitched into our soul, into our DNA, with needle-point precision  – permanently.

We bring not only memories into the room, but we also bring our pain and our pride, intertwined with success and sorrow, and often with stories of sadness and struggle. We bring dried tears as sacred and sacrificial offerings — etched as wrinkles – often invisible – on our faces, like scars from African ancestral tribal markings. 

Yet we are proud — proud of our own perseverance and persistence in places of peril when our fire and flame should have been stomped out; yet still, we stand, resilient.  With elegance and sophistication, hips and lips, and our breasts leading the way – breasts that with White milk nourished the Whiteness of America  — as mammies and maids and midwives, we walk into rooms.

Yes, when a Black woman walks in a room, much much more walks in with her. Centuries of Black motherhood, of Black womanhood, of Black Goddess energy accompanies us, as our ancestors, as our angels, as our assistants to guide, direct, comfort, and console. 

In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Rosa Hubbard Thirkill (former slave) and daughter, Eula Thirkill, 1901

When a Black woman walks into a room, there is often something else, something submerged and sublime, simmering below the surface, like fine wine – maturing in barrels of our body until it’s time to be poured out – sometimes smooth and silky. Other times explosive, unrelenting, wounding. Formed from the bowels of the earth — marinated for decades in juices of dirt, decay, and death. Formed from the misery and madness, the malfeasance and the mischief, and the mistreatment by miscreants. It walks with us. It has no name, but It is part of us.

Yes, Yes, when a Black woman walks in a room, It comes with us For It is Us and It is our power.

Imagine if the Black woman who walks in the room was born in 1928, just outside of the Great Depression in rural East Texas. One of 8 children. Her mother – a maid; her father – often in prison for stealing from White people.  

Who could blame him when he was the product of a theft – generations stolen in slavery for their bodies to be used and bruised for the building of America? 

In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Mildred Sirls, Eula’s daughter, age 16, 1944

Imagine, for a moment, if the Black woman who walked into the room came from an uneducated sharecropping family – living in utter poverty, moving often from house to house trying to eek out a living in shelters that could barely be called a home.

Imagine if that Black woman’s grandmother was a slave – her own body belonging to another – available at the whim of Whites – caring for and carrying the land upon which her ancestors’ blood had been shed in brutal beatings, yet still tilling the soil for White America’s prosperity.

Imagine if that Black woman’s mother — living in such utter poverty that to save her children from starvation — had to fashion a trap from clothespins hanging off of a windowsill to catch a bird to feed her eight children, telling them to imagine that the defeathered bird was a chicken.

Imagine that same Black mother’s children eating from a garbage dump and chewing as gum the tar from car batteries, from cars discarded and dumped in Black communities — toxic dumps feeding Black children.

Imagine that Black mother telling her children to bring her buckets of snow to mix with sugar and vanilla to make ice cream – making a game out of desperate moments – snowballs transformed to snow cones. A commitment to survival; a refusal to surrender to starvation.

Eula Thirkill Sirls, Mildred’s Mother

Imagine if one of those Black woman’s daughters, as a young black girl in a dress with braids at the age of 8, remembers going to the mailbox to get the mail and when the White male postman said, “Hey boy,” she proudly proclaimed to him, “I am not a boy, I am a girl.”

Imagine that same little Black girl, running home with pride to tell her mother how she told that White man that she was a girl, only to be told to never do that again –  to never speak to a White man because in 1940s, speaking to a White man could mean death.

But because Black women cannot and must neither live in silence nor as caged birds that cannot sing, the young Black girl became a Black woman who spent her life walking into rooms – proclaiming purely by her presence, “I am a Black woman.” This same Black woman would never allow herself to be referred to as a guy, in the everyday common phrase unconsciously embedded in hegemonic familiarity of patriarchy in our society — “How you guys doing today?”

In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Mildred Sirls Pratt, proud in purple.
In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, proud in purple.

Each time, the ancestral pain of denial and dehumanization and the misgendering triggering the It. The It would rise up; the It would speak: piercing, sharp like a knife, slashing the greeting and the greeter, chastising and criticizing.

And in a voice from a hundred years of midnights, It would shout: “I AM NOT A GUY.” For misgendering cannot be owned only by our friends in the LGBTQ community – narrowly focusing on pronouns, for we are more than gender pronouns. And every time women are referred to as “guys,” we should never be silent. 

In Honor of Black Lives Matter: When a Black Woman Walks Into a Room
Raebekkah Pratt-Clarke, great-great granddaughter of Ruby Hubbard Thirkill

For when a Black woman walks in a room, she brings not just her gender pronouns, but her Blackness, her It, and her This and That. Yes, when this particular Black woman, Mildred Sirls Pratt, barely 5 feet tall, with her Blackness and her Womanness and her Sassyness and her Saltiness went from walking cotton rows to walking classroom rows as a college professor, shattering statistics that relegated her to back seats and backgrounds, the room took notice (A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America). For how could it not?   

For when Black women — savvy, street-smart, and sophisticated — informed with the White man’s knowledge and infused with the wisdom of African queens, walk into a room, each step is imprinted with power and purpose. Each step marking and imprinting permanence and existence into the earth. Each step proclaiming and pounding out the right to be: to be validated, to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged, as a Black woman.

Yes, Yes, for when a Black woman walks into the room, let the room take notice.


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All photographs are courtesy of Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke. To learn more about Dr. Pratt-Clarke and her work, please visit her website by clicking HERE.

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