by Sharbeon Plummer
What is lost when we experience loss?
So much of who I am, and how I’ve come to understand myself as a Black Southern woman is rooted in my experiences with my great-grandmother, Rebecca. Standing all of 4’11”, she was the quintessential petite spitfire of a woman that had seen much in her life and therefore took no shit. I recall her soft hands, hard gaze and a generous heart. Upon her passing, I began to reflect on our time together; at times alone, sometimes with others, who also reminisced on similar memories within their matriarchal relationships. Through laughs, tears, and cathartic sighs, I wondered what would become of these traditions, rituals and habits that I’d come to know and that began to vanish before my eyes.
Visits with her were always a personal favorite. I think about the trek I’d take down the semi-truck filled highway to spend time with our beloved “Mommie.” Crossing the copper bridge that stood above the Mississippi River, my grandmother and mother were my guides until, much to their enjoyment, I became old enough to navigate on my own. Her home and street acted as a grounding place. The fullness found between those brick walls was indescribable. As you crossed the threshold, you were greeted by that mysterious, yet familiar fragrance of grandma’s house. The temperature inside was always just a little too hot, but the Coke in the Frigidaire was always cool enough to keep you around a little bit longer.
Past the walls lined with frames filled with generations of grandchildren, you could find china cabinets lined with dishes that no one ever touched, and knick-knacks with no known origin. Lace tablecloths and doilies on coffee tables mimicking each other’s delicacy, and velvety furniture from a bygone era that was worn but still lulled you to sleep the longer you sat. It was home. Sometimes I still sit in her yard and listen to the familiar lull of the vehicles speeding by, wishing I could have seen the turns of each decade through her eyes. I wondered how it felt to have your family as neighbors; where the open-door policy ran from one stop sign to the next. How the juke-joint with the hand-painted sign at the head of the street must’ve rocked and swayed until the wee hours of the morning. How the same asphalt lanes she crossed to work, now overtaken by semi-trucks, expanded with each passing year; and how often the faces changed the at the former Westerner Motel café where diners were lucky enough to fill their stomachs with the same love she graced our table with.
Food–especially hers– always acted as the glue to our familial bond. Shelling pecans gathered from the front yard with a two-step nutcracker became a bonding time, along with eating boiled peanuts on the porch. Somehow they were always around, but I never knew where they came from. The house filled with aromas and relatives for holidays; everyone gathering anxiously to see if their favorite dish was prepared (Mine was sweet potatoes…and yes they were always present). I’m curious to know to if she ever sat back and admired the work of her rearing. The generations she’d taught and touched in her kitchen. Whether showing you how to stir your peanut butter-hued roux or arguing about why Accent was still needed along with salt (we never agreed on that), her wisdom became ingrained in how you navigate your own cooking practice. The stories of community suppers always made me especially proud. I could almost envision the kitchen filled with laughter, music, a little whiskey and the world’s most efficient assembly line working tirelessly to fill each Styrofoam box to the rim in support of a loved one or neighbor’s needs. I long for her homemade jelly cakes and the occasional rare treat of fresh sugar cane. I dream that upon my arrival, she’ll still have a container of frozen gumbo waiting for me, labeled with masking tape, which was always prefaced by “now I went ahead and put a little extra meat in for you.” (I still hold fast to the belief that I was the favorite great-grandchild.)
I hope she knows that I’ll never forget those small sweet moments that existed just between us two. She’d always slip me a handful of soft peppermints or Werther’s Original candy in church, even when I was no longer small enough to rest my head in her lap when the services went a little bit too long. Or crawling in her bed to watch “the stories”–Young and The Restless for those who don’t know–while hoping that my mom took longer than usual to pick me up. She never stopped me from asking questions, and could always spin the saddest stories to have the most hilarious endings.
Although four years have passed, I still find myself asking the question: What is lost when we experience loss? When our other mothers take a generation’s worth of words and wisdom with them. When families slowly fracture, and each member is figuring out how to cope as they slowly fade into the distance. I still find myself frantically searching for the answers. In the meantime, I hope remnants of her will still peek through once I become the grandmother with soft hands, a stern gaze and a generous heart.
In conversation Sharbreon Plummer pertaining to The Women That Raise Us:
"...We must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves.” - Audre Lorde. Through experience, this concept has seemed to flow into our relationships with ourselves and our relationships with others, potentially, creating barriers and preventing us from building, supporting, and lifting one another. how can we transcend this construct?
I think Lorde was spot on with this gem. Before this portion of the quote, she also states that any move for liberation is infinitely complex. Which I completely agree with and get lost in at times. I don’t have an answer for such a large question, but what has been effective for me trying to remain unapologetic and persistent when tackling “hard” topics and systems that perpetuate the oppressive forces Lorde speaks of. I’d love to figure out even more ways for us to feel empowered to embrace our aptitudes and where our energy is best utilized.
I recently saw a statement that stated that we can hold folks accountable while also acknowledging that there is a complex set of factors that have shaped where they currently stand. That being said, this doesn’t mean that you should be a repository for mistreatment when working in the community. Instead, I interpret it as being strategic about addressing problems while also remembering that we all started from somewhere; knowing that growth can be a messy process.
The Women that Raise Us aims to exemplify the variations of women that raise and influence us, directly and indirectly, acknowledging every connection, whether ancestral or distant. Who are the women that have shaped you or raised you? Who are the women that continue to do so?
I have been blessed enough to have experienced multiple generations of aunts, grandmothers, and othermothers. As a single parent, my mother showed me the power of love and sacrifice, and our relationship is now the strongest that it’s ever been. When she had to give her time and energy to ensure that I was provided for, my great grandmother, grandmother and aunts would fill in the gap. Even the neighbors who have lived in our neighborhood since my mother was a child have always embraced me as their own. One even drove my mother to the hospital when she was in labor with me! Their wisdom, stories, quirks and even sarcasm absolutely follow me as I navigate life. Even the smallest habits, such as using cast iron skillets for cornbread or making hospital corners when I change my bed linens are continuing to reveal themselves as I grow and evolve in my own journey through womanhood. They showed me the importance of community, and how none of us can walk through life alone. Now that I am embarking on my journey to complete a Ph.D., I’ve inherited a new tribe of friends and sisters that empathize with my struggles, celebrate my wins, and keep me lifted when I feel like giving up. There is a sense of kinship that I appreciate and continue to nurture and protect because it is absolutely sacred to me.
Additionally, women who rise each day and choose to show up in spite of their circumstances continue to inspire me. Simply existing often feels like a major feat. So while I acknowledge the strain and violence that this world places on our bodies and souls, being part of an ancestry that performs the daily miracle of living is something that I feel most proud of.
"Simply existing often feels like a major feat. So while I acknowledge the strain and violence that this world places on our bodies and souls, being part of an ancestry that performs the daily miracle of living is something that I feel most proud of."
Do you consider "negative" and "positive" relationships and experiences with women as a contribution to your growth? Do you consider friends, inspirations, fallen relationships or even the everyday encounters as a contribution to your current self?
Absolutely! It’s very easy to focus on the strong, healthy and/or positive relationships and experiences (and we should!). However, it’s the moments of heartbreak, separation and disappointment that have taught me how to love myself better which, in turn, allows me to love others in a healthy way. During those moments, I learned about establishing healthy boundaries, not giving too much of myself, and how to identify toxicity and when to remove myself from those situations. On the flip side, it was my positive relationships that supported me in reaching the other side of those let-downs.
What are your thoughts on women of color being hyper-visible and yet invisible (ignored, unheard, unfelt) in society and/or their own communities?
It feels like perpetual gaslighting! We know what we are experiencing, but it feels like everything and everyone around us denies our claims and voices. I know that it is, unfortunately, not a new practice and I struggle with thinking of long-term solutions. In the short-term, I feel it is absolutely necessary for those of us who possess high levels of privilege to vocally and tangibly (financial resources, law reform, etc) support Trans women and queer women of color, women of color with disabilities, young girls, and the elderly amongst others.
Additionally, I think is necessary to acknowledge Black women’s complex position at the intersection of the term “women of color.” Historically speaking, other marginalized women have also commodified aspects of our culture and elements of Black womanhood in a way that engages in anti-Blackness and a lack of solidarity. This is not meant to diminish the love, community building, and solidarity that women have displayed on a global scale, but it is imperative that we identify blind spots and harmful behaviors if we claim to want to make progress.
"Historically speaking, other marginalized women have also commodified aspects of our culture and elements of Black womanhood in a way that engages in anti-Blackness and a lack of solidarity. This is not meant to diminish the love, community building, and solidarity that women have displayed on a global scale, but it is imperative that we identify blind spots and harmful behaviors if we claim to want to make progress."
I hope that we continue to make strides in representation within fields such as mental health, gynecology, politics, etc. so that we can cultivate a society in which women are treated justly and protected. I know it sounds utopian, but I try to remain positive along with being pragmatic.
How can we lift each other, while we still climb as individuals? How can this become an ongoing practice?
I think that we can’t be afraid to be vulnerable. That doesn’t mean placing everything out in the open for the world to see. It means not being afraid to state what you need. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve often been frustrated because I felt like I had a lack of support or that no one understood what I was going through. I had to face the hard truth that I had an expectation that was unrealistic. No one knew what I was going through because I kept my mouth shut. So how would they be able to offer support?! Once I opened up, I found that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was, and that many of my issues mirrored the struggles of others. Sharing with those trusted individuals that made me feel seen and safe now allows me to offer that upliftment to someone else. It’s like paying it forward but on a heart level. If we see ourselves in one another and use our experiences as catalysts for encouragement, we have the potential to build a community becomes even more fortified during its evolution and progress.
"If we see ourselves in one another and use our experiences as catalysts for encouragement, we have the potential to build a community becomes even more fortified during its evolution and progress."
It’s interesting how strong tradition was held between families and carried to the offspring during the times of our grandmothers but appears to be vanishing, rapidly. How have you preserved the traditions, rituals and habits of your ancestors? How do you believe that we can protect and conserve these traditions and make this practice into a habit?
I personally believe that words have power. What we speak and write has the power to uplift and manifest. From journaling to dissertation research (which is inspired by Mommie by the way!), I view my practice as a way to continue to bridge a connection to my ancestors. I keep their photos and keepsakes present in my home in my meditation space and adorn their gravestones with flowers and other items of love when I’m back in Louisiana. I believe that protection is an embodied practice that pushes beyond self-reflection and dialogue. This means inserting ancestral practices and skills into everyday life. For example– midwifery, southern foodways, or artistic/craft practices are all topics that are extensions of communal and familial traditions. In order for us to conserve these traditions, we must acknowledge how they inform modernity rather than replacing them with contemporary knowledge production. To answer your final question: I think these habits are embedded in our DNA and subconscious mind, and they take form as we need them.
Sharbreon Plummer (Baton Rouge, LA) is a creative practitioner + Ph.D. student in the Department of Art Administration, Education and Policy at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH). Her upbringing in the southern Louisiana informs her interest and investment in how culture and ancient practices act as influencers of personal expression and contemporary work, specifically within the Global South. Her areas of focus and research include: Her areas of focus and research include:
Black women's work and fiber art
systemic racism and erasure,
equity based interpretation
oral history and cultural preservation through narrative work
matrilineal connections built within artistic practices.
Most recently she was selected as a YWCA Leadership for Social Change Fellow (Columbus, OH) and participant in the Tate Intensive (London, UK). She has created and facilitated work presented in/for institutions such as Project Row Houses (Houston, TX), Rush Corridor Gallery (New York, NY), the African American Museum in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA), Hampshire College (Amherst, MA) and Americans for the Arts. In addition to being an occasional alchemist and writer, she continues to serve as an independent consultant on numerous special projects and artistic collaborations.