She has my face. My grandmother and I have the exact same face. And it’s funny, I must have stared into her face thousands of times over the years, but I never recognized her face as my own. One day though, while cleaning out my desk, I stumbled upon an old photo. I picked the picture up and stared at it for a few seconds, and I must admit, I was nearly paralyzed by what I saw. There sat my grandmother with big bright eyes, just like mine. Her nose was my nose, and her cheekbones were mine, too. She even appeared to be the same age in the photo that I am today.
And seeing my face in my grandmother’s own made me think about my grandmother’s life in an entirely different way. She most certainly has not lived a bad life; she has lived an incredibly long time and has seen things — like the election of this country’s first black president and the nomination of a woman president — that she never would have dreamt possible as a young girl growing up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She’s always said she’d wanted nothing more in life than to be a good mother and she’s lived long enough to embrace all five of her children, all nine of her grandchildren, all eleven of her great grandchildren, and both of her great-great grandsons, that’s a privilege afforded to only a select few.
Still though, I cannot help but think, as I stare into this face that looks so much like mine, how different her life could have been had she not been born black or a woman, during a time when it was so incredibly inconvenient to be either.
My grandmother once told me that she admired the way I spoke. She went onto say that she’d always been interested in public speaking and at one point in time she’d hoped to take classes. Remembering those words in that moment as I looked at her picture my heart sank.
Yeah, I’d been told I was a good speaker; everyone said that. It was something that came naturally to me that I’d always enjoyed doing. But I never actually stopped to think about where I’d gotten it from. What if I’d gotten that from her? What if my grandmother was a naturally gifted orator, far more skilled than I ever was, but because she was born at a time when women were to be seen and not heard, that she was never encouraged to speak? What if she never learned to use her voice?
I started at the photo longingly wondering what other dreams she might she have had to abort. “What other goals may rest inside of soul without ever being realized,” I began to ask myself aloud.“I’ve had dreams for my life for as long as I can remember,” I acknowledged. And I when I wake up every morning, I hit the ground and chase as many of them as I can. I mean, sure, I’ve had to make some concessions and modifications, but for the most part… And then I stopped.
I, too, had made concessions and modifications to my childhood dreams and then suddenly, it hit me; one day, 60 years from now my granddaughter whose eyes are just like mine, might stare at an old photo of me and wonder what else I could have become.
You see, this picture made me realize that part of “privilege” in our society means the ability to have dreams for your life as a child and then actually be able to grow up and see those dreams come to fruition. And too often in this country — even today — that’s simply not the case for women and people of color. Every child has dreams and life aspirations, but in my hometown of Chicago, IL, for example only 67 percent of African American children are graduating from high school; that’s the minimum education one typically needs in our society to be successful and a third of them don’t even have that.
And I tell you what else, going to college is no guarantee that life-long dreams will be realized. I often think of my other grandmother who not only graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in Education in the 1940s from a University that hadn’t fully even integrated when she attended (certainly an impressive feat for any woman or person of color during that era), but she went on to receive a Master’s Degree in counseling. She spent her entire professional career in the class room as a third grade teacher. And to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a teacher, but with someone as tenacious and intelligent as my grandmother clearly was, I wonder if she ever dreamt of becoming a principal, or a superintendent or even the Secretary of Education. I wonder if she ever aspired to do something more, but was limited by time as well as who and how she was.
That hasn’t changed much today either. A new report recently released by the University of Illinois’ Institute of Public Policy recently found that in Chicago, African Americans with doctorates are more likely than Caucasians with bachelor’s degrees to be unemployed. At last count, the Department of Commerce says that just 24 percent of all STEM workers in the United States are women. And even though women make up 48 percent of the American workforce, less than six percent of women currently serve as Fortune 500 CEOs. I’ve never professed to know everything, but I do know that nobody dreams of getting a doctorate so she can be unemployed and that more than six percent of women once dreamt of running a company.
So, when I look at my grandmother’s picture, I realize that we still have much work to do. I’m proud of all we’ve accomplished as a country, but, we still have much further to go. The dreams of women and minorities shouldn’t have to do die, simply because of unlocked potential, simply because people view them as mothers and man servants rather than medical doctors and C-Suite professionals. Let our dreams die or be revised of our own volition; not because we never had access or because we were never conditioned to think of ourselves as capable of fulfilling our dreams.
That’s my prayer for my unborn granddaughter; that she can look at my face and know that I went as far as she could with what I had, but that in her day, she’s able to go where she pleases.