“Mama’s little baby has shortnin’, shortnin’…Mama’s little baby has shortening bread. Mama’s little baby has shortnin’, shortnin’ …Mama’s little baby has shortening bread”.
Over this past holiday, I was able to spend time with one of my mother’s oldest and dearest friends, my Aunt Barbara. She is 83, a retired Brooklyn, NY public school teacher and living back in the “home place” in Craven County. She shared with me that my Mom and her met when they were 12 years old at the New Bold Training School which was the “Negro” school that taught children in the Fort Barnwell/Dover community from kindergarten through 12th grade. At that time, my mother was being raised by her Aunt Betty and Uncle Arthur because when Mommy was 4, her father became mortally ill from a ruptured appendix leaving behind my grandmother, my mother and her baby brother Coley. They could not afford to bury him, so he was buried in a Pauper’s grave. He was 34.
For the first 2 years after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother, who had Polio in her left arm and could not work, tried to keep her family together by living with relatives “out in the county”. Many times she would hear, “Irma, you and the baby can stay, but we don’t have room for Mary”. So, they were often split up, with my grandmother and my Uncle Coley living one place with relatives and my mother living somewhere else. They were very poor and had to eat breakfast and lunch at the Catholic mission. All the children whose families availed themselves of the services of mission were easily identifiable by their clothes. Mommy said she had 3 “mission” dresses that were all the same cut and made out of very thin cotton fabric– albeit different colors. The clothes stood out like a poor-little- girl banner and until her death at 68 in 1998, she refused to eat oatmeal or to skimp on our clothes as when we were growing up (much to my stepfather’s frustration). That separation, her father’s death and being so incredibly poor, left a lasting impression on my mother’s spirit about the importance of family, stability, want and never ever separating your children.
When my mother was 6, she went to live with my grandmother’s sister and her husband and her life was transformed. They loved her very much, were doing pretty good for themselves by country black folks standards and raised her as their own making sure she had all she needed. My mother flourished under their loving attentiveness and went on to be the salutatorian of her graduating class of New Bold, to participate and compete in oratorical contest and to be accepted at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. After she finished the nursing program at L. Richardson Hospital in Greensboro, she move to NY by herself to work as a nurse. When we were little, she told me stories of seeing Nat King Cole and Nancy Wilson at the Savoy, going to the Bronx Zoo and enjoying bagels with lox and matzoh balls. Aunt Betty and Uncle Arthur had been her game changers.
John-Irma-Mary-Oliver-Frank-Charity-Sallie-Oliver-Virtue-William-Amos-Elizabeth-Cherry-Adam-Dianna-William-Sylvia….Arthur-Betty. John-Irma-Mary-Oliver-Frank-Charity-Sallie-Oliver-Virtue-William-Amos-Elizabeth-Cherry-Adam-Dianna-William-Sylvia….Arthur-Betty. John-Irma-Mary-Oliver-Frank-Charity-Sallie-Oliver-Virtue-William-Amos-Elizabeth-Cherry-Adam-Dianna-William-Sylvia….Arthur-Betty. John-Irma-Mary-Oliver-Frank-Charity-Sallie-Oliver-Virtue-William-Amos-Elizabeth-Cherry-Adam-Dianna-William-Sylvia….Arthur-Betty.
“For the purpose of inspiration, the Yoruba people employ the use of praise poetry, songs and sacred invocations, as well as inspiring names. Even as the name shows, oriki is a name or a praise poetry that “opens up” or “expands” a person’s head.In the Yoruba traditional belief, Ori, is one of the most important deities, subject only to the supreme being. Ori is the abode of each choice of fulfillment as individuals strive to achieve their destiny. It is a person’s guide to success and great achievements in this world and in heaven. A person without a head (not the physical head) is a person without direction. Consequently, isiri (inspiration) is an appeasement of a person’s Ori, so that it would reveal to them a new source of strength or a better course of action.
However, oriki is also a type of Yoruba literary genre that is used for the purpose of inspiration. In the Yoruba customs, people who have distinguished themselves in some way are acknowledged not just by name but also according to a description of their achievements and family lineage, which are expressed their oriki, a poetry of highly personal praise songs”. Oduntan G. Bode
My mother met my father William George McConner through his sister, my Aunt Anna when she was high school and my aunt did her hair. When she returned to New Bern from NY to be a nurse at the hospital, they reconnected. The lore around their reconnection was that they ran into each other at a party at the local armory. He spoke, they danced, he took his date home, they dance the rest of the night and they were engaged shortly after. (Àbèní – begged for (from God or, more traditionally, the gods) After a few miscarriages, at 37 my mother gave birth to me, adding another girl child to my older sister’s from my father’s first marriage. When I was four months old, my mother found out she was again pregnant and my father found out he was dying from metastatic lung cancer. I turned one on April 18th, my father passed on April 29th and my sister Georgette was born on July 26th.
“The Yorubas believe that a person’s name relates to his/her spiritual essence, so they take their time giving names to their children. It’s believed if you call a person by his/her oriki, it inspires them”. – See more at: http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-meaning-quot-oriki-quot-what-can-we-call-quot-17145#sthash.RAEJRyF4.dpuf
Wilhelmina McConner ( Burney ).
In October of 1970, on Longfellow Street in Washington, DC., my mother married Charlie Burney, Sr. Daddy had grown up in the same community in Craven County and they had known each other most of their lives. When my eldest brother, Charlie Burney, Jr. heard that his father was about to marry some woman from NC, he rushed down to Georgia Avenue to pick up a new suit, picked out his hair and came to the house. He had left home at 18 to escape Daddy’s rules and Eastern, NC sensibilities and joined the army never realizing what in store for him in Vietnam. When he walked into the living room, he spied Daddy, his younger brother Fred who was almost 18 himself at the time , Mommy and two little girls sitting on the couch. One in pink and the other in yellow (that would be me in the yellow) It as love at first sight. He became our big brother and we became ‘the girls”. Even today at 46 and 63, he still loves to tease us unmercifully, feed us all our favorite dishes, dole out unsolicited advice and loves us as if we were born from the same parents. My mother was always clear that there were no prefixes in our family. No “halves”, no “steps”—we
were are a family. Charlie Burney, Sr. adopted Georgette and I so we could bear his name and he loved us as if we were his own.
“Cortisol is released in response to stress, sparing available glucose for the brain, generating new energy from stored reserves, and diverting energy from low-priority activities (such as the immune system) in order to survive immediate threats or prepare for the exertion of rising to a new day…”
As I was transitioning into 2013, I was in the most fragile place I had been in quite some time. I had been laid off from what I thought was a “safe” job at a community-base organization that was over 100 years old, was not sure how I would pay Che’s tuition at Howard given that my consulting practice toggled between feast or famine and while in the midst of divorce I was at risk of losing the home I had fought to buy over 10 years ago to foreclosure. I was slowing becoming a statistic–again. My heart raced, my hands sweat, I had insomnia (hell, I still have insomnia) and I was wasn’t sure I would survive. I had full-blown panic attacks and my blood pressure would periodically skyrocket. It was the first time in my adult life, that I realized I might just expedite my death and that was not an option. I have two boys 21 and 5–yes, that is 1,2, 3, 4, 16 years apart (ergo the title of my blog, “don’t sleep on old eggs”). Each of my boys has gifted my life in such profoundly beautiful ways. Che came through first and became my due north— recalibrating my cultural compass and pointing it to work for the liberation of my people. Becoming a single parent are 25 taught me to not be afraid to go against the grain, to be wonderfully wildly different and to stand in my power. He broke pavement for his brother who would arrive when I was 41. Taj, placed the gift of loving self-care firmly in my hands–to slow down, be easy, take care of myself and be clear about my priorities realizing the time we have with our families, we can’t get back if we squander it. How could I throw these gifts away? It was time for me to stand up and take stock.
Before my 46 birthday, I traveled to Nigeria and was initiated as an Egungun (ancestors-Epa Egungun) and Osun (the Orisa of love, abundance, sensuality, abundance and culture-Ore Ye Ye O) Priest. I have been a practitioner for over 15 year and the idea of initiation traveled from instructions from the oracle written on a journal page to a full on compulsion by forces I could not no longer deny (and didn’t want to for that matter). My folks in New Bern would call that “being called”.
Being initiated in the Ifa/Yoruba tradition, does not give me license to perform Hollywood-esque “voodoo” magic tricks for public consumption–that would be inappropriate, ridiculous and would reinforce a stereotype and the self-hatred we already suffer from as a result of our generational trauma in this country. It doesn’t give me the ability to read tea leaves, the lumps on someone’s head or levitate—it simple gives me permission to learn and then hopefully to support. To learn more deeply about my heavenly destiny, to learn the fundamentals of our practice–prayer (s), song, rites and rituals and to understand more deeply the relationship between man, the
natural supernatural world and to Most High. Coming back from Nigeria, was like walking back into the Matrix. I had been unplugged from the mainframe and everything looked and felt different…I looked and felt different. “Why do my eyes hurt? Because you have never used them before”.–Morpheus
The last 6 months of 2013 has rocked my world. My work, my children, my health, my relationships are all shifting in ways that are amazing–not easy and sometime crazy, but always really freakin amazing.
I am typing this blog from my home. The same home I purchased in 2002 as a single mom. The same home that was a gift from my ancestors. This home that I thought I might lose was saved by a foreclosure abatement program and I spent the last day of 2013 cleaning her up, lighting candles, playing music and being eternally grateful for what I have.
The first text I received to say “Happy New Year” was from my oldest son, Che. He had to sit out beginning his senior year at Howard University because of a tuition debt I was unable to pay this past semester. In the midst of all the violence and death we have seen in our community over the past year at the hands of law enforcement, white supremacy and our own undoing, we have to keep Che’s struggle in perspective. For Trayvon, Jonathan, Kendrick and Renisha, Jesus “Chuy”– their request for help were met with traumatically violent endings that we are all still reeling from and need answers and justice for.
When we realized I could not pay down Che’s debt, he said he wanted to lift that burden from my shoulders. He now has a wisdom circle of 6 black men—some who have known him since he was a toddler, some who attended college or worked with me and many of who experienced the same type of financial troubles in their college journeys and had to take time off as a result. They each have committed to be a sounding board, a support system and a bridge to the next phase of his adulthood. When Che reached out for help to finish college, he was met with a resounding response. His community stood up and wrapped themselves around him in such a profound way, that it took both our breaths away. He is returning to Howard to begin his senior year this spring as the result of an online crowfunding campaign. Through Indiegogo, Che was able to raise over $10,000 in 30 days with gifts ranging for $5 to $1,000.
He has been offered two paid internships and the opportunity to be part of an artist collective. He is hopeful that he will be able to travel to Japan this summer to film a documentary short with one of his best friends at Howard. We are both grateful and are committed to paying this cosmic gift forward.
All of who I am, who I have been and who I am becoming I owe to Mary-William-Charlie-John-Irma-Betty-Arthur-Mary-Oliver-Frank-Charity-Sallie-Oliver-Virtue-William-Amos-Elizabeth-Cherry-Adam-Dianna-William-Sylvia. I am honored to be their descendant and I am eternally grateful for the ancestors that returned through me in the form of William Che (Akintola) and Taj Cullen (Ifasina). 2013 is still lingering in these early morning hours like a sweet-smelling perfume or burnt microwave popcorn. Either way, I am thankful for the great highs and lows, the friendships, the tears, the shedding, the reclaiming/renaming, the letting go, the loving, the laughter, the naps, the rain, the flowers. the music, the silence, the songs and the prayers. Looking forward to seeing what the universe holds for us this next solar journey….
Happy New Year..
Omisade aka Billie aka Wilhelmina aka Willy Bill aka Billie-Jo-Jim-Bob aka Iyawo Osun (Word)