Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Way Out of No Way

I've known the Sweet Honey in the Rock song "Oughta Be a Woman," with lyrics from a poem by June Jordan, since I was 22. I don't know that I ever read the words on the liner notes of the album because they always seemed perfectly clear in their beautiful voices:

Oughta Be a Woman
June Jordan, 1936 - 2002

Washing the floors to send you to college
Staying at home so you can feel safe
What do you think is the soul of her knowledge
What do you think that makes her feel safe

Biting her lips and lowering her eyes
To make sure there’s food on the table
What do you think would be her surprise
If the world was as willing as she’s able

Hugging herself in an old kitchen chair
She listens to your hurt and your rage
What do you think she knows of despair?
What is the aching of age?

The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light?

There oughta be a woman can break
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
Like everybody else call it quits on Mondays
Blues on Tuesdays, sleep until Sunday
Down, sit down, break down, sit down

A way out of no way is flesh out of flesh
It's courage that cries out at night
A way out of no way is flesh out of flesh
It's bravery kept out of sight
A way out of no way is too much to ask
It's too much of a task for any one woman.
(Listen to the song on YouTube.) 

It's an ode to black women, and black mothers especially. It has always been resonant, but hearing it yesterday, the lines "Biting her lips and lowering her eyes/To make sure there's food on the table" called my attention more than usual, thinking of recent attention to sexual harassment and assault among women workers.

And then at the end, I realized I had been misunderstanding that final refrain for 36 years. "A way out of no way." Somehow, white woman that I am, I had always heard that as "Away out of no way" and just thought it was poetic language, but no: it's about making a way out of no way, a common phrase in African-American life, descriptive of black people's necessary way of being.

White people, we know nothing about black people, even when we have put some effort into reading and listening.

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