Why Celebrating Our Mothers and Foremothers' Legacies is Important for Black History

by C. Imani Williams

Black women are phenomenal. We are the most resilient beings on the planet. We combat the numerous “-isms” thrown our way on a daily basis, and in spite of it all, still manage to get things done. Our faith and strength cover us in ways that sometimes defy logic. Through spiritual connection and self-preservation, we are ever-changing chameleons who rise to the occasion, time after time.

Black History Month is our way of thanking our elders and ancestors who set precedence for us to survive and thrive. Thus, we speak of their fearless acts of courage and strength.

Still, we don't know all the stories. There are millions of women who paved the way. Some are still with us, and others have gone on to be with the ancestors. Within our community, we celebrate these women. All are deserving.

Their legacies remain in the hearts of those they touched and we have an obligation to pay them homage. We give honor by calling their names and revisiting conversations and heart-time well spent with those who have gifted: self, woman, man, family, spiritual, well-being, you-can-make-it through advice.

Although I have been blessed to share space with extraordinary women who have helped shaped me and given me agency to dream and grow, no one has impacted me more than my mother, Carolyn Louise Burr-Williams.

A sassy Sagittarius, she did not hold back any punches. She said what she meant, and meant what she said. One of the biggest hearts God ever made came with a smile and laugh that were infectious, and a side-eye that could straight shame a person. Her rules were simple: Don't mess with her kids or grandkids!

I knew my mother was well respected for her civic and community engagement. I just didn't know how much. It took her passing from throat cancer in 2011 for me to better understand the depth in which her life works were appreciated. Tucked away in jewelry and hat boxes were awards and acknowledgments from people and organizations I'd heard her speak about.

Ever humble, she always downplayed her individual accomplishments. The only thing she talked about with complete pride was her beloved work with young people. Her service was so steadfast and her flow so tight, that a good number of her students ended up at our house on weekends. These girls were lucky enough to have her for a teacher, as well as a cheerleading and softball coach. She was my coach too, but I received no special treatment on the field. Between the ages of 7 and 15, I was praised and chastised with the rest of the team. Doing double duty, mother managed my activities while also serving girls in the community as a mentor who had sustained a life-long passion for education.

During my mother’s final seven months, she wrote in various notebooks, which have become of great significance to me since her passing. They include conversations between my mother and others, where she was asked questions and answered them with her pen and pad. The words she penned are priceless to me, as the pages reflect some of her fondest memories and tell some of her funniest stories. They also tell the story of her life, which has become even more important for me to hold onto.

The fourth child of seven born to Harold and Davie Burr, my mother was an early reader and acquired her library card at age four. She was double promoted in school at age six and maintained a deep thirst for knowledge, with her mind and heart focused on success. Not only did she get it in academically, but she was an outstanding athlete as well. She was a member of her high school swim, basketball, and cheerleading teams, serving as team captain for the the latter two. Aware of the racial segregation in her hometown of River Rouge, Michigan, she was determined to not let the politics of the day—which spilled over into the high school—stop her from meeting her goals. (This segregation seems confusing, as Ford Motor company employed many in the community. Blacks and whites lived in close proximity—many as neighbors.)

During her high school years, Mother turned down an invitation to become part of the school rotary club. Her reason: no black males were invited in. Since there would be no one in the club for her to date, she opted out. This story always reminds me of her passionate stance on segregation.

After graduating from high school, Mother attended Wayne State University, falling more in love with education as she earned bachelor's and master’s degrees. (A second master’s would come while I was in middle school.)

Her love of education would be the catalyst for her teaching career that spanned 52 years. She taught middle school math. Occasionally, I went to work with my mother, which I loved. Her students would ask all kinds of questions: most of which had to do with whether or not Mrs. Williams thumped my head.

My mother's signature saying to students when they were bold enough to act up in her class was, “Bring me your head!” They would comply, making the slow walk to her desk where they would bow their head and receive a well-placed thump. I always laughed when queried about this, because my punishments were worse. Her tactics worked, though, and parents didn't complain because their children consistently tested above average and were well-prepared for high school AP and college math courses down the line.

After completing her second master’s in the late 1970s, Mother started selling Princess House crystal as an independent contractor. She worked the part-time opportunity a couple nights a week and weekends with vigor for years, acquiring enough points to outfit not only her own home with fine crystal, but eventually the homes of her children and grandchildren as well. Her warm nature and natural affinity for numbers earned Mother awards year-after-year for highest sells with the distinguished company. These certificates were tucked away in the same closet that she kept other souvenirs from a life well-lived. As I pulled them out one by one, I smiled and felt the love of someone who believed in handling her business.

I have held on to her medals for academic achievement and her athletic awards from River Rouge High School. To continue my mother's legacy, these medals and awards will go to my grandchildren one day. I will continue to make sure they always know about the fierce brilliance of their great-grandmother.

In addition to her 52 years of outstanding service through education, Carolyn Louise Burr-Williams also served others as a member of Hope United Methodist Church. She thrived in the spiritual community as an usher, kitchen worker, and a member of the higher education committee. I introduced her to Hope United, which was the first church I chose for myself as an adult. But her passion for her faith inspired Mother to officially join and immerse herself in committee work before I even completed new members class. Her faith in God was inspiring to witness, even as she knew she would soon be leaving the physical earth.

There were so many groups of people and organizations who admired and respected my mother, including the Detroit Public School system, Archdiocese of Detroit, and the incarcerated youth she worked with (who had her back and called her Grandma). At her Homegoing service, a former student spoke, taking up all the time for folks to make remarks. I couldn't be mad as he lovingly paid tribute to her, expressing how she'd prepared him forty years prior, with math skills that helped him become successful in his chosen field. His testimony was as personal and real as my mother's love for life and helping others to succeed.

Her charge to us to “Always do our best!” and to “Trust God!” were high on her priority list. Myself and many others still hold these ideals close, as they were passed down to us by the strongest woman I’ve ever known.

As we celebrate the final week of Black History Month, it’s important that we honor the lives and legacies of the women who had the most impact on our lives. They may not be celebrated in history books, but it doesn’t make their contributions to their loved ones and communities any less significant. Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and other women ancestors have not only imparted us with their DNA, but they have also gifted us with the inner wisdom and spiritual blessings to help us become our best selves. We won’t let the circle be unbroken.

I love you, Mommy. Thank you.

Photo: Carolyn Louise Burr-Williams, the author's beloved mother (courtesy of the author)

C.  Imani Williams is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles and a Master's in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times, and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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