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“Say No Girl, Say No”: A Sermon

Let us begin with a poem, as we begin Women’s History Month…

Vashti

I was with the other women
In the woman’s place
In the palace
And it’s only
The letter “A”
That separates place
From palace

I was with the other women
When he called
I had been up cooking all night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead
And we were finally ready to eat

When he called
We were in our one hundredth
And eighty-seventh day of celebrating
One hundred and eighty seven times
I was called up
Pageanted for him
And the visiting priests, provinces, and princes
He had been feasting for the last six days
Without calling
I waited six
I was queen
He told me that
I was clear
Or tried to convince myself to be
I was picked
Like the prized pied at the carnival
Because I was the fairest

When he called
He never thought
I would refuse him anything
I was lucky you know
And yes
I heard him calling
Cuz I hear everything
I am a woman
Ears trained to ground and sky
I hear the women
Like myself
Breaking
Like the bread we ate that day
Women
Who were picked over
For some beauty standard
That had nothing to do with us

I wasn’t leaving this party
It felt right
And yes
I heard him calling
But I also heard gods warning breath
Whisper my ear
With my mother’s fear
“Say no girl
Say no”

So when he called
It was the seventh day
He had been drinking
His heart was merry with wine
He was drunk
And ordered
Because that’s what you can do
When you make someone a queen
He ordered me
To him
In the crown royal
Now
He was read to show me off
And
I
Said
No
Because I a woman
And I am moved
Like the women I am with
And the women I come from
Are moved
And there is a place
And it’s only the letter “A”
That separates place from palace
In my belly now
Fuller than the feast
Whose grease
Lingers on my fingers
There is a place left
From gathering with my like
Telling me what to say
And I am finally ready to hear
This word
This bird
Flying out of my mouth
Turned song
And I am sure
Other queens have heard it
Put their tongues
To the roof of their mouths
And tasted it
My sisters
Esther
Ma’a’cha
Bathsheba
Jezebel
Sheba
Candace
Rahab
Tamar
Delilah
Deborah
Mary
Hagar

We who have all said no
And have not known
And known at the same time
Why
No
For our daughters
The next in our broken royal lines
No
For their voices strong and spirit led
No
We can say mother and father god
Can think
That in the company of women
Quiet wars can be raged
Battles birthing women
Women birthing battles
Who don’t forget their kindred
Or their people
When he called
There was new breath in mine
Pushing this defiance
Out of my chest
Like life
Collapsing in on itself
Like rock caught in the craw of my throat
Like tear and snot braced for pain
Like we are getting ready
To sing
Or preach
Or pray
For the first time

Like I said
When he called
I had been up cooking
All night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead
And
We
Were
Finally
Ready
To
Eat

 


 

This is the story of Vashti. In the first book of Esther in the bible, Vashti was the queen of Xerxes. He made her a queen. When King Xerxes was in the middle of his party that he threw for himself to show off his riches and spoils, he called for his queen. His prize. To show her off.

And she, in the middle of a party she was having with the other women, said, “No”. And so, Xerxes consulted with his homeboys and they convinced him that he had to do something, because of the public embarrassment of her refusal. That is when he declared, “All wives should obey their husbands.”

This Women’s History Month, I am compelled to lift up the stories of women like Vashti, who was a woman like my mother Margaret, who was a woman like my grandmother Bessie Lee, who was a woman like my great-grandmother Galley Mama, who was a woman like my great-great grandmother Nora Lee. Women who said, “No” to patriarchy and “Yes” to family and friends and like-mindedness and parties and cooking and being of service to one another and not being servile and liberation.

In my adulthood I have had the privilege of being the primary caregiver for both my grandmother and my mother until they passed away. For them I held both their legal and their medical durable power of attorney. I, in the end of their lives, cared for their adult bodies in the ways that they cared for my infant body. In turn, through their Alzheimered brains, I received their stories. I know these women. I knew when they were saying “No” to this earth and “No” to this flesh. I knew their “No” meant “No more.”

I think about these women all of the time. Now that they’re gone, I think about their faith, the card parties, birthdays, Christmases and trips to Reno they took while being Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mostly I think about how I will never be called, “Son” again. Then I hear them whisper, “No, we are still our son and we still call out to you. Do you think we would ever stop calling you?”

I think about these Jehovah Witness women and how they said, “NO!” even to god. And those are the women I come from. Those women who felt sorry for God cuz they know God don’t have a mother and God don’t got a God Mother either. God ain’t never had a Big Mama hug, God in her bosom so tight til God thought that God would choke on her Jean Nate. God ain’t ever had nobody to look up to. God ain’t never had a woman say “No!”

I think about these women and how they had to say “No” to anyone who tried to take away the joy that they eked out. No God, you will not take away my Bobby Blue Bland, my Pokeno and my shoe collection. No God, I woman and a woman is not a bear in a trap. These “Saying No” women, instead found a God whose face they could get in and with their hands on their hips, and their fingers in God’s face, assert their blackness and southernness and womanness.

Women who say “No” don’t make concessions. Don’t play to God’s ego. Do not put out their Pall Mall filter cuz they know God don’t like smoke, don’t hide their brandy and milk, or become ashamed of the hog head cheese and saltines they eat while playing bid whist. Women who say “No” aren’t refusing you anything but are giving themselves a “Yes.”

“No” means, “I speak for myself.”

“No” means “I gotta love myself a little more than you.”

So, “Say No Girl, Say No.”

“No” from my grandmother meant to my mama, “Leave the boy here with me. He is mine. I will give him a little dough to make little pies as I make the big pies. Let him hide under my apron. No, you will not take him. He is safe here. We will need him later.”

“No” meant that, “Yes, Marvin will live.”

Sometimes your “No” is just “Not all of your goodness now God. You have been so sweet already. I need to save some of this for later. Wrap it. Tin foil and saran it for my kids.”

Then there are the “No’s” that defied cruel and stereotypical narratives of poor black women.

I grew up in public housing. And the narrative about people who live in public housing is that’s where you send women like “that.” Public housing is the space they are relegated to. But when my mother said “No, I will not crumble,” after my father left her with five kids under the age 10, she chose welfare and she chose Oakland Housing Authority, and she chose to live amongst women. Her “No” meant that she understood that men were not allowed there because you would be disqualified if you had two incomes. So she wanted to raise her boys and her girl amongst women. This was how she could do it. No, it was never a place they were put. It was a place they went.

So, “Say No Girl, Say No.”

I remember when I was a kid, my mother asking my grandmother, “Bessie, why do you prepare so much Food? Why do you cook so much?!?!?” I remember my grandmother answering, “Just in case somebody hungry come by.”

My grandmother was a woman like Vashti who said “No.” Because when she said “Lord I’m open that meant that there was a sign hung outside her door and not a string around her tongue. No! I’m creaming the butter and the sugar, I am drinking chicory, I am darning socks, I am waiting to see if my sister will follow the plan and leave when her abusive husband is at work. No, I am not cooking because I can. I am cooking because I cannot. It ain’t faith if I expect them and I’m not ready for them.”

“Say no, girl, say no.”

Anybody can say, “Yes, if there is no one else, I will do this job too. Chain me to this desk. Let me just call my family and disappoint them.”

But a woman who says, “No!” knows she works smarter and not harder and does not believe she has to prove anything by working twice as hard as a man.

A woman who says, “No” knows that “No” is never “against” anybody but “for” herself. A woman who says, “No” understands that “No” is one of a woman’s highest faith stances. She remembers that God put Adam to sleep because God knew Adam couldn’t handle birth. But Mary?

A woman who says, “No” knows that a rib and a womb ain’t the same thing.

“No” you will never convince me, because I know that women have always been contractors and have always pushed through pain, and have always given blood, sweat and tears.

A woman who says “No” knows that everything is possible through her.”

“Say no, girl, say no.”

Anybody can say “Yes,” to following along or going with the status quo.” But a woman who says “No!” always knows that a woman will one day have to crawl out from under something. Her “No” means women have always known how to get away even when they don’t know where a way is.”

“Say no, girl, say no.”

Anybody can say “Yes, you can share my spotlight, even though you did nothing.”
Oh, But a woman who says, “No!” knows that that’s not illumination. A woman who says, “No!” knows that good lighting has never been about a switch. It has always been about her ignition.

Anybody can say “Yes, if that’s the way we have always gone, let’s go down that road yet again. Even if we end up in the same place.” But a woman who says, “No!” is a compass. Can re-chart the course, can turn on her woman positioning system, can call other women, can crowdsource right direction, can get us all on track.

A woman who says, “No!” is named Eve,
Or a woman who says, “No!” might be named Rahab,
Or a woman who says, “No!” might withhold her name from history
Because she knows that history, biblical and world
Could never get her right.
NO! I am not just Noah’s wife, Jephtah’s daughter,
Or the Syro-phoenician Woman, I have name,
My name is Joan,
My name is Pam,
My name is Paula,
My name is Miss Betty,
My name is Noni,
My name is Kaye,
My name is Janice,
My name is Rachel,
My name is Miss December,
My name is Rachel,
And my name is Anne and I sing, and I knit and I pray and I hurt and I am afraid sometimes but I am here.
My name is my name.
And my name is a witness.

“Say no, girl, say no.”

No, this is not hole, this is a door, with a key, and it is where hope comes from. No, I am not as small as you say I am, look at my arms can wrap around god’s neck. No, there is something deeper than these bulbs and I will keep digging. No, my skin is not available for you to prove yourself. No, I am not waiting on a miracle. I am a miracle. No, baby girl, you did nothing wrong. He has watched your backline for slack. You could not have known his baby, baby, babies were going to stop and the beatings would start.

“Say no, girl, say no.”

And a “No” woman ain’t measured in inches or centimeters. It is about her degrees, her Kelvin, her joules. It is about her heat.

No means this is not about accumulation. Not about weight. This is about action. This is about change, which ain’t measured by winning or competing but by temper and temperature.

No means, that the measure of a woman will not be the bank statement of her but the love of her.

A woman who says “No” consults her body and gives it what it needs.

A woman who says “No” remembers all of the possibilities for herself that she has with your eyes closed, and picks one. “No” women know the magic is behind your lids but the proof is in front of your eyes.

A woman who says “No” to prescriptions, “No” to self-medicating and doctors herself.

“No,” I have to create life. I have to give birth to movements. My soul says “No” and I am like “No” other women.

“Say no girl, say no.”

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