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Vashti, An Upcycled Sermon

 


by Marvin K. White

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 hundred
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 clear.
I was picked 
Like the prized pie 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 god's warning breath
Whisper in 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 ready to show me off
And 
I 
Said 
No 
Because I am 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
 
My poem was the story of Vashti. In the first chapter of the book of Esther, Vashti was the queen of Xerxes. He made her a queen, and one day when King Xerxes was in the middle of a 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 Queen Vashti, who was in the middle of a party that 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."
 
For Women's History Month I am compelled to lift up the stories of women like Vashti, and women all over the world at any bridge in history, whose "No" changed the course. These women are like the women I come from. 
 
Women who said, "No" to patriarchy and "No" to leaving family and friends and like-mindedness and parties and cooking and being of service to one another. Women who said "No" to servitude.  And "No" to just one definition of liberation. 
 
Say "No,"Girl. Say "No."
 
I was the primary caregiver for both my grandmother and my mother until they passed. I was 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 journey with Alzheimer's, I received their stories. I knew what they were for and against. I know these women that say "No."
 
And because I knew them so well, I knew when they were finally saying "No" to this earth and "No" to this flesh. I knew when their "No" meant "No more." And I spoke their, "No's" for them. No extraordinary life-saving measures. No, do not resuscitate. No, release them. They want to die at home. 
 
I think about these Jehovah's Witness women and how they dared to say, "NO!" in defense of God. These women, despite what religion had done to them, took up for God. These women said, "No, we must feel sorry for God because God does not have a mother and God does not have a God Mother either. God aint never had a Big Mama hug God in her bosom so tight til God thought that God would choke on her Jean Nate. God aint ever had nobody to look up to. God aint never had a woman say “No, you gotta go through me to get to God.”
 
I think about these women who "No" spoke resistance. "No" to anyone who tried to take away the joy they eked out. No, you cannot have my Bobby Blue Bland, my Pokeno, my shoe collection, and no, you cannot keep me from gathering with my like. 
 
By saying “no,”  these women found a history whose face they could now get in, and with their hands on their hips, and their fingers in history’s face, assert their blackness and southernness, their womanness, their humanity, their right to vote, for equal rights, and for equal pay. NO! We deserve better than this! No, we held up our end of the bargain. We forgave.
 
Say "No,"girl. Say "No."
 
Because women who say "No" are not a concession stand. Aren't easily swayed. Aren't driftwood on the ocean. Or when they are on a bridge, they don't stop singing, "No, I aint gon let nobody turn me around."
 
"No" means, "I speak for myself"
 
"No" means "I gotta love myself a little more than I love you."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."
 
"No" was also "No thank you. 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."Say "No,"girl. Say "No."

I grew up in public housing. And the narrative about people who live in public housing is, that's where you send poor women and black women and 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, and when she said, "No, I am not ashamed to get assistance," she then chose welfare. Welfare didn't choose her.  And she chose Oakland Housing Authority, and she chose to live amongst women. Her "No" meant that she understood that the men who hurt her would have no voice in the raising of her children. She knew you couldn't have a father in public housing, because you couldn't have 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 sent. It was a place they went. 
 
There is a bridge that connects the women I come from who say "No!" with the women who are a part of this GLIDE Church Family.Say "No,"girl. Say "No."
 
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. No! I'm creaming the butter and the sugar. I am making chicory. 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."
 
Say No:
 
I will not do my job and his job. 
I will not let you chain me to this desk
I will not call my family and tell them I have to work late again.
I will not offer any more proof other than that I am overqualified because I am a woman.
I will not stop saying "No" to injustice
I will not go back, because we are this bridge, and it is time to cross it.
 
We know a woman's "No" is her highest faith stance. It is for her and not against anyone else.
 
I can hear the women I come from say, "No, I am a woman, and I will not sit here in this garden and not know how things grow. I will not sit around Eden getting fat and playing house with Adam. No, I am a woman before I am a companion. Adam was asleep on the job. I am the first contractor, and the first to push through the pain, the first through blood, sweat and tears, to give birth to movements. No, a rib and a womb aint the same thing.

Say "No," girl. Say "No."
 
Say No:
 
To the status quo.
To waiting your turn.
To only going forward when called.
To participating in everyone else's beauty standard.
To violence, at home, at school and at play.
To sharing the spotlight, and never being illuminated.
 
Say No:
 
This is not the way. My Woman Positioning System is never wrong.
 
Say No and assert and insert and insist that your needs get met. 
 
Say "No,"girl. Say "No!"
 
Because 
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, 
Or the Syro-Phoenician Woman, I have a name,
My name is Ann,
My name is Sarrah,
My name is Janice,
My name is Paula,
My name is Kaye,
My name is Vicky,
My name is Phyllis,
My name is Linda,
My name is Elmira,
My name is Bessie
My name is Margaret
My name is Tranishia,
My name is Annie,
No, my name is not COVID.
My name is my name.
And my name is a witness.

Say "No," girl. Say "No."
 
No, this is not a 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 how 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."
 
For 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
 
Do you remember that time
When he called,
And "He" is anything that pulls us from
Our womanhood
Our Sophia
Our Shekinah,

And "He" is anything that separates us
From the divine feminine
Old Wives Tales
Kitchen Table Wisdom
Life giving parts
 
Do you remember that time
We had been up cooking 
All night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off our forehead
And 
We 
Were 
Finally 
Ready 
To Eat 
 
And we said "No"