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Too Many Lights Going Out

Four deaths pose the question: Who are the role models for the next generation of African American women?

February 07, 1996|LYDIA A. NAYO | Lydia A. Nayo is an associate professor at Loyola Law School

If my mother is to be believed, Death has gotten greedy.

It is Ruth Fields' contention that death comes in threes. By that I have always taken her meaning to be that three similar sorts of people will die in succession: three movie stars, three close family members, three prominent African American women. So I accepted and grieved for the losses of Rosalind Cash, Toni Cade Bambara and Madge Sinclair. But the death of Barbara Jordan I took as evidence of greed, pure and simple.

In addition to feeling an emptiness in the world as a result of the loss of these accomplished women, I mourn the loss of professional role models. Death took Cash, one of the few mature African American actresses on daytime television, and Bambara, a writer of uncompromising clarity of vision and voice. Then Death reached out for Sinclair, an actress who demonstrated her range from "Roots" to sitcoms, and Jordan, one of the voices of political wisdom, reason and poetry from public life. They were women in the generation preceding me, whose lives answered "this" when I wondered what was possible for me. If not foremothers, they were at the least the wave on which I rode into my adult stride.

There are others, of course. Nancy Wilson and Aretha Franklin still are making music. Marion Wright Edelman is speaking about important things in a clear and cogent voice. Toni Morrison's next novel is eagerly awaited, as is the innovative work of Octavia E. Butler. A sister is in the Senate, albeit still a solo act.

I grew up watching my mother operate and knew, by 24, how to make a way out of no way, how to take four eggs and some flour and quiet the hunger of six children. And I had used her tricks, like breakfast food for dinner as an adventure rather than an economic necessity. But life had to be more than a creative struggle for survival. I found, in the public success of a diverse and constantly evolving constellation of African American women, stunning examples of how to strive. The astronaut, the opera diva, the poet laureate, the associate dean at my alma mater who had been my favorite teacher. I turn to the light of their various achievements whenever I leap forward. There are no law school professors in my background, so I reread "Beloved," watch Judith Jamison direct a dance, call Ginger to hear her assistant answer the telephone, "Dean's office." If they can do that, then I can do this.

My professional models were stars in the night sky of my dreaming of who I could be. It has been painful to experience the falling of four in less than two months. To be sure, I have developed more local heroes among my friends: Dorothy and Allegra, who are creating themselves as writers; Carol, who at 40 went to dental school; Sonali, who faced down a life-threatening illness with such dignity that I cried in gratitude when she survived; Emma, who spent a year in charge of the professional organization of law schools and invited Toni Morrison to address our annual meeting.

These deaths also cause me to think about my life. I am reminded of the six-month stretch while I was in law school during which my father, his brother and two of his sisters died. Beneath the loss and grief and shock was the sense of being truly grown and infinitely unready. I had become a member of the older generation of my family, and I still wasn't certain then what I wanted to be when I grew up.

If the accomplished women just a few years out in front of me are dying, retiring and otherwise taking their lights out of the galaxy of possible ways to be an African American woman on the cusp of the 21st century, who is the next generation looking to? How do they remind and reassure themselves that they can fly? That it is worth the effort to master algebra, practice another hour, finish high school, this term, the master's thesis? Am I--or are you--their evidence of the things they have not yet seen? Just in case, I have to keep at the work of my life.

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