(Forward by Johanna Gabbard)
We met on a train, by chance. Her teenage son was sitting in my reserved window seat when I boarded the train for my day-long journey from San Jose to LA. I had just bought my new book, “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama. I was looking forward to the quiet trip along the California coastline, self-absorbed in my thoughts, my book and the serenity of traveling alone.
Just as I was about to inform the young man he was sitting in my seat, an African-American woman across the aisle spoke. She politely offered me the seat next to hers. “You can sit here if you like, or I can ask him to switch back. He really wants to sit next to his grandmother,” she said. I looked over at the young teenager who was unknowingly sitting in my seat. Content and comfortably peering out the window, and oblivious to my slight irritation, I accepted his mother’s offer. “Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s really not that big of a deal,” I said, trying to convince myself of my own words. I settled into my new seat, looked over at the woman, and said hello.
Her name was Reni Vaughn. She lived in Atlanta, Georgia, a 20-year transplant from Washington D.C. and was traveling for the Christmas holidays with her mother and son to Los Angeles. I know that because as soon as I sat down and pulled out my book, the conversation started, and it went on for the entire 9-hour train ride. It’s hard to say what stirs perfect strangers to begin to talk to each other. I thought it might be the topic of my book. Still, it could’ve easily been the tone of our hellos or even the energy we sensed by sitting close to each other. Regardless of why, we went with our blink and what followed was a fortunate stroke of serendipity. We talked for hours, laughing and reflecting as Reni occasionally checked-in with her mother and son to make sure they were okay. Our conversation seamlessly flowed from topic to topic. Each revelation sparked more curiosity and questions about relationships, race, family, wine, women aging and making connections.
As I neared my home town, we chuckled at how time and the beautiful scenery and ocean sunset had escaped us. We exchanged contact information. Connected by our similarities and intrigued by our differences, we vowed to stay in touch, which we did for the 18 months that followed.
This May, as humanity retracted into itself from the pandemic, the world watched as the social injustices of our black community were blatantly laid bare for all of us to see. The Black Lives Matter movement dominated the airwaves. The protests served to strip away the polarized sunglasses I’d been wearing all these years – forced to confront the reflective and blinding reality those lenses had served to shield. Reni looked different to me now, and I realized how little I knew about my friend and her life as an American in this America. I wanted to learn more about her story.
In January, I invited Reni to our Women, Wine, Stories and Sistership “She Tells She Tales” event. These events are sponsored by Sistership and are held throughout the year for the local community of women to gather around wine and stories and build authentic and meaningful connections. Storytelling is how we connect. Through stories, we communicate our humanness. They reveal our similarities and differences. Only by sharing and genuinely listening to each other’s stories can we build deeper and more compassionate understanding.
Our event was held virtually through Zoom on January 29, 2021. Over 40 women, half had never met before, tuned in from across the country. All were eager to hear the powerful stories of two amazing African American women, Reni and her friend Sharon-Jai Simpson Joseph, a poetic activist and founder of Wings Up Rising, A Social Good Practice. They shared their stories freely to total strangers. The strangers listened, they asked questions, they reflected. By the end, drawn in by the words, they were no longer complete strangers but connected by the shared emotions and humanness unveiled by the storytellers.
Thank-you Reni and Sharon for helping to build these connections and to Reni for graciously agreeing to share your incredible story.
“Why My Black Life Matters”
by Reni Vaughn
B – the BROKENNESS and the betrayal that I sometimes feel because my son doesn’t live with me and only visits on occasion. I’ve learned to accept that children come through you but don’t belong to you. They must be allowed to spread their wings and fly. Balancing peace in my life against the occasional bulldozing of surprises continues to challenge me. Because I love my son, I stiffen my back.
L – is for the LOSSES that I’ve experienced. Some so painful that they have brought me to my knees, broken my spirit, fractured my self-confidence, and have made me ask, “why me?” The most paramount being the brutal murder of my sister over 20 years ago. She was repeatedly stabbed to death by her husband. The local news covered the story. The community supported us. I even spoke about domestic violence at a rally at the national monument in Washington DC. Wearing my sister’s dress, my cousin, sister-friend, and I sat in the courtroom fighting to ensure he received the appropriate sentence. The dress is still in my closet. I eventually left DC because the pain was unbearable.
Last January, my dad passed away in a nursing home in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the father of over 20 children; most biological. It was difficult listening to him describe the right side of his body as “not working” and watching this stallion of a man broken down to an infantile state of being.
A – is for all of the ANGELS God continues to put in my life. First, my sister – who would wait for the nursery school bus to drop me off at age six. I was four, and she would ask me, “did anyone bother you today?” Second – all of my blood sisters, relatives, my other mother, and sister-friends. Some of you are on the call today. I believe that my sister is working through you. Thank you.
C – is for CHARTING my own course; despite my challenges, I keep moving forward or, as my mother says, “you gotta put your shoulder to it.” I want to note that my mother isn’t participating in this call because part of my story is also her story. The pain is too unbearable for her to hear. I understand – a mother’s pain cannot be measured in time or depth. And a mother’s tears could flood rivers.
K – is for the KINDNESS that I received from two very special ladies Johanna and Michelle, and their – “healing circle” of beautiful women in Southern California.
L – is for LOVE. Expressing it makes me feel vulnerable. I used to think vulnerability was a sign of weakness. Life has taught me that it’s ok to love, it’s ok to have your heart broken, it’s ok to heal, and it’s ok to love again and again. A good friend once said to me, “Reni, it’s ok to let people love you, girl!”
I – is for “all of those “ISMS” sexism’s, racism’s, classism, ageism that we have to deal with as women.
V – is for VAUGHN. My parents literally “chose” Vaughn from the telephone book, and my father randomly changed his last name to Vaughn just before I was born.
E – is for lending me your listening EARS. I promise to be gentle because words have power. So powerful that: on January 20, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman held the nation in her hands as she so eloquently described herself as “a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who can dream of becoming President, only to find herself reciting for one.”
S – Is for the SUN. Essential to my melanin skin. I feel most at home on the beaches of Jamaica or traveling throughout Africa. I was in my 20s when I took my first trip to West Africa. I recall walking along the beach thinking about our journey across the waters many years ago. I imagined being shackled, stacked person to person, lying in bodily fluids at the bottom of those ships. I felt the dichotomy between being a displaced African American who lives in America and visits Africa.
M – MASTERING the art of “savviness” in a world that doesn’t always embrace me for various reasons. Whether it be my sexuality (whatever) that may be at the time, my race, my dreadlocks or simply because my subjects and verbs don’t always agree. My kinky hair closes some doors but opens others. I’m embraced in a room full of “African centered, natural, sista-girls.” I run the risk of getting snubbed in a room of “black bourgeoisie.” That is until they realize I actually add value to the conversations or at least – a different perspective.
Aware of the odds stacked against my son, I made conscious choices and sacrifices. I intentionally and strategically charted his course. I made allowances for exceptional worldly experiences, enrolled him in elite private schools, and exposed him to various social circles.
A – anyone who makes the ASSUMPTION that because I’m a black woman my story includes a dysfunctional household, drug, sexual or physical abuse, imprisonment, a climb out of the ghetto or any other negative stereotype so often characterized as blacks in America.
T – is for a TRIP to TANZANIA to celebrate my 50th birthday. When I was 12, I promised myself that I would travel to two places at specific times in my life. At 40, I wanted to spend my birthday in Egypt riding a camel headed towards the pyramids. On my 50th birthday, I wanted to be in the Serengeti.
Years ago, a dear friend gave me one of her bull mastiffs. I named her “Serengeti” and groomed her to be a show-dog. After earning her AKC championship, she was bred with another champion and delivered one puppy named Solo. I’d like to mention, champion show-dog owners will only let you breed with their dogs if your dog also has a title. Females get really aggressive during breeding, so you must agree to IVF instead of a natural breed. Like most kids, Solo was the opposite of her parents and did not have the discipline for competition.
I never made it to Egypt. After two years of countless doctor visits, spending enough cash to purchase a high-end luxury vehicle, undergoing a couple of surgeries, and one round of IVF (something Serengeti and I had in common) at 39, I delivered my son. However, I did realize one of my dreams. I made it to the Serengeti. I planned an elaborate trip to Jamaica, Tanzania, The Serengeti, and Zanzibar. On my actual 50th birthday, I was sitting in the middle of the Serengeti— spreading both Serengetis and Solos ashes across the plane.
T – because I have a black son – TEARS fall from my eyes every time I hear about another black male child dying in the streets at the hands of a cop. I want to find comfort in the thought that because of the company my son keeps, he’s less of a target. He doesn’t sag, he’s articulate, and his friends are affluent. I also know those same attributes could be used against him by others who might think that he isn’t quite black enough.
E – I’ve EVOLVED from a timid, soft-spoken, nervous little girl into a proud, confident, full-bodied woman. I choose when I want to comfortably take up space in a room or sit quietly in a corner, observing. I am a woman who willingly and unapologetically embraces all of my life’s decisions.
Guilt is not a burden that I carry. I am a woman who is brave enough to retreat when necessary, vulnerable enough to seek comfort in my weakest of moments and sufficiently astute to decipher when to either knock down brick walls, go around them, climb over them or simply – Stop.
R – is for being “RENI” one who is courageous, complex, intentional and interesting as she may be.
My black life matters…
Taking a chance during the 2020 Covid summer, Reni visited her new friends in Ventura for her own Sistership adventure.