Over the last two months, I experienced three major events, all of which made me realize the significant influence my grandmother had in shaping my character, value system, and determination to live an authentic life.
These were powerful and impactful events that each made me pause and reflect: reflect on my life as a black woman in America—both the challenges and opportunities; reflect on my strength of character, which has allowed me to survive and thrive; and reflect on my ultimate responsibility to “pay my knowledge and understanding forward” to others, for the greater good.
Let me take a moment to introduce you to my grandmother. She was tiny—less than five feet tall and very small in stature. By occupation, she was a cook, a maid, and a seamstress, who worked for wealthy white families that lived on the beach. She took a bus to and from work each day, and I would go with her in the summers. In addition, she cooked a hot breakfast and dinner every day for my grandfather, and also fixed him his lunch to take to work. In her spare time, she tended her garden, canned jellies and jams; and hosted the church youth group “The Sunshine Club” at her house during the summers. For the most part, I only saw her during the summer, when we visited as a family. But—oh my gracious—did she have her hands in my life!
My grandmother was very religious, very disciplined, and very strict. Her life was not easy, but she was a woman of great faith, hard work, determination, love, service, and gratitude. She was a woman who served God, her husband, her family, and her church—in that order.
My Three Powerful Events
First: My Viewing of Hidden Figures
The first event was my screening of the movie Hidden Figures. Hopefully, you have been fortunate enough to see this movie. It is about three African American women who were instrumental in and critical to the first successful launch to the moon by the United States. They helped make it possible for John Glenn to walk on the moon and return home safely. This movie was absolutely phenomenal! I cannot explain the amount of joy I felt knowing that women, who looked like me, were indeed brilliant, determined, and successful in their careers. They were valuable contributors to our country’s rich history and glory, despite the blatant discrimination mandated by Jim Crow laws.
I can explain the absolute disappointment I felt knowing that knowledge of their triumph was hidden from all of us as Americans, especially those of us who could directly relate as African American women and girls, considering how this “humungous” historical fact did not make it into our history books. Where would myself and others be today, had we been made known of this type of role model when we were younger? This made me pause to reflect on what else we’re possibly unaware of as race and as a country.
Second: Attending the John O’Leary Half-Day Session
This event was absolutely life changing. John is a renowned author and speaker, who talks about gratitude, love, leadership, and “paying goodness forward.” What you may not know is that at age nine, John accidentally set himself on fire and burned over 100% of his body. He should have died. Instead, he not only survived and thrived, learning to play the piano and write, in spite of the severe injuries to his hands and fingers. John eventually went on to marry the love of his life, and became the father of four beautiful children. Now, he is also an international speaker, author, and entrepreneur.
During this session, John instructed us to take a moment to reflect on the one person who has had the most influence in shaping our character, to help us become the people that we are today. He asked us to team up and share, then asked us if we were paying this forward. This was a very powerful moment for me.
Third: My Experience at the 2017 Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit
Oh my goodness—I have never experienced anything like The Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in my entire life! It was three days with over 900 powerful, influential, successful CEOs, executives, and affluent black women. From Ursula Burns, chairman of Xerox, and Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine and Essence; to Elaine Welteroth, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, and Bozoma Saint John, head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes. And there were so many other amazing women in attendance as well, and their strength of character, leadership, vision, and determination, amounting in their varying successes, was just intoxicating. I walked out with a strong network and an even stronger sense of self. It made me even more confident that I could achieve anything and everything I put my mind to.
I walked out with a strong network and an even stronger sense of self. This year’s Women of Power Summit made me even more confident that I could achieve anything and everything I put my mind to.
Her “Hands on Me”
So, how do these three events relate back to my grandmother?
I realized, upon reflection, that I had, in fact, learned all of these powerful lessons from her, when I was a very young child. She had, in fact, had her “hands on me” for as long as I could remember, thereby shaping my life as it is today.
My grandmother taught me how to cook, to clean, and work hard. She taught me to how to be industrious with everything that I would come to have, and that “nothing comes from nothing”—anything worth having comes from hard work, discipline, and determination.
Her example taught me the value of serving others and “paying whatever I have forward,” because that was what God expects from those who are blessed. She taught me scriptures, loved me unconditionally, and she also told me and taught me that God and Jesus loved me even more. She taught me gratitude.
She taught me that I was black and in the South. Therefore, I needed to behave and stay out of trouble, because the world was not a safe place. She taught me about segregation, discrimination, and racism, but she also taught me that I had come from strong stock. She taught me that we were a people who had come from Africa and had been sold into slavery, but we had survived and would continue to survive and thrive.
My grandmother always let me know that she expected greatness from me, for I was surely destined to achieve whatever I put my mind to, despite what I did not have and did not know. She was always certain that I had been blessed with enough; I just needed to work hard, set my sights high, and keep living. She always knew that everything would work out, and I would be blessed with success, love, and a great life.
Ethel Earnestine Lockett was tiny but mighty! That is my grandmother’s legacy, and I’m fortunate to have always had these “hands on me.”
My Final Thoughts and Takeaways
We are all people, regardless of our origins and history. True, we have come from different places and diverse backgrounds, but we’ve all have participated in making this country great.
Now, we all have a responsibility to help each other become successful by “paying our blessings forward.” That way, we can all keep America great, and make it even greater for future generations.
This article was written by Rita P. Mitchell.