Like everyone else in the world, I’m still sipping Lemonade.
Beyoncé gone make me love her yet.
The cinematic and lyrical gorgeousness of her video album made me go to my prayer closet a few times, but one vignette pulled tears from my eyes. “Grandmother. The alchemist,” Beyoncé says. “You spun gold out of this hard life. Conjured beauty from things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kitchen.”
Now, everyone that has heard me talk knows I heavily reference my grandmother, Sara B. Barnett, “Nana Boo.” She is my Daddy’s Mama and Mary Jones’ and Phil Barkley’s daughter from Leary, Georgia. Nana Boo is J.C. Penney catalogue sharp every day. She is an educator, teaching in the Dougherty County School System for over forty years. Her favorite perfume is Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden. Nana Boo carried a switch in her purse but one look from her got some “act right” in your system. Nana Boo is the master of parasol shade whether it’s sunny or storming outside. If Christian Methodist Episcopal folks celebrated that sort of thing, Nana Boo would be the mother of the church. She doesn’t like people in her kitchen. There are verbal sparring matches over who gets the leftovers from her cubed steak, Rice-O-Roni, fried okra and cabbage. It is my favorite meal. Nana Boo does not slip. She does not play.
Nana Boo is my everything.
She introduced me to the front porch. When I was a toddler she laid me across her lap in our white porch swing under a country Georgia moon and pointed out the sights and sounds of the night. She points upward. “See? Moon.” I’d repeat, “Moon.” Her hand swept to the left and the right like she was wiping light into the dark sky. “Stars,” she’d say. “Stars.”
As I got older we still sat in the same swing, careful not to get the aging white paint on our clothes. Nana Boo didn’t point out the moon or stars, “though God is always around and watching,” she said, but I still took comfort in her voice when she told me stories. Nana Boo is the best storyteller I know. Stories tumbled out of her in vignettes and nostalgic sighs, they rose and fell to the rhythm of the squeaky swing. She told me about “the Broom Man,” a bewitching figure who folks around Leary said sold his soul to the devil and could make brooms dance. She’d laugh and tell me about how her mother, Ma Mary, would shuffle furniture from inside the house when it was time for her male “company” to get off the porch and go home. Her eyes twinkled and her cheeks blushed as she told me about how she accidentally made my Paw-Paw wait on her auntie’s porch for hours because she was out with her friends and forgot he was coming over to see her. “It was really cold that night and I felt so bad,” she said. I took her hand and kissed her cheek. She nodded and pulled me up from the swing so we could go into the house and wash the day off.
I know all of Nana Boo’s stories by heart. They bonded us. Her stories of her life as a country black girl helped shape my own. Storytelling for southern black women is is a special act of conjuring: calling upon the past to help set precedence in the present and future. Southern black women telling stories is a cross-generational act of witnessing, an active attempt to assert ourselves into a historical and cultural record. Most importantly, it is an act of love, whispering and passing down the work and deeds of brave, hustling, courageous black women otherwise swept into the corners of history.
Still, even the strongest conjurers find some stories too heavy to bear. One of the heaviest stories Nana Boo bears is the murder of her father. It is not my story to tell so I will not share it here. However, after finding my great-grandfather’s death certificate I noticed a name Nana Boo seldom mentioned. I knew the name Sarah because I knew that Nana Boo was named after her Daddy’s sister. But I knew little about my great-great grandmother, Anjaline Green. There were silhouettes of her in my mind because Nana Boo referenced her in passing conversations. I wanted to know her story.
“Nana Boo, who is Anjaline Green?” She stood at the kitchen sink washing collard greens.
“That was my Daddy’s mama,” she said.
“I know that. But was she from Leary, too?”
“Did you get to know her like I know you?”
The sound of sopping wet greens in a sink full of water stopped. Nana Boo turned to look at me with a raised brow. “Why?”
“I just want to know more about her.”
“You not gone put our business in that book you writing are you?” I was working on my dissertation at the time on a completely different subject but showed Nana Boo some of the stories and whatnots I’d been jotting down in the corner of notebooks. “You’ve always been a writer,” she’d say. Nana Boo proudly called herself the CEO of our family. That included making sure that we were always cast in the best and brightest light. I prop my head on my arms.
“No ma’am. Just being nosey trying to learn ‘bout our people is all.”
Nana Boo shook her hands of excess water and pointed at the fireplace. “My grandmother was dark as that fireplace,” she said. “She wore her hair in a tight bun on the top of her head and told you how she felt.”
“Like Ma Mary?”
Nana Boo smiled. “Sort of.”
“Did you get to know her well?” Nana Boo shook her head. She gave one more warning about keeping our business out of my writing and moved on to fussing about something else she heard on T.V. I tried on numerous occasions to do my own conjuring by continuing to bring Anjaline’s name up in other conversations with Nana Boo to get to know her. Nana Boo couldn’t or wouldn’t give me more information. My mind swirled with questions: did Anjaline say her name “Anja-LINE” or “Anja-LEEN?” Was she in love with Bill Barkley, my white great-great-grandfather? What kind of stories did she spin?
In my mind, Anjaline Green is legendary. Anjaline Green is the reason why storytelling saves black women’s lives. She’s bigger than this life and the next. Anjaline stomps through my mind with the rigor of Miss Sophia and the mouth of Shug Avery. She loves lace and loves herself. And, one day, I will connect our spirits in tangible ways. But for now, I jot her name in the corners of my notes and mind, hoping to create my own voice by giving her one.
She will not be left behind.