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Miz Culchure Lady.

I've seen her everywhere. Wearing her hats, walking and talking fast, taking care of business. No doubt, she is universal. And sometimes she is not a she at all, but a he of a certain nurturing, fostering, marshaling spirit. Keeper of the culture. Missionary and visionary. Making sure things are done "like they s'pose to be done." And sometimes, she is not walking at all, but in a wheelchair, or maybe sight-impaired. Often, she has silver hair; but she may be 21. One thing is for sure, we can always count on her. At least the children can, for they are the objects of her attention. Even the ones who think they're grown. She is about the business of "taking care."

I began to take notice of Miz Culchure Lady a few years ago when I traveled the state of Mississippi providing "technical assistance" to "emerging arts organizations." I'd arrive in some small town to consult with some dear soul who'd called or written my office in Jackson about the arts program she was trying to get going. Invariably, she'd tell the story. "Honey," she'd say, "we've got to get this arts program going, just got to. |Cause these girls are getting pregnant every which way you turn, and the boys, they ain't doing nothing but hanging out and getting mixed up with that ole dope. The trouble is they don't know nothing 'bout who they are, their history, or nothing, |cause they don't teach that in these schools no more.' She was consistent, predictable, and so like all the stewards of our communities we've ever known.

After a while, I began to know I'd seen her before. All my life, I'd seen her. She was the one who'd get us kids together and rehearse and rehearse us 'til Mother's Day or Easter or whatever day it was, we'd stand up before the whole church and recite those little speeches and rhymes so well that our parents would nearly burst with pride. I'd seen her directing the school choir, teaching children how to plait the May pole, and directing God's Trombones." She might pinch your ear if you didn't do it right. |Cause she said she was about "the pursuit of excellence," and you'd better be too. She had her yard planted with every kind of flower there was, and if you'd go over by her house, she'd tell you the name of every bloom and make you tell them back to her.

She was the old folks who sat on porches rocking on warm evenings and telling you the stories of everybody there ever was that was kin to you and all those that ever lived in your town too. Talkin' |bout cultural literacy, you could sure enough get a solid education from those old folks. You could tell by the intonation of their voices in the telling of the story how to place this or that particular story in your legacy of heroes and heroines. Then again, there she was in the pulpit, particularly the one at that church where people get "happy," that preacher who'd roupd his voice all up and down and do that rhythmic little "a ha!" cough between the lines of his poetic oratory, tellin you the stories.

She was often the girl's basketball coach and the boy's baseball or football coach making you exceed what you ever imagined your inept body could do. And that teacher whose room had every positive visual image she could find jumping off the walls at you. She made the quilt on my bed. She was my mama sculpturing the meringue of her lemon pie and telling me in a whisper with her eyes sparkling through squinted lids how you got to do it just so. That was her too that we called "strange," because she fixed up those funny teas and little cloths of leaves and told your mama how to treat you with them. Just like that was her painting pictures about our town and sometimes painting them all over the neighborhood on buildings and things, and him whittling creatures on walking canes, and those other ones who collected odd things and decorated their mantles and porches and yards with them.

Of course, I'd seen her all my life. And in the '60s, too. Oh, did she get sassy then. Wearing wraps on her head and swirls of colorful cloth around her hips. And dashikis. And afros, too. Drumming on street corners. When things got tense, she'd sing a little made-up song that sounded just like an old church song. Or read a poem about how we've got to "rise up" and be self-determining, and how we are from an ancient and proud people. She strutted up and down every street in this land, in Washington, D.C., too, and those narrow roads in Alabama all the way to Montgomery. They called it a cultural movement that was hand-in-hand with the Civil Rights Movement.

The dogs didn't stop her. The seas of blues with their billy clubs and guns - they couldn't stop her. Then they sent the programs with government monies and gave her jobs in Headstart and Community Action. And did she do a job.

She took those programs and made something out of nothing. Seldom did she do what they wanted her to do. For she was keeping the culture and minding the storehouse of traditions and wisdom. So little by little they took back the programs. But that didn't stop her either. Evidently, she is eternal. Always was and always will be. She was "taking care" along the Nile, too, from the beginning.

And she is still everywhere. Today, she can often be found doing childcare while the mamas and daddys are off to factories and mills, offices, and post offices, teaching and bus driving constructing buildings and tearing them down, policing and soldering, unemployment lines and welfare lines. She is taking care of the future. Sometimes she's on those jobs herself, a doctor, a teacher's aide, running some little shop. Quite often she's in the heat of things.

She is there when the Mississippi catfish workers strike; she is organizing against fisherpeople getting landlocked in South Carolina; she is in the middle of political battles in Louisiana; she is teacher and parent going up against the school board in Alabama. Occasionally, she is a name and a face on television. But mostly, she is the nameless, faceless.

It is quite appropriate that she is doing "the arts," for they have always been among her tools and tactics. You can find her in art centers in the heart of inner-cities and cultural programs on the Main Streets of one-street hamlets. Yet these are uneasy and tenuous places for her. She is confronted by funding hassles, policies, and guidelines, deadlines that work against her community's timetable, and critics who know nothing of what she is about yet want to judge whether she is doing "good art" or not. Her predicament is one of justifying the holistic keeping of the culture and the functional use of art for people's sake in an arena that understands and rewards art for art's sake. She lives under the threat of unfunding and displacement.

But none of that has stopped her yet. She is still everywhere, telling the children who they are and who it was that came before to make a way for them. It is her mission. Well, as for me, as long as she is "taking care," and we are singing those songs, beating the drums, speaking our orations, reading our poems, painting our pictures, making meringues, planting flowers, and strutting our stuff, I will believe that somehow, no matter what they throw at us, we're gon' make it over. Yeah, we're gonna make it.
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Title Annotation:Section 1: Black South Culture; Afro-American woman living African culture
Author:Watkins, Nayo Barbara Malcolm
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1299
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