It was the middle of winter in Minnesota, one of its characteristically biting cold days. But I was uncharacteristically warm as I walked from photo to photo. The beautiful brown faces looked out at me, the poetry of their words slipping over me like a protective quilt.
The photos, collectively called "I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America," were on view at the Landmark Center Galleries in St. Paul in honor of Black History Month in February. Drawn from the book by photojournalist Brian Lanker, this exhibit features 75 portraits of African-American women.
Some are well-known--Oprah Winfrey, Lena Horne and Rosa Parks, to name a few--while others may not be household names, like Norma Merrick Sklarek, Clara McBride Hale and Jean Blackwell Hutson.
The black-and-white pictures bestow upon these women the dignity they deserve. Yet I've enjoyed the book even more, because each woman describes pivotal experiences in her life in a one-page sketch. All these women inspire me to dream. As an African-American woman, I understand that each has led the way for me to do so.
Still, there is someone who influenced me more than any of the women in Lanker's book. Her likeness adorns no museum walls. Her words do not appear in any book. Her name was Juristine Turner Neal. She was my grandmother.
Born in a small Arkansas town on Feb. 12, 1917, she was the first of 13 children. At age 17, she married my grandfather. In 1942, they settled in Minnesota; in Arkansas, only farming jobs were available for my grandfather, so he decided that they should seek greater opportunities in the North. They had 11 children whom she raised almost singlehandedly because my grandfather worked two jobs.
My grandmother became my legal guardian in 1969, after my mother died after a long illness. From that time on, she was both grandmother and mother to me. She was a bit strict and fiercely protective of me, her "baby." Sometimes she'd worry if I tried to venture out a bit.
In junior high school, my heart would pound when I would ask her if I could go to a slumber party. When it came to education, she was equally rigorous. She knew before I did what I was capable of academically.
Part of my voracious appetite for reading, no doubt, comes from my grandmother. She never attended college, but she had excelled in school and never stopped trying to improve her mind. She surrounded herself with tremendous amounts of reading material, primarily magazines and books. I think that part of my drive to continue my education stems from my grandmother's not having finished high school.
Recently, I've been struggling a bit, trying to balance my second year of graduate study with a part-time professional job. When I'm faced with a 20-page paper to write and four books to read all in one night, I naturally become upset. To try to calm down, I call upon my grandmother's credo: "Do the best you can do and that's all you can do."
I hadn't realized until now just how much my grandmother influenced my thoughts toward education.
She enrolled me in a predominantly white private school, which I attended from third grade through 12th grade. It was important to her that I receive the best education possible, so she struggled to send me to one of the best schools in the state.
If not for her confidence in me and her credo, I'm not sure that I could have gotten through the tough times: when I could feel the probing stares bore into my face whenever anyone mentioned slavery, or when I was asked if I were a "nigger" by a schoolmate, who smiled so angelically even as the word was spoken.
Her words lived within me; they pushed me to graduate from that high school. And though she'd never been through the process of choosing colleges, she helped guide me. Some of that guidance comes back to me at this time of year, as I watch a younger cousin trying to pick a college and tensely awaiting his acceptance letters.
There I was, overwhelmed by college brochures and guidebooks, all of which sounded ideal. My grandmother made me sit down and logically approach my search.
Why didn't I start by deciding whether I wanted to stay in-state or leave the state, she suggested. Though I knew that she secretly wanted me to stay near home, she avoided saying so.
She and I both worried about money to pay for college; we knew I would have to get financial aid. Still, she never pressured; she made me make up my own mind.
I finally calmed down a little and ultimately settled on Carleton College, a small, liberal arts college just an hour's drive away. I'd been so close to my family that I couldn't imagine moving too far away, yet I realized that more independence would definitely benefit me.
I was right. Carleton, overall, was a positive experience. And I did find financial aid, and know how important it is that that source of help not dry up for today's undergraduates.
When it came to choosing graduate schools, however, I could no longer rely on my grandmother. She'd died exactly one month after I graduated from college. Nonetheless, I plunged ahead, examining materials. I decided on the University of Minnesota because of its strong journalism program and because it was the best choice financially.
Being an African-American female graduate student at a predominantly white university definitely has its ups and downs, however. The small size of my department and exemplary quality of my professors make it a good place to be, yet being one of relatively few students of color can weigh heavily. Most of the time I'm very aware of being a chocolate chip in a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Often I wish I had a bit more of my grandmother's spunk. Never one to back down from saying her piece, she took up for me and anyone else whom she thought was being mistreated. "Say, listen," she'd preface her comments, in a slightly high-pitched voice that tended to command attention. But when I consider the dreams that my grandmother did not have the opportunity to fulfill, I summon the inner strength I need to stand up for myself.
My grandmother dreamed a world, and I guess I'm trying to fit in some of the pieces of that dream that she had no way to capture. She may not have changed America, but she changed the lives of those who knew her in our small universe.
Though she's missing a place on a museum wall and a page in a book, she'll always have a special place in my heart.