Opalanga Pugh was a tall, elegant, wildly talented storyteller who could capture a large audience’s attention effortlessly. She was probably also the first black woman I ever saw.
In my most vivid memory of Opalanga, I am a kid, maybe ten, at a storytelling camp near Idaho Springs, Colorado. A group of thirty or so adults and I stand around chatting, on a break perhaps, and without warning a commanding voice rises over the hum of conversation. The group parts as if we had rehearsed it, and we find ourselves looking not at Opalanga Pugh but at a bent, aged but unquestionably powerful woman in a shawl: Sojourner Truth.
I can still see her in my mind’s eye, radiating conviction, and then that voice calling every one of us to account, saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” I have tears in my eyes now remembering her delivery of Truth’s historic speech as I did then hearing it for the first time. Children know something real when they encounter it. Opalanga introduced an entire world to me that day.
Until that performance, my ignorance of what it meant to be a person of color in this country was complete. Though I had likely been taught a few historical details, I didn’t consider the emotional impact of those experiences on the people who lived them, nor did I know much if anything about present day racism. White privilege was not a common term in the 1980s, but it was certainly my privilege to be ignorant of this history, not to have to live its consequences every day. It still is.
I am remembering Opalanga today because a student who attends the university where I work recently appeared at a party in blackface, and every student, staff and faculty member of color must be wondering, “When will you see that I am a person?” In other words, “When will you recognize my inherent divinity? When will you stop denying that our souls are inextricably connected?”
They must be asking with a depth of grief and anger that I will never fully comprehend.
Here is a poem for National Poetry Month from African American poet Lucille Clifton that, like Opalanga’s performance, opens up a world of joy and sorrow.
won’t you celebrate with me
By Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Note: There are multiple versions of the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
One thought on “When Will We See?”
I was blessed to meet Opalanga at a CO storytelling conference not long before she died. I too was moved by her presence, her voice, her smile, her truth telling. I can see you, a young girl at camp, waking up to racism and white privilege just hearing her Sojourner Truth. My awakening came at 16, 1967, during a summer AFS exchange to Malaysia where I lived with Muslims and attended school with Hindus, Buddhists, and Protestant Christian girls. As a homesick teen carrying a silent grief, my eyes and heart opened to diverse people, cultures, and faiths. The Catholic God of my childhood held me close though tears and gladness.
Civil Rights in America had been simply “the news” till then. Slowly understandings flooded me. Yet, it wasn’t till my 30’s when an inner city principal asked me to come share tales of Dr. King’s boyhood, that I witnessed his parents’ young lives, his Atlanta boyhood and teen experiences and then read of his own awakening to the power of organized civil disobedience. My suburban students and I studied these tales, witnessing the still-unhealed wound of racism. Thank you for this inspiring piece.