Editor’s Note: This piece is excepted from a speech Ellen Sweets made for Women’s Day in Austin, Texas. Her words are more timely now than when she composed it.
I’ve steered clear of discussions about abortion because I find the topic so frustrating — mainly because I completely fail to understand how a woman’s decision to have or not have a child is hers and hers alone. Nobody else’s.
We’re never going to be rid of women who need abortions and / or doctors who will perform them.
Let me tell you a story. Come back in time with me. Join me on one of my periodic visits to St. Louis. We’re in my 86-year old mother’s kitchen. I’m drying dishes and somehow we got off on how I wished I’d had a sister, and she’s telling me why she couldn’t have managed four children.
Then my mother started on why she has always given to certain nonprofits like the NAACP and Planned Parenthood.
“Really?” I asked. “Why?”
“Because,” she replied, continuing that it was so she could have a safe abortion.
I almost dropped the glass I was drying.
She and my father had only been married a few months in the 1930s and they agreed it was too soon to start a family. A surgeon friend — who became my godfather — took care of it, as they used to say.
While we’re in St Louis, let’s ride bicycles over to Emily Brown’s. It’s the 1950s. Emily was the youngest of three sisters.
Mrs. Brown opens the door and walks away, barely speaking. We walk through the house into the back yard where we sit and visit, unaware that Opal, the middle sister, is in her bedroom bleeding to death from a botched abortion.
Fast forward a decade or two. In 1970 I walked to the office of a well-known abortion provider but chickened out. I carried my daughter to term. She was a surprise child, given the fact that years before an accomplished surgeon told me my endometriosis was so severe I could never have children. Turned out he wasn’t as goddamned accomplished at fortune telling.
But never mind. My daughter became a dancer, a chef, and a Columbia University honors graduate, and is now a data analyst in geophysics. So that’s pretty much it.
Thank y’all for walking with me. Our St. Louis journey is over: So, let’s come back to Austin.
I’m accompanying a darling young woman to her procedure. She was a student with goals and aspirations. She wanted children; just not then. I sat and waited for her. When it was over, she was a little pale around the gills but otherwise ok. She is now happily married with two gorgeous children and a wonderful husband.
What is the thread that ties these women together, from the 1930s to the 1950s, 1970s and the 21st century?
One was fortunate to have well-to-do friends; one was unfortunate enough, to not know a competent surgeon. The third had access to a safe, medical procedure, and is a wonderful mom.
The battle to achieve safe abortions isn’t about to be over just because narrow-minded politicians and judges want to tell us what to do with our bodies.
We will win the war against women. We will do it in Opal’s memory; we will do it in celebration of a courageous student and in tribute to a gutsy woman, my mother, one tough broad who died at 97.
We will win this war because we are fucking unstoppable.
Years ago, just for spite, the night city editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sent me to cover Sen. Robert Dole’s keynote opening of the Young Republican National convention in downtown St. Louis. The regular political reporter was stranded on a highway and couldn’t get back into town from wherever he lived in the suburbs.
I said “for spite” because the editor knew I was a left-of-center Yellow Dog democrat. He also knew I’d arrived at work in my usual summer Saturday night uniform: thong-sandals, raggedy Levi’s, halter top, no bra, no makeup. Only homicides, fires, and fatal carcrashes happen on Saturdays.
Did he send my desk mate who had at least worn a shirt and skirt, perfectly acceptable attire for a Republican confabulation of rising creeps?
No. Send Sweets, looking like a refugee from a bad trip at Burning Man. And of course hotel security intercepted me the minute I walked into the lobby, clearly befuddled when they saw my press credentials. I knew for a fact the ladies who worked that lobby dressed a whole lot better than I presented.
Upon arriving at the auditorium, I had to get past local cops and two feds, none of whom believed I was a real reporter. Finally I found a seat, ignoring stares from fresh-faced young men with expensive haircuts, dressed in blazers, starched shirts, ties, and loafers with tassels.
After nearly freezing while sitting through a speech that seemed to go on forever, in an auditorium where the AC was set to Arctic, I breathed relief when the senator wrapped, posed for photographs, and began to exit up the aisle where I now stood — primed to pounce.
As Sen. Dole got closer, I raised my notebook and called his name. He turned, and started to say something as one of his bodyguards stepped between us.
“…I was too badly dressed to be a Republican or a hooker.”
I called his name again and this time called out my name and that of the Post-Dispatch. At least he recognized the fact that I was too badly dressed to be a Republican or a hooker.
He got to where I stood, extended his hand, and said, “You must be freezing. Let’s talk in the lobby.”
And we did.
Senator Dole answered all of my questions and then asked about me — whether I was from St. Louis and how long I’d been a reporter. I apologized for my casual attire, explained who was supposed do the interview instead.
He in turn shared an anecdote about a time he had to make speech and spilled water on himself en route to a reception and decided to pretend nothing had happened. We continued to just chat. Every now and then I’d interrupt to ask if it was ok to use what he was saying, and he’d say yes.
And I ended up with a 1A story in Sunday’s paper. It was below the fold, but hey, not bad for an underdressed, Yellow Dog Democrat who conducted a perfectly enjoyable 30-minute interview with one of the most powerful Republicans at the time.
For a year, except for carefully calibrated trips to the doctor or dentist, I truly was happy in my little 680-square-foot apartment. I considered it a variation on a theme of Michael Cohen’s house arrest.
I cooked for a very small circle of friends. I shared a pod of sorts with a neighbor who has become a dear friend. I’ve become a kind of surrogate grandmother to her 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. I’ve even dog-sat for Khan, their 12-year-old mixed-breed something or other.
For exercise I swam when and where I could, walked from my tiny abode to the trash room–and—if feeling ambitious, all the way down to the cavernous 1st floor mail room.
To bide the time I did what others across the country did and watched tv, read new and old books, raged at right-wing Republican callousness, and spent ridiculous time on the phone. I was already hopelessly addicted to Facebook. . . .
And then it happened.
But to understand this bizarre event, we must step back a moment in time.
My daughter, who lives about 1500 miles away, gave me an exotic violet plant for Mother’s Day in lieu of joining me for lunch or brunch on this made-for-the-day, outrageously expensive, meal.
I was so moved I vowed not to kill it as quickly as I have caused the demise of its predecessors—including cacti.
I read up on the care and feeding of African violets. I bought violet food, read and reread the instructions. I consulted with friends who were gardeners. I positioned my gift so it got just enough light.
It rewarded me by not dying.
In time little leaves got bigger. Biden got elected. Vaccines hit the market, and free vaccinations were decreed for all. Being of a certain age, I met Moderna reasonably early in the game — on the first day of March to be precise.
About that same time, something magical happened: the violet bloomed. I almost cried. I took pictures from different angles and sent them to my kid.
Calling upon my great gift for creativity and imagination and as a sign of great joy and gratitude, I named my blooming plant “Violet.”
That’s when things got strange.
I took to talking to Violet, which I know some won’t think odd because they talk to their plants too.
But Violet starting talking back.
She became annoyed even if I apologized for leaving her to start dinner.
Things then took a really dark turn: carrots, celery, onions and garlic got snippy about spending unnecessary time on the chopping board. “Either you’re going to make Bolognese or not,” huffed the thyme and oregano.
I had recently fallen under the spell of Stanley Tucci in Italy, a country I’ve been trying to visit for years. When I had the time, I didn’t have the money. When I had the money Covid crept in — hence the vicarious visit to Bologna.
But I digress.
Just as I was halfway through dicing a yellow onion, a plaintive voice from across the room whined, “I’m thirsty.”
I realized I had originally stopped to visit Violet to check the soil and to water her.
A smart aleck garlic clove whispered to the carrot, “This sauce will never get made. Y’all might as well go on and wilt.”
“I heard that,” I snapped, then glanced furtively from side to side, as though fearing someone in the empty apartment might hear me and not the gabby flora.
When my brain stopped sizzling and the circuits readjusted themselves, I realized I was having a post-lockdown, pre-freedom episode. I was beginning to experience short-termer hallucinations.
And then the call came.
Moderna #1 was scheduled, and, in short order, done. Thirty-four minutes, in and out, including the prescribed 15-minute wait.
In 28 days Moderna #2 would occur, and after 20-some hours of abject misery and a 10- or 16-hour wait, I’d be free to move about the cabin. The light at the end of the tunnel would not be an oncoming train.
I would soon cast off jeans and t-shirts, trading them for girly girl clothes. I’d don my favorite green, linen dress and the handcrafted copper-and-beaded earrings that look like little pea pods and hope like hell they didn’t start a conversation.
Despite efforts to the contrary, I, too, succumbed to the Meghan & Harry interview with Her Royal Highness Might-As-Well-Be Queen Oprah.
Like any other nosy reporter, I watched with the same morbid curiosity with which one unwittingly slows when passing a multi-car highway pileup, hoping there are no fatalities but wanting to see nonetheless.
And there it was: the probing questions, the near-tearful replies, when suddenly there came the big one. No, not whether or not a child would be sufficiently melanin-deficient, the one about how much Meghan knew about The Royals before that long walk down the aisle.
And Meghan’s answer? Not much.
How is that possible? Four decades ago, when I married and moved to England, my husband and I settled in the then-sleepy university town of Leicester. He was in the social-sciences faculty, and I snagged a secretarial spot in the biochemistry department. I tried, but I was a lousy typist, and multisyllabic scientific jargon wasn’t my strong suit.
By then husband Eric had schooled me about how best to adapt to British ways. Learning a new English language and unconventional spelling was hard. I lasted five years.
I also managed to get fired from my second job as a copywriter for an advertising agency. While reviewing a page proof with the owner, I felt a hand creeping up my thigh between my legs and before I could think about it, I smacked the snot out him, simultaneously shrieking a very un-British, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
My third job, at Leicester’s Little Theater, paid considerably less, but was a dream— answering phones, managing auditions, rehearsals, and performance schedules. Alas, that job ended when my father had a heart attack, and I returned home to St. Louis.
” . . . you’re either in, or you’re out.”
Fitting into a foreign culture is challenging at best. It can be done, but it isn’t easy; you’re either in, or you’re out. There really isn’t much middle ground even when going ostensibly from one English-speaking country to the next. The relocation becomes even more daunting when royal titles and protocols enter the mix. Still, it can be done.
And it can be problematic for anyone. For those who can remember, it was initially tough for Grace Kelly who married into royalty at 26 — and she was white!
Yes, she surrendered her autonomy, but it was the ‘50s, a very different time. She married Prince Ranier of Monaco and kept her counsel from then on. I repeat: it can be done. But as we also know, things can be quite different for someone who is not white.
Not everyone can play the game. But once a decision to subscribe to the historically anachronistic norms of British royalty, it should be honored, even in the 21st century. We must also remember, we’ve viewed Meghan’s distress through the prism of one long interview and a notoriously aggressive British press, and one not always enamored of the monarchy.
Truth is we don’t know what really goes on in the House of Windsor.
All of this is to say I don’t want to hear any more of the Harry and Meaghan pity party. Being uprooted happens every day — admittedly not always from urban cool to a castle — but one thing is certain: it simply isn’t possible not to experience culture shock.
M&H purportedly want to get off the grid and live simple, normal lives. So, what better way than to participate in a two-hour interview seen around the world with a woman so influential she can go by one name?
(If Oprah really wants to snag by a hot interview, let’s pivot to another member of the royals: let her probe Prince Andrew about his dalliance with Nazi uniforms and perverse fun aboard Jeffrey Epstein’s yacht.)
It’s absolutely understandable that M&H want out that nonsense, but if they want to live their lives in privacy, why come to Los Angeles where the whole point of LA is visibility?
Why a multimillion-dollar mansion?
In 2021 does any sane person really care about who in the performative monarchy think of the melanin content of the new baby’s skin, when more than half of this nation’s states are trying to legislate Blacks and Browns out of their voting rights?
When Asians are being targeted by a vicious corps of nitwits?
When Mississippi and Michigan still don’t have decent drinking water?
When an idiot in Texascan’t manage a pandemic and an ice apocalypse because he’s wrapped in an ongoing flirtation with Trumptopia?
I’m periodically capable of being as shallow as the next person; after all, I did watch the Oprah interview from beginning to end. But the whole time I thought about that other cinematic beauty, and how she managed her marriage to a prince — all the while knowing that things that come hard for white people always come harder for nonwhites. It can drive a person to considering suicide.
All said, I wish Archie, Harry, Meghan, and baby Windsor the best of everything.
But please don’t make us watch if it turns out there’s no fairy-tale ending.
These days, when tired of reading, writing, calling, and binge watching, I turn to the kitchen. But when I do cook, I do not bake. I’m one of those who could screw up Duncan Hines; I stick with what I know I can do: cook. It is my most serious, absolute, and unequivocal commitment to domesticity. Dust bunnies don’t bother me nearly much as a deficiency of butter, Herbes de Provence, or Old Bay.
I can cook on a generous budget, a low one, or an almost-no budget. I once threw a party for a group of reporters from 11 countries. I set a buffet table representative of each visitor’s culinary tradition, almost all by myself. Took three days. Loved every minute of it.
I cook when I’m happy, sad, or, worst of all, angry. There’s something frighteningly satisfying about holding a well-sharpened 8-inch chef’s knife and pretending you’re severing vital body parts from a miscreant, or, on one memorable occasion, a malevolent manager.
There I was, fresh from food stamps and five months of being unemployed, but now comfortably ensconced in a fabulous job in a Fortune 100 company — but with an incompetent bully for a supervisor. She immediately endeared herself by advising that I was so lucky to have been hired; that I had a very demanding, responsible job; and she would be watching me carefully to see if I measured up.
All the while I’m nodding, smiling, and thinking Who the fuck does this bitch think she’s talking to, her 6- year-old niece? It’s difficult to not react under such patronizing circumstances, especially when you’ve moved with from the Midwest to the fast-paced East coast — and you’ve been unemployed for five months . . . !
Then, as if to confirm my worst suspicions, the shrew relocated an office mate I was just getting to know to make room for another new hire: a Chinese woman whom I came to admire and respect. Our supervisor thought we would be “happier” together.
(Did I mention we were the only two minorities in the department’s writing group?)
That’s when I started keeping daily notes of what was said and done. The snide comments. The nitpicky edits that occasionally were made for no reason other than personal preference. Not to mention edits that changed meaning from right to wrong. I hadn’t experienced bullying since seventh grade, and this woman had elevated it to an art form.
After a day of unadulterated nonsense, I went home and fired up all burners. Boiled eggs for a tuna salad. Made a spaghetti sauce with tons of sliced mushrooms. Chili. Macaroni and cheese went into the oven. Chopped salad to go with whatever got done first.
Imagination went into overdrive. Slice carrots, her neck. Dice celery, amputate arms. Chop green onions, off with her legs. Cut a tomato, off with her head.
At one point my daughter peeked into kitchen with the gentle query, “Rough day at the office, huh?” She turned and quietly returned to her room. “I’ll just get something later,” she said as she closed the door to her room.
Meanwhile, back at the office, the browbeating and penny-ante criticisms continued unabated. OyKue — who held two masters degrees, one in biochemistry and the other in technical writing —eventually resigned. I took my notes to EEOC after reporting my “concerns” to HR.
It took a while, but in the best corporate tradition, instead of being fired or encouraged to retire, the bully was transferred to a corporate conference center in Princeton. She went from supervising a staff of 40 to an office with one assistant: a retired U.S. Marine drill sergeant who just happened to be a black woman.
In time I invited the drill sergeant to dinner to thank her for her service.
I pulled out all the stops: salmon on toast points with shallots and caviar; Boston lettuce salad with a lemon vinaigrette; braised short ribs in a wine sauce; baby new potatoes; buttered asparagus; key lime tarts for dessert.
Hearing stories recently from so many young black men and women picked at emotional scabs from invisible wounds accrued over the years. We — meaning black Americans — are remarkably adept at rising above slights and insults, deliberate and unintended. Over 400 years resilience has been built into our DNA.
We’ve become adept at seeing bigotry for what is, navigating it, and moving on.
Like the time my brother was taken to an expensive dinner by three New York Times hotshots who were interested in him as a staff photographer. Fred enjoyed the hospitality, ate with all the right utensils, said all the right things, and parted amicably from the power trio.
Fred, who was already a photo editor with Associated Press, had driven up to The Big Apple from D.C. for the interview. He was waiting for the valet to bring his car around when a smartly dressed male Caucasian pulled up to the valet station in a BMW, tossed Fred the keys and asked that his sassy car be parked carefully, noting the probability of a generous tip.
Fred assured the man that he would tend to it right away and put the keys — there were several — in his pocket. Fred’s car came around, and he and the keys were soon off on his return to the nation’s capital. We laughed bittersweet laughter. Fred too had been nattily attired, right down to Italian loafers with tassels.
Among too many personal experiences in my time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one incident stands out in particular.
As an accommodation to White Flight in the late 1950s, rapacious developers built houses 90 miles a minute in South St. Louis County where blacks were historically excluded.
What they didn’t tell all-too-willing buyers was the fact that the houses were built in a 100-year flood plain. Unfortunately no one checked to see where new residents were in that crucial century.
Turns out it was the bad part.
When the rains came they were merciless. Skinny rivulets became mighty streams; lazy streams roared to life; the Mississippi’s banks overflowed. Cars were swept away. People drowned.
One of them was the son and only child of a couple who had bought one of those houses. The boy had wandered down to the stream he knew so well to see what it was doing. What it did was snatch him up in an unanticipated torrent and deposit him in a treetop a half-mile down. When the flood subsided firefighters found his body tucked among the branches. I was dispatched to write the story.
“Cars were swept away.
Nothing like a double shot of vodka with orange juice, toast, and scrambled eggs to calm pre-interview jitters. The parents were understandably distraught. I sat in the kitchen with the mother as she peeled carrots, then potatoes. When the father came home he joined us.
He talked about how his son loved that spot by the stream. At last the father buried his face in his hands and sobbed. “If I’d known something like this would happen I’d have stayed with the niggers,” he said. His wife continued peeling potatoes.
I closed my notebook, declined the invitation to stay for dinner, expressed condolences and thanked them for their time. Once in the car, I burst out laughing. I figured right about the time I got to the highway, the wife was turning to her husband and asking “What did you just say to that reporter?”
Chastising a father who is mourning the death of his only child, a son, would have been out of place; he’d already been through enough. My job was to get a story. I did. But when the laughter subsided, the wound remained.
So don’t ever, ever ask a black person whether he or she is angry, unless you really want the answer. The Ivy League, Seven Sisters; the PhD, the DDS, the MFA — none of it matters to still too many out in the real world.
I’ve heard passengers say that if they’d known the flight captain was black they’d have taken a different flight.
I once met a black female navigator on another flight who said she’s always the last off because some passengers assume she’s somehow less competent.
Unless we capture the moment now, the time for honest conversation about race might not come again peaceably. And it’s only meaningful if we’re honest with ourselves. No big convocations need be called. Make a lunch date with someone of color — not necessarily to talk race relations, but to have a conversation with another human being who is not like you.
Don’t tell me you were raised by a black housekeeper who was just like a member of the family unless you never called her by her first name; unless the kids played together; unless you shared Thanksgiving; went to Six Flags together. Unless you can have a conversation about race without apology, brace yourself. It’s a learning curve for all of us.
I share these tales not to guilt anyone, but to ask for awareness that our congeniality often masks a lifetime of sleights that are unique to us. The Irish and Africans are the only ones whose ancestors came to America involuntarily. Know American history. All of it. I often refer to White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Learn about Irish slaves brought to America by Brits.
We grow up knowing about great white scientists, authors, statesmen and composers, but how many know of Grant Still, Crispus Attucks, Ethel Payne, Percy Julian, Mamie Phipps Clark, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?
We’ve come a long way from being denied education to being, as some like to say, over-educated — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Meanwhile, we’re at a tipping point.
Jesse Jackson used to say that we might have come over on different ships, but that we’re in same boat now.