Jeff Smith’s Book Release Event “A People’s History of Grand Rapids”
A Reflection for Women’s History Month
Our Stories and Conversations with Her:
by Cathy Cunningham
The very word “History” suggests in our
society that it is the stories of men that take
precedence over anyone else’s stories in society.
That begs the question as to why there aren’t
required classes in school called “Herstory,”
“Their-story,” or even “Our-story” rather than
“History”. I would have liked to have taken
herstory, their-story or our-story classes in grade
school and high school. I did take gender
studies in college, but it was not a requirement.
And why do I bring this up?
As we celebrate, Woman’s History Month in
March 2023, I have realized that it has only
been through conversations with my
grandmother, my mother, and other women in
my life, in oral form, that my eyes have been
opened to stories that I did not know…stories of
women that have not been told or recorded in
our culture and society. For instance, several
years ago, my mother and I went to see the film,
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, at Woodland
Mall. I.G.E recently had a showing of this film
in the past year. After watching that film, I had
a conversation with my mother that I probably
would have never had if we hadn’t watched that
film together. She told me that in the seventies,
she secretly went to a few consciousness
awareness meetings for women. She did not tell
my father. After having been raised Catholic,
and still a practicing Catholic, she also shared
with me her struggles of conscience about
whether she ought to use birth control or not. As
a young mother, I’m sure these thoughts were
prevalent, because she first became a mother in
1963, two years before the ground-breaking
legislation, Griswold vs. Connecticut, 1965,
passed, which granted women the opportunity to
have more control over their bodies by being
allowed to use contraceptives.
Since my mother grew up in the fifties,
women’s primary roles still consisted of just
being wives, mothers, and homemakers.
Although my mother worked for the phone
company before marriage, and she taught piano
and religious education in the seventies, it
wasn’t until the eighties that she started working
outside of the home on a full-time basis. I also
once asked my grandmother if she had ever had
a job. She said before she was married, she had
a job at a department store, inspecting
Why is it so important to know these
stories? I often ponder what careers and what
opportunities women in previous generations
might have had without societal gender role
restrictions. However, women have come a
long way, haven’t we? Most of us work outside
of the home on a normal basis. Still, there
remains many stories that have not been told
and glass ceilings that have not been broken.
Although there are more women in leadership
roles in government, or working as CEOs and so
forth, they are a minority. Women still do not
on average earn equal pay with men. The
struggle to treat women in the military
respectfully without fear of sexual harassment
or assault continues. Although the MeToo
movement has quieted down, the struggle to
escape harassment goes on. The recent
overturning of Roe vs. Wade has put the debate
over women being able to have control over
their own bodies, and child-bearing decisions in
Recently, in one of the HULU documentary
version episodes of Nikole’s Hannah-Jones
book, The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones
discussed the differences in opportunities
between her white, male grandfather, and her
African American grandmother. By sharing this
personal story, she made the point that her
grandfather had more opportunities open to him,
because of his gender and race. So, it happens
that when women of color continue to have
conversations with female relatives of color, it
opens their eyes to the disparities not just in
gender, but also with race in this country.
Overcoming these obstacles becomes that much
harder. Finally, I have been lucky to have
conversations with other women with
disabilities. I have a mild physical disability
myself. In these conversations, we discuss how
being a woman and having a disability can lead
to more battles for gaining education and
finding opportunities of gainful employment.
For a woman of color with a disability, it can be
that much harder to have doors of opportunity
As we celebrate Women’s History Month
and achievements in 2023, it’s important to still
discuss our stories and obstacles for living full
lives. It can be easy for younger generations to
take the opportunities and freedoms we have as
women for granted. Part of celebrating women’s
month vitally includes having conversations
with each other and acknowledging our journeys
in the past, present, and future. We can all
learn from each other by having conversations
with each other and with women from before or
during the greatest generation, the silent
generation, the baby boomers, Gen-X, Gen Z
and in generation after generation. This reminds
all of us of where we’ve been and how we must
continue to fight for freedom over our own
bodies, our lives, and our stories.
Hog May Epiphanies
Hog Maw Epiphanies
January 1, 2023
Sharecropper picking cotton in North Carolina, 1939. Photo from Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990.
“Mama and Daddy were farmers in Tennessee,” my friend shared, as she watched her mother wash out the makings for chitlins. “Mama misses this food. She was very excited to come to the farm.” My friend, her mother, and the family matriarch all came to my farm, Sandhill, for Hog Day. The family had a wealth of recipes that could make use of every part of a hog: parts of the hog that as people of privilege, my family had never tasted or bothered to do anything with, other than throw into the bone pile at the back of the Sandhill acreage.
“We moved up from Tennessee when Daddy bought some land in Michigan outside of South Haven,” she continued. “Gran’ma and Mama miss Tennessee, but Mama mostly misses farming. She never liked the city.” I asked what kind of farming her parents did in Tennessee.
“Cotton, mostly. Ha-a-rd work on the hands.”
“Was it your parents’ land, or were they sharecroppers?” I asked. The matter-of-fact response cut me to the quick. My friend stated that her parents were sharecroppers on the same land for quite some time.
“Finally,” she said, “it got too hard on us to stay there. You see Gran’ma is lighter-skinned; my mama is darker. After a while, it was clear that Great-Gran’ma and Gran’ma was forced by the owner of the land.” She looked at her impeccably dressed and remarkably put-together grandmother and said:
In Tennessee, if you owned the land, you believed you still owned people’s bodies. That landowner was just too much for my mama and daddy to live with. The whole family resented the fact—and it wasn’t really talked about with us kids. But we figured things out as we grew up.
Reparations of any sort show intent to recognize the trillions of dollars of financial benefits received from slavery and Jim Crow policies, prison labor, and forced segregation. But for repaired relationships to occur, people of European descent must see that the only repair that needs to occur is the repairing of our own souls.
I had met my new friend serendipitously: one of several new friends I met because I was weary of farming and discovered that a close friend’s band was playing in Grand Rapids. I thought it was an opportunity to visit and introduce two of my grown children to the punk music scene. While talking with Commie Scott before the concert, I told him about my farming and how I used the land, animals, and other resources to move forward the concept of using privilege to engage in reparation payments.
I explained my thinking to Commie Scott. I have land and experience with animals, and I know how to butcher. Twice annually, I provide chicken and pork that I raise and butcher at my own expense to African Americans: descendants of enslaved people. They are a people whose very humanity was betrayed and stolen by my ancestors, who regularly engaged in and supported the policies and religious values of White supremacy: segregated schools and neighborhoods, racist policing programs, intentional economic and educational marginalization, and outright lynching.
Scott immediately suggested doing a harvest festival in a city near the farm. He proposed getting several punk bands together to draw folks who would be easy sales for vendors. Scott introduced me to some folks in a southwest Michigan city, and within 30 days we had a festival put together and a BBQ vendor that was provided with one whole hog, ten whole chickens, and $500 from proceeds gleaned from Sandhill’s raw milk shares. The cash was counted as taxes on my own gun and ammunition purchases. There were no strings attached to the meat or cash, but the vendors agreed to sell their products at the event in a local neighborhood long identified as “troubled.” We also raised funds with a GoFundMe page to pay for other festival costs.
The event came off with no problems, and it was a great time for those old punks like me who have a lot to contribute to neighborhood organizing but don’t often integrate our gifts and skills under the leadership of People of Color who live next door or in the next county. One of the great aspects of the event was the friendship forged between the BBQ vendor and the vegan food vendor. They spent much of the day getting to know each other.
A few weekends later, I forged further relationships that stemmed from the festival and working with the BBQ vendor. Meeting her family was an unexpected educational experience, but the deepest thought was not inspired by intergenerational conversation related to farming. Rather, it was experiencing the contrasts of marginalization—violence of the deepest dye—and the story that stood behind the activity of preparing intestines, hoofs, livers, and hog maw for service as comfort food. The facts of African American sharecropping came to light without nuance as I watched Mama work with my neighbor and son to wash chitterlings. The last item packed into the car was the prized hogs head for head cheese.
I cannot understand the relationship between soul food and violence against the soul of the Other. But my thinking about reparations became clearer. The Cross, one of the focal points of my faith, is to eschew privilege on behalf of people who do not share in the privileges from which I benefit. I had at various times allowed myself to whisper in tones audible only to myself that my farm labor is solely for the benefit of others. Remarkably, I still can’t understand the concept of being forced to labor for the benefit of others and being left to eat intestines as my compensation.
It is clear that I have no idea of what sharecroppers in Tennessee ever felt like or lived like or how hard their work was. I have no idea what it is like to have my entire family held financially, physically, and intellectually hostage for the profit of another. The tension between soul food and reparations holds new meaning for me in this season of my desire to address my own White supremacist values and identity.
Sharecropper’s cabin and sharecropper’s wife. Ten miles south of Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Dorothea Lange, FSA, HD. Library of Congress.
My labor, farming produce, and cash were intended to build bridges or conquer the abyss that exists between the fundamental differences of the beneficiaries of White privilege and Persons of Color. My attempts to be individually accountable for privilege and empty myself of some of those benefits in order to share with African Americans is not noble and, in fact, displays little more than an intention to move forward the conversations about compensation: a sort of walking the walk.
But the sojourn in this season’s harvest reparation occurred on a cement slab where our former butchering building burned down. We still butcher there. And from those ashes rose a kind of relationship that is yet to reveal any outcome. My agenda was friendship when the three women came to the farm to get ingredients for soul food. How strange that my growth, both emotionally and intellectually—my increase in self-awareness—came from a dynamic that allowed me to understand power relations differently.
There I stood, a White landowner, giving what I treated as waste to three generations of women who found comfort in the food that would once again fill plates in their homes, this time and once again the work of their own hands. The dynamic could not escape me, especially after hearing about the violence a White landowner brought to their family tree. I was humbled, briefly ashamed, and found myself with a better understanding of what debt must be accounted for.
My suggestion is this: reparations of any sort show intent to recognize the trillions of dollars of financial benefits received from slavery and Jim Crow policies, prison labor, and forced segregation. But for repaired relationships to occur, people of European descent must see that the only repair that needs to occur is the repairing of our own souls, so that the power and control relationships of racial domination and institutional racism can be understood and accepted as fact. Then, in humility, we might become cognizant that a new relationship can be built, based not upon what is owed but upon what is shared from the heart at the level of the oppressed: a total emptying of the privilege of Whiteness when confronted with realities of the violence inherent in Whiteness. When we sit down for the Thanksgiving turkey, can we have a helping of chitterlings with it that we prepared after getting the recipe from others in our lives?
Hell, rather than commiserating together over the annual fate of the Detroit Lions, we might instead celebrate new relationships that share a common history: a history experienced without a coat of whitewashing the hog maw and pig’s feet that are said to go so well with the neck bone I tend to favor. Then we can begin to think honestly about the violence that stands behind such soulful dinner experiences that are able to overcome shame and guilt.
R. Scot Miller
- Scot Miller and midwife spouse Jenn Seif have been among Friends for 25 years and attend Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich.. He is the author of Gospel of the Absurd: Assemblies of Interpretation, Embodiment, and Faithfulness. They are looking for live-in learners to join their commitment to community building, farming, and researching Quaker history in southern Michigan.