Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman

This summer I spent a week in Charleston, SC, vacationing and learning about the civil rights movement in the Low Country. While visiting the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, I picked up Katherine Mellen Charron’s biography Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima P. Clark. Charron does an exceptional job covering the Southern women’s movement of the civil rights struggle — especially as it relates to the activist educators, club leaders, and “race women” — those women who laid the groundwork for upstarts like the students in SNCC. (I keep shaking my head in admiration and amazement that Mrs. Clark joined the NAACP in 1919!)

Ruby N. Sales

One of those SNCC upstarts was Ruby Nell Sales, a veteran organizer/activist rooted in the Southern civil rights struggle and founder of the SpiritHouse Project. (I’ve had the honor of working with Ruby a few times and interviewed her for Sojourners magazine in 2002.)

Ruby wrote a piece this weekend honoring her teacher, Mrs. Armstrong. Ruby’s portrait highlights the strength, humanity, and deep-seated wisdom of Mrs. Armstrong and thousands of women like her who were the backbone of the most significant social change movement this country has ever seen. So while white supremacists like Glenn Beck are parading around shouting about how important they are, Ruby reminds us that “the Glenn Becks come and go.” It’s the Mrs. Clarks, Mrs. Armstrongs, and, I’ll add, the Ms. Sales who abide. Here’s Ruby’s article, which was posted today:

From the early days of my childhood, race women inhabited my life. I knew them like I knew the lifelines in my hands. Race women raised me in the church, community, school and on the playground. In many ways, they were my other mamas and I was their “omanish” child whom they loved even as they shook their heads at my fast mouth and unorthodox ways.

Everywhere I went as a young person there was a race woman beckoning me to “come here” or “speak louder. “ They sat in the deaconess corners or on front porches or presided over classrooms, honor societies, cheering squads, Majestic Ladies, Tri-Hi- Y and Sunday school classes. They taught me how to carry myself well and dignified. Even when I grew up and left them to go my way, they continued to exist in and with me. I heard their voices like a steady drumbeat that helped establish the rhythm of my life.

Mrs. Armstrong was an unapologetic race woman who loved her students across our differences. We called her “big red” behind her back. Everyone in Columbus knew that “you did not mess with Marian’s children.” At Carver High school, she was a force. She took students in her home room class whom the world dismissed as thugs and problems. They both loved and feared her. When she spoke, they listened because they knew that she would knock door doors to give them a chance in life. Many of her male students were actually too old to be in school. But, that did not stop her. She changed their ages and dared anyone to question her. They repaid her with a fierce loyalty and a high school diploma. Her determination to educate her students and advance their lives was the defining aspect of her life as a teacher and race woman. Continue reading “Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman”

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to High School: “Jennifer’s Body”

jennifers-bodyJennifer’s Body (“She’s evil … and not just high school evil.”) is a new horror/slasher flick written by Diablo Cody (Juno and The United States of Tara — who also happens to be Catholic). It’s got all the blood, gore, cannibalism, revenge on teenage hormones, that we’ve come to expect from the genre. But don’t take that as a recommendation.

If you are a closet fan of American horror/thriller films and what they uncover about our social psyche, I suggest reading Jennifer’s Body and Why I Like Buffy’s Body Better by W. Scott Poole. He’s an associate professor in history at the College of Charleston and has written several books dealing with American religion, race, and popular culture. His latest is Satan in America: The Devil We Know.

According to to Poole, the dialogue in Jennifer’s Body is slick and ironic, but falls short of overturning the tables of misogyny in the genre. Even though writer Cody says she wanted to subvert the genre by inserting a sort of feminist “Trojan Horse” into the script. (See NYT‘s review by Michelle Orange.) However, J’s B is nothing compared to Joss Whedon’s 7-season TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I’m a huge fan. See my article Damnation Will Not Be Televised.)

I’m always glad to find smart interpretations of Buffy’s mythic themes, feminism, and deep religious narrative. Here’s an excerpt from Poole’s review comparing Buffy with Jennifer’s Body:

Religion often goes to the horror movies, taking with it a raft of cultural baggage. In 1968, Rosemary’s Baby incorporated the Devil, anxieties over feminism, and the controversy over birth control. A few years later, The Exorcist served up an unsettling combination of religious conservatism, the perceived dangers of single-parent families, and the power of adolescent sexuality. Jennifer’s Body is the latest offering in this genre. …

I prefer to see powerful religious and cultural paradigms more thoroughly subverted than this. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—in which another high school cheerleader is revealed as “the Chosen One” who slays monsters rather than becoming one—provides a good example.

Buffy’s seven seasons did more than simply reverse the formula that makes women the predators rather than the prey. Whedon and his writers and directors created a truly nuanced and complex hero, an archetypal figure in the same sense that Beowulf and Achilles represents the heroic. Rather than perform a parody of female identity (or simple revenge fantasy), Buffy instead embodied both the limitations of human ability and the struggles against darkness that are the price of transcendence.