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Women of Courage: Exhuming as a Work of Justice

During a sabbatical year spent in the Washington D.C. area, I studied the 400 years of enslavement on this continent. I intentionally visited historical sites with a new perspective of enslaved people. Along the way, I heard of a pastor living in Leesburg, Virginia, who was impassioned with the preservation of a recently discovered grave site of enslaved people that was under threat. She was intent on preserving the history at that place, by consecrating the graves and establishing an interpretive center that would explain the history. If I had stayed in Virginia, I would have joined in her work of valuing the remains of people whose lives and deaths had been made invisible. Her work of justice struck a chord deep within me.

At the end of that year, only a couple of months be-fore relocating to Prescott, I took an opportunity to study Spanish in Oaxaca for three weeks. One of my professors, Lorena Gurrola, taught the literature of Mexican female authors. For four years, I have continued this study of women writers who are often not included in studies of Latin American literature.

The most recent text of this weekly class is Vindictas, a collection of short stories written by Latin American female writers. In the prologue, the editors speak of their work in gathering the anthology as “exhumación” of forgotten stories. In the process, they tell us, the women themselves are made visible by a history that would have forgotten them. I believe that making these women and their work visible is a work of justice.

In January 2011, reading about the life of Rosa Parks to prepare for the yearly MLK Sunday sermon, I found that she had been an advocate for many African American women in trouble. Among those women, I found Recy Taylor. Born in Abbeville, Alabama, as a young wife and mother, she was violated by a gang of white men who, despite all the evidence, were declared not guilty.

In spite of Rosa Park’s advocacy in publicizing this nationally, the men were never prosecuted. When I found Recy Taylor’s story she was in her 90s and still demanding an apology from the state of Alabama. She finally received one on Mother’s Day of 2011.

Her courage to continue to demand the justice of an apology inspired Mary Lou and me to write a song “Calling for Sweet Justice.” Throughout the next years, we wrote songs that became a larger work: “Women of Courage.” Many of these songs exhume women who have been invisible and put them in the spotlight where they should be testaments of courage that are foundational to our own acts of courage in the world.

Some of the women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hellen Keller, did not need to be exhumed. Their names are known. And yet, even these women’s legacies became softened and marginalized within the patriarchal educational structure. In “Women of Courage,” Eleanor Roosevelt emerges as a civil rights advocate in a car on the way to give a workshop on non-violence, a $25,000 bounty on her head by the KKK.

We find Helen Keller, a woman living with disabilities, on a dance floor with Martha Graham, demanding to understand and participate in dance. And, the song that precedes hers celebrates the life of Viola Jimulla, a Yavapai woman suddenly taking on the role of chieftess of the Yavapai people.

The radical nature of this work is seen in the recent fears that have emerged around teaching children the “whole” history of this country and the world. Books are being banned that offer the stories and knowledge that are foundational to the healing of both human communities and the natural world. By revealing these women and their courageous lives, the songs and stories of “Women of Courage,” have the power to crack open the patriarchal system of education and liberate these women from a burial ground. Exhumed and celebrated, they give us the power to see the past differently and inspire the merciful, loving, conquering movements that will change our shared future.

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