“Big Sister Dorothy Irene Height, 1947-1956,” I shouted in unison with my line sisters. That was how I first learned her name. As an 18-year old sophomore at Lincoln University pledging Delta in 1985, I had to recite, quickly and convincingly, the names of our founders and past national presidents. It was as if calling forth their names would call forth their spirits to embody those of us striving to be like them. For our efforts went beyond rote memorization; we had to learn and even internalize our history, as we strove to follow in the footsteps of our Big Sisters and become Deltas.
Of all of the wondrous women I learned about, Dorothy Height stood out most who – at that time and still today – was the longest serving president of our sisterhood. Maybe it was because I noticed, right away, that she was my “birthday twin” since both of us were born on March 24th. I immediately wanted to know more. I learned how she had walked with giants. I learned that she, herself, was a giant. I learned how this incredible woman had witnessed history and, in fact, become history in a way that made my imagination scream, “Hallelujah!” But what I also learned was how unfortunate it was that I could grow up writing essays about Martin, reading books about Malcolm, and not even knowing her name.
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Twenty years later, when I really did grow up, I came to grips with the sad reality that few of us learn little more than four “oft-repeated” lines from the “I Have a Dream Speech” and whatever tidbits of our history we cram into special celebrations during the shortest month of the year.
These are the reasons why, in the middle of a busy work and school week, I dragged my daughter down to Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington DC to share and celebrate Dr. Height’s amazing life. I wanted to make sure that, just as Dr. Height had witnessed history, my daughter would experience the watershed moment marking the passing of this remarkable woman into the annals of a new history. We were blessed and determined, so we made it into the sanctuary – supposedly reserved for the VIPs – to witness history, in person, with our own eyes.
The first person I pointed out to my daughter was the angelic Susan Taylor, who hosted the service, as I shared the transformational impact that Essence Magazine had on us all. And then we heard from Eleanor Holmes Norton, Charles Rangel and Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as the current National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Cynthia Butler-McIntyre. How could I explain to my daughter, in one night, the reverence that all of these giants had for Dorothy Height? Of course, this task was not possible. However, when my daughter heard Stevie Wonder play the harmonica – someone whose musical genius and social impact we’ve shared with her from a young age – I saw in her astonished eyes a glimmer of the respect for the import of this special moment in time.
The big names kept rolling in: Soror Alexis Herman, Vernon Jordan, Rev. Bernice King, John Lewis, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson to name a few. But it was really the stories that made the evening special. There was the one about Dr. Height being accepted into Barnard, but being denied admission upon arrival because the college had suddenly reached their quota for Black women – two! There was another, recounted by Rev. Sharpton, about a recent meeting with President Obama that the persistent Dr. Height could not attend because of a blizzard. Apparently, her assistant had to wheel her to the edge of her building, fully dressed in her hat and suit, to actually prove no taxi could take her. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop her from badgering those who could attend by cell phone since she was reluctant to let the conversation take place without a strong woman in the room. Ultimately, she was relieved to learn that Valerie Jarrett was there.
There were more stories about big, colorful hats, about building wells in Africa, about hard work, the Harlem Renaissance, the YWCA, and the modern feminist movement. There were even ones about how Dr. Height knitted during heated civil rights meetings, and how “the boys” relented when she was forced to put down her needles and put the boys back in their places. At Charlie Rangel’s prompting, I imagined what I would have said if I’d had the chance to tell my Dr. Height story about the last time I saw her at the National Congress of Black Women’s breakfast six months ago. I sought her advice and counsel because, at that time, I was under attack by Fox News and right-wing bloggers for allegedly “indoctrinating children” through my work as a children’s book author. It was a difficult time for me, and surely this accomplished and iconic woman who had counseled world leaders could offer some poignant and comforting pearls of wisdom to inspire me and lift me through my struggles. After listening to me detail my predicament and drone on for what must have been five minutes without taking a breath, this towering figure squeezed my hand, pulled me close to her, and whispered, “Baby, I can’t hear a thing you just said… but call my assistant, Christine, and maybe we can help you!”
Perhaps the most poignant story was delivered by the legendary Cicely Tyson who described how Dr. Height loved and had faith in her. She had once asked Cicely to deliver her famous speech from her role as Ms. Jane Pittman for her… “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, splinters, Boards torn up, places with no carpets on the floors, bare!” She performed it again for us right there at Shiloh. Maybe it was because we’d recently watched Sounder, but Cicely certainly got my baby’s attention. It was an awesome moment when my daughter agreed with me on how beautiful both Cicely and her performance was.
The evening wasn’t without its challenges. In the truth-telling cries of a 10-year old girl, I frequently heard, “Why is this taking so long?” And it really wasn’t the time or place to explain to a child growing up in this must-have-it-now, attention-deficient world that some things, my dear sweet child, just take time. At one point, I even caught her Googling on my cell phone, but she was looking up photos of Dr. Height and Langston Hughes, so I pretended not to notice. Quiet as its kept, sometimes our folks can be a wee bit long-winded when given a microphone in a church full of wonderful women in hats, sharp brothers in suits, and glorious gospel music filling the air.
Even so, my daughter persevered until the fascinating yet seemingly-endless evening was over. And despite the customary impatience of childhood, I’m positive that one day I will look into her eyes and see Dr. Height’s undying spirit flying high. For, like Big Sister Dorothy, she now was an in-person witness to history. And because of Dr. Dorothy Height, she has now learned that history itself is hers for the making.
Charisse Carney-Nunes is the author of the award-wining children’s books, I Am Barack Obama, I Dream for You a World, and Nappy. She is a Harvard Law schoolmate of President Obama and was recently at the center of a national controversy pitting alleged school indoctrination against children’s expressions of civic engagement. Charisse is also the creator of “Nappy Narratives,” a companion video weblog series to Nappy that connects hair and women’s history. Watch them online at www.BrandNuWords.com.