meet Juanita Harrison – alone, ambiguous, and free

You may be familiar with pioneering Black women like Ida B. Wells, Josephine Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, but how about Juanita Harrison? I first learned about Juanita Harrison through a book (Babylon Girls by Jayna Brown) I was reading for a class on Stuart Hall and Black British Cultural Studies. I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind since.

Juanita Harrison is an awe inspiring Black American woman who, in the late 1920s, traveled to Europe, Africa, Asia, and so many other places around the world — all by herself. Imagine that, a Black woman from the Deep South (Mississippi) born into poverty, Jim Crow suffocation, and access to very limited educational and employment opportunities, who goes on to liberate herself in a profound way through unbridled travel to places that most Americans, let alone Blacks, could only imagine and dream about at the time, and possibly even today.

She visited, lived, and worked in 22 different countries from 1927 to about 1935. By moving around so frequently and widely, Harrison “undercuts a widely held perception of African American women as static, bound by race into immobility” (Cathryn Halverson, Maverick Autobiographies). After all those adventures, she decides to “settle,” if you could call it that because it was relatively short-lived, in Hawaii from 1935 to 1939. Her wanderlust struck again so she set out to travel for at least another ten years, this time throughout South America. Halverson notes that when Harrison applied for a new U.S. passport in 1950, she answered that she was “uncertain” as to when she “intend[ed] to return to the United States to reside permanently.”

One of things that draws me to Juanita Harrison is the ease with which she embraces the untethered, unrooted nature of her life – when she sailed off the shores of Hoboken, New Jersey for London and beyond on June 25, 1927, she wrote:

“And the money was flying like rice at a wedding then the Kissing and the goodbyes and the raining of tears. and I was happy that I had no one to cry for me.”

Halverson highlights how, “Recreating one after another after another, Harrison suggests that homes are temporary, fluid, and easily replaced.”

And most of all, I admire the joy she felt in being alone, completely and utterly alone with none other than herself to rely on. In navigating unfamiliar cities, countries, cultures all on her own, responsible for what happens to her, and with full ownership and authority over her next steps. That, to me, is the ultimate manifestation of freedom – moving about the world in full, uncompromised possession of one’s self and destiny, without people and institutions staking their claim. This is especially significant for a Black woman who was and is automatically and permanently marked as other, less, inferior, incapable by the color of her skin in a racist, patriarchal society. And that’s not to say that the places Harrison traveled to were not racist and/or patriarchal; they were not utopias of any sort.

But it’s in the way that Harrison weaved in and through the in-between spaces of diverse places to create nooks of belonging for herself. She crafted herself into “an African American woman unfixed by race, class, or place.” She refused and resisted the boundaries set in place for someone like her as she “claims the world and calls it beautiful.” She managed to connect with a sense of home in the different places she moved through. She partook in the local traditions, explored every nook and cranny of the cities and towns, relished the food and drink, socialized with the people, and managed to blend in while simultaneously standing out. She lived as someone who was perpetually betwixt and between.

Juanita Harrison, to me, cultivated a lifestyle and existence that demonstrates the fluid, complex, and ever changing nature of identity, belonging, and home. This approach worked for her as she lived a full and fulfilled life, so much so that she wrote:

“with so much kindness and beauty yet if I could die tomorrow and that would be the end of my soul I would be glad to go because I really have nothing else I wish to do in this world nor the next.”

How many of us can truly say that? I would love to come as close to that as possible in the span of my existence.

why my mom(my) doesn’t wear a uniform to work

From what I can remember, my mommy hasn’t worn a uniform to work in the past 10 or so years, not even in the winter months or when she’s running late and it’d require way less thought and coordination to throw on a predetermined outfit. She insists on putting on her ’employee’ hat, literally and figuratively, only when she steps inside the cafe + specialty food market that is her workplace.

This morning, she looked especially fabulous, clad in all black, not as a fashion statement but in memory of the younger sister she lost recently (hi auntie). She styled her hair in a shapely afro that complimented her face and wore a cute pair of earrings we found on sale at Macy’s yesterday. She topped off her black top and trousers with a longish silky scarf, a mid length pea coat beautifully accented with two different textures, and comfortable flats. She could pass for someone headed to work at any number of places other than the one she was headed to.

This might seem somewhat puzzling, why a woman would put so much effort into an ensemble that will only last for the commute to and from a job that calls for a standard uniform. The way I see it, this daily practice is an act of self affirmation, to remind herself and others that she is more than what an 8-4 job and its customers, managers, and employees demand, reduce, and challenge from her. That environment saps her energy, youth, patience, and dignity because it refuses to give her back what she puts in to it, in terms of the monetary value of her labor, as well as respect, peace, and power. Sometimes she comes home drained and discouraged; and all I can do is listen to the stories, hurt and helpless to change her circumstances.

Poverty does something so profound to one’s psyche. It robs one of the ability to dream, to take chances, to demand better. Taking a step in these directions requires a cushion, a safety net to catch one if she fails in her bold quest for a more fuller humanity. Poverty makes one feel alone and unable, unwilling to confront, to leave, to experiment. So if my mommy can’t change the realities of her not much better than minimum wage, 8-hour work day, she sure can control and manipulate how she adorns and presents herself immediately before and after clocking in and out.

And anyway, she has always had a thing for fashion. I love hearing old stories from family about her stylish days. People seem to vividly remember how much pride she took in looking like the beautiful woman she is. She dressed impeccably, with her shapely pencil skirts, colorful blouses, pretty dresses, and audible heels. In a word, she was fly.

what a beautiful sight. I would so wear this dress today if it was still around.
what a beautiful sight. I would so wear this outfit today if it was still around.

So her daily insistence on wearing the clothes she picks out and compiles herself is an active resistance of the uniform that too insists on recognizing her only as a worker, one among many. Dressing as she chooses to, instead of the way prescribed for her by corporate policy, is a means to affirm her femininity and dignity

I love recalling a quote by writer Edwidge Danticat in which she talks about her two young daughters and how she hopes that they will understand her once they too grow into womanhood. She said,

“I can’t wait for both my daughters to be old enough to read all my books. I loved it every time I saw my parents acting like more than just my parents. And I’m looking forward to that with my daughters too. I am looking forward to having them discover me as someone completely other than their mother.”

As a woman, I’m ready to dedicate the rest of my time to fully seeing and understanding my mommy as a complex woman with memories, desires, and multiple identities because all my life I’ve only known her as my mother; she is so much more than that role alone.

              I see you, momma bear. You are fierce and glorious. And because of you, I am.

happy birthday Lovely.