Monday, June 7, 2010

Women of Substance

When I was little, my mom would sometimes say about the large black women we encountered, "Now there's a woman of substance." I think this may be a West African turn of phrase that she picked up in Cameroon, but I'm not really sure. Maybe it's just her thing. At any rate, I always liked the sound of it. Much better than "fat" or "heavyset" or "big-boned," as people used to say, and also better, I would argue, than current p.c. terms like "plus-sized" or even "full-figured."

I like this phrase because it speaks of something more than physicality, some kind of soul force that is somehow more visible in large women. A presence, a power that is inescapable. You know the kind of woman I'm talking about--the ones who bear children and run households and move mountains and can silence a room full of men with a look, but more often than not have yet to be fully appreciated in the world, despite their brilliance and grace.

I'm proud to say I recently witnessed two "women of substance" breaking through, and saw each honored for her wisdom, power and voice. I attended Yale University graduation last weekend, where the school bestowed honorary doctorates on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Aretha Franklin. Sing it, sistahs!

Aretha Franklin, of course, is the gospel-singing goddess known as the "Queen of Soul." She received an honorary Doctor of Music. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, is the first woman elected to lead an African nation. She received an honorary Doctor of Laws. Of course, Yale didn't discover these divas--they've both been making their mark for years. But it is gratifying to see them being honored in new forms, in new venues, in front of new audiences, so that we may continue to be inspired by their gifts.

As women go, this pair definitely has a lot of substance!

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