My Mothers' Voices: A Tribute to the Women Who Helped Me Become Woman

By Luisah Teish

This article is dedicated to a circle of women whose power, courage, knowledge and love, fed, shaped and sharpened my concept of Self. I pray it does them proud.

The most inspiring women in my life have been “the Mothers.” “The Mothers “ is a name given to the power of the Great Mother as it manifests through the bodies, minds, hearts and hands of individual women who ”Mother” the children, the community, and the Earth.

In the pre-colonial cultures of the West African diaspora the words “Iya, Yeye and Iyami” are used in many expressions of a woman’s power. For example:

Iya’le means Mother of the House,
Iyaal’ase means Mother of Power,
Iya nla means Mother Vast as the Sky,
Iyalode, Mother of the Open Field.

The cry “Ore Yeye O,” a praise for the Goddess Oshun, can be heard ringing through the Sacred Grove by devotees bathing in the Oshun River, in Oshogbo Nigeria.

And most importantly the Iyami is a society of powerful women who traditionally interact with the forces of nature and mete out justice in the village. They were vilified under colonial culture. They are accused of gathering in the forest to plot revolution. And like the women of medieval Europe, they are persecuted by the church as “witches” today.

This recognition of woman’s power survived the slave ships in the Middle Passage, sexual exploitation on the plantation, and the violence of urban ghettoes. Throughout all of this the Great Mother continues to express Herself through everyday women. So Mothers are highly respected in healthy African-American families.

I was blessed to be born through the body of Serena Scott Allen, an unusual woman who taught me the ways of my ancestors. “Irene the Queen” as she is often called carried the indigenous knowledge of her Native American grandmother, and embodies the strength and courage of her Afro-Haitian father. Lucky me.

Under this woman’s care I grew into a wide-eyed child with lots of curiosity and a vivid imagination. Under her guidance I learned to pick blackberries, and local herbs to plant and cook; to sing and dance, to love and fight, and most importantly to listen carefully and to tell stories filled with wisdom and humor.

My mother would lay a blanket on the grass in our backyard and make a fire in the burning barrel. As the sun went down and the fireflies began to sprinkle the dusk with light my mother would spin incredible tales. There were tales of talking rabbits, sly foxes, and mysterious creatures who rose up out of the bayou.

She always told me these stories as if they happened to her, around the bend, just yesterday. This enchantment began in early childhood. It was only many years later that I realized my mother had retained stories from the African bush, the plantation, and the mystical world in order to impart “the wisdom” of the ancestors to me. She always encouraged me by saying, “You can be anything you want to be, goddammit, and be the best of that, whatever it is.” It is because of this woman that I am a storyteller today

But for “The Mothers” care is a communal endeavor. So the care my birth mother gave to sustain my life was supported by the Mothers who fed my mind and helped to clear a path for me.

So now I wish to praise my Teachers.

Praise and thanks to Ms. Gladys Gibson my first grade teacher who encouraged me to poetry and who declared “you’re my pretty little genius, you are” while lifting my chin so I could see the pride in her eyes. Her words return to rescue me whenever I fall into mental density.

Praise and thanks to Ms. Joyce Combs my high school journalism teacher who taught me how to express myself in writing and to make choices in favor of my career at a time when the lure of L.A. street gangs could have pulled me off my path. She administered “tough love” and I learned the art of it from her.

Praise and thanks to Ms. Joan Bailey my high school dance teacher who taught me how to straighten my back, point my toes, and to “engage the space” when I move across the floor. My senior year in high school Ms. Bailey died suddenly in an automobile accident. I swore to her that I would become the “best goddam dancer I could be.” Keeping my promise to her opened the door to a wonderful world full of creative people all over the world. Every stage I traverse is her dance floor.

Praise and thanks to Ms. Shiloh McCloud, a painter, teacher and joyous warm woman. When Shiloh heard that I had a “creative wounding” regarding my abilities as a visual artist, she came to my house with canvas and paints and liberated me from it in four hours flat. She taught me to paint from within. I am grateful and now paint with confidence.

And very very importantly, the Great Mother shows up in the person of the true and loyal sister-friend. The sister-friend is the one who shares her resources (especially her time) who knows your secrets (and holds them respectfully) and who will tell you the truth (because you need to know it). I am so fortunate to have cultivated a few good friends over a period of 20-40 years.

I call to my sisters Susan Rubin who turns dreams into stage dramas, and Leilani Bireley with whom I have danced the hula and written books. Uzuri Amini and Nedra Williams are Iya l’Orishas, (Mothers of the Spirit) like me. Together we perform the ancient rites of our spiritual culture. We plant and cook, perform divinations and healings, and praise the deities through song and dance. Together we become “The Mothers” in a global community of Spirit Women.

The piece that follows is provided so that you might share in the feeling of being among “The Mothers”. It recounts a particular gathering in honor of the Goddess Oya. And may help you to understand why some people resort to calling us names.

Bush Creatures in the Wind

October 29,1995: From the outside the house appeared unoccupied. You could barely tell that anything was going on. There were bamboo and raffia shades pulled down at the window, the candlelight was subtle. As I approached the walkway I could feel the mystery. Orunsen, where She go? Orunsen, you be She? I must have knocked on the door for a solid five minutes before the music was lowered and the dog‘s barks could be heard. A painted face peeped through the window shade and declared “Yeye is here.”

There was the wonderful thunder of women laughing; announcing my arrival; asking why I was late.

I immediately removed my shoes; I was entering sacred space. The women and I greeted each other, as is the custom. Then I went over to the chair and slipped out of my blouse and headdress. Bare-breasted and bareheaded, half-naked and safe. This was the proper attire for our celebration of the Wild woman, our party for Oya.

I sat for a moment, and then went to the kitchen for food. Beans and rice, potato chips and fruit punch. Usually food is consumed at the end of a ritual. But tonight protocol and taboo are relaxed. Tonight we will not offer formal prayers or work or try to figure out the problems of the world. No, not tonight! Tonight we will paint and perfume our bodies. We will dance bare breasted, waving our arms in the wind, sweating and screaming for no reason and laughing out loud.

Tonight Orunsen walks through the bush, tonight She dances in the Wind.

I looked at the beautiful bouquet of women assembled in the room. We were short, and tall, thick and thin. Skins of the Bush cow shimmering in the trees. Some of us were as black as night, some caramel, others were as pale as the moonlight. Our heads uncovered, our horns exposed! Hair swirled around the room, black and brown, blonde and red, kinky, curly, straight, dread. Long braids flying loose, ornaments wrapped in funny shapes on our heads.

All the women of the marketplace were there: We were healers and soldiers, designers and engineers, writers and nurses, teachers and friends, mothers and partners. But tonight we did not work, or shop. There was no cleaning or instructing to be done. We only shook our breast to the rhythm in the wind. Some of these breasts were long and angular, others round and young, some withered and old and even missing due to surgery. Tonight we did not indulge in any ideas of what a “perfect woman” was or should be. Tonight we did not think of our professions, our children or the problems of the world. For this was the celebration for Oya and our only concern was to be free like the bush cows, the wild women in the woods.

Luisah Teish is a beloved faculty with The Shift Network. Here next course will begin in late May: Coming Home through Myth: The Art of Healing Our Relationship to Nature, Community, and Spirit. To learn more, click here.

Luisah Teish: I have spent more than 30 years discussing the role of women in the religions of the African diaspora and working to provide a softer, more tolerant, environment for people of different races, cultures, and sexual orientations within the tradition. Most of this has been beneficial.

I have been blessed to work with priestesses and priests from Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela who practice embodied nature-oriented worship in some form. I have also had the honor of sharing food, conversation and ritual with Native American elders, the clan mothers of Austral-Asia and the Pacific Islands, and Goddess-worshippers around the world.

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This article appears in: 2015 Catalyst, Issue 8: Inspiring Women