Wearing Mabel’s Crown

Note: This is NOT my grandmother. This is an incredible photo by famed Harlem photographer James Van der Zee. But being that I’ve inherited such an amazing sense of style, I fairly certain that my grandmother walked around Harlem in the 1920s looking this fly.

“Your crown has already been paid for; all you have to do is put it on your head.” – James Baldwin.

I just LOVE this quote, and I think about it quite a bit when I reflect on the lives of those who came before me. I’ve thought a lot about my grandmother, my father’s mother, Mabel Lakins, since I’ve arrived in New York. I never had the pleasure of knowing her as she passed when my father and his brother, my beloved Uncle Tommy, were just toddlers. She was born and raised in Harlem after the turn of the century and I can only imagine the kind of life that she lived as a Negro woman with the limitations and constraints of racism, sexism, and Jim Crow-ism. I can barely fathom the internal turmoil she must have felt with the joy of giving birth to two beautiful sons but the utter anguish and fear of releasing them into a world that had no regard for their humanity simply because they were born Negro.

But even with the challenges of being a Negro in the early 20th century in New York, I’m in awe of the rare air that she got to breathe by living during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. I wonder if she had coffee with Langston Hughes, shared a joke or two over lunch with Allain Locke, or walked down the street and did the 1920s version of “Hey Girl Hey!” with Zora Neale Hurston. Being that my family has traditionally been very religious, I’m certain that NONE of that happened, but something in me tells me that Mabel was out getting her life in Harlem after Bible Study.

I SO wish that I could have met my Mama Mabel and listened to her stories about her life and experiences from that era. But I have this feeling that she’s been catching the A train downtown, hoping on an L train to Brooklyn, and keeping tabs on her youngest granddaughter. When folks tell me that I look and sound like a natural New Yorker, I can’t help but to think that that’s my inner Mabel kicking in. When I stand in awe of the amazing doors that God continues to open for me, I KNOW that those blessings are NOT mine alone. They belong to Mabel, too, and I pray that I continue to bring honor to her legacy by living an amazing New York adventure worthy of the path that she set for me nearly a century ago.

Thank you, Mama Mabel, for paying for my crown.  I promise to wear it well.

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