This is how I choose to remember you, Allison.
On December 31st, 2019, we went to a tribute concert for Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center. It was New Year’s Eve. You dressed for it. You arrived; heads turned. There you were in a stunning multi-colored dress made by a designer you loved. You were regal and glamorous. Just look at the photos.
During the performance, we sang along to the songs we knew by heart, and of course, we made our usual snarky talk. Your easy, ready laugh rang out. And then, a taste of bitter reality. The band played “A Change is Gonna Come” – and we instinctively reached for each other’s hands. Both of us felt the weight of that song, and what it signified about having faith in the eventual triumph of justice despite the odds.
But the lyrics had a deeply sad resonance that night, given your own personal journey:
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there above the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change’s gonna come, oh, yes, it will
We held hands tightly and cried together.
You knew that a change was on its way. In May 2019, you began to write about your journey with cancer. You transformed words that we are afraid of into figures with ages, genders, feelings, and textures. You named them: Death, Vulnerable, Freedom. You wrote about how the journey you were on was propelling you towards self-forgiveness, a deeper understanding of legacy and sacrifice, and freedom. A passage of yours that moves me is this one (there are many more here):
I understand now that freedom is real. Freedom is here. Cancer showed it to me. It was there all along and was simply for me to choose. My own fears, corrupted beliefs about who I should be, and insecurities about who I wasn’t, are a form of bondage and self-flagellation. They were habitual, and they were fueled by a society that was comfortable with me in that state. There is no manual for how to be free. There are abundant resources for how to remain enslaved. I cannot look to anyone else to understand how to do freedom. I have to define my own freedom and live it intentionally each day.
Allison: a change has indeed come. A light has gone out in my life, and in the lives of so many who hold you dear. May you be free in your fullest power, grace, and dignity.
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A friend noted, as I was remembering you, that it seemed like we have known each other for decades. It’s true. Even though we met only six years ago, it seems like you have been in my life for much longer because of the depth of connection we shared. Our paths crossed at a gathering of racial justice leaders called the Solidarity Summit. I remember wanting to hear as much from you as possible because when you spoke, wisdom, strength, and fierceness exuded from you. When you spoke, everyone in our circle leaned forward and listened intently. You had already inhabited the seat of our loving and discerning elder.
We formed a close friendship in the ensuing months. You loved to do podcasts; you had started podcasting at your kitchen table years ago and you encouraged me to start one of my own, introducing me to your producer. You wanted to write a book, and I suggested tips and ideas. You were there when I navigated life’s valleys, providing sound advice and your perfectly-timed sarcasm. I met your mother and daughter; you met my brother and son. We shared spiritual and physical healers. And we laughed, full-throated and uninhibited belly laughs, every time we connected.
As your life so irrevocably changed, you remained constant in so many ways. Despite the pain, the hospital stays, and the uncertainty, you were strong, calm, and anchored. You were so clear about yourself: where you came from, what values you embodied, what your purpose was, who formed your community, and where we are all heading (liberation). You continued to give to everyone around you. Your love for your children – all children – knew no bounds. Not a single conversation between us would pass without you inquiring about my son by name and asking what was hurting in my life, and how you could tend to it (“what can I do to help?”). Your work remained your north star. From law to nonprofits to philanthropy, you connected people and ideas and resources to change the lives of Black babies and children and reshape the education system. The discomfort and pain you felt didn’t dampen your full-on smile, your easy laugh, your empathetic questions, and your raised-eyebrow-don’t-give-me-that-BS look (which invariably got the truth out of me). That is why our friendship felt like it spanned decades; it was life-affirming, giving, enriching, motivating, all-encompassing.
Last month, on one of our video chats, we discussed rage: the rage inside us, how society shuns women of color, particularly Black women, when they express their anger and fierceness, and how rage can be clearing and cleansing. I mentioned that I had given a name to the rage inside me, in order to speak to her, learn from her, and guide her. A few days later, you texted me: “Meet Oya. She’s ready.”
I looked up the meaning of Oya after you passed. It is the name of a female spirit in Yoruba, a West African language. Oya is a warrior who has power over the storms and the winds – from a gentle breeze to a hurricane. She is also a protector of women, and a catalyst for rebirth and new life.
It’s not surprising, Allison, that you would choose Oya as the moniker for the fiery goddess in you. Not one bit. The night you transitioned, a storm outside awakened me. “It’s Oya,” I thought. You’re free.
Safe passage, dearest friend. I know that you will continue to protect the people whom you love, encourage us to live into our fullness, and channel the winds of justice and liberation, just as you did every day while you were on this realm. I love you. Till we meet again.
If you are reading this and knew and loved Allison too, I’m sending love and care your way. If you didn’t know Allison, please get to know her powerful work. You can find Allison’s writing here. You can find her podcast, Schoolhouse: Equity in Education, here. And you can find information about the organization she led, the Communities for Just Schools Fund, here.