began as hour long weekend embellishment sessions with my adoptive mama, Soror
Lena Kathryn Smith, became a life-long endeavor that lasted twenty years.
Though we first met when she, as the Basileus of Mu Sigma Zeta, the San Diego
Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., welcomed me into the sorority, it was
as if I had known her all of my life.
I first came to Zeta, sisterhood was a foreign concept to me. Bereft of family,
country, and community, I was a survivor of the Vietnam war and a fallen family
that left my young daughter and I orphaned from our birth family and ostracized
from our community. Completely alone in the world and transitioned from foster
care, I raised my child in isolation, struggling to find sisterhood and family
when all I had known was abandonment and betrayal.
Smith taught me things that I had never learned before. For hour long morsels
one week at a time, Soror Smith educated my line sisters, Tikneshea Hicks and
Jamemika McLemore, about the herstory, protocols, ceremonies, service, and
scholarship of Zeta, pacing each bead of information like precious pearls. I
took everything in like one starving. No one had ever taught me the importance
of self awareness and arming oneself with knowledge. Ignorance is the best weapon
against the abused. No one had ever shown me the strength of my voice or
demonstrated the power of poise and elegance. All I knew was flight and
survival. Most importantly, no one had ever taught me to love my sister. Or
that I deserved to be loved. These were lessons I learned from simply being in
Soror Smith’s company.
had an innate, faulty, default towards loyalty, giving and loving
unconditionally even when it was not deserved. Soror Smith taught me how to
refine and channel my strengths so that I could fight for justice as a civil
rights advocate. I took nothing for granted – not the fact that she welcomed me
into her home every weekend. Not the glass of water she placed in front of me,
the eggs she had purchased, cracked, and scrambled to feed me, nor the hours,
days, months, and years she spent with me in never-ending embellishment. I
cherished every second.
learned about each other, and about where we came from. After the Zeta
embellishment sessions were over, we’d sit on the worn wicker chairs in her
backyard overlooking the hills of Lake Murray and talk until twilight. She
called me “daughter”, held me close to her heart, and adopted me. She connected
me with her birth daughter, Soror Doris Jean (Jeannie) McMillan Cartwright and
folded me into her family. For the first time in my life, I received a gift
that was more precious than words can describe: I learned what it meant to have
a nurturing mother. Over the span of twenty years, we trekked the distance
between Oakland and San Diego to visit each other and continue embellishment.
In person, over the phone, over email, in dreams, we continued to share our
lives, past and present. Bridging the distance of two countries and two
separate histories, we discovered our similarities and our differences.
talked about the struggles of her family and her people, and the liberation,
strength and empowerment that came from living life with confidence, dedication
to service, and an unremitting internal fire. I recorded her and and tried to
capture her narratives in print. An impossible task since her beauty defied my
pen. Born in 1939 at the tail end of the Great Depression, Soror Smith grew up
in San Antonio, Texas, where, in the post Reconstruction era, African Americans
had established Freedman settlements in every quadrant of the San Antonio. Many
of these settlements are now gone, memorialized only by the existence of black
cemeteries that serve as historical reminders of a rich and forgotten history.
was the first black student at Ursline Academy in San Antonio during Texas’
infamous period of segregation. It took Texas another decade to win the
landmark desegregation case: Sweatt v.
Painter that desegregated law schools. As a high school student, she was a
Freedom Rider joining the NAACP as a passenger on buses that challenged the
non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia, that held that segregated public buses were
unconstitutional. She was recognized for her oratorical skills and later
graduated from St. Peter Claver Catholic High School as Salutatorian. She was
awarded the “Ms. Blue Revue” scholarship by Zeta Phi Beta and attended Our Lady
of the Lake University in San Antonio where she pledged the Delta Chapter of
Zeta Phi Beta. I have admired, with care, her aged scrapbook documenting her
journey towards and within Zeta while in college. She continued to serve Zeta
until her passing in 2017.
return, I talked about the massacres that overtook my home city of Huế,
Vietnam, where over 3000 women, children, and civilians were killed by
Communist. We analyzed and compared the inhumanity of generations of
colonialism and subjugation of the Vietnamese people by the Dutch, French,
Chinese, Japanese, and finally, the Vietnamese Communist, to the cruelty of the
transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent enslavement and discrimination of
Africans in America. She learned about how I, at the age of 4, fled my country
to arrive on the shores of a post Jim Crow California where a year later, I was
beaten everyday by kindergarteners and bullets tore through the windows of my
family’s apartment for the color of our skin. I talked about how I fought back
with an orange tin Fat Albert lunchpail stuffed with my birth mother’s
about how she fought back by persevering, getting an education, supporting
black businesses, building and maintaining community strength, and being quick
on her toes.
learned that we were not that much different. We were both strong, amazing
women, driven by our love for the people in our lives, passionate about
justice, inflicted with busy hands that never stopped roaming through the
tangles in our children’s hair, the pages of our books, the weeds in our
gardens, never-finished projects in our closets, scrapbooks tucked under our
beds, journals that we poured over, pen in hand, our heart and soul in every
drop of ink…and blank journals that lined our bookshelves, unwritten and
waiting. We were sisters. We were mother and daughter. Spiritually connected
and bonded for life. She became my family and I hers.
“Breathe,” Soror Smith said whenever we visited each other. Pulling me into a tight embrace, she repeated it until I let go of all that I carried on my shoulders.
mama,” I would reply, letting the weight of the world flow into Soror Smith’s
our last embellishment, I sat beside my mama on her last night on Earth,
November 30, 2017, in a cold hospital room poorly lit by overhead fluorescent
lights that failed to do her brilliance justice. Her eyes were closed and she
could no longer speak but I still heard her and we shared tales of life and
living and moving onto the next adventure.
“Breathe,” I heard her whisper in my head. I caught my breaths in between weeping.
that. That’s wasn’t the last time. In our last embellishment, I was on a long
drive that started at 4 a.m. from Oakland to San Diego to plan mama’s memorial
service. My sister, Jeannie, was asleep in the passenger seat. I had just
peaked on highway 5 heading south. My chest had been heavy since mama passed
and air choked me without mercy. My car began its descent into a vast valley,
greened by the fall’s rain. The sun rose over the mountains that surrounded the
valley, blinding me. My breath caught as the valley opened up below me. My car
soared down the road.The searing
beauty of the landscape struck me and I felt my chest expand.
Breathe, said the sky, the sun, the air, the grass, the ocean, the ground beneath me, the universe all around me.
mama,” I replied, letting my love and my sorrow flow into the energy of the
beauty of the world.
* This essay was first published in Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated’s “Journey to Centennial, 2018 Year in Review & Sisterhood Anthology: The Heart of it All,” edited by Terri N. Bell, Ph.D. and Jylla Moore Tearte, Ph.D., Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated Centennial Commission, 2019, Print and Web, pp. 70-73.