"Protesting with My Grandmothers' Ghosts:" The winner of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest, Adult Category

We're proud to present this essay by Shan Overton, which received 1st prize in our adult category of the 2017 Nashville Reads Writing Contest. Congratulations, Shan, and keep writing!

Lately, I’ve found myself wading into the streets of Nashville to march for an America of justice and mercy. Each time, I don a pussy hat hastily made from cheap pink fleece, and I feel the electric intensity of protesting running through me. Back in March, when Donald Trump visited our city for one of his never-ending campaign rallies, friends and I walked, hats and all, beside the mile-long line of vocal Trump supporters curling around the State Capitol. We joined our fellow resisters at the front doors of the Municipal Auditorium, where I admired their creativity in signs, slogans, and costumes. The Trump supporters outnumbered protesters, and I considered the likely futility of our efforts. Then, I pondered how it is that I came to fling myself into these situations in the first place.

It turns out that, when I march in the streets, I’m surrounded by the ghosts of my grandmothers. They were not marchers, exactly, but they were inclined to put their bodies where their beliefs were. Mary Frances Overton, a surgeon’s country-clubbing wife with devotion to a Methodist faith, was not one to remain silent when she witnessed an injustice unfolding in her presence. Nancy Turner, also a faithful Methodist, was a career school teacher and farmer’s wife who was less colorful regarding public demonstrations of her opinions. Both had been born in small towns in Tennessee long before women’s suffrage came to pass, and they were dissenting voices in their generations and locations, in their respective ways.

Relating my grandmothers’ lives to my own political activity, I see that I learned a lot from them. At a very young age, I witnessed Mary Frances stopping a white man on a sidewalk to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he had been rude to a black woman coming out of a store, and that this was completely unacceptable behavior for a God-fearing human being. A small episode like this might not seem like much now, but for a white woman of my grandmother’s generation, who had been raised in the shadow of slavery times in Pulaski, to publicly demand respect for a woman of color -- from a white businessman in a suit -- was really something. Mary Frances had a reputation around town for pulling her car up onto sidewalks and stopping rush hour when she didn’t like the flow of traffic; she spoke her mind and used her feet in situations when others would have stayed put and kept their mouths shut. She was not politically enlightened -- Mary Frances was a woman of her time and wore her white, wealthy privilege where everyone could see it. But her voice, her energy, her sense of human dignity, long gone from her body, walk with me as I carry my own dissent in these difficult times.   

Nancy was another matter altogether. Born and raised in a farming family, she graduated from Peabody College with a teaching degree before she was 20 years old. She had offers to teach in more illustrious schools in Nashville, but she took her first job in a one-room schoolhouse in Smithville, riding to school with her students on a bus driven by future U.S. Senator Al Gore, Sr. When asked why she decided to return to the sticks to teach when she could have taught in better city schools, Nancy replied: “Well, don’t the little country kids who have no shoes deserve as good an education as those big city kids with their fancy shoes?” If Mary Frances was an urban force-of-nature, Nancy was a quiet country radical who supported gay rights before there was such a thing, had zero truck with racists, and took good care of the poor kids in her classrooms. I inherited my way of doing politics from Mary Frances, but I learned the contents of my beliefs from Nancy.

Standing in the cold on James Robertson Parkway a few weeks ago, I felt the lively presence of these two powerful women whose blood courses through my veins. When I think of quitting, when I consider that the forces of domination and oppression may be too much to bear or defeat, I see the ferocious dedication to mercy and justice shining in my grandmothers’ eyes. I hear it in the echoes of their voices in my ears. They might not wear pink pussy hats, but their spirits protest in solidarity with me and keep me going despite the odds.

 

Shan Overton, a native Nashvillian, currently splits her time between urban life in East Nashville and country life on Wedge Oak Farm, her family’s century farm in Lebanon. She has taught creative and spiritual writing in workshops and retreats and academic writing in secondary and higher education institutions, including Middle Tennessee State University, Volunteer State Community College, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and Boston College.

Photo credit: Beatrice Phelps Kouvalis