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Andrea Ramsey

My grandmothers were strong.

They followed plows and bent to toil.
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew.
They were full of sturdiness and singing.
My grandmothers were strong.

My grandmothers are full of memories

Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay
With veins rolling roughly over quick hands
They have many clean words to say.
My grandmothers were strong.
Why am I not as they?

Text by Margaret Walker

“Lineage” is a poem by poet, civil rights activist and educator Margeret Walker from her 1942 poetry collection For My People. Walker was a pioneer for both literature and black liberation in the twentieth century, being the first black woman to win numerous prestigious awards for her writings that detailed the black American experience, like the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and for the numerous honors she received as an educator.

The speaker in “Lineage” reflects on the hardships that her ancestors encountered as slaves, and describes their strength and resilience, despite the unimaginable trauma they faced everyday. Based on the experiences of Walker’s own great-grandmother, the text of “Lineage” continuously returns to the phrase “my grandmothers were strong” to emphasize the true power these women had. Through the suffering and turmoil of physical labor (“plowing fields, bent to toil”), they were able to, using their power and resilience, create good (“make grain grow,”) and despite the manual labor in places like the kitchen and the fields (“smelling of soap and onion and wet clay”) they persevered. Walker further accentuates their fortitude with the phrase “they have many clean words to say.” In spite of these unimaginable occurrences, these women used them to fuel their strength even more. The last line of the poem poses the question: “why am I not as they?”  The speaker is questioning why she does not have the strength that her ancestors had, since she has not experienced the same trauma they have endured.

This piece forces us to face the unfathomable realities that so many black women endured, and allows us to tell the story of their suffering and perseverance.