During Women’s History Month, we aired a number of documentaries featuring incredibly smart, brave, and talented women including Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai (Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai) and Rose Mapendo (Pushing the Elephant). That got us to thinking about all of the amazing women in the world and how each of us has one or two who have inspired us and shaped the people we’ve become or aspire to be. So we asked for nominations from our audience, along with a brief explanation of why their nominee is especially inspirational. Then we put our favorite entries up for a popular vote, and in the end, our winner was Tracy Chiles McGhee of Washington D.C., who nominated the author Zora Neale Hurston. It turns out that Tracy is one inspirational woman herself, as we found out when we got to know her.
First off Tracy, congratulations! How’d you hear about our contest?
Thanks! I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed and someone had the link on their page. I wish I could remember who so I could thank the person.
Why did Zora Neale Hurston rise to the top of your list? Do you remember when you were first introduced to her work? Do you have a favorite quote or passage?
First off, I’m inspired by so many remarkable women throughout history and present times, but, figuratively speaking, Zora Neale Hurston immediately jumped up, raised her hand and screamed “Pick me!” so I did. I adore Zora not just for her prolific writing, both rich in culture and deft and beautiful in language but also for her zest and independence and boldness. I, like so many others, appreciate her dedication to recording and sharing stories that might have otherwise been lost to us.
I was given Zora’s acclaimed novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by my father — the one and only Farrell J. Chiles — in elementary school. I reread it in college, fell deeply in love, and now it’s royalty in my personal library. My favorite passages are the first few paragraphs (excerpted below), the last paragraph, and one sandwiched in between where the main character Janie strikes back verbally at her domineering husband Joe Starks after he insults her in front of the townsfolk.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act accordingly.
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
— Opening paragraphs of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Tell us about you. Where you’re from, where you live, what you do, where you’ve been, and where you’re headed.
Well, I was born in Chicago, grew up in Mt. Holly, Arkansas where my mother is from, and moved to the San Francisco Bay area in middle school. After high school, I came to Washington DC to attend Georgetown University, stayed to attend Catholic University Law School, and then landed my first job as a public interest lawyer. I’ve been here since with no immediate plans to relocate. After practicing disability rights law for several years, I made a career transition in 2010. Now I’m a project coordinator for a major grant, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called WOMANIFESTING, a published writer with a novel-in-progress, and last but not least, I am a tenured Cool Mama to my precious daughter Sasha.
Tell us more about Womanifesting.
Ah … my baby. Back on December 27, 2009, I updated my Facebook status to say “Tracy is wo-manifesting.” I thought it was the perfect way to describe my state of being after a really inspired day of writing. The word resonated with friends and I was challenged to define it. The definition I eventually came up with was: 1) to recognize, celebrate, and share one’s brilliance; and 2) to use one’s brilliance to serve, uplift, and inspire. One idea and action led to another, and in March 2010 on International Women’s Day, I launched a nonprofit based on the word with a circle of awesome women. The nonprofit’s mission is to develop and support programs that foster self-empowerment, sisterhood, and service and to positively impact the lives of women and girls, particularly those under-resourced and marginalized. We call it WOMA for short. Yo can learn more at womanifesting.org.
You are extremely active in your community. Why did you choose the causes you are dedicated to?
I think they choose me. It concerns, saddens, angers me when I see barriers, real or imagined, preventing us from reaching our full potential. Life’s daily challenges are hard enough and we all need support and resources to prosper. I am pulled toward issues effecting women, youth, artists, the poor, and persons with disabilities. I also have a huge stake in promoting the vast contributions of African Americans and preserving our rich cultural history for the sake of joy, pride, and survival.
What do you think are the most pressing global issues facing women today? How about in the United States?
Poverty in general, physical and sexual violence, hunger, access to safe and clean drinking water, rampant and untreated disease, maternal mortality, barriers to education, silencing. The United States is not immune from the totality of those issues but here there are some others that come to mind — unemployment, lack of quality health care, unequal pay for equal work, high stress levels from work/life imbalance. I also see a lack of self-worth as an issue for many women and it’s no wonder after you’ve been disrespected, paid unfairly, abused, systematically cast as lesser-than, and consistently portrayed as sexual objects; it can weigh on you if you let it. There are so many issues and all are pressing. I couldn’t possibly cover them all in this conversation.
How do you motivate people to be active in their communities when the issues can seem overwhelming and one person can feel helpless in the face of all of it?
I start by motivating myself on a daily basis through scriptures, quotes, and stories of people making a difference and then I lead by example and strive to be consistent. I encourage, inspire, and empower others to do what they can with what they can when they can. This method works in small and huge ways and it all counts. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt overwhelmed and disillusioned but then angels show up and amazing things happen to get me fired back up and back in the fight. Like recently, I was trying to figure out if WOMA could move forward with an event and out of the blue, we received an unsolicited sponsorship from a sister community based in northern California called A Band of Wives, whose leaders I met on Twitter! I believe strongly in “digital sisterhood,” a term coined by my friend Ananda Leeke to describe women supporting each other through social media. (Shout out to GCS, WAP, and O-fam!)
If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead (and let’s assume Zora would attend as well) who would it be and why?
Well, in that case, Zora and I would have a girls’ night out hopping from one place to another in the U Street Corridor in DC. But when I returned home, I’d like to find my grandmama Lydia, who’s passed on, there waiting for me with dessert. To tell the truth, sometimes I really just want to lay my head on her lap, have her rub my back and pray for me; tell me stories, share her recipes and healing remedies, teach me how to sew and quilt and bloom flowers, how to show love as a good Christian, mother, friend, and neighbor, how to be faithful and embody peace. She would tell me that she loves me and that everything is going to be alright. She did so many of these things when she was alive. I just wish she was here to see how much she has impacted my life.
Did you have strong, capable women in your life growing up who set an example for you?
Oh yes! All-around. Of course, my grandmama I just spoke of who raised me; my smart, passionate, outspoken, stylish, and generous mama Verdene; my other grandmama Louise, who I spent summers with as a child in Detroit, Michigan. She is pure love, beauty, grace, and dignity. And then there are my caring, witty, no-nonsense aunties, and countless other women of strength and substance in my family, church, and the community. A special shout-out to Ms. Caldwell, an elementary school teacher who showed me the magic of words and taught me the importance of a powerful “good morning” greeting.
Tell us something about yourself that most people who know you might be surprised to hear.
I’m an introvert through and through. It’s not that I’m shy, anti-social or can’t be the life of the party at times. It just means I am mostly energized by one-on-one conversations and solitary acts such as meditation, writing, reading, and shopping.
What are your three favorite Independent Lens documentaries, and why?
Of course, I’d like to say Jump at the Sun, the documentary on Zora Neale Hurston but I do believe that aired on another great PBS show, American Masters, so I’ll start with the most recent Independent Lens film I saw — Pushing the Elephant — Rose Mapendo’s story. In this documentary, Rose shares the liberation she feels after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States during a tumultuous conflict but she also shares the anguish she experiences after being separated from her daughter in the escape. We are given an intimate look into their reunion that takes place 12 years later.
Their effort to reconcile the past with the future is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Rose demonstrates the deep love she has for her immediate family of 10 children as well as for the extended Congolese family she left behind. The decisions she makes in light of her commitment to fighting for human rights and social justice, especially for women, is inspiring to say the least.
Another film I enjoyed some time ago was Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene, on the late media personality and activist Petey Green. His bold voice spoke for DC’s largely unheard. Now, I’m looking forward to viewing Bhutto, which is coming up soon . I think Bhutto’s life’s journey will be a riveting story so I will definitely be tuning in.
Ed note: Bhutto premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, May 10. Here’s a preview:
What do you think the role of PBS is in today’s America?
We go to PBS to be enlightened, to be entertained, to be ignited, to be inspired by humanity, and to be captivated by the wonders of the world. We take it for granted that PBS will always be there for us to land on after we get tired of flipping the remote in search of substance. We need to rethink that so we can ensure that it is.
Thanks for sharing a part of my story! This was a great womanifesting experience.