I am 10 years old, sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, and my Dad is grilling me.
“Okay, last one. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space?”
I am stumped.
“C’mon, Syd. I know you know it,” prods Daddy.
I turn the question over and over in my head like a smooth stone unearthed from a riverbed. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space? I bite down harder on my lower lip, considering all of the trivia questions Daddy has ever asked me, and trying to remember if he’d asked this one before. He had not.
I remember learning about her in school, and I could see her smiling face on a picture from my 6th grade classroom. Suddenly, a moment of clarity. A flash of brown skin, a cumbersome-looking orange suit, and the NASA insignia above a gleaming white name tag: Jemison.
“Mae Jemison! The first Black woman ever to enter space was Mae Jemison!” I offer confidently.
“Atta girl, Syd!” Daddy offers me a single french fry as reward for my effort.
As was customary, we played Black history trivia every time we went out to eat together. For each right answer, I was given that crunchy, salty, coveted reward. I munch contentedly as I watched the gears turn in his head, forming another question.
“Now…who was the first Black woman ever to be President of the United States?” he raises his eyebrow mischievously.
“Daddy, that’s a trick question. No Black woman has ever been President of the United States. It’s a fact.”
(I was a serious child—a very bossy, know-it-all, matter-of-fact little girl. Imagine Angelica, of Rugrats fame, with afro puffs.)
“Ah, not yet!” he shakes his finger at me. “It could very well be you, Sydney Magruder!” he bellows in his full, rich baritone. I laugh at him, and reach for another french fry. He reaches for one too, pretending to fence with his. I best him, splitting his fry pitifully in half with my own. I chew triumphantly.
“Ready to go?” he indicates the door with his eyes.
“Mom’s gonna make me go straight to bed when we get home,” I gripe. “I’m not sleepy yet!”
I always begged to stay longer whenever we went out. Bedtime was the ultimate hindrance to our intellectual adventures.
“Even geniuses have to sleep, baby” he retorts rationally.
In the car, the raindrops race each other across the window. I follow them with my index finger as the Washington, D.C. skyline hung in the distance. Daddy sings along to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Out of nowhere, he turns down his favorite track. As “Southern Cross” plays faintly in the background, he turns to me.
“Y’know, I think you’d make a great president one day,” he beams. I smile at him, believing his every word.
And just like that, Daddy put roots in my heart. Roots that would one day grow into feminism.
As a child, Dad constantly reminded me that I was not limited by my gender, or by my Blackness. He celebrated them to no end, constantly praising my intellect, my wit, and my good judgment. He made perfectly clear to me the plight of women and of people of color in this country, and stressed the importance of knowing our history — my history.
The trivia games we played at restaurants when I was a child have reinvented themselves into an expected text message from him to me every April 4th and November 22nd, asking me which two famous men died that day. (Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, respectively. Nailed it.) He still promises me french fries for correct answers. While my mom demonstrated the strength, poise, grace and tenacity of women of color in her everyday actions, Daddy proclaimed them in his words.
As I got older and began to study feminism in a more academic setting, Daddy cautioned me about the exclusivity of the early feminist movements, and pointed me instead towards Black feminists like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Audre Lorde. A lifelong bookworm, I dove headfirst into the works of these great women, often pausing mid-page to call my Dad and inform him of what I had just learned. I could hear his broad smile through the phone as he praised me for seeking truth, for seeking knowledge, and for seeking the wisdom and the excellence of our people.
I am nearly 21 now, and Daddy still thinks I should make a run for office.
“Just think about it, Syd. Really consider it. You’d be great!” he always says over dinner my first night back home for the holidays.
All these years later, and he still thinks I can do just about anything. He’s proud of me – he has a queer feminist activist for a daughter, and he’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen. Twenty-one years, my coming out to him as a lesbian, my outspoken activism, my writing and my protesting, and I am still his sweet baby girl. He reminds me often how much he looks forward to walking me down the aisle at my wedding, whenever that will be.
“Promise not to trip on your dress, sweetheart,” he always says.
Our rich tradition of oral history and storytelling equips us with the capability to share our truth and wisdom with the next generation. Black feminism gets passed down in our kitchens, on our stoops, in our beauty salons, and on our streets. It is gently handed down in word, in deed, in song and in dance, through laughter and through tears. It’s also handed down from a dad to his little girl, in the corner booth at an Applebee’s over trivia and fast food.
– Sydney Magruder
Sydney Magruder is an African-American/multiracial femme lesbian sociologist, ballerina, bibliophile, writer, and green-tea addict about to enter her last year of undergraduate studies at Skidmore College. She wants to write, teach, critique pop-culture, and use music, theater and dance as a means of educating the masses about race, sexuality, gender, and how young people can change the future. Until she figures out exactly how to incorporate all of those individual things into one giant thing, you can find her in ballet class, hunting down a new pasta dish to make, or hogging her family’s Netflix account with Doctor Who and Parks and Recreation.