penny

One of the last times I saw my mother was also one of the few times I saw her weep. I’d seen my mother cry. I’d seen her wail when her mother died. I’d seen her choke back hot, angry sobs. I had never seen her weep with a bone weariness and resolve that she showed that day.

We were on a walk and she was telling me about a time at her job when she was blind-sided in a meeting after a none-too-subtle shift in her job description. After years of running a department she helped establish, she was being “reassigned.” They felt her talents were better used elsewhere.

So where did they think my mother, the first and, at the time, only black woman Ph.D and professor in her department, would be more useful? As the new “diversity” chair. Chair of a department that would basically consist of her and her secretary. Everyone knew how hard she fought to get the university to enroll more people of color in their graduate programs. They thought she would fall for their trap of not being able to refuse without looking like a hypocrite. They were wrong.

It quickly became apparent to her that her job had no teeth. So she left. When I asked her why she didn’t stay and fight her own way from the inside, she looked me dead in the eye and I saw she was weeping. “Because I know my worth. I know I was worth more than that.”

She had talked to me often about this subject. It was a running theme in her lessons to her daughters. She talked to us about our unconditional worth. That is who you are at your core and the baseline values you will never betray. This type of worth is not something you are given or that you earn, it just is a part of you.

She talked about your earned worth. She was a big believer in working hard to get what you want. She believed hard work always got rewarded. Maybe not in the way you expected, but in the way you deserved if you knew your worth.

If you struggle and work to achieve your goals and attain the status you desire, then you deserve to determine what that is worth.

She also talked about your worth to those who depend on you for love and support. Your value to them is a responsibility you have to protect because their value to you is non-negotiable. To those in that circle, you are worth all the time and effort the relationship requires.

What made her weep when she told me her story was how tired she was of always having to defend her worth. It was because of the weariness she felt at having to remind those who knew good and well that she was deserving of better. For her, it was just an old fight that she was sick of having, but would fight every time.

She hammered into us the importance of knowing and protecting our worth. She knew the battles we would face. She knew the doubts we would have to allay, both those others have in us and the ones we have in ourselves. She knew there would be times when we would have to prove we know and are ready to defend our worth.

On her new album, India.Arie has a song about worth. In it she comments on how sometimes people will dismiss our value like a “penny on the ground.” But just like said penny, no matter what some may think, every one of us has value and is worthy.

It can be exhausting as a woman to navigate this world that sees our contributions as less than. Having to constantly defend and justify what we are bringing to the table burns energy we could use in more productive ways. I understood immediately what made my mother shed tears. Rather than being told what space we can occupy, we have to claim the space we want for ourselves.

In the end, my mother said she didn’t regret her decision. People always say you should stand up for your beliefs. What belief could be more important to defend than your belief in yourself?

Others can try to put you in your place based on what they think you have to offer, but as long as you remain constant in what you know to be your worth, you will always have the power to choose your own place.

— Mariel Blake is a Daily News columnist. She can be reached at Warriorgriotspeaks@gmail.com.