5 Women Who Influenced Me: Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (Submitted photo)

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (Submitted photo)

Every morning I take a moment to give thanks, to reflect on who I am and who I want to be by the end of the day.

I was thinking about all of the women who have influenced me as I tried to narrow my list to five. It is a difficult task because I stand on the shoulders of so many Black women who have come before me and opened the doors. I stand side-by-side with so many women who help me dismantle white supremacy while working for equity, justice and fairness. I stand in front of so many young sisters coming after me, watching and learning from my mistakes and my accomplishments. I am inspired and influenced by them all.

I thought about Maya Angelou who once told me, after I won a poetry contest, to keep writing because the world needed my words.

I thought about Michelle Obama, who hugged me and said, with a laugh, that the world was big enough to hold all of our dreams. I thought about the time I sat outside Winnie Mandela’s house and listened to her neighbors tell stories about her life. I never met her, but her life and sacrifice, and commitment to the struggle influenced me.

I kept writing names and moments, and my list kept growing. I am influenced by Shirley Chisolm, Dorothy I. Height, and the Black women deaconesses who sat on my daddy’s church’s front row, wearing a crown and linen gloves. I thought of Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker and all of the Black women in America who turned their anger into activism and their strength into survival.

But, I could only choose five. When I am most afraid, or I feel alone, I asked myself whose words do I hear? When I need to be reminded of who I am and why I am here, who do I call? When I am doing the hard work, who am I doing it for? Five women who influenced me, who remind me of who I am, and model for me who I want to be in this world. Five women who make me proud, in the words of Maya Angelou, to spell my name W-O-M-A-N.

1-dorothy-best-griffin-bambergDorothy Best Bamberg, my Nana

My Nana was my best friend, an unstoppable force of grace and kindness and courage. She celebrated and supported me. She loved me and pushed me to be better, to do more, to use my talents to speak to the world. She did not suffer any fools or racists. She stood tall and taught me how to do the same. She was one of the first Black nurses in South Carolina. She survived the Jim Crow South and lived long enough to see Barack Obama’s inauguration. I called her that day and we sat on the phone and watched it together. She told me stories about her childhood and mine. She said that she was experiencing that moment, that victory, for her mother, and she said that when she finally goes on ahead to see how the end is going to be, I will experience these types of moments for her. She once told me that if I ever forgot who I am, I should call her because she would never forget.

2-bonnie-ruth-nix-wiseBonnie Ruth Nix Wise, my mother

When I was a little girl, I used to be in the audience when my mother gave a speech and I would look at her and try to see myself. She spoke and had the audience spellbound by her words and cadence and by the way she smiled and flashed her eyes. I used to go back to my room, sit my dolls in a circle on the floor and pretend that I was her, speaking the truth to all who would listen. When I had my first book of poetry published, my mother sat on the front row and every time I finished a poem, she would stand up and clap and yell. I laugh every time I think about it because that moment truly defines who she is and who she has been in my life: my greatest inspiration, my biggest cheerleader, the one who reminds me of who I am and lights the path to who she believes that I can be in this world.

3-olivia-hairstonOlivia Hairston, my spiritual mentor

I remember when my husband first mentioned the Happy Hairston’s. He was attending the Baltimore School of the Bible and his teacher (who later became his mentor and spiritual father) was Thomas Hairston. When I met Brother Thom and Sister Olivia, it felt like I was coming home. When we moved to Baltimore, we did not have any family or friends in the area. We did not have a church home or a clear path forward. The Hairstons welcomed us into their home. They invited us to church, took us on family vacations and became the family we needed. Sister Olivia is a gentle voice providing guidance and wise counsel. She is who I called when my nephew died, when my Nana died and when my son was in the hospital. She inspires me to be better, to work harder, to love and care more. She is a bright light in a world that sometimes feels like it is too dark.

4-lavonne-nealLa Vonne I. Neal, my academic mentor

When I was first hired as a professor, I attended the ASALH Conference. After introducing myself to Executive Director Sylvia Cyrus, she pointed to a very serious-looking, sharply dressed sister and told me to go over to her and introduce myself. Looking back, I count that as one of the moments where my life changed. I walked over to her and ended up spending the day with her, listening and taking notes as she talked about her life and her work as a professor, a dean, a track star and as a military officer. She provides me with guidance and direction and makes me believe that there is no door that I cannot open nor any deal that I cannot walk away from. She teaches me how to control my controllable and how to model excellence. She is the hand that pulls me to the top of each academic mountain and reminds me that we are the ones that make the space for the next Black woman to get to the top.

5-mercedes-alexandria-whiteheadMercedes Alexandria Whitehead, my (bonus) daughter

She was 8 years old when we first met. She was competing in a swim meet. I watched her looking at her father as he coached her. She was so focused. I recognized that look because her father had the same one whenever he was concentrating on getting something done. We went out for ice cream and I remember thinking about how funny she was and how I was just happy being around her. She was the flower girl at our wedding and that evening, as we went to drop her off at home, she asked if she could call me “Momma Kaye.” She said she had been thinking about it. She probably did not know how much those two words meant to me. I did not know how to be a bonus mother, but she was patient with me. She is amazing. She is brilliant and she is brave. She has a wicked sense of humor and a caring heart. I think of her when I am out here slaying dragons and kicking doors off the hinges because I want the path to be open for her. She is one of three reasons (along with her two brothers) why I will fight for justice and equity with all that I have, for as long as I am able.

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.

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