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Being a black girl is lit — even when you're 86 years old

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"I always says, 'I ain’t never been scared,' but guess what? Sometimes I’m just as scared as I wanna be. You ain’t gonna know that though."

My grandma never hesitates to let the people around her know this. But here’s the thing — whether you believe her or not, if you were to take a look at her life, the proof is in the pudding.

My grandmother told me a story. She told me that if she was given the opportunity to finish school and live out her dreams, she would have been a poet. This was not surprising to me, as anybody that knows my grandma knows that she lives for a good Easter speech. She told me the story of a man named Dr. Charles Edward Murray, more affectionately known as C. E. Murray to the people of my hometown, Greelevyille, SC. 

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Photo: Wallace Mack

At one point, Dr. Murray, a local Black educator for whom my high school was named for, had created this night-school program for the people of the town, allowing young adults who couldn’t attend school during the day for various reasons (raising kids, working in the fields, etc.) to catch up on the things their peers were learning. My grandma talked with excitement about catching the bus and riding over to the school to learn something new when she could. She told me her favorite subject was English, but she struggled with fully grasping the intricacies of standard American English, and that often gave her low self-esteem and caused her to doubt her work. Eventually, life at home became too demanding, and she was unable to continue her schooling. She says she never stopped writing, though.

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I often hear my aunts and uncles tell stories of how my grandma would cook Sunday dinners that fed several households outside of her own. She has a certain generous disposition about her. In fact, there are many lessons in benevolence that I could learn from her. My grandma has been known to get up, go fishing at 6 a.m. and return with too many fish to eat on her own. This often results in multiple phone calls being made to family and friends to come pick some up. Ever since I was a kid, the neighborhood go-to for asking about my grandma has been, “How’s Miss Mazie? She still fishin'?” And in true southern fashion, I’d always go back to my grandma and say, “Grandma, Miss So & So asked me if you still fishing today!” Without fail, grandma will always say, “I hope you told ‘em, like a dog!My grandma is an eccentric character. She is full of witty anecdotes and random catch phrases.

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The only thing as interesting as my grandma’s personality might be her taste. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to regard my grandma as a curator in her own right. Take two steps onto her front porch and you will immediately notice that she has an extensive trinket collection. The items don’t necessarily share a theme, but that’s the magical part. Each and every trinket in her collection tells a part of her story.

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She has a very distinct personal style that varies depending on the occasion. Catch her on a chill day and she might hit you with a fly monochrome outfit —orange from head to toe, different shades casually positioned to her liking. A flower in her hair isn’t an uncommon occurrence. But catch her on a Sunday morning and she'll be covered in the regalness of a Southern black grandmother — elaborate hat, freshly-pressed suit, pearls and curls so tight, only the humidity of low-country South Carolina can get them to drop.

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The idea of sitting down with me for days to talk about herself made my grandma slightly uncomfortable. The idea that I would be following her around with a camera made her even more uncomfortable. But after the first few hours of shooting and talking, my grandma became a pro at being in front of the camera. For the next three days, I got to know so much about the mother of my father. I walked alongside my grandma on a journey down memory lane as she talked about any and everything, from her faith in God to barn parties that she and my grandfather would attend. Once the subject of my grandfather came up, I couldn’t help but ask a burning question. Prior to me asking, my grandma had been rocking steadily, crossword puzzle in hand with an open-mouthed grin.

How do you know when love is real Grandma?”

Her rocking ceased. She sat up and I could see her eyes go wandering. It was like my grandma was in space. My late grandfather, Sam, is described by the entire family as a “red man” of humor and a temper. I was not yet born when he died. Minus the part about him being a “red man,” my mom often says that she thinks we have a lot in common. My grandma looked over at me and said “baby boy…," and she paused. By now I’m dying to know what’s next, and with a voice full of clarity and conviction, my grandma said to me, “When it’s real, you know it in your heart. Your heart goes pitty-pat." Just a few words, but spoken with so much purpose that I felt no need to challenge her any further. Pitty-Pat, I mouthed to myself. Pitty. Pat.

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On one particular Sunday, my little brother and I went to visit my grandma in one of her favorite places. My grandma sits in the same seat every Sunday at her African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. This was something that I'd always noticed, but never thought investigated. As I sat in the second row of the church, so many childhood memories came rushing back. My cousins and I would sit impatiently in this church, play-fighting and sneaking fruit snacks — all of the sneaky things that kids do when they're at church and ready to go. My 19-year-old brother leans over to me and says, "you know why Grandma always sits there, right?" I didn't know. He knew this. He pointed at the stained glass behind her, "Just look bro. Uncle Paul, Granddaddy, and Uncle Rabbit's names are on that glass right there." He was right. Directly behind my Grandma's permanent seat, etched into the stained glass, was a family dedication to her late brother, husband, and son.  

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Mazie ain’t never been scared. When she says that, she means it. She beat sharecropping. She’s conquered no-good men. She survived the Jim Crow South. She’s overcome abuse. She’s recovered from a stroke and beat high blood pressure. She's endured childbirth 10 times.  She has never allowed diabetes to consume her life. She’s lost a husband, a sister, a brother, and a son. At 86 years old, you still can’t beat Mazie. Mazie Mack has made it perfectly clear that she ain’t never been scared, and if she was, I bet you ain’t know it.

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Wallace Mack is a guy from the swamps of South Carolina. Somehow he's been transplanted to the streets of NYC. All he wants to do is tell stories for the rest of his life. Keep up with him at playinitcool.com, and follow him on twitter at @themackintosh_

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