In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
by Lora-Ellen McKinney
A Life in Acts
“It was my mother who gave me my voice. She did this, I know now, by clearing a space where my words could fall, grow, then find their way to others.” ― Paula J. Giddings
A woman, short in stature, stands in the doorway to her home. She waves me toward the entry. “Come on in,” is my invitation to follow her into a living room warmed by shards of wintry sunshine on mustard yellow walls encasing furnishings in shades of deep red and purple. Walls are adorned with familial genealogy, generations of ancestors, children and grandchildren connected by broad foreheads, toothy smiles and mischievous eyes. The home is carefully curated, colors perfect, opposites on the color wheel. The home is startlingly spotless. Books, many by and about women, are abundant.
Gathered in a living room filled with the kind of love generated by family gathered for crisis sit Dr. Gwendolyn Jones, her daughter and eldest grandson. In a central position perched on an aubergine leather sofa, she looks towards an enlarged childhood photo of her son, placed on the mantle, surrounded by unlit candles.
On March 8th, her only son, Jon Moore, died of complications from renal disease. Known as Wordsayer and The Mayor, Jon was a Seattle musician credited for his pivotal role in creating a platform that catapulted local hip-hop from an underground peripheral interest to the mainstream Grammy stage. Jon was a force whose passing was lamented in many Seattle newspapers, whose face graces posters on Capital Hill and whose legacy will be celebrated on community radio on his upcoming April birthday.
Wordsayer’s words were remembered as simultaneously playful and puissant. “In this city where it rains all day, I’m still looking for the sunshine, hey.” The philosophy Jon used to fuel hip-hop as a force for happiness, positivity and social good was learned from his mother. He had a voice. It was uniquely his. It also reflected lessons hard won and victories fought by his mother. Jon summed up his philosophy to end his shows: “Peace. Love. Unity.”
Dr. Jones lives a life that is instructive to her family, friends and former students. It would have been a challenge for Jon to march through life as anything other than a social justice soldier. Gwen has the unique gift of being able to connect socioeconomic history, ethics and values, personal aspirations and a true belief in our American right to pursue happiness. Jon created a lyrical version of his mother’s lessons, shared them on the road and stage, taught them in classrooms, developed them in other artists, and infused them in community.
A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman. —Melinda Gates
The progeny of parents whose trail on the Great Migration led them to Las Vegas then to Hanford for well-paying technical and service jobs, Gwen was taught that, no matter the opinion of others, she was to hold her head up.
Toppenish, Washington is where Gwen Jones learned she was smart. Really smart. Her mother and grandmother noted the speed with which she learned her alphabet and mastered the mechanics of counting. She skipped kindergarten and entered first grade armed with a confidence in herself buoyed by family expectations. “Put something in your head,” they told her. “Can’t nobody take that from you!”
From 1st to 12th grade, Gwen was the only African American student in attendance at Lincoln Elementary and Toppenish Junior and Senior High Schools. School was a good, safe place in which she explored ideas, was prominent on the drill team and had a multicultural range of friendships. “I had no sense of myself as different,” she recalled until her fifth-grade teacher, Miss Gray, blocked her access to a special class “where all the smart kids went.” Remembering her mother’s statement about the permanence of intellect in proving oneself, Gwen asked her teacher, “I’m smart – why not me?”
We have to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. – Beyoncé
Gwen’s life then turned into a too-often seen movie. An unexpected pregnancy kept Gwen from marching victorious across the stage to claim her high school diploma. Heartbroken and afraid she had disappointed family expectations for academic achievement, she skipped her baccalaureate and commencement to deliver and learn to parent her new daughter.
She married and had two children with a violent man. Single parenthood became mandatory, part of a determined journey towards self-preservation and commitment to gifting her children with healthy definitions of personhood. Though knocked off her expected course, Gwen’s extended family provided encouragement for her academic and life goals.
The stench of her fifth-grade teacher’s betrayal was replaced by a succession of those who saw the smarts that were in her head: Elsie Tittsworth, her high school shorthand teacher, Yakima Business College professors, her boss at the Boy Scouts of America, her aunt who supported her applications to and attendance at Central Washington University, Bellevue College and the University of Washington.
Gwen was intrigued by her psychology classes. One UW professor, Dr. Shirley Feldman-Summers encouraged Gwen to enter the Ph.D. program in psychology. Gwen demurred after being discouraged by a male administrator. Dr. Feldman-Summers reminded Gwen of her family’s refrain. “Go sit in a class. They’re not smarter than you.”
Gwendolyn Jones received a Doctorate in Psychology in 1987: her research focused on the psychology of women, “addressing the multiple lenses that impact gender or are impacted by gender.”
Madeleine Albright famously said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”
There are remarkable women whose names and faces most of us are never blessed to know, but they change the air we breathe. Gwen Jones is one of those women. A mother, friend, partner, psychologist, professor. A guide for hip-hop progeny. Most importantly, she is someone who has spun consecutive challenges into success.
She has fought valiantly to live into the knowledge of who she is, what she can contribute, what she deserves and what she will not accept. This is the philosophy of self-acceptance that undergirded the lectures she gave to students at Antioch University whose online ratings of her are uniformly “awesome”. Self-acceptance is the granite-like grain that runs through her advice to friends. And it is what she taught her children. Love yourself. Create a peaceful spirit. Be informed about the world so that you can find your place in it. Claim your seat.
Living beneficiaries of those lessons arrived in Seattle to process the passing of their beloved lost brother, uncle, nephew and father. They sat under the photo of a cherubic infant Jon Moore, Gwen’s deceased son, whose broad forehead, toothy smile and mischievous eyes now join those of his forebears, black-framed in organized positions on a wall opposite his perch.
As for the living: their matriarch’s lessons were evident in the way their stories celebrated the resilience of their family. Peace. Love. Unity. The legacy of a wise woman whose name is Gwendolyn Jones. A woman whose life has answered the question, “Why not me?” and has taught its lessons to those lucky enough to know her.
Lora-Ellen McKinney is a river-walking activist, child psychologist and writer whose dog, Scout, thinks she’s the bees’ knees.
featured image courtesy of Dr. Gwen Jones