In June 2021, the Collegeville Institute hosted a virtual writing workshop led by Dori Baker and Patrice Gopo called Our Own Deep Wells: Writing on Vocation Across Race and Culture. The workshop invited faith leaders and scholars who center the voices of marginalized communities and/or grapple with power and privilege as an element of vocational discernment. Writing about vocation that is rooted in an individual’s distinct identity holds power to transform people, communities, and the world.
The online workshop began each day listening to participants’ responses to the prompt: “Tell a story about a specific person, practice, or tradition that called you to life.” The writing prompt was inspired by an interview with Patrick Reyes, author of The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive, for Bearings Online, in which he defines vocation as following God’s call to survive.
In the next few weeks, we will be sharing several essays expanded from these responses. This essay by Kathryn Stanley about Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor, who celebrated her 88th birthday yesterday, December 12, launches the series.
Though I am not a magician, ever since I have been old enough to wash my own clothes, I have successfully been able to make socks disappear. It doesn’t seem to matter if they come off my feet at the same time or whether I bear witness to myself putting them in the wash, it never fails that at least one sock will emerge from the dryer missing its mate.
There is, however, one pair of socks I have never, ever lost. Indeed, I have kept up with them for over 35 years. They are forest green and navy argyle wool knee socks. To be sure, I don’t wear them frequently because they match very little in my wardrobe, and since I live in the South, there are only a few days cold enough to warrant wearing them. So I suppose, keeping up with these socks hasn’t been so difficult.
What’s important about these 35-year-old socks isn’t just that they haven’t disappeared but that they were given to me by Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor, the woman I know as Auntie. Auntie has been a part of my extended family for as long as I can remember. Daddy called her “Sister” and she called him “Reverend Father.” Even though Daddy was her pastor, she was his confidante, a sister, a place where he could take his proverbial collar off, leaving the role of pastor behind for a while.
Like many of the members of the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ of my childhood, Auntie was among the DC elite. She had earned degrees from Spelman College, Atlanta University, and Catholic University, where she received her PhD. She’s taught at various institutions including Georgetown, Cornell, Tougaloo, and retired as Professor of English at Howard University. Yet unlike some other highly lettered people I knew, Auntie never presented as haughty or highbrow.
When I was a child, Auntie seemed larger than life. She had a flair for the dramatic. Her voice might begin at a passionate yell and fall to a nearly inaudible stage whisper within a single sentence. She wore the most fabulous clothes: colorful and textured, including fur, leather, and even feathers, and she wore huge hoop earrings. Auntie definitely didn’t live in the part of the Bible which admonished women to remain silent in the church and adorn themselves modestly. Hers was a Ntozake Shange God, who “found god in [herself] and… loved her fiercely.” She was free, indeed.
Auntie travelled the world, “giving papers” as she called it. Her jaunts took her to Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. But whenever we went to Auntie’s house, my siblings, God brothers and sisters and I were Auntie’s babies without pretense.
We visited Auntie’s three-story row house near Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, on special occasions or “just because.” The menu rarely changed: baked chicken & yellow rice, rolls, and salad—a slight elevation of that served at funeral repasts. If it was New Year’s Day, she’d add black-eyed peas to the menu, a symbol of prosperity for Black folk. What made going to Auntie’s always memorable was that it was not uncommon to see some of the very writers she analyzed, including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, or other literary legends, sitting in the living room amongst a plethora of artifacts representing the African diaspora: art, books, even an old church pew.
Hers was a Ntozake Shange God, who ‘found god in [herself] and… loved her fiercely.’
We children were relegated to the top floor of Auntie’s house. Yet during our myriad trips down those steep, winding, wooden steps, I remember overhearing the stories. There were cultural critiques, discussions about life-giving ideas about changing the world. These luminary figures and others, including my parents, had been born into a world fraught with the pain and indignities of racism, yet they had emerged to tell the stories, write in spite of them, talk about them over bottles of “funny water” to ease some of their pain.
Auntie’s influence extended beyond her classroom and living room. She shared her network of luminaries with her church community. Consequently, on Peoples’ Church’s high holy days we heard a word from the Lord through voices of the African American experience. Their sermonizing contained calls for justice and liberation for Africans throughout the Diaspora. Their words were inspirational, instructive, providing reproof to the church, nation, and world. Auntie saw it as part of her ministry to see to it that the Black church retained its role as purveyor of Black culture post-integration just as it had been in the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church of her Atlanta childhood.
Though I resisted the “writing life” for many years, those moments around Auntie’s house planted seeds that only began to be watered years later. I am also clear that my knack for telling stories, whether on the phone with friends, in my classroom, or as a method of pastoral care, was nurtured and perfected at Auntie’s feet.
Eavesdropping at Auntie’s house taught me the art of listening to and telling stories. More than that, being at Auntie’s taught me the importance of stories shared, especially from those of us who, despite having been pushed to the margins, have developed a moral imagination, a sense of wonder, and a commitment to ensuring that who we were, who we are, and who we become, like my green and navy argyle socks, never disappears.