To celebrate the start of Black History Month, NABJ student writer Allegra Coleman shares what "Deeply Rooted," the Bears' Black History Month theme, means to her. Click here to read more about Allegra and her connection to Chicago and the Bears.
"I'm telling you this story because I love you a bushel and a peck."
This is what my grandmother, Juanita McCray, would say to me as she concluded one of her many life stories.
"One day I will tell the world your story and the many challenges you faced as a Black woman in America."
That was the promise I made to her before she passed away during my freshman year of high school in 2018. Significant parts of her journey felt deeply rooted in my upbringing and life as a young girl in Chicago.
Nothing can be rooted without acknowledging the seeds planted by those before us. Mine were planted by Juanita. She was more than just my grandmother. She was a writer, an activist, a trailblazer and a mother, but most importantly, she was a woman of many stories.
Her tales that are deeply rooted in mine include her activism of marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement for the Freedom Sunday Rally at Soldier Field— the same historic stadium I would pass every morning growing up to get to school on the North side of Chicago.
She shared how the recipe for her infamous hot water cornbread came to be. It's the same dish that now sizzles in the background of my Sundays while I remind my mother of all my upcoming endeavors for the week.
She wrote stories and poetry during bedtime, which she read to me and my twin brother until we dozed off in her one bedroom apartment. She would then return to her favorite reclining chair to watch reruns of Good Times on the TV.
These stories and poems served as inspiration for my poetry class last spring semester, where I realized that I wasn't as wise with my words as she once was.
Juanita didn't shy away from also sharing stories about the hardships she faced. I was shocked by the segregation she experienced growing up in Kentucky. She would vaguely explain the situations she was faced with while living through Jim Crow Laws. She would always express to me how she felt trapped by these laws, and how her and her family moving to Chicago was a way for her to escape.
She made a name for herself in this city advocating for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. This allowed her and her late husband to start Al-Ray Optical on 87th St, on the South side. Before there was LensCrafters and other mainstream optical stores, there was Al-Ray Optical. It's the same location that is now occupied by a nail salon I frequent.
I can vividly remember the day when I made that promise to her. I was about 10 years old and just purchased a new journal from the Scholastic Book Fair. She was telling me about how Al-Ray Optical expanded to its second location – A&A Optical on 95th St. in Beverly. She talked about the positive impact it had on her community – how it was important to have this optical business that was catered towards African Americans. This was the story that made me want to tell the world about her, but I thought I would never be able to. I was heartbroken.
Despite my heartbreak, my mother reminded me that it wasn't too late to fulfill my promise I made to her. She helped me recognize that I still can venture out into the world, ask questions and report on people's lives, experiences and situations to tell the stories of others as I didn't get the chance to for Juanita. The seeds she planted — the story of her life — became deeply rooted in mine.
Juanita was the kind of woman that never took no for an answer. Her determination is what led her to her accomplishments. She was the kind of grandmother who took the shape of a mother. She possessed this nurturing aura in both roles. She would talk your ear off about the most random things and make a 5-star meal in return.
The seeds planted by those who came before us extend beyond individuals to encompass life, places and things from the past brought into the present. For me, it's my grandmother, the city of Chicago and the rich history that has been embedded deep within the cracks of Lake Shore Drive by those before me.
Chicago is rooted in history – more than just my grandmother's story. It will forever be a space of many stories, some of which still impact me to this day.
That is why being deeply rooted embodies the city of Chicago. Its history, stories and authenticity crafted by these seeded elements are what make this world-class city so special and a place that will forever be deeply rooted inside of me.
It is the city that my grandmother moved to from Kentucky, the city where I grew up and explored all the nooks and crannies, the city that has aided in my growth and will continue to do so. It will always be my home and where I have planted my seeds for those after me.