Family & Self: A Life’s Journey

by | Nov 1, 2020 | 0 comments

  • Photographed by Melanie Jones for Our Lives magazine.
  • Photographed by Melanie Jones for Our Lives magazine.
  • Dad & Mom in the late 70’s.
  • Rita with her siblings.
  • Raven, daughter.
  • Brandi Grayson, daughter.
  • Tyrone, son.
  • Rita & Bernell, fiancée

There was a photo on the wall in my family home. It was my mother’s 1936 kindergarten classroom. They sat and stood in order with smiles, the teacher by their side and my mother in the front row with braids, ribbons in her hair, saddle shoes and quite simple apron dress. Her best little friend was leaning into her. I think Lauren knew in Kindergarten that my mom would always be there for her no matter their paths. Lauren and my mother remained friends until Lauren’s death, and after.

My mom, who had a Norwegian/Irish background, grew up middle class, connecting herself to Madison’s Black community because of her love for R&B and racial equality issues. My father, an African-American, was from Arkansas and was sent north to Wisconsin as a child and placed in the Sparta Orphanage. He returned to Madison after serving in World War II.

In 1956, they traveled to Iowa to get married, as it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in Wisconsin. For them, becoming the first visible and married interracial couple in the Madison community was an honor, but it did carry many burdens and unrest for our family.

Baird Street & beyond

I grew up in Madison, starting out on the south side during the 50s. It was a simple and much smaller community on Baird Street, five blocks of Black, interracial couples and two white families. Families were larger at that time, along with my family of seven children and many families with stay-at-home moms, we shared our lives. Baird Street was a place where we played in the streets and everyone knew and took care of each other, and I felt special to be in my family and live in a place where my color did not matter. The life of a very young child.

When I was five years old, my father became a WWF (now WWE) wrestler, and we moved to New York City. Our lives changed forever as he gained national notoriety and fame. We moved around the country and spent four years in Toronto. After several moves, when I was 12 years old, we came back to Madison and moved to the near east side.

Larry

It was then that I met Larry, my mom’s childhood friend who I knew from photos as Lauren. It was 1967, a time of civil unrest and involvement with Vietnam. She sat me down and explained that Lauren, her childhood friend, was now Larry and transgender. She was clear about her friendship and expectation for me to be respectful and accepting of Larry. (Thank you, Mom.)

Larry was married with a daughter the same age as my youngest sister. His family and my family lived in the same neighborhood and spent many holidays and great times together. There was an unspoken acceptance, respect, silence, and understanding of those needed secrets. Larry lived as a successful family- and businessman in Madison. Today I cherish and know it was my first lesson in civil liberties, justice, and living your own truth.

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A calling and a cause

Civil unrest around the country, especially on the UW campus and the Vietnam war was in full force. I was curious and wanted to be involved, so I spent a lot of time on campus at the Afro House, the Memorial Union, State Street, and at protests—instead of in school and with neighborhood friends. This was my beginning into community advocacy work and a drive to make a difference. It was an amazing time to be young, involved, and exposed to the work of making changes. It is not surprising for me to understand that I became a social worker. It was a calling and the cause I needed to feel—and a measure of community and legacy that I carried. My work life was guided by the Madison community needs and my willingness and need to step forward.

I had three children, divorced twice, and became a foster parent 1980 thru 1997. My youngest daughter—a previous foster daughter who is now adopted, many know as Brandi Grayson, community activist—completed my tribe. During those years, I fostered four-to-five teen girls at a time and ended up caring for a total of 23 adolescent foster girls. It was an unending experience of offering my most and receiving my best. So much of what I have learned in life is because of them. While I had the guts to think I could save the world, I learned that I needed to save myself more. I reconnected with my home church, Mt. Zion Baptist, and spent 20 years in the choir and giving my children a connection to God and the Black Madison community.

A surprising turn: Coming out

Then, at 45 years old, I came out. And life took a new, surprising turn. Being an out gay, Black woman in Madison was not easy. It was suggested by one of the ministers that I find another place of worship that would be more accepting. It was heartbreaking for me, as my great-grandfather was the first pastor of the church, and I had become identified as a Christian woman with a commitment to my church and community. It felt like I was not just losing the church, I was losing my family history, my Black community, and God’s acceptance.

That was 20 years ago, and the church has made more progressive gains, but not enough for me. I will always miss my church family and the gifts I was given, but that was then, and my now is different. A blessing that I experienced was attending church in Chicago. I found a Black church that was more than 90% lesbian, open, and affirming. It showed me a vision of another community I needed in my life and gave me a safe place to be myself and worship.

Relentless work

My work in Madison included 15 years in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, as an Intake Counselor/Programs Coordinator and 14 years with Dane County Human Services, as a Site Manager/Community Social Worker for Joining Forces for Families. I was relentless in my work by being on the Outreach board, State Domestic Violence Committee, a member of WSBE (Wisconsin State Black Employees), Co-Coordinator for the Million Women March in Philadelphia, Coordinator of the Katrina Relief Project, and Community Development for Allied Drive and the Southdale area, all the while caring for my children and foster children.

By 1999, I was divorced and exhausted, and I took a break from fostering, along with changing my work location to South Madison. 

That was when there was enough space and opportunity to meet her. Life became quite different, and I tried to navigate being a mother, daughter, social worker, and older out lesbian. My family was very accepting. Our lives had gone through many changes and this change was just another glue. All went well for about six years, and I crashed when it all ended. 

Soon after ending the relationship, I opened Adair’s Lounge (the old Rainbow Room). I kept my full-time job and exhausted myself doing both. I was the first African American to get an alcohol license in the Downtown Madison Entertainment District and was under pressure to have an establishment of success. I over-extended myself, and after a few years decided to close. 

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Family, tragedy

My oldest daughter Raven is smart, hardworking, and beautiful. She has lived in my shadow of resilience and my expectations of being a decent, strong Black woman. I am so blessed that she loves and cares for me, but it is not without our battles of loss and grief and my failures at parenting her in the way she needed. Today we are close, and I am planning a move to be closer to her in Las Vegas.

My oldest, Tyrone, was handsome, athletic, talented, and suffered from depression since the age of 13. We had a very codependent relationship, and I coddled him more than my other children in my worry and protective mothering of a young Black boy. He had strength in his friendships, physical abilities, and work ethics. But he failed in his personal relationships and his internal demons. Most people knew him as polite, caring, and giving. He did well at hiding what caused his greatest confusions and pains.

On December 4, 2009, Tyrone killed his two toddler daughters and their mothers…then himself.

I lost five people in one day, and the entire Madison and Middleton community were left in disbelief, grief, and anger. The families of my granddaughters and their daughter, sister, and mother were unbelievably kind to me and my family. The expression of love and care went beyond any expectations. I cannot find words that explain the love that was shown during the most horrific situation and experience for all of us. All our lives changed forever. I am forever sorrowful for their losses.

After thinking I would never get up off the floor, that I would ever breathe the same again, I too wished for death. The pain was beyond an understanding. I became angry about having to stay alive, but I had other children, grandchildren, a mother, and a family. I could not give the pain my son had given all of us, to them or anyone. So, I got up off the floor, tried to go back to work and be in the community, live differently…. But it was too painful. My therapist suggested I find a safe space.

Chicago: safety, healing

I retired and moved to Chicago in 2011, and it was the best thing I’d done for myself as an adult. Chicago gave me an opportunity to experience life on different terms as a Black woman, lesbian, activist, and mother. 

I spent time volunteering at the Center On Halsted, Affinity Services, and Black Ensemble Theater, and I started a company: Adair Entertainment, hosting the largest monthly parties for lesbians of color in Chicago. And of course, I dated and stayed in therapy while writing my book. I loved Chicago and know it was my needed safe place.

Back home in Madison

After seven years, in 2017, I came back home to face myself and the places I needed to face. It has not been easy, yet I know that I need to come full circle in life. Our lives (my friends, family, and loved ones) deserve a better me, and I deserve personal mental health safety—and to finish my book.

I enjoy my daughters, grandchildren, writing, being the Stage Manager for Dane Dances, and public speaking. And lastly, I fell in love with Bernell. We are engaged and planning our lives together. It feels like my happy ending, or at least the beginning of it. 

Mental health in the Black community has a history of being stigmatized and often unavailable or not culturally specific. It is changing in the Madison area, and I am hopeful about that. I believe in silver linings and the gifts of joy. It is my desire to give myself and others both of those.

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