“Ella’s Song”: The Importance of Coming Together as Caregivers



From the Ella Baker Institute

For as long as I can remember I’ve always been curious about what came before. As a child, I used to go about my days wondering what stories and experiences once occupied the places I called home. The adult version of that same childhood curiosity is what gave birth to this column and much of the work I do today. It is my deeply-held belief that sharing stories across generations and communities is vital to being whole in this world. Knowing the past allows us to create new futures. As a mother, I’ve also come to realize the key role women play as storytellers envisioning a new future. From great grandmas to new mothers, women’s voices are often first storytellers our children know.

Everyone knows about what’s been happening in Ferguson. And Cleveland. And Staten Island. Recent evidence from the Eugene Ellison case argues it’s happening in Arkansas, too. Maybe you’re thinking, this is a column about community history and storytelling and gardening. Why are you bringing this up? But stay with me for a moment. Popular history tells us that the civil rights movement happened back in the 1960s and then, magically, racism was over. But if you dig past these surface histories, there’s an abundance of both statistical data and personal stories that prove racism is imbedded in our institutions, meaning the very systems upon which our society is built treat people differently based on class and race.


Portrait from Americans Who Tell the Truth.

Portrait from Americans Who Tell the Truth.

For those of us who have never been targeted because of race, it’s easy to write off these stories because they don’t match up with our realities or experiences. There’s a great song by Bernice Johnson Reagon called “Ella’s Song,” which draws from this quote from the late Ella Baker, one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” She said that in 1964. Many mothers feel the same today.

The fact that so many of us never hear these stories points to the ways in which the barriers of race keep us from truly hearing the voices of others. But we’re never going to write any new stories about what it means to live in what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community” if we can’t first be willing to listen to the experiences of today. And regardless of how you feel about the rising movement of young people around the nation who are calling attention to the continued black struggle, this is a time to listen to the stories they are telling. Not listening to argue. But listening to hear.


Bernice Johnson Reagon from Bernicejohnsonreagon.com

Bernice Johnson Reagon from Bernicejohnsonreagon.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about “Ella’s Song” and the role of women in our communities around Arkansas. What role can caregivers can play in bringing us together across divides? Women and caregivers often bear the brunt of our society’s deepest divisions. In a world that likes to pretend there are no divisions, we mothers see it in the confusion in our children eyes when they realize inequality exists. We feel it in our bones when we try and teach our children to love others in a world that can be so quick to hate. Tragically, many mothers feel it in their deep losses.

Last week in Little Rock a group of mostly black women met at Women’s Project building on 12th Street to come together as women to fight violence. They read “Ella’s Song” together and walked to the police station. By the time this column runs, another group of mostly white women, inspired by the work of the Women’s Collective, will have met at the Quaker Meeting House with our children to support one another as we seek to raise our children in a new kind of world.

What might our communities look like if we mothers and caregivers came together to stand for a more loving world? What if we worked to build places of justice and peace and aimed to truly hear one another’s stories and support one another in our efforts to raise a new generation of humans who are unafraid to learn from our past mistakes? What if we quit being so afraid to talk about race and instead begun the long process of really listening to each other?

Perhaps this sounds idealistic. I’d say it’s just common sense and practicality. We need each other. And, more importantly, our children need us. I’ll close with another line from “Ella’s Song: “The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm.”

Are there mothers and caregivers who would be interested in such a group in the Pope and Yell County areas? Are there groups already established or are happening elsewhere? I’d love to hear from you.


More information on Ella Baker:

“Who is Ella Baker” from the Ella Baker Center

Ella Baker and SNCC

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement 



The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.