I was at my first press conference recently, at the MLK 50 and I Am 2018 conferences. I got to see how journalists like me can turn a room into a den of screaming, flashbulb madness the starts the moment the publicist give the proverbial “Go” signal. It was intoxicating. What stuck with me though is not the way the veteran journos framed their questions or clung to a topic until it was satisfied. I was moved by unspoken code, a connection, that black women share. A code which crosses the lines of celebrity and is more important than the next scoop. I am talking about the words, “Sista, are you okay?”
There were about four black women, including myself and my People’s World colleague (we were on assignment for the mag) in the journalist pool of 10-15 people. The public figures under our scrutiny were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s children–Bernice and Martin III. He was first and things went smoothly. Once he and his family were hustled out the door, Bernice came with her much smaller entourage. She was visibly weary and sat down for the interviews instead of standing. Flashbulbs started and were quickly stopped by someone on her team. They visibly upset the woman who spoke so softly that the throng had to lean forward as a body to hear her every word.
One of the black women amongst us saw what we all had. Bernice King was not well. It was probably because we were drilling her on the anniversary of the day her father was murdered. The crowd shouted out the first two questions and she answered. Then we all heard, “Sista, are you okay?” The words activated something in the black women in the room. I felt it and saw the others. Some leaned in closer as if to pounce if she answered in the negative. Others studied the woman to see if there was any sign of damage from press’s verbal attack so far. I don’t know what we all would have done if she would have said, “No, I am not okay,” but I think it would have been something that lifted us journos out of our positions and to her aide.
You see, every time I heard those words, it seemed to flip a switch inside of black women. We go from perfect strangers to members of an ancient sorority, ready to help our sisters in need, however, she needs it. I remember hearing my mom ask my aunt this question as she cried over a man she had run away from. I also remember my mom and her friends sitting alert, some leaning in to hear closely, but all ready to act if needed. I’ve experienced it in a grocery store with my young children in tow. I frantically combed my body and bags for my debit card only to hear those words. Followed up with, “I got you, sis,” when my answer was a near crying, “no”.
In that press room, however, I kinda knew the great Bernice King would not answer in the negative. She did flash a smile and answered the next questions with a more vibrant voice than before. The men and white women in the room were stunned for a moment, thinking that this black woman who called herself a journalist broke protocol. She didn’t. That woman just knew that we black women are a part of the largest and oldest sorority ever organized and we had a soror in need.
She made the call, protocol be damned.
Here is one of the articles that I wrote from the interviews and coverage of the conferences.