I recently attended the funeral of a dear friend and sister, Dr. Karen King. Her death hit hard. She was almost exactly one year older than me. Confronting death among friends feels like a change of phase in life.
She had been in Atlanta on Labor Day this past summer for House in the Park. House in the Park is Black People Day in Atlanta. It is a day when love reigns supreme and the legend of the city as the Black Mecca is on high shine and in full display. Thousands of Black people converge on Grant Park for an 8-hour house music fete in the blazing sun. Music, sweat, beat, dance, reunion, friendship, life. While there she thought she got a stomach flu. Turns out it was some strange form of cancer. She died on Christmas Eve.
There were hundreds of people at her service in Washington DC. She was the intersection of sets. She was a supreme mathematician. Members of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics came to commemorate her. She was a program officer at the National Science Foundation. The NSF brass were there to commemorate her. She was a liaison to the National Science Board of the United States. The chair of the NSB was there to commemorate her. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta. Her sorors were there to commemorate her. She was a friend. Her friends were there to commemorate her.
All of them spoke of her high achievement and personification of grace. They noted that in a world where Black women are at once wrapped in protective self-proclaimed Black girl magic, they are assaulted at every turn. Karen, they said, rose above. She didn’t need to be wrapped in magic, she was magic. One sister came to the lectern and proclaimed, “with no Karen, there is no me.” She blazed a trail to the highest levels of academic and professional achievement and human dignity and looked back to make sure her path was clear so others could follow.
But, in the end, she was a Spelman alumna. She was part of a special tribe of Black women, an unbroken chain of sisters dating back nearly 140 years. Spelman opened in 1881. 16 years after the end of slavery. A time when all Black people in America had was freedom, hope and chaffed skin left by recently unlocked shackles. Achievement, erudition, learning, and knowledge were all on the frontier. Those byproducts of education were at the end of a path that had not yet been carved.
Spelman College was born then. It is a continuous link from the closed door of slavery to the open door of our future. Karen was forged at Spelman. She is part of that continuous legacy and represents the best of the purpose of the institution.
At the end of the service, nearly 50 Spelman women of multiple generations gathered solemnly in a circle at the front of the sanctuary. They held hands. They began to sing the Spelman hymn. They belted it out. All of them were in tears. It was as if they were pleading for our ancestors to come. They were calling the Black women who walked out of slavery determined that Black people would survive in this cruel and vicious land – the Black women who were determined to unlock the mysteries of the written word and the purity of mathematics and science – the Black women who would ensure that Black people have a future.
At a line in the hymn where it acknowledges the toil and pain that our people have endured, someone wailed. It was guttural. It was a passionate plea for the spirits to come. The congregation lurched. It was clear that the Spelman women had called the spirits of their sisters and they came. They came and they took Karen. They took her to join them as guides and protectors of Spelman women until our victory is finally won. Such is Spelman College.