The Girls on the Bus

Fifty hours and 2,400 miles after setting off for the Million Woman March in a big maroon van, nine Minneapolis teens had learned precious little about the symbolism of the event, and volumes about themselves.

They pulled out of the parking lot at 1 a.m. on October 24. The early-morning air hung rigidly cool on their travel gear: jogging suits, jeans, sweatshirts with hoods. Many of the young women from the YMCA Black Achievers program hadn't shown up to the informational meeting held two days prior to their departure for Philadelphia. They missed but a short briefing depicting a loosely planned 18-hour road trip across the Midwest to the Eastern seaboard.

Across town, a bigger bus was pulling out of another parking lot, packed with Minnesota's official delegation of marchers. Most of the women aboard espoused firm ideas of why they were traveling to Philadelphia, what kind of healing they planned to do. But there was no unified sense of purpose inside the Y's big maroon van. Instead, it ferried 13 separate characters, each secretly hoping to play out her own drama of travelling to the conspicuously unheralded Million Women March, much in the same way Spike Lee's Get on the Bus documented the journey of their male counterparts some two years ago. Nine of the women were teens who'd been asked if they wanted to attend. And at that age who wouldn't? A road trip is always a nice diversion away from life's mediocrity, not to mention high-school homework.

The rest of the complement consisted of their older chaperones, and me, the only male passenger, along in the hope of understanding what cultural voice called these women to Philadelphia, and whether it could also be heard by me.

As the van pulled away from the gas station at the corner of Lyndale and Broadway, Lauretta, the chaperone who opted for driving first shift, brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop. She'd forgotten something of great importance. "Oh my God, I almost forgot," she said, looking into the air as if to visually scroll down an invisible menu of check-off items. "What?" someone else asked. "We have to say a prayer." She took several deep, audible breaths and asked the others to bow their heads.

Underneath her plea to be granted guidance, the prayer carried a thinly veiled warning to those "bad spirits" in the van--would-be troublemakers intent on not getting the message of the trip. "Lord, I step out on faith. This will be one of the most encouraging, enlightening, and spiritual trips that we have ever taken.... The devil is alive. I call upon the blood of Jesus. I rebuke the spirit of orneriness, and of laziness.... All in agreement say Amen." In unison, they did.

At one point, as some of the girls awoke to find they were still in the cheese state, a half-hearted stab was made at sparking meaningful discussion. But absent a clear understanding of why the Million Women March was taking place, the group talked more tangents than a Rikki Lake audience. It wasn't the fault of the young girls, nor was it entirely the fault of the coordinators. The entire rationale for calling for 1 million black women to the streets of historic Philadelphia, home of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Rocky Balboa, was as cloudy as the overcast skies that trailed the bus through much of the Midwest.

As it became apparent that most of the girls already knew each other, micro-cliques soon solidified within the small group of women. For much of the journey groups of two and three talked among themselves, with laughter occasionally breaking through the barriers. Sometimes a hot item of gossip would grab everyone's attention, and for a time the group was one. But mostly, it was one group against another, arguing in fun about meaningless issues. Rarely did a discussion or debate fashion itself into something serious.

The sun had risen and started falling again by the time the group found themselves headed in the wrong direction. At about 4 in the afternoon, just outside Cleveland, a toll-booth attendant's guesstimate of at least eight more hours startled Lauretta out of her front-seat slumber. "Shut up!" she blurted. She didn't expect the trip to last much longer than four more hours, but due to some miscommunication with a relative charged with acquiring a AAA Trip-Tik, the group was headed straight to New York. With twilight quickly descending, she purchased a road map at a nearby gas station.

High-priced toll roads and long, cramped hours were adding to an already tense situation. "Man, forget this," someone hollered from the back seat. "Let's go home!" Her request, as irrational as it was, took hold in the minds of some of the more road weary.

But as those negative spirits Lauretta prayed away in the beginning miles began to descend, song saved the day. Simple, spiritual, soulful solos from front to back uplifted the group and fought back certain disaster for another hour or so. Each woman treated her sisters to a part of her. Not everyone could blow like Mahalia Jackson, but every last one of them gave it her all.

It was close to morning when the group pulled into Philadelphia. The march was to start in a matter of hours and a cold drizzle on unfamiliar city streets set the scene for the battle-weary cadre. Hours earlier, a discussion had arisen about why each wanted to attend; many didn't know. Some could only say it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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