The Girls on the Bus

Keke Zulu

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.

Lauretta had made arrangements for the women to stay at the Columbia North Branch YMCA. The man at the front door expected them nine hours earlier. One by one, they piled out of the van into the frigid, dark morning air, slow and processional. The man showed them to a multipurpose room adjacent to a worn gymnasium. They laid out their covers, showered, and succumbed to sleep almost immediately.

Seven hours later that morning, at 11:45, the march was over. Local news coverage of the event showed hundreds of thousands crowded into a Philadelphia park. At least 10 speakers had given addresses at a post-march rally, and ceremonies were all but finished. It was still raining, and the group from North Minneapolis was still at the YMCA.

Accounts vary on exactly when the entire group made its way via the bus and subway to the site of the march. But when they arrived, what they saw was far from their expectations. The men hadn't stayed away. The downtown area was bustling, festival-like. Drummers on different corners attracted crowds, women and men, invited to let the rhythms move them. Vendors bordered the streets, a model of capitalism at its finest.

"There weren't a lot of female vendors there," says Shanika, 16. "There were a lot more male vendors and they were trying to run scams and all kind of stuff like that. I mean, I can't say they should have like segregated and said that no men could come, but the ones that were there were, like, just trying to make a dollar."

"It didn't disappoint me that they were men," adds Melissa, 14. "It upset me that they were there; that they were trying to make money off of the women who were there trying to get knowledge; trying to listen to powerful words. They were distracting us."

The group split during the course of the day with half of them going back to the YMCA and the other half staying to finish hearing speeches. For those who stayed, particularly Shanika and Melissa, the day's events left them contemplating an ambivalence prompted by the contradictions of almost-all-male vendors at an event meant partly to extol women's economic sovereignty; the blatant lack of attention paid speakers by thousands in attendance milling about and talking among themselves; the presence of South African revolutionary Winnie Mandela and the hundreds of thousands (organizers say 2 million) of women present together "to heal."

Melissa's take on the day was peppered with some regret. She found herself a bit jealous of the official delegation, Minnesota Women on a Mission, which took four busloads from the state Capitol to Philadelphia, her stepmother and cousins among them. "It was like, 'Dang, I wish I could have gone with.' I would have rather spent that $125 to get on the bus and get to the march at 6:30 a.m.," she says in retrospect. "I was just really upset that they came back with so much to tell and I had nothing.

"That's just how I feel personally. Because we were going there not to rest, not to look around. We were going there for one thing, and that was the march and to gain something from that march."

Disorderly though the experience was, the lessons Shanika learned were at least partly worth the arduous journey. "I think that it was worth coming to hear the speakers and to, like, see them in person," she says. "And getting to know everybody."

One of the reasons Shanika wanted to go on the trip in the first place was because she doesn't live in Minneapolis and she wanted to make some friends. Fifty hours and 2,400 miles later, she still didn't have a deep understanding of what the march was meant to mean, but through the shared experience of uncertainty she had a vanload of new sisters with whom something in common was now only a phone call away.

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