Why I Serve

Where I’m From

Lolita Bolden reflects on history and the love of community while sharing a poem.
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Photograph by Timothy Ivy

Growing up in the small rural town of Utica, Mississippi, I was surrounded by inspiration and hope from family and community. Pride held us together.

My grandparents instilled in me the first commandment to “love God” and the second to “love thy neighbor,” and to do so unselfishly. We nourish and take pride in what we love.

Love for family gave my grandparents, Ellis and Wilma, the desire to raise seasonal crops. My grandmother canned almost everything we grew, and we had an endless food supply. When our freezers were full, my grandfather—Papa—gave to the community. Sometimes he would barter for whatever crop didn’t do so well during the season.

Living in the shadow of Jim Crow South, oftentimes I heard the stories as we sat on the porch preparing for voting day. Papa talked about what he endured to gain his right to vote, and I read old poll tax receipts from years gone by. “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter,” Papa would say. His words still ring in my head: “I want them to try to stop me today from voting.” Papa was a proud man. I was proud every day to be his offspring, but more so on those days.

Election Day was an important day of the year. Folks would put on their Sunday best—including church dresses, hats, gloves, shoes and pocketbooks—to go to vote. Some would send word for Papa to pick them up, and he often made multiple trips, transporting others to exercise their right to cast a ballot.

We listened to Mama and Papa’s midnight conversations with pride, and learned not to fear, to stand in our truth and stand for something. Papa and Mama taught us that we were placed on this earth for a purpose greater than ourselves. If we live every day for only ourselves, we have not lived.

Why do I serve? As I reflect upon our community’s status, I am reminded of the words of the 1945 song that was recited to us often. If I can help somebody, my living will not be in vain.

Service is enriching, but it gets hard. Nonetheless, it’s the connective tissue that binds me to people, aids my personal growth and allows me to visualize how I fit into the larger ecosystem. I sit at tables of justice where some were not allowed to pull up a chair. I am served the bread of diversity, equity and inclusion that others before me prepared but never tasted. And I drink from a fountain of democracy.

If I am to play a part in making this nation a better place for the next generation, though tired I may be, I will continue to serve for my grandchildren—Jace, Karson and Jacelyn. They need me.

“Where I’m From”

By Lolita Bolden

I am from the smell of rain,

From an early April shower.

I am from freshly cultivated dirt between my toes

(warm and soothing to this country girl’s soul).

I am from the prickly stems of berry bushes (black, juicy and delectably sweet).

I am from the coniferous fir,

The pine trees,

Extra-long needles I remember,

As I had to rake them every fall.

I’m from homemade ice cream and peach cobbler,

From the side of grandmama’s porch.

I’m from the landowners

And the farmers

From sunup! To sundown!

I’m from Saturday night hair washes and straightening combs,

Hair frying and scents of Ultra Sheen,

Sunday morning church services

And dinner on the grounds.

I’m from Route 3 Box 133.

There was always fresh collard greens, fried chicken and freshly silked fried corn.

From the purple hull peas we shelled on Wilma’s porch

To the sugarcane harvested from Aunt Dorothy’s field.

The molasses was delicious with those biscuits.

In the chifforobe were old albums,

Spilling over with old pictures,

Faces I had never seen in person but heard stories about,

A moment back in time.

I am from a time when life was simple,

Nights so dark you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face,

Lightning bugs and fireflies,

The clear black-as-night skies

Full of twinkling stars and harvest moons.

I am from a grandmother who had eight children

And sewed dresses for the women in the community,

Oftentimes not using a pattern,

but an image from a Sears and Roebuck catalog and tape measure.

The money she made helped to educate all her children and some others.

I am a grandchild of Ellis,

A Black man who owned more land than any Black person in my community.

He fed those who were hungry and without food

And made sure we knew the value of helping others.

“Go to school and get a good education,” he would say.

“What you get in your head, nobody can take away from you.”

I am from these moments—

The good, the bad and I care not remember,

Those times molded, encouraged and propelled me forward

And gave me hope.

This is where I’m from.

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