Age Ainít Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife


To paraphrase the popular saying: "Aging happens." One day you realize the woman on the cover of the magazine you're reading could be your daughter. The hot honey on your favorite soap opera wasn't born when you graduated from high school. The "oldies" on the radio are songs you danced to in college. The cute guy making your latte calls you "ma'am." And you feel like one of your grandmotherís lace doilies.

Welcome to midlife.

African American culture isn't as youth-focused as the predominant culture, and black women pride ourselves on aging well (comparatively smooth complexions on elder faces being a benefit of our melanin-laden skin). However, we are not immune to the fears, doubts, and disillusionments that come with getting older. How could we be? We live in a society that equates youth with beauty, and values beauty as a womanís most important asset. A society that stereotypes black women as sexual objects when weíre young and views us as mother figures (mammies) when we age.

Yet even with anxiety and discrimination, who doesnít want to age? After all, getting older beats the alternative, especially for African American women -- for whom making it to middle age (let alone old age) is a victory over stress, poverty, limited access to health care, and diseases that kill even those of us with money, education, and health insurance at higher rates than white women. Sometimes it seems there are so many forces conspiring against us that it comes to this: if we are lucky, aging happens. As Maya Angelou wrote, "Mostly, what I have learned so far about aging, despite the creakiness of oneís bones and the cragginess of oneís once-silken skin, is this: do it. By all means, do it."

We are doing it. The life expectancy for black women has risen to 74.2 years. And weíre doing it with confidence, joy and style. With role models like Tina Turner, Patti Labelle, Oprah Winfrey, B. Smith, Carol Mosley Braun, Iyanla Vanzant, Star Jones, Johnetta Cole, Judith Jamison, Pam Grier and that quintessential goddess of aging well, Lena Horne, leading the way, we are redefining aging.

Indeed, the definition of midlife depends on whom you ask. Some say it begins in the middle or late thirties while others say not until a woman turns fifty should she be considered middle-aged. I believe, as with all passages, that there are phases of midlife. Women in early midlife (in their mid-to-late thirties and early forties) will probably face different issues than women in the middle of midlife (about mid-forties to early fifties) who may have different concerns than women in later middle age (fifties to sixties).

However, each woman is unique and will have her own specific opinions and feelings about and reactions to getting older. And just because a woman is a certain age doesnít mean we can assume we know what she might be dealing with. These days, middle-aged women may be newlyweds or new mothers, as well as grandmothers or widows. We may experience the empty-nest syndrome or the overflowing-nest syndrome as more adult children stay in or return to their parentsí homes. We may navigate the field of Internet dating, travel the world, teach homeless people, take up pottery, or study international business.

In addition, the enormous number of aging baby boomers are forcing this country to acknowledge that turning forty or fifty or sixty doesnít mean the end of a womanís vitality or usefulness. So midlife in the 21st century isnít our mothersí or grandmothersí "change of life," but is a time of transformation: emotional, psychological, professional, and, of course, physical. A transformation -- like all transitions -- that can be difficult no matter how fortunate we are to reach it.

As I entered midlife, I experienced a somewhat rocky evolution from young to not so young. As a writer, I am a reader through and through and always turn to books for information and enlightenment. I discovered helpful works like Coming Into Our Fullness: On Women Turning Forty by Cathleen Rountree, New Passages by Gail Sheehy and Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony. They offered positive depictions of women for whom midlife was a period of personal growth and empowerment, but still I longed for insights from African American women, who faced yet another "ism" (ageism) simply by having the good fortune to keep living.

I turned to one of J. California Cooperís short story collections, Some Love Some Pain Sometime, and reread the stories of women who find love and happiness, after they discover themselves. I read Lucille Cliftonís poem, "new bones" with a deepened perspective and came to see midlife as the "sun and honey time" she described. Looking for additional writings on getting older by black women, I rediscovered wonderful poems, essays, short stories, and novels and found others that were new to me.

I decided to put my favorite pieces together, and to invite other writers, some well known and some who werenít widely published, to submit their reflections on midlife. Thatís how Age Ainít Nothing But a Number came to be. This is the book I longed for when I began my midlife journey, and one that I hope will provide you with information, inspiration, and good company during your middle years.

Within these pages you will find essays, poetry, and fiction that discuss aging from black womenís perspectives. You will encounter a variety of opinions on midlife: From Gloria Wade-Gayles who entreats us to dance while we age to Alice Walker who reminds us that melancholy and sadness are just as important to our growth as the "dancing times." From J. Elyse Singleton, who is cautious about revealing her age, to Trudier Harris-Lopez who threw herself a ball -- not a party, a ball -- for her fiftieth birthday. From Patricia Raybon, whose essay begins with the sentence "Letís be pretty tonight" to Terri Sutton, whose essay asks the heartbreaking question "Am I Ugly?" In all, 40 women share their midlife experiences, revelations, hopes, and ideas. Divided into four sections, this collection addresses relationships, health, spirituality, sexuality, careers, and other topics as they relate to midlife.

"A New Attitude" deals with personal and spiritual growth and the goals, dreams, regrets, and breakthroughs of midlife. For example, in this chapter, writer Jan Thomas discusses her decision to leave the corporate rat race and work for a nonprofit entity and poet S. Pearl Sharp offers an upbeat prescription for facing fifty without fear.

"New Bones" covers health, self-image and the physical changes commonly experienced at midlife. In this section, Essence magazine editorial director Susan L. Taylor urges us to guard our health and poet Colleen McElroy slyly blames her aching joints and hot flashes on aliens who have overtaken her body.

"Roots" addresses relationships with friends and family, covering such issues as parenting, friendship, losing a loved one, infertility, and taking care of elderly parents. For example, writer Joan Hopewell-Hartgens takes us to a "homegirl reunion" and Miriam DeCosta-Willis describes the pain and honor of her last years with her dying husband.

"In Search of Satisfaction" deals with romance and sexuality, including falling in love, and the "sexual prime of life." Examples from this section include poet Opal Palmer Adisaís hilarious advice on what to do when the hair "down there" turns gray and activist Gale Madyunís call for older women to practice safer sex.

These are only a few examples of the wonderful works youíll find inside these pages. Age Ainít Nothing But a Number was written by wise, honest, bold, and vivacious women. It features a chorus of voices lifted up to sing the truth about midlife. I hope you let the words of these most remarkable women be a beacon that lights the way through your midlife journey.