A Jewel from Coal, Jewels Pedersen
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Note: some explicit language
A Jewel from Coal, Jewels Pedersen, is my second of four "Badass Black Women.” Coming next are Jackie Capers-Brown and Raina Casey. You can reach Jewels on Facebook or Instagram.
Jewels was born in Harlem Hospital as an only child to a single mom. Her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when Jewels was ten years old, so they moved to Georgia to be closer to family. Jewels found herself being her mom’s primary support system at a young age.
Her mom wasn’t working while she was undergoing chemo, so they were couch surfers without their own home...not the first time in her life that Jewels would find herself houseless. From that experience, Jewels developed a resilience that has lasted her well.
I asked her if she had problems adjusting to Georgia after her childhood in Harlem, and she said the biggest difficulty she had was adapting because of colorism. And when she came home from school speaking in Ebonics or AAVE, she was beaten because her family raised her to speak “properly” to fit in.
After she started at a mostly white boarding high school, she clearly remembers a three-year-old calling her the n-word and a white woman complimenting her for how effectively she used dining utensils.
As a young woman she found herself adapting to the microaggressions, but now she feels better equipped to address problematic racist statements.
Although she married in her early ‘20s and had three children soon afterward, she always had this lingering feeling that something was not quite right in her life.
Her family had been run by women, and she’d been attracted to girls as a young age. She suppressed her attraction to women until she was 30 years old, when she started reading books to explore the idea. Then one night a close gay friend said to her,
“You know, you’re gay!”
Jewels did some soul searching and realized her friend was right. A few months later, she asked her mom if she could take care of her three daughters so she could restart her life. Her mom suggested that Jewels wait until her 3-year-old reached the age of 18. Jewels responded,
“No. I have waited roughly 30-some-odd years. That’s not happening...I said, if I don’t do this, find out who I am, and take this leap, I will not be an effective parent for my children. I will not be an effective woman in the world. I will not live to my full potential...so I have to do this.”
She quit her job, got on a Greyhound bus with $500, and moved to Portland. Adjusting to Portland, the first shock was not actually all the white people here...it was the cold. She’d been lulled by her bus trip through the Columbia Gorge during a beautiful July day, and then it got colder and she realized she was no longer in warm Georgia. She also began to experience the subversive racism and microaggressions experienced by people of color in the predominantly white Northwest.
Her kids joined her a year later, but it took her about 10 years to feel fully settled in Portland after more couch surfing and moving around in careers and homes. Jewels earned a degree in social work, but she realized she was not cut out for being a case manager...it also didn’t help that she didn’t earn much more than the clients she was trying to help. She needed the same extra food and child care assistance her clients were getting, and that didn’t seem right.
Jewels has realized she’s much more interested in policy work and she has a “secret lust” for getting a dual MSW/law degree so she can do legal advocacy work. She’s able to use her social work degree (unpaid) in ways she never expected, by leading an employee network group in her workplace and facilitating anti-racism book groups in her spare time. She also uses her social work education in raising her children, interacting with her family, trying to unpack family problems, and trying to repair her family history of trauma.
Jewels met her wife Amy in July 2014...they were dating other people but in the same Facebook group with Pacific Northwest lesbians. They met face to face at a picnic, hit it off, and exchanged numbers...six to eight weeks later, they committed to monogamy. A year after they met, Amy proposed at Long Beach, surprising Jewels with her mom’s engagement ring. Everyone gets along well, and Jewels said,
“I’ve learned so much from Amy...about self, openness, communication, that I had never even delved into...she completes me. She’s definitely it. It’s amazing. Every time I think about it, I think, can I just have 40 to 50 more years with her?”
When I asked her what it’s like to be a Black queer woman in Vancouver, she said,
“I’m completely invisible. I rarely see other queer people, much less Black queer people outside of my own house..."
"Having events like Saturday in the Park Pride was nice, when we could go," she reflected. "Going to Pride in Portland is nice too, but Pride in Portland seems to be the event where you see all your exes.”
She feels connections from online and in her writing community, a salve from the American flags and Trump signs she sees.
“When I see American flags and Trump signs, it always brings up a tinge of sadness, and I think, I don’t know if I can trust these people. But I have to say, my wife is white...just because people might present that way, I have to unpack it. It is still painful though.”
For example, Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring said in June that there was no systemic racism in this country.
Jewels realizes she can pass because she doesn’t necessarily present as queer. Because she knows life is much more difficult for people who are queer identified and present outside of their biological sex, she is committed to educating through her employee network group at work.
“I want to unpack a lot of that and change that for folks who don’t necessarily blend in.”
I met Jewels and Amy last summer at a workshop led by Riikka Salonen and Ann Marie Lei, and at that workshop Jewels said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said that when people fondly recall Little House on the Prairie, she thinks about her people being enslaved around that same time. This statement helped me put new lenses on everything I view now...it makes me question how Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color are represented (and if they are visible at all of course).
Jewels explained that as a young girl, she loved Little House on the Prairie like I did. She also loved reading about Harriet Tubman, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and Maya Angelou’s novels.
It wasn’t until much later, when she reread the books, that she realized:
“This is the disconnect I feel we have as a nation...that Harriet Tubman’s time was also Laura Ingalls’ time.”
“Even when you watch ‘Little House,’” Jewels said, “and you see the token Black character, you try to make it right in your head, but you know it’s just not right.”
She went back a few years ago and reread the books...and she needed her therapist to help her unpack what she was reading. “The kid in you just wants to absorb it on the surface,” said Jewels, “but the adult looks back and realizes the problems with it.
Upon researching this topic, I discovered that a new documentary is coming out in December that will tackle the racism in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books...AND Louise Erdrich has written an award-winning series of books set in the same geographic area as Little House on the Prairie (the Birchbark series), but told through the eyes of a seven-year-old Objibwa girl.
We talked about how we need to take another look at the movies, books, and TV shows of decades past and re-examine them with our new lenses. Everything that has been held up as great works of art needs to be questioned. I am grateful to Jewels for the insights she shared with me and how she helped me to look at things in a completely new light.
Jewels would like to write her own stories of those times. She has found another author, Beverly Jenkins, who does historical romance novels based before and after emancipation. In one story, Indigo, a young woman escaped slavery but her hands were forever dyed blue from working with indigo dye. She became a conductor for the Underground Railroad.
I asked Jewels about her creative projects, and she told me about some readings she’s been doing. She loves talking in front of people! At the end of July, she participated in “The Mask Monologues,” led by Beth Dunnington, which consisted of 16 5- to 6-minute monologues that have the theme of wearing a mask. Jewels described the experience as powerful and transformative, especially in the time of COVID. Next up is "The Reclamation Project," which will go live on September 7th (Labor Day). Follow Beth Dunnington for details if you’d like to attend.
Jewels is also working on a story around a gender-nonconforming teen that is biologically female but looking to leave her home life, kind of a coming-of-age story. They are going to be experiencing life in an all-male military camp.
She’s also started leading a book confab, which started with a powerful conversation about the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. So many people shared their vulnerable stories around white fragility that it caused Jewels to think that maybe there needs to be a platform for people to tell their stories about white fragility.
“I truly feel that not only Black people and people of color need to heal from the injustices of white supremacy, white people need to recover and heal from that too...because all sides are impacted. There are no scapegoats in this game of white supremacy.”
The next book she’ll be tackling is Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy, a former Portland State University professor. She’s looking forward to having another intimate conversation about this topic, to “start some healing around what white supremacy has done for centuries of trauma afflicted on the masses in the name of capitalism and greed.”
I shared with her that although White Fragility has been criticized (a white person profiting from her massive success writing about racism), I appreciated the fact that DiAngelo was confessional about her own naivete around race...for example, when she didn’t realize that one of her Black team members would not feel safe in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Jewels recalled when she and Amy recently took a drive out to the Maryhill Stonehenge and a white woman commented on her social media post, “Stevenson is a great little town!” But Jewels pointed out that Stevenson is actually a sundown town, and she wouldn’t be caught dead there...or she probably would. She has to navigate those spaces as a Black person.
When I was editing this interview with Jewels and heard this story again, I was reminded of something I read a few weeks ago on Facebook, a disturbing racist attack that happened when a Black family stopped by an ice cream parlor. The family was assaulted by the man living next door to the ice cream parlor. The family fled, the ice cream parlor apologized on the man’s behalf and offered free ice cream if the family returns (unlikely), and the police came and “talked” to the man who assaulted them.
I’ve visited Stevenson myself, but I will never view it the same way again. It’s been “Little House on the Prairied.”
I asked Jewel if she could think of a book or story that had inspired her. Her immediate response was Sofia in The Color Purple, and we discovered that it is our shared favorite novel. Jewels read it when she was 9 years old and has read it since at least 10 times. I read it in my college feminist theology class and named my cat “Shug” after my favorite character, the juke joint singer who shows Celie, the main character, what love means. If you’ve never read or seen The Color Purple, you can get a glimpse of her character, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey in the movie, in this clip. Jewels said,
“Sofia embodies what it means to be a Black woman. She actually came through. She was a headstrong and powerful woman, and then the system attacked her and beat her to a point where she was disfigured and hurt and abused and everything else. And then she just had a click, and she came back into being herself...and recovered and became the strong Black woman that she knew she always was. She is a metaphor for everything that Black women are...you survive, and you live, and you thrive.”
Jewels mentioned that The Color Purple also opened her up and gave her the idea of what it meant to love a woman. Through the simplicity of connection, learning your body, and loving yourself, she learned that “whatever’s going on in the world, you can still love yourself.”
Next week I release my interview with Jackie Capers-Brown, another badass Black woman who has endured unimaginable grief yet is leveling up her life with the Slay Your Greatness Academy. You won't want to miss it!
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