“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds…” – Marcus Garvey/Bob Marley
Everyone wants to be free, but most people don’t know how to be free. Either we are physically enslaved and imprisoned, or we are mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and financially in bondage. The latter are mostly invisible chains; it is harder to be conscious of their existence and how to escape them. It is hard to be conscious of the ways in which we who have been oppressed internalize and repeat the oppression that has been placed upon us.
Inspired by the women she met in her life, like her late mother and other women leaders she met in the AKA, African-American MBA Association and business school, Nichol Bradford set out to write a mission-driven story that explores those very ideas. Through the genre of political action thriller, Bradford sets a world where black women are the main leaders and heroes, and are taking back their freedom. After a decade of writing and then publishing the book, The Sisterhood has inspired many women with the tools they need to go after their true purpose in life.
Instead of creating simply a self-help or motivational book, Bradford instead wrote a riveting novel of what can be called “applied fiction.” Because sometimes the best way to teach is through a story and Bradford shows it!
“I Am My Sister’s Keeper” – Nichol Bradford
Founded by Vivian Delacroix, The Sisterhood is a non-government organization led by 9 black women and it is heavily involved in community development and service through schools and centers like those for the treatment of Cocanol addicts. The organization is funded by MSK Incorporated, a global enterprise with billion-dollar investments in innovative science and technology, including research for treatments for Cocanol addiction.
The story opens with the assassination of the organization’s visionary leader, Vivian. Essentially, Vivian becomes a holy spirit or mother guide throughout the novel for the rest of the women as they figure out how to move on without her and try to solve the mystery of her death. From the beginning we read her words as if she speaks from beyond the grave — of how she could see her death coming and reestablishing the value of their sacrifices, including her ultimate one, for the greater good of The Sisterhood.
On another level, Vivian’s sacrifice is crucial for the organization to grow, for the other women to take the reigns and not be dependent on Vivian alone as the head, which is why I think it is brilliant that Bradford opened the book with her death. It is the story of how the disciples move on after the charismatic, visionary leader is gone. Vivian prepared her strategy based on every possibility of what could and should happen even her death.
“Each free mind scratches the foundation from beneath the system. And it will eventually fall, for it needs our collaboration to survive.” – Vivian Delacroix
The group’s success and Vivian’s assassination has made the entire organization a target and now the remaining women have to pool together their skills to fight the onslaught of scrutiny and attacks –Homeland Security investigation, a Senate inquiry, exposure by the media and the court of public opinion, and powerful secret trusts and drug cartels, especially the Raptor, who is part of the South American trust. Bradford mentioned that each of the women represent nine leadership traits – discipline, self-knowledge, financial stewardship, service, sacrifice, education, vision, innovation, and entrepreneurship – and we see how they use each of their traits to strengthen The Sisterhood and outmaneuver challengers and obstacles.
Through each of these women’s stories, we see who they were and what led them to The Sisterhood, but also what they are willing to sacrifice or risk for the greater good of the organization and the complicated choices they have to make when it comes to lovers, marriages, identities and even strict morals, such as considering temporary alliances with potential enemies.
One of my favorite characters in the book is Tonia Rawlings, the Chief Security Officer and the main character of the book. She is not my favorite because she is the main character but because she is kind of an outsider figure in relation to the rest of the women. Tonia does not fit into the binaries of expected womanhood. She is the head of the security team of the Sisterhood, so she is a fighter and a warrior, but she is also a complicated human being with a messy past and is vulnerable. Her vulnerability is part of what made her strong, having survived an abusive relationship, the death of her child, and a drug conviction by taking the blame for her husband’s crimes. She is tested throughout the novel and becomes a de facto leader after Vivian’s death. You see the transformations in her life and how she has learned to survive, which aids her in her leadership.
“By their hands we succeed. By their arrogance, we prosper. They believed we would always play the game. Blocked by their certainty of our inferiority, they never imagined that we would cease to collaborate in our own oppression.” – Vivian Delacroix
Another character I connect with is Pamela because she is somewhat of a mirror to Tonia’s character. Pamela has had a difficult childhood in which she has to hide her true mixed identity and has to pass as one to survive. But Pamela’s power comes in her sacrifice to continue passing as a way to use her privilege to help The Sisterhood. Both Tonia and Pamela’s choices are forms of empowerment for themselves. Pamela’s hybrid identity also links to the other characters who come from various backgrounds of the African diaspora whether racially mixed, ethnically mixed, or even religiously mixed. But they all join together in all of their black complexity because of their mission for freedom, community and compassion that connects all of them.
And who are the antagonists in the story? There are several, but the main antagonist of the novel is the anti-black- patriarchal-centered society at large and at all levels that try to hold these women down, from the government to the investigation bureaus to media to drug cartels to secret societies that rule the world. Most of the men who are part of these institutions and groups are angered or threatened by these women who did not stay in their place and choose to defy their rules of how the world works. These women do not fit into a simplistic categories of women, but often these men try to place them there so they can be definable.
Except for Chuck Bethelmy. Chuck, who is hired by the Homeland Security to investigate The Sisterhood, studies terrorist organizations, trusts, and ancient secret societies. In his study of ancient secret societies and groups, he obviously must study ancient mystery cults (some who worshiped feminine deities). So Bethelmy’s study of these histories also gives him an outsider look at the world; he sees our system’s structure; he recognizes patterns and core values that underlie symbols, systems, social groups, organizations and societies, whether they are beneficial or terroristic.
Bethelmy’s research gives him a sensitivity that some of the other men don’t have and why I think he is willing to sacrifice his career for love, virtue and truth, much like how ancient kings sacrificed themselves for a goddess. He goes against patriarchal definitions of femininity and womanhood and loves a black woman wholly. Through Bethelmy, we also see how men in the Sisterhood’s personal lives have to learn to trust them and what they are doing, which goes against the patriarchal thinking of dominating and controlling women.
“What is within you is greater than the system….They cannot control or predict everything. There is chaos within the order and order within the chaos. What appears to be chaos is order…and preparation.” – Vivian Delacroix
Throughout the novel, Bradford steps outside of or blurs the lines between the binaries that our society places on us, especially women and black women. While the investigative agencies study The Sisterhood as if they might be a terrorist group, we must question who are the terrorists and criminals to society and who are the terrorized people; who receives those labels and who doesn’t? Questioning that and understanding that is part of where truth and true freedom lies; truth and freedom are in those places outside of and between the repressive binaries. The Sisterhood often have to counteract or maneuver around these expectations and stereotypes about them. For example, they use the court of public opinion and media to their advantage. All of this to survive in a world that is constantly trying to destroy them at every direction now that they are a threat to the status quo.
That’s what makes The Sisterhood a complex and compelling work. If you are looking for a detective/political action thriller novel, like The Da Vinci Code, mixed with a science fiction, visionary novels of black women authors like Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber that give you a blueprint on how to escape the chains of an oppressive society to create a more holistic world, then this might be the book for you!
Let me leave you with the poem by Dawna Markova that opens the novel :
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
The Sisterhood is also a success workshop and has a supplemental workbook, which you can find more information about at mskincorporated.com!