2016 espnW Pegasus Award for Inspiration: Activist Paulette Leaphart
The espnW Pegasus Award for Inspiration was created in honor of Special Olympics gold medalist Olivia Quigley, who was a 2015 IMPACT25 athlete, and who recently lost her battle to cancer this fall.
Paulette Leaphart is this year's recipient of the award. She is a breast cancer survivor, and in bravely walking topless -- her mastectomy scars revealed to the world -- to bring awareness to the conversation around cancer, Leaphart embodies Olivia's bold spirit.
Poet Nikky Finney was also inspired by Leaphart's journey and wrote this original poem for her, which she performed at the espnW Women + Sports Summit.
"Modesty is a lie." -- Maya Angelou
She is a girly girl born with a beautiful pelvis
Living in New Orleans, two feet, two breasts,
Eight children, curvaceous and cute, she turns
Heads everyday, social works to pay the bills,
Whispers to God. She's in her 40s when God
Whispers back, that bewildering, 3rd generation,
Stage 2, pummeling, Black woman news. It's
$5000 a month to stay alive. She loses Ta-tas,
Job, car, house. The long scar on her chest runs
Horizontal with the horizon. She sews her eyes
Down its back. A hot air balloon lifts her through
Chemotherapy, beyond despair, arriving in Biloxi.
Somewhere along the road to 50 she overhears
That the pelvis is what makes us human.
Her mother hands over black on black sneakers
With an ancestral silver toe and hip silver swoosh.
Her grandmother loans her a pair of loud
Lime green, South African, Balega socks.
Hit the road daughter. The girly girl knows
She doesn't need breasts to walk, or breasts
To be a girly girl, with both hands she raises
Her blouse over her head. The sun paints
Her chest the same shade of girl that it did
Forty years before when she was just 8 and just
An unknown girl on a beach, topless, with breasts
Still sleeping in the bone's curl just below her
Clavicle. When a Black woman decides to
Walk topless for 1034 miles things get aligned.
Ears line up over shoulders. Shoulders over
Hips. Hips over knees. Her spine is soon
Shot out of a cannon just like the 1850 Insomniac
Harriet, her nipples calibrating due north and
Freedom instead of sleep. When a Black woman
Makes up her mind to walk topless for 1034 miles,
A film crew can change their mind but a daughter's
Witnessing eyes are irreversible. Madeline's
Eight-year-old breasts are still in the deep sleep
Of girlhood when they leave, just like Retro girly
Girl back on the beach. She sets sail from Biloxi
On April 30. Her ghost nipples spin as dual
Compass. Five miles an hour, eight hours a day,
For sixty days. Topless in the sun and the driving
Rain. The Republic's electronic Book of Faces hears
The news and goes neon. 10,000,000 eyes dial in.
The first of twelve police cars stop her. She smiles
And holds a class in indecent exposure along the side
Of the road. There are no Toni Morrison benches
To hold them so they stand. Resolution: It's not
Illegal for her shirt to be off if her nipples are only
Ghosts, following overhead but not really there.
On the police car radio NPR is interviewing
John Napier, paleontologist. The topic is walking.
As the policemen finish up their Selfie with the
Topless woman, who can still turn a head, they
Do not hear the paleontologist say, "Human
Walking is unique. The body, step by step, teeters
On the edge of catastrophe." The mother-daughter
Team is back on the road. The girly girl has 100
Ligaments in each of her feet. Her transverse arch
Is the major weight-bearing bridge in her body.
Her Achilles is her most critical tendon, running from
Her calf muscle to the back of her heel, helping her
Push off with her toes and propel her body toward
Senators and marble halls and the back of Madeline's
Stroller. With each step she takes a new beauty shop
Is under new Construction. This one will not be
Designed & Assembled by the Chairman of the Board
Of Ta-tas. She moves one foot in front of the other.
Highway 29, Highway 1, The Jeff Davis highway,
The Warren Abernathy road, the Blue Star highway,
The monument to the signer of the Declaration of
Independence in Georgia, the Indian mounds of
North Carolina. The topless girly girl keeps an eye
Out for the June Jordan Expressway. The Audre Lorde
Highway. The Gilda Radner overpass. The 7th of 12
Police cars pulls up alongside Madeline's stroller. In
Each new jurisdiction the men and women in blue
Want to have a word with her, want to survey the
Topography of her chest, want answers she's patiently
Already given seven times before, want to make sure
There is no indecent exposure taking place on the
Jeff Davis Highway north. Another class on the same
Topic is held. Over and again the girly girl explains
That wanting to live is legal in every state.
For 60 days the sneering breathtaking rocky road
Exhaust of 18 wheelers coats her mouth. Through
Dust tar and fumes she passes Used Car Lots,
Daydreaming of driving the rest of the way in a
Canary yellow Mustang, convertible. There are
Strip Malls, Mexican restaurants, neon motel signs
Advertising 20 dollar-a-Night Rooms, and 19
Holy ghost praise houses leaning in with tambourine.
The handmaidens of 40, 290 women take turns
Rubbing her legs down every night. Mother and
Madeline munch on 5 pounds of peaches, 4 pounds
Of plums, they talk about school and family and how
Different the rain feels when you cannot run from it.
The mother-daughter train stops to read historical
Markers from Biloxi to Washington DC. The woman
Who has been known to turn a head wants Madeline
To know how the world was made and how it can
Be made differently. She does not drink enough water.
It's April, It's May, It's June. The pavement melts
Beneath their feet. The asphalt doesn't care that she
Doesn't have breasts, doesn't care that Madeline is
8, the blisters, callus feet, the inside of her palms grow
Stones, are bloody. She keeps pushing Madeline's tiny
Sleeping breasts on up the road. It's a tar beach voyage.
And Madeline will not be next. The ghosts of 40,290
Dead women whisper that they have voted to take their
Tops off too. Solidarity forever. Mother and daughter
Eat Little Debbie pies and suck on firecracker popsicles
Until their lips are red, white, and blue. Strangers
Following them on the Republic's electronic Book of Faces
Pull up alongside for Selfies. They deposit small tubs
Of watermelon, a box of KFC, a foil bag of Chick-fil-A,
Another woman drops off a homemade plate made from
Her own dinner pots. The gravel on the road hitchhikes
A ride inside their shoes. The pommeling rain turns the
Jeff Davis highway into a sliding mud pit of summer
Quicksand. The girly girl's breastplate, complete with
Horizon scar, has been staring back at the sun and the
Rain for 45 uncommon days. What does the world see
When a Black woman accustomed to being a woman
And turning heads takes off her top and walks 1034
Miles across America up a highway named for the
President of the Confederacy? A woman teetering
On the edge of catastrophe? A girly girl with her
Missing ghost nipples now turned tuning forks turned
Toward freedom? She is a woman they cannot arrest
For not having what they believe she should have
In order to be called a woman? The burning summer
Rain sizzles on the hot asphalt. The sun bakes their
Two backs into a portrait of two thirsty Marigolds
Climbing. A truck door swings open by mistake hitting
The girly girl as it passes. Pitch and roll girly girl. Get
Up. A woman who has refused her own catastrophe
Is walking across America with her daughter. Police
Car no. 12 arrives. Madeline is asleep. Why don't
They talk to each other on their blue-way radios?
Can't someone dispatch the update? A Black woman
Walking topless across America is not illegal. The girly
Girl's pelvis evolved 1.9 million years ago.
This noble Soldered saddle of bones is what makes us stand upright.
Helps us change direction, spin, swivel, adjust, reach,
Reconfigure, when we find we need to march on and
Not crumble. The long column of our human body
Requires the marvel of the pelvis to conduct when
All else fails. The missing Ta-tas are not what matter.
The pelvis matters. The dead women of the Chorus
Of Breast Cancer matter. God finding the girly girl
On the beach and whispering Go Topless in her ear
Matters. Her mind is 1034 miles away on the marble
Steps of Congress waiting for the rest of her to arrive.
Dear Senator ______, you don't know me but my pelvis is 1.9 million years old and 60, 290 women with pelvises just like mine received a new breast cancer diagnosis in 2015 and 40, 290 died of the disease. I would like a minute of your time. I did not fly here. My testimony was not subpoenaed. I am not the kind of woman to bare all but I have walked topless to show what I will not hide.
When her breasts were cut away she decided
To travel light. She packed nothing of excess.
Only essentials. Firecracker popsicles. Peaches.
Intact Pelvis. Sweet Oil of Madeline. Three changes
Of clothing. A cell phone. A Stroller. And her
Daily Dear God. Her prayers fueled by the power
Of electrolytes and the salt and pepper kindness
Strangers. In the blazing summer sun the sweet
Georgia peaches go down easy in the warmth
Of mother and daughter mouths. "You can still
Be alive without your breasts. I'm still beautiful."
The girly girl proclaims. "Certainly, no less a woman."
The woman who can still turn a head is showing
The world what a woman's body looks like when
War has been declared. The look of more than
Catastrophe. How the curve of the human spine
Will absorb the sad shock of news it did not want
To hear. The magic of Bipedal locomotion + strong
Knees when we stand it up then hold out our arms
And say Walk. The breast-less body in full sail,
Moving the wheels of the determined mind. The
orchestra of the pelvis singing from the Hymnal
Of Courage, page 24. What it means to be woman
And opening a new beauty shop without permit,
License, or permission. The birthday sunrise of the
Girly girl arrives. It's June 30th. She pushes Madeline's
Stroller past Quantico, the Pentagon, the 14th Street
Bridge. The steps of the Capitol see her. Madeline
Stands up. "Senator, thank you for seeing me.
Popsicle? Peach? What say you about a cure?"