I drove up to San Bruno for a get together with a sister of Nigerian descent who is graduating this year with a Ph.D. in history. On the way back we listened to a bit of Street soldiers. I forget who was talking, but someone commented on how black people especially love their mothers. The sister questioned whether it was true or not. This opened up for a long discussion. I said I think that black people love their mothers so much because they are the most stable fixtures in our family. Black mothers dont leave, they are providers, care-takers, nurturers, comforters. A majority of families are led by single women. In the conversation, I said this is all I have known. I said it is likely that Id be the third generation. This is why we used to get in fights when somebody talked about our mom. We dont talk back to our mothers, we always show deference to her.
I am a teaching assistant for African history and we are studying African women and colonialism. And the thing that keeps coming up the intense amount of labor African women do. To this day, women are in charge of carrying water (heavy and labor intensive), pounding grain, cultivating crops, cooking, and collecting firewood. Even in Muslim societies only wealthy families seclude their women where they dont work outside. Ive seen pictures of women walking miles carrying items to the market. These arent weak women. In America, black women were always laborers and workers. At times, they earned more than our men and this caused problems at home. Black women are always expected to make a contribution to the household in labor intensive activities. This goes for African women, Caribbean women, and black women in America. In the conversation, I mentioned that all these women are expected to hold it down, make financial contributions, and often just be really happy if our men just come around.
For months I have been thinking about my place on campus, in the muslim community, in the local community, in society, and the world as a black woman. There is something about being in this position as an educated and professional Muslim woman that has led to what Fanon has called Nervous conditions. I have only the women in my family to model myself after, and they are amazingly resilient women who defy any stereotype of black womanhood. I come from that tradition, of field workers, cooks, housekeepers, and wet-nurses. But that hard work didnt stop the women in my family from being beautiful. My grandmother is barely under five feet tall, petite little woman who took care of 6 children on her own. I was looking at one of her pictures with her smooth chocolate skin. Last August, she introduced me to her boss saying that her children were rainbow colored. My mother tells me stories about how the men used to be in love with grandmother. She was always attracted men from all races who would try to be with her. There were rumors and gossip, but she worked hard and she fed the neighborhood kids. She has taken care of her grandkids and even great grandkids. She worked in the fields, did janitorial work, and cooked for the soldiers. She could make anything by scratch. And she did this all with grace and elegance topped off with a mouth like a sailor. This last year, we thought we almost lost her but miraculously, she recovered.
Just as my mom grew up with a beautiful mother, I grew up with a stunning mother. But I saw her day to day struggle to raise two children on her own, until twelve years after I was born she gave birth to my sister. My mother got up at 5 in the morning, combed my hair, picked out my clothes, prepared me for school. She kept my brother out of trouble, made sure he was on track with work and school. She kept immaculate house, has always been a fierce cook, disciplined us, worked with us on our homework, and took us on trips and outdoor events. My mom read voraciously, even though she was told as a child black people were stupid. Nor did she have the opportunities to attend school like we did. But she made sure I had every tool I needed to advance. She went to schools where teachers told her she was stupid because she was black, and to this day she is astounded that her daughters score in the top percentiles in standardized tests. And as her oldest daughter is earning an MA at a prestigious university, her youngest daughter is preparing to enter college. A teacher one time had slapped my mother, and my aunt came and kicked her teachers ass. She had my brother young and that ended her aspirations for school, then it was about her children. Me and my brother scraped through, and graduated from high school. (I was actually forced to withdraw from school entirely after getting expelled in my senior year). I grew up never knowing how carefully she saved up just to make things happen. She never made it seem like it was a struggle. Her passion for education has driven and inspired me.
I look at my mother with her strength. I can only share a few stories that speak of her survival skills and her graceful struggle. Some stories are incredibly private and others terrifying. I can still see the eerie red lights and hear her voice after our car accident. A few days later, my mother dealt with the loss of a child, my oldest sister. I remember years later, when we got the first phone call from the hospital when my brother was in a accident, and they told us it was unlikely that he would make it. Less than six weeks before my mother nearly lost her son, she gave birth to my youngest sister. There my mom was, taking care of a 10 month old grandchild, a six month old infant, and 12 year old adolescent, she didnt whine collapse, or break down. She brought my brother home to take care of him, a young man whose life was shattered to a thousand pieces by a drunk driver. She had a house full of dependents and my sisters dad buckled under the stress. But my mom carried us all.
My mom always worked, as a child in the fields picking fruits and vegetables with her sisters, to a shoe shine girl on the city streets. She learned to sew and could whip up flashy suits for her man. She had to largely take care of herself from an early age. My mother has never leaned on or depended upon a man. And when we moved to California after my sister died and she divorced my dad, she found herself far from her familys support. It was just me, my brother and her for years. Reality made her a feminist, she couldnt sit at home and expect to survive and take care of her kids. But she loved fiercely and loyally. But momma didnt take no mess. And she taught me early on not to take abuse, lazy men or deceitful men. But she taught me to love and to take care of a good man, once I found him.
For years, I didnt understand why my mother was so hard on me. She told me one day when I was in high school, You need to learn how to cook, keep a good house, maintain my figure, take care of myself, get my education, get a good job, have good conversation because a black man would get a white woman who didnt do any of that. I went about constructing myself in this model of being that type of calm spoken, no attitude having, hard working, intellectual black woman who was feisty on the streets, but submissive at home. Maybe that plays a part in this over-achiever thing I have going, and the doing too much syndrome that happens in my relationships. But, I can still cook and Im holding it down in academia and she taught me not to get my expectations too high, right?
I used to see my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, my mothers friends struggle. And in the past I used to feel hopeless. I didnt want to do the single parent thing. I wanted to feel like I had a life partner, but my mother and my grandmother give me the courage to just move forward and love strong.
I had late lunch in celebration of mothers day. I looked at my mothers red brown skin that still glowed with a vibrancy. She was tired, carrying another burden full of love, taking care of her grandchild. I still look at her face, fine features and deep set eyes. Her long black hair, streaked with gray swept into a ponytail. This little woman, homeowner, driving her Mercedes came so far. I am proud to have her as my mom, I hope I can be half the woman she is. And the tradition is right, paradise lies at the mother’s feet.
Love you moms!