This is the second entry of “The Chip On My Shoulder Is A Boulder,” a series on the complex relationships between black women and their mothers. The series will run over the next two weeks. Yesterday we tackled the story of “The Adoptee.”
In life we look at others with an outsider’s view, thinking they have walked down a smoother, more gentle path in life. This is especially apparent when looking at an affluent, light-skinned black American family. One assumes they had all the breaks. But even the loveliest of prisons is still a prison, as this next writer suggests.
In that pretty prison The Rebel’s mother tried to keep her in a designer label box. The mother thought she was guiding and protecting her, while The Rebel felt she was denying and oppressing her independent spirit.
This is her story of a generational battle between mother and daughter.
My mom died in 1999. I’m thankful that in the few years before she died that I was able to mend the rocky relationship I had with her for years and finally grow up enough to accept that we viewed the world through different eyes.
And that I would never be able to change her.
We were pulled together by my father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.
Mom came from a black middle class family in Philadelphia, with roots in Virginia. Raised by a wealthy uncle she attended an historically Negro College, became a Delta Sigma Theta, and had friends and associates who were steeped in the activities of the “beige aristocracy.”
Though not an active participant in the skin-color, hair-texture sweepstakes, she tacitly accepted the mores of her peers. My dad, lighter in complexion than my mother and a child of inter-racial parentage, was the reverse. A radical activist, communist leaning, outspokenly black man (with blue eyes) he encouraged my early radical bent and supported each baby step of mine into movement activities. He lost job after job due to his left leanings, and it was my mother who always made a home for us wherever we wound up, never complaining as we moved from state to state like gypsies. But I couldn’t see that at the time.
I only knew that daddy was my role model, and if anything I was going to grow up to be just like him. I’ll never forget the day I came home, in the late 1960’s, shorn of my long hair, sporting my first afro. I thought my mother would faint on the spot. She wanted to know, “What did you DO to your hair? Did you put Tide in it?” she queried. She then refused to allow me to go out with her on a shopping expedition unless I covered my new mushroom cloud of gloriously natural hair with a hat. I balked, refused and wound up in a screaming fight with her about my hair, of which she had been so “proud.”
I stormed out of the house and didn’t return for a few years, though I stayed in touch by phone.
I also violated her moral code by “living in sin” with my significant other. When my mother unbent enough to come and visit me, she booked a hotel room in Washington, DC, where I was working at the time, and refused to set foot in our apartment.
Prior to her visit, a box arrived with two Harve Benard suits, two blouses, stockings and a pair of Ferragamo pumps. The note in the box read, “Your Dad and I are going to stay at the Hilton. Here is some appropriate clothing for you to lunch with us. Make sure if you bring your friend he has a suit and tie.”
I owned no suits, wore jeans and turtlenecks and almost dumped the entire box in the trash bin, but my partner calmed me down. So with much attitude, I got dressed in bougie drag, and we went to tea.
When she grudgingly invited us to visit her at home, we were given separate rooms. No sin for her. Needless to say we didn’t visit often.
But when my dad fell ill, my mom was at a loss. Married for over 50 years she couldn’t cope with the loss of her life-partner, and I rushed home to help. I willingly donned suits, helped her with daily visits to the nursing home and made the funeral arrangements when Daddy passed on. We grew close in shared grief, and before she died she told me that she was sorry she had been so harsh, that I was just like my father, who she loved, and she never knew how to say it. We hugged. Today, as I provide a home for my impractical and radical musician husband, I know that I also have a lot of my mom in me. I wish she was alive for me to tell her that.