Rise Up Singing

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From a dazzling array of well-known African American women, short fiction, poems, and personal essays that describe with warmth and humor their experiences as mothers and as daughters.

A sparkling anthology devoted to exploring the lives of African American mothers, Rise Up Singing presents the stories and reflections of such beloved and respected artists, journalists, and authors as Alice Walker, Faith Ringgold, Marita Golden, Martha ...

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New York, New York, U.S.A. 2004 Hard Cover Stated First Edition New in New jacket 8vo-over 7?"-9?" tall. From a dazzling array of well-known African American women: short ... fiction, poems, and personal essays that describe with warmth and humor their experiences as mother and daughters. 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 No names or markings, Price Unclipped, Foreword by Marian Wright Eidelman, Introduction by Cecelie S. Berry, Persmissions, Contributors, 290 crisp, clean & solid pp. GIFT QUALITY. Read more Show Less

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From a dazzling array of well-known African American women, short fiction, poems, and personal essays that describe with warmth and humor their experiences as mothers and as daughters.

A sparkling anthology devoted to exploring the lives of African American mothers, Rise Up Singing presents the stories and reflections of such beloved and respected artists, journalists, and authors as Alice Walker, Faith Ringgold, Marita Golden, Martha Southgate, Tananarive Due, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Deborah Roberts, Rita Dove, and others. It features original and previously published writings, organized by editor Cecelie Berry by themes—mothering, work, family, children, community, and love—that illuminate the multiple roles of black mothers at home, in the neighborhood, and in the world as a whole.

Rise Up Singing brings together the perspectives of women of different ages, backgrounds, and accomplishments. What shines through in their writings are the hopes shared by all mothers. As Marian Wright Edelman writes in the Foreword: “The mothers writing in this anthology speak in a range of voices. They are joyful, stressed, grateful, ambivalent, determined, disappointed, and, in bad ways and good, overwhelmed. But over and over again . . . we see mothers struggling with the push: striving to give their children their best and to make sure the world gives their children its best, hard as that fight may be.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Berry assembles a choir of voices, both prominent and subtle, to share a lyric rhapsody detailing the triumphs and trials of black motherhood. Included among the choir's ranks are ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts, who riffs about the complications of being a stepmother; Marita Golden, novelist and executive director of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, who muses on the challenges of unplanned, single motherhood; and Suzan D. Johnson Cook, who served on President Clinton's Initiative on Race and Reconciliation and presents a complicated solo on the difficulty of dividing time among being a Baptist pastor, a mother and a wife. The usual suspects are present, too, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Prompted by the events of the Million Mom March in 2000, Berry hopes to inspire women to "refine your purpose and resuscitate your spirit so that you might better know yourself and guide your children." Some stories are funny, such as novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes's tales of her grandmother starting every story she told her grandchildren with, "Down South... IN GEORGIA...." Other contributions are enraging, such as Emmy-winning radio producer Rita Coburn Whack's, which tells of the injustices her son experienced as a two-year-old black boy in the hands of an impatient white caregiver. Always inspirational, this anthology should resonate with both mothers and children. (On sale Apr. 13) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385509039
  • Publisher: The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/4/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

CECELIE BERRY, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a journalist. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Newsday, New Jersey Monthly, and on Salon.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Aria of the Matriarch

The Black grandmother is an icon of spirituality and endurance. She is both a quiet sufferer and an inexhaustible warrior. In this first section, her transcendent spirit is reflected in the experiences and reminiscences of these writers. It is most appropriate that any examination of motherhood begins with a tribute to our grandmothers, the shepherdesses of generations. Their hands have urged us on to deeper understanding and their leadership has provided a moral compass for family, community, and country.

Our Grandmothers


She lay, skin down on the moist dirt,
The canebrake rustling
with the whispers of leaves, and
loud longing of hounds and
the ransack of hunters crackling the near branches.

She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward freedom,
I shall not, I shall not be moved.

She gathered her babies,
their tears slick as oil on black faces,
their young eyes canvassing mornings of madness.
Momma, is Master going to sell you
from us tomorrow?

Unless you keep walking more
and talking less.
Unless the keeper of our lives
Releases me from all commandments.
And your lives,
Never mine to live,
will be executed upon the killing floor of innocents.
Unless you match my heart and words,
saying with me,
I shall not be moved.

In Virginia tobacco fields,
leaning into the curve
on Steinway
Pianos, along Arkansas roads,
in the red hills of Georgia,
into the palms of her chained hands, she
cried against calamity,
You have tried to destroy me
And though I perishdaily,

I shall not be moved.

Her universe, often
summarized into one black body
falling finally from the tree to her feet,
made her cry each time in a new voice.
All my past hastens to defeat,
and strangers claim the glory of my love,
Iniquity has bound me to his bed,

yet, I must not be moved.

She heard the names,
Swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world
And I shall not, I shall not be moved.

No angel stretched protecting wings
above the heads of her children,
fluttering and urging the winds of reason
into the confusion of their lives.
They sprouted like young weeds,
but she could not shield their growth
from the grinding blades of ignorance, nor
Shape them into symbolic topiaries.
She sent them away,
underground, overland, in coaches and
When you learn, teach.
When you get, give.
As for me,

I shall not be moved.

She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
She searched God's face.
She placed her fire of service
on the altar, and though
clothed in the finery of faith,
when she appeared at the temple door,
no sign welcomed
Black Grandmother. Enter here.

Into the crashing sound,
into wickedness, she cried,
No one, no, nor no one million
Ones dare deny me God. I go forth
alone, and stand as ten thousand.
The Divine upon my right
Impels me to pull forever
at the latch on Freedom's gate.

The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my
feet without ceasing into the camp of the
righteous and into the tents of the free.

These momma faces, lemon-yellow, plum-purple,
honey-brown, have grimaced and twisted
down a pyramid of years.
She is Sheba and Sojourner,
Harriet and Zora,
Mary Bethune and Angela,
Annie to Zenobia.

She stands
before the abortion clinic,
confounded by the lack of choices.
In the Welfare line,
reduced to the pity of handouts.
Ordained in the pulpit, shielded
by the mysteries.
In the operating room,
husbanding life,
In the choir loft,
holding God in her throat.
On lonely street corners,
hawking her body,
In the classroom, loving the
children to understanding.
Centered on the world's stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,

for I shall not be moved.

Ernestine: A Granddaughter's Memories


Grandmother Ernestine was born in Georgia, raised in a rural backwater ("way down the road from Athens," she would say) with clear, blue skies, in a huge house with a screened-in porch, and a half-acre of pecan trees in the backyard.

"We didn't live in these nasty, brick houses with cement for backyards. Many black folks held land in the South. Come North, we rent, struggle, trying to make a fair dollar. We go to stores to buy our greens."

Grandmother always told me stories about this southern heritage I had. Telling me, passing down tales was her way of making it real for me. Telling was her way of keeping it real for herself. It wasn't until Grandmother died, that I realized how out-of-place she must've felt in Pittsburgh. What lure was there in steep hills covered with brick and trolley steel rails? What ease in a land of more rain and snow than was good for her arthritis-stricken hands and knees? What pleasure in soot cascading from the steel mills' furnaces? Even for Easter services, Grandmother never wore white.

"What sense?" she'd ask. "When it'll only turn gray. Now, in Georgia--"

I'd groan, "Not another Georgia story."

"--white stayed white. White shoes. White gloves. White pearls."

It didn't matter where you were--in the basement shoveling coal; in the kitchen, making designs with your breakfast grits. Or, outside on the front steps, trying to suck salt sprinkled on ice cubes. Grandma told stories. Didn't matter if she told you before. Didn't matter if you didn't want to hear it. Telling tales seemed Grandmother's mission in life. Her grandchildren, especially, had to hear her tales. Sometimes I wondered whether Grandmother's tales were all true, whether she'd made them up, imagined more than she knew or whether memory and time had created a South more glimmering and glinting than any reality.

This is true. Grandmother raised me, my sister, and my cousin. When she wasn't telling tales, she fed, clothed, and cleaned us, three little girls in a three-storied, battered and broken-down house. My Dad and aunt were single parents and Grandmother did the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and instructed us kids with her stories. She'd boil Argo starch then trudge down to the dank basement to add it to the rinse water. She didn't trust the washing machine or dryer my Dad had given her. She still did laundry on the wooden and metal washboard and used a manual wringer. Then, she'd hang the clothes to dry in the basement.

"Georgia has clean air, clean water. Nothing like sheets flapping on the line, flapping in the wind." She persisted washing by hand, hanging our clothes indoors, though surely it must have made her tired and sore.

"Down South," she'd sometimes say, leading into one of her stories. "Down South, we'd make pecan pies like you wouldn't believe. I'd split nuts all day and my mother would make the pies with butter, syrup. Better than any Christmas toy. Pie made with love and a 350 degree oven." This story invariably came after a Christmas of unwrapping presents from under our tinsel tree. Disappointed as kids, mourning what we did and didn't get (nothing worked like it did on TV) we'd settle into ill humor until Grandmother got her burlap sack, sent "up" from down South by her remaining relatives. She'd spill the pecans on the table, letting some of them roll, drop to the floor and she'd send us kids scurrying after them. Then, she'd hand us silver nutcrackers, saying, "The first piece of pie to whoever shells the most." Christmas was always saved by Grandmother's spirit and pies.

It would take me years to understand that as surely as us grandkids could jump double-dutch and play a mean turn of jacks, we kept Grandmother from her beloved "down South." She wouldn't leave us until we were filled with her stories, sayings, and wisdom.

"Down South--" she'd whisper especially on summer nights when we could watch fireflies gleam-blink and wave to neighbors sitting on their front stoops.

"Down South . . . in Georgia--"

"I know Georgia's down South. You've done told me."

Grandmother would stare at my sassy young self, then start again, "Down South . . . IN GEORGIA--"

I'd roll my eyes.

"--everybody in the family was a nice, chocolate brown with lots of fine black hair. Chocolate and silky-haired 'cause a handsome Seminole left his seed in my great-grandmother, Ruthie. Sure did. As I witness. Ruthie's parents were newly freed slaves. They went to church nearly every day to testify about how their 'brighter day' had done come.

"One Sunday in August, when flies, thick and drowsy, hovered in humid air; cousin Ruthie pleaded sick to stay home from church. Nine months later, great grandfather was born. Birthing, Ruthie told her story about her Indian. Said they didn't need words. Some folks said she was crazy, out-of-her mind. Knocked up by a local boy. Her baby was beautiful. Ruthie raised her son. When he was grown, folks say, Ruthie took to her room like a ghost. She never married. No one knows why. I suspect the men who came courting talked too much. The Indian just got busy with his hands and mouth." (I was thirteen when I finally understood her comment enough to blush.) "Her son became my grandfather, Wade. Your great great-grandfather."

I remember, as a child, loving the feel of her smooth chocolate skin, her high cheekbones and silky black hair. I remember climbing on the toilet seat to comb her hair and to see myself in the mirror, rising out of my grandmother's head:

"Grandma, can I do it? Please? Pretty please?"

"No," said Grandma, taking the tufts of hair from my cupped hand.

I stood beside the sturdy, grease-splattered range. "Tell me why you do it."

"I've done said it before."

"Tell me again. And say it like you said the first time."

Grandma turned the flame on high.

"Why do you burn it, Grandma? What for?" I asked, staring at the hungry, blue fire.

Grandma inhaled, spun around, opened her eyes wide and said, "Jewell, child, what if I didn't? Why if I didn't burn my hair some tweety bird might catch hold of it and use it for some nest and as soon as the motherbird's speckled eggs started hatching and the little birds squeaking for meat, my hair would fall right out."

I giggled as the singed hair stank up the air.

I would also cry at night because my hair was quite kinky next to Grandmother's silk. Even when her hair grew white, it stayed smooth, looking like strands of crystal. My hair always had a million, nappy braids. I always felt I was less beautiful than my sister who took after Grandmother Ernestine, Wade, Ruthie and that Seminole Indian. I seemed to take after no one.

Nights when Grandmother tucked me in, she'd sometimes say, "Down South, the peach is rock hard, then fine weather . . . summer heat makes it bloom. You'll bloom. See if you don't."

Grandmother Ernestine was gorgeous as a girl, more legs than trunk. Her bosom just the right size for a baby or a man to rest his head upon. I know. I've seen pictures of Grandmother--young, with her lips pulled in a wide smile, and her eyes, black and sparkling. Grandmother was gorgeous--maybe too gorgeous, in a small town where colored folks prospered and valued respectability and manners.

Grandmother also talked about education. "Read," she'd say. "Read," though I'd figured out long ago, she couldn't read well.

"Down South, my folks felt eight grades of schooling was enough. After all, I was already pledged to be a clerk's wife. I knew how to cook and clean. I served in the church, passing out fans with portraits of Jesus, to folks who cried and shivered with the Holy Spirit."

Ernestine--her parents' blessing. Obedient. Dutiful. Clean. Ernest.

"I was supposed to be just the right gal to help uplift the race. But one summer I met a sailor--so light he could pass for white. Like great-grandmother Ruthie's beau, he didn't talk much. But I was charmed by him and his visions of moving North for better opportunities, for more freedom.

"South had its race problems, but so does the North. Too, too true. I should've known better. I shouldn't have listened to a man who passed for white so the Navy could make him a Lieutenant. What's the sense of pretending who you're not?"

In Pittsburgh, she had two babies in quick succession which she struggled to keep dressed and fed while Grandfather James sailed out (or so he said) and forgot to mail his pay. Later, it was discovered Grandfather James was a bigamist; he'd married a white woman just across Pittsburgh's three rivers and raised five kids.

Grandmother Ernestine never talked much about Grandfather James. One time she did, she'd brung a care package of food to my college dorm.

"Don't let a man lead you astray from your roots."

I wondered what roots I had.

" 'A bee gets busy even when the flower's still young.' 'One mistake today mean sorrow tomorrow.' 'Don't do as I did, just do as I say'."

Then before she left, she reminded me to take my cod-liver oil.

Like telling her stories, Grandmother had a habit of flooding folks with "sayings." "Her 'tiny wisdoms'," she called them.

After she left my dorm, I realized she'd been advising me not to get pregnant. I suspected then she had another tale about Grandfather James she would never tell.

Just as she'd never tell me further details about race. Except to say, "Be careful"; "Be self-respecting"; "Wear clean underpants and socks." I never understood the latter until the day I flew over the top of my bike, breaking a rib and collarbone. White policemen, three feet away, saw me slam hard onto concrete, the bike crashing on top of me. A middle-aged black man pleaded with me to allow him to take me to a hospital. I was wary of strangers, but, finally, consented because the pain was too much. He took me to Allegheny General, not Mercy, known for the nuns care of the poor and brown, the only hospital where colored doctors could work on staff. "Allegheny was closer," he said.

Grandmother came to see me all dressed up like she was going to church. When she was satisfied I'd live, she whispered low, "Clean underwear?" I nodded. "Good. Don't let them think you ignorant. Poor or dirty." She sat with me until visiting hours ended and nurses came to shoo her. Regal, Grandmother declared, "Give my grandchild the best care." Then, winked at me, saying, "If they don't treat you right, let me know. I'll learn them. Down South, we know a thing or two."

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Table of Contents

Foreword 1
Introduction 5
Sect. I Aria of the matriarch
Our grandmothers 17
Ernestine : a grandmother's memories 22
My daughters and me 38
Margaret : a mother for all seasons 53
Everyday use 67
Nineteen thirty-seven 78
Sect. II Dream song : a mother's interior world
Daystar 91
Mother 92
Slip and fall 102
An unnatural woman 114
When wild southern women raise daughters 120
Unmasking step-motherhood 127
The complex mathematics of mothering 133
Goin' round the bend 141
Sect. III Torch song for mother and child
The lost baby poem 151
Many rivers to cross 153
Mother, unconceived 163
Good night moon 168
Mother's house 183
Linda Devine's daughters 190
Sect. IV The round : rowing gently down the stream
From "The children of the poor", verse 6 217
Dancer of the world 218
A miracle every day 227
Elementary lessons 242
My girl 249
Welcome to the world 255
Too blessed to be stressed 261
A new balance 270
Journeys 274
Permissions 279
Contributors 281
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2004

    Rise Up Singing Brings Honest Look At Black Mothering

    Rise Up Singing , with its storied list of contributors such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Maxine Clair and with the foreword written by Marian Wright Edelman, seems well-intended to serve as a celebration of black motherhood, with all of its triumphal victories as well as its copious and devastating defeats. Serving as a brutally honest look at mothering and motherhood, Rise Up Singing's collection of poems, essays and fiction reveals not only a celebration of mothers, but even more so an overwhelming tinge of sadness about motherhood that is incomprehensibly balanced by an ever-present notion of the strict ability to overcome. With its rich stories and superb writing, Rising Up Singing proves to have the weight and breadth of a true classic anthology that deserves recognition notably for its pioneering role in addressing the need for black women to write about motherhood but primarily for its unapologetic candidness.

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