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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.
BY MAYA ANGELOU
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 perish daily,
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 shoeless.
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,
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
BY JEWELL PARKER RHODES
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."
From the Hardcover edition.