Mama’s Child is story of an idealistic young white woman who travelled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?
As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.
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“I need to see you today,” Gladys, the New Harmony School director, growled into our answering machine. “We’ve had an incident.” Her deep voice intimated this was no ordinary farewell meeting for Ruby’s final days of sixth grade. “Looking forward—” her gravelly voice murmured, as if she hadn’t just raised my anxiety.
Solomon had his own full schedule that day—like every other—so, given the urgency of “see you today” and “incident,” I called Inez to teach my Merritt College class and, sweating, navigated Ashby up to Telegraph and turned right toward Oakland. At Sixty-fifth I angled left toward the brown shingled house our group of community parents had converted to a school, building an addition nearly every year.
Pushing through the noisy halls filled with children’s voices, I slid alone into Gladys’s office. Her secretary, Laverne, waved her hand toward the small battered chair facing Gladys’s desk.
“She’s running a little late, but she’ll be back momentarily. Take a load off.”
Laverne’s soft shoulder-width Afro brushed my cheek when she patted my arm. Why, I wondered after she left the room, had she done that?
After squeezing myself into the chair—had I gained that much weight?—I scrutinized the posters filling the wall: a white woman in an orange-print skirt held hands with a black sister in slacks over the words WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE SKY. An oversized UNICEF calendar featured a blue globe ringed by multihued children. GIVE! the calendar urged. And everywhere paintings, blue, red, green tempura paint slathered across butcher paper, bright yellow suns lighting the upper corners of landscapes. Several papers bore titles. I saw a curling, faded paper labeled RUBY’S FAMILY: four stick figures hovering under the ubiquitous bright yellow sun. Three of the figures were brown, one was colored pink.
Gladys bustled in, trailing smoke, chattering before she cleared the doorway. A squat woman churning energy, she started out, “Ruby’s such a talented girl.” She swept aside a space on her desk, rummaging for an ashtray. “So vivacious. I remember our talent show when Ruby was, what, in fourth grade, when she brought down the house with ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Remember? Such a bright child. So lively.” She tapped out another Camel from her pack while scanning a pink message slip, not waiting for an answer before she rushed on. “Yes, such talent.”
I listened warily, shifting in my undersized chair. The principal hadn’t called me in to discuss Ruby’s lovely voice and bright disposition.
“And smart. But Ruby is having problems.” Gladys plunged abruptly to the reason for her call. To my thirty-five-year-old eyes, the woman was ancient. A relic from the old breed of progressive educators, fifty at least. Though I’d been part of the parents’ committee that hired Gladys Holland six years before, she hadn’t been my choice. Her confrontational style grated, and, along with Solomon and several others, I’d advocated for a slender, soft-spoken African American woman from Portland, arguing that the students needed a different role model, one they rarely saw in a position of authority. I wondered if Gladys knew. Still, I had to admit that during her tenure the school had prospered. She’d hired terrific teachers, kept parents involved, and was an ace fund-raiser.
“That girl is going to have problems when she gets older, too.” Gladys, who was under five feet, peered across her desk, bobbing her head to emphasize her words.
“I-I don’t think so,” was all I could stammer.
“I’m worried about her. Something unfortunate happened this morning in the bathroom.”
“What?” My heart pounded. “Is Ruby okay? Where is she?”
Gladys tapped her fingers on one of the papers stacked on her desk. “She’s back in class, but she had an altercation.”
“From what we gather, another girl accidentally opened a stall door too hard and knocked Ruby down. Ruby dug her nails into the girl’s scalp and made a racial slur.” Gladys stopped and stared at me. “She called her a white bitch.”
I was speechless.
“What concerns me is that Ruby chose to couch her reaction to this accident in racial terms, as well as with violence.” Gladys gave me a long level gaze and spoke slowly. “She’s almost twelve, a critical age when she’s trying to figure out who she is. She won’t fit in the white world. She may not be accepted in the black world. She’s going to have a difficult time finding her place.”
I shivered. “Ruby is black. That’s where she fits,” I said, fighting tears. She’s normal, leave her alone! I glanced at the One World calendar on the wall, with its children of many nations holding hands around the globe, and crossed my legs and arms, trying to shut out the warning voice.
“But you aren’t. And you’re her mother. She’s a sensitive girl, and she’s going to have some major challenges,” Gladys repeated, her head bobbing. I wanted to tear it off her neck.
“No, she isn’t. And how do you know what happened in the bathroom, what really precipitated this ‘altercation’?”
“They agree, Jenny pushed open the door and Ruby leaped up and attacked her.”
The name wasn’t familiar.
“She came in the middle of the year; she’s just in fifth grade.” Gladys looked at me accusingly, as if I were now wrenching small children’s scalps in bathrooms. “That’s another issue. But school will be out in three days.” I could almost see her wiping her hands of the incident—and of us. “Since Jenny wasn’t injured, even though she was shaken up, I’m inclined to let it go at this point in the year. Both of them are back in class and it’s certainly not the first physical altercation we’ve had, although the first for either of these girls. But mostly, Elizabeth, I wanted you to know how concerned I am about Ruby. Why would she call Jenny a white bitch? Why would she have such a racial chip on her shoulder? These are things you and Solomon need to think long and hard about.” Gladys picked up a yellow file folder while she kept her hooded eyes on me. “Before she goes to junior high school.”
Shut up! I’m sick of this school, anyway.
“Do you talk about race at home a lot?” Gladys asked, peering at me as if I were a lab exhibit.
“We’re very involved with black liberation,” I said. “For a long time,” I added, remembering the Vietnam marches where Ruby, gripping my hand, had chanted along with the crowd, “No Vietcong ever called me nigger!” I didn’t want to tell Gladys about the Black Panthers who’d filled our home for years, toting their guns. I flashed on an image of our old friend Stokely Carmichael, now Kwame Ture, tall and elegant, who practically oozed “death to the white man” from his pores whenever he visited California and crashed on our couch. Or fierce Bobby Seale, who used to bounce Ruby on his knee and now teased her as “my girl.” Or how could Gladys understand who Ralph Featherstone was to us: shortly after Ralph’s last sing-along in our kitchen when Ruby was four, a car bomb in Maryland, probably planted by the Klan, blew him to pieces. We displayed his photo on the living room shelf as a memorial, along with a framed tribute written by his new wife. Yes, Ruby knew his story. We considered Ralph one of our martyrs, one of the several we’d known personally, as a family. I didn’t tell Gladys any of this, or that we were angry all the time. At whites.
“But you’re white.” Gladys squinted, clearly puzzled. “Isn’t Ruby part white?”
“Being African American is a political definition,” I said, trying to still my racing heart while words flowed out automatically. “As all racial categorizations are. She’s seen as black by our culture. Anyone with ‘one drop’ of ‘Negro blood’ is black, according to Southern courts. We want Ruby to have an identity that fits the one the culture puts on her.”
“I don’t know, you have a confused young girl here.” Gladys, usually so poised, so aggressive, looked baffled. As if Ruby were the first biracial child she’d ever encountered.
“Well, the culture is messed up about race!” I grew heated. Perspiration beaded under my arms. “Biracial identity is an attempt to fade out of blackness. Solomon and I are clear. Ruby is black.”
“But she has lots of strengths,” Gladys said, as if to counter a flaw: Ruby’s unnamable, confusing racial designation. She shook her head and stood, extending her hand. “We wish her luck, and of course we’ll be sending her records on to Martin Luther King Junior High.”
I grasped her hand, gave a numb smile, and fled her office, weaving my way through students until I sank gratefully onto the school’s front steps, dropped my head in my hands, and burst quietly into tears. “Ruby’s fine,” I kept whispering. As if the more I said it, the truer it would become.
* * *
“Hey,” I called out later that afternoon, still exhausted from the meeting when the kids straggled home after Ruby’s pickup soccer game, which Che had gone over to referee. They trooped in making a racket. Rosa and Cesar leaped and yelped, as they did whenever anyone appeared at the front door. If it were Ruby or Che, the barking intensified until the kids stroked their shaggy backs. Rosa yipped full volume at Che until she got her rubs; then, once she’d thoroughly licked his face, cleaning up microscopic lunchtime leftovers, she was his noisy black shadow, her toenails clicking on the floor.
“How was the game?” I peered around the wall separating the living room from the kitchen, wiping both hands on the blue BRIGADISTA SANDINISTA apron tied around my waist, and scrutinized Ruby, trying to beam that maternal X-ray I’d read about. She looked the same as always.
“My team lost, four to one.” Ruby plopped onto the oak hall bench and reached down to take off her cleats. I saw her glowing face, golden apricot under the grime and sweat and the matted curly hair that flew all around her head. How could anyone believe my fairy child has problems?
“But I made the goal.” She lifted her head, the sun through the glass door glinting off her braces, and she rolled her lovely brown eyes up at me so I could see her pleasure. At moments like that, when our eyes locked, our connection was visceral. She smiled, and my heart unclenched. Fight or not, Ruby was fundamentally okay.
“Teaching. Wow, you made a goal.” I stepped closer. “Too bad you lost. Was it fun?”
“Kind of,” she mumbled, head down as she untied her shoelaces. Her legs had grown so long, so fast—at five foot seven she was nearly my height—that every pair of pants she owned were high-water. “Afterward we fooled around . . .”
The rest of her words were lost among long tangles, a curtain hanging over her face. These days she’d turned mercurial: one moment she was beaming at me, the next I had to grill her to get one scrap of information. I was used to that with Che, who’d recently turned a reticent thirteen. But Ruby had ever been the confiding one, eager to press against me on the couch, lean her head on my shoulder, and pour out her heart. We were so close we’d been the envy of all my friends. Until this spring. Day by day, watching Ruby now was like seeing a time-lapsed photo of a flower unfurling: she was that different every time I looked.
“Who were you with?”
“Oh, you know, Jamylle and them . . .” Again she looked up; the brilliant smile captivated me, as it always did.
“How was school?” I held my breath.
“Not really,” she said flatly, the sullen stranger closing over her face as if a shade had been drawn.
I knew any more questions were hopeless. Well, I consoled myself, we’ll talk about it later. Once Solomon and I had a chance to catch up, after dinner, we’d talk to her together.
While I turned away, Che slid back out the front door. I heard the steady plunk of his soccer ball, thump, thump, hitting the stoop. “Che!” I called, stepping outside with Cesar rubbing my leg until I bent to scratch him. Rosa, limping from a deep cut in the pad of her right front foot, hobbled out, whining for her turn.
“Mama?” Che smiled at me then, the same golden red tone as his sister’s lighting his face, as if a special incandescence shone, like Ruby’s, from under his skin. He sidled up the three steps, brushing lightly against my shoulder, hand automatically out to pat Rosa. “We had a snake in biology,” he said, his deep voice cracking while his brow wrinkled. “We dissected it.” His face curled closed so his lashes fluttered against his cheek. “It was dead already. Jabari brought it in. But when we cut it the guts came out.” He squealed with horrified delight, until my serious teenager suddenly sounded like a ten-year-old. “They oozed out all over.” He tried to gauge my reaction. “It was gross!”
Lulled by his lapse into childhood, I reached out to try for a squeeze, but he wriggled free and expertly hurled the ball against the step, bouncing it on the black and red target Solomon had painted. I heard the plunk, steady and slow, just like he was. “After you hit the target . . .” I calculated “. . . two hundred times, come set the table.”
Inside, Ruby’s footsteps thumped and I followed the sound to her room at the back of the house. “Help me with dinner, okay?”
“All right, as soon as I call Imani. I have to tell her one thing. It’s important. What are we having?”
“Pizza—or do you want upside-down night, with scrambled eggs and toast? I have that seeded bread you like. The one that’s real thin-sliced.”
How many thousands of times had this been our dinner? Rotating between four or five meals, somehow pizza seemed to come up more often than any of the others. Over the stove I’d hung a colorful BLACK POWER! UNGAWA! poster, with a raised fist, next to a picture of a massive Chinese woman in red, her huge forearm wielding a giant hammer. Underneath these two Solomon had tacked an Angolan SWAPO poster; its stenciled guns loomed over the steaming vats of food I cooked, usually fresh green beans to go with pizza, or cheap spaghetti or chicken backs and wings, for the Black Panthers and hordes of neighbors who constantly filled our kitchen. Now, when the steam billowed, I strode to Ruby’s room. Through her closed door I could hear her muffled voice on the phone and wondered if she was talking with Imani about the fight at school. “Ruby! Come on. Now! I need you.”
She padded up the hall, skillfully chopped beans and tossed them into my bubbling pot. “Quick, put the lid on,” I told her. I sprinkled hamburger onto a frozen pizza crust, said, “Here, sweetie, spread out the meat with this spoon, I’ve almost got the tomato sauce done”—and was tossing a salad with olive oil, oregano, and chives from Berkeley Bowl when I felt a sweet hand massage my left shoulder. After a moment, she seized my arm and began to pull me into a dance. Ruby’s eyes sparkled; in their flash I saw my familiar child. How tall she was getting, I marveled, as we swayed to the jazz beat blaring from the stereo.
“Daddy,” Ruby called out hopefully when the front door clicked open. But it was Che clomping through the dining area. “Can I cook, too?” His voice cracked.
“Shoes off,” I reminded. Kicking his sneakers into the corner, he ambled into the kitchen.
“Watch out, sweetie. Careful of the stove and the hot food.” Soon the three of us, with Cesar wagging his tail, were creating an improvisational dance to Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, an album I never tired of. When Elvin Jones crashed the cymbals, we clapped in unison, Cesar and Rosa brushing our legs. At the rat-a-tat of the steady drumbeat we jerked our hips, a whirling threesome of giggles crowding into the kitchen, until the boiling pot of beans overflowed, squelching the flame. Catching my breath I relit the stove and handed Ruby a stained quilted blue mitt, a wedding present from Solomon’s sister, Cookie. “Here. Use this while you stir.”
The aroma of bubbling tomato sauce filled the kitchen. Yes, I thought, stealing glances at her, Ruby looks fine. I knew why she’d grabbed that girl’s hair—Jenny had knocked her down—and as for calling her a white bitch, my heart thumped, but before I had a chance to go further with the question I heard the front door click open, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my husband lope through the living room into the kitchen, sniffing the food. Yes, he’s still gorgeous, I let myself notice. Stands so erect, those fine shoulders.
Home for once before nightfall, Solomon’s still-lean body hung over me like a question mark, but I didn’t say a word. Uncorking a bottle of Chianti, I felt my shoulders stiffen and my legs tighten while I silently handed him a glass. And refilled my own. Deliberately, I turned my back into a fortress and busied myself with the sauce scalding on the burner.
“Sorry I missed the meeting,” he mumbled. “I tried—”
Instantly, I heard Che scoot next to his father, a habit I hadn’t seen him show in years. When I glanced over my shoulder, Solomon was absentmindedly rubbing Che’s curls from his forehead in the familiar way he’d used to, and, shockingly, my thirteen-year-old was allowing it.
Ruby lunged for Solomon, wooden spoon in hand. “Daddy, I scored a goal today in the game. It was awesome. Right into the corner. The goalie couldn’t get near it! It was the only goal our side—”
“Sugar, that’s great.” He reached under Ruby’s armpits and in one strong motion lifted her three inches off the ground, pulling her up to his face until they touched noses. She giggled. “That’s my girl,” he said enthusiastically, “you go get ’em.” Lowering Ruby, he stooped a bit to rub noses with Che, too, who tried to pretend he was too tough for this “baby stuff.” Then, Solomon’s tone contrite, he asked me, “How was the meeting with Gladys? I thought I might catch the end of it.”
“But you didn’t, you missed it,” I hissed. “Entirely.” I turned to face him. “Like the last one. Only this was an emergency.”
His face collapsed into a series of weary planes; his eyes behind his glasses hardened. “Shit,” he said, his voice turned hard. “An emergency? You knew I was working. It was a critical gig. I had to drive all the way down to San Leandro to teach a master class, and the traffic on 880 was bumper to bumper. What happened?” He stepped toward me again, draping one arm tentatively over my shoulder.
I nodded toward Ruby and Che, willing the shoulder to soften, and motioned them back to their rooms. “Gladys,” I whispered, catching his hand while I mouthed the words, “is a bitch.”
“Nothing new there. Coulda told you that six years ago,” he whispered in my ear, leaning over to nibble the lobe. “What was the emergency that couldn’t wait?”
“I’ll tell you later. Everything’s okay now, I think. I’ll fill you in on the way to the Hendrix meeting. It’s tonight, isn’t it? God, I can’t believe those cops got acquitted. Beating up a Panther never counts.” I tossed the salad, keeping my voice neutral, although in the way of long-married couples I understood exactly what I was lobbing. I glanced over my shoulder to measure his reaction.
His face tensed and tightened, pinching his features, and the telltale nerve throbbed in his neck like a steady drumbeat. “You know how the brothers—and the sisters—feel about us lately.” His arm loosened from my shoulder until it felt as if he’d peeled away a blanket, and a chill blew over me.
Be careful, I thought. Wait until I’m not so upset about Ruby. But the caution never made it from my brain to my lips. “Screw them,” I blurted. “If you’re comfortable with me, they’ve got to accept us.” And I jiggled my shoulders, knocking his large hand completely off. “Even Bobby?” I asked, remembering how he used to moan at our table over my stuffed pork chops, laughing about The Pig and wolfing down plenty. He’d bounced Ruby and Che on his knees for years when they were small, even joined Ruby and me singing my father’s sacred old union songs, the ones I’d grown up on, inventing new verses to my favorite, “Which Side Are You On?” Together we’d belted out “Don’t scab for Mister Charley, don’t listen to his lies/Us black folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize,” and roared our solidarity together. How could Bobby not want me at the meeting?
“Christ, Red!” Solomon shook his head. “Do I have to explain it again?” He stretched to his full six foot one, straightening his spine even farther, and began to inch backward, one scuffed loafer at a time. His face was as impassive as his eyes.
I couldn’t stop myself, even as I heard the whine of my voice, like the sharp swish of a falling bomb. “What’s the matter, don’t want to take the white-bitch wife?” What’s happened to us: The good-looking mystery man playing his soulful guitar in a Mississippi dirt yard? The slender girl in lace-up sandals frisking like a puppy, willing to do anything—“I’d get shot,” I once declared to a roomful of Panthers—for civil rights? The playful couple blowing bubbles onto naked bodies, swirling the suds into patterns before lunging onto each other? Swearing, “Soul mates forever.” Warm images from the past raced through my mind even as I heard myself direct Ruby, who’d reentered the kitchen with her brother, “Don’t let Cesar lick that spoon full of hamburger juice in your hand” and saw my long arm curl around Che’s muscular shoulder to sprinkle garlic powder in the sauce. Che danced away, as if he were allergic to my touch.
“Elizabeth—look, I’m sorry I missed the meeting,” Solomon said quietly, taking a deep breath, jerking me fully into the present. After a pause he said, “Here’s to . . .” He raised his glass. “The revolution.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Looking like a hollowed-out shell, the man leaned against the yellow wall next to the stove, already splattered with grease despite my recent paint job. I twisted the oven dial to 400, holding my face tight and my breath shallow. He couldn’t paste us together with revolution. Not anymore. I shook my head.
“Christ!” he said, banging his beautiful head softly against the wall. “I give up.”
Ruby, her face enveloped in steam, grabbed the simmering pot of beans and slammed it into the sink, trying to silence us, I knew, while Che slipped quietly out of the house. I heard the rhythmic plunk, plunk of his ball against the stoop. Even the dogs quieted and slunk to the living room. “Not now!” I told Solomon, tightening my jaw and nodding in Ruby’s direction.
“Look, I’ve had it with you blaming me every time I can’t make every single one of those damn meetings called at the most inconvenient times.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt, then burst out, “And you’re the one who said—”
“Not now!” I turned my back and threw hunks of cheese on the pizza before I slid it into the oven. Jeez, I thought for the thousandth time, why am I so pale, the classic red-headed milky white? In a political crowd my skin always screamed white, white, white, like a neon light shining out from the earth tones around us.
“Daddy, something happened today,” Ruby interrupted.
“Not now,” I snapped, momentarily forgetting the incident at school. “Your father and I are talking. Please. Leave us alone for a few minutes.” I nodded toward the living room.
Instead of trotting off, Ruby turned to me and stretched out her hand. “The last sip? Please.”
“No, you’re too young.”
“She only wants a taste,” Solomon protested, handing her his nearly empty glass. “Here’s a sip, sugar.”
“Solomon!” I warned, reaching for the glass. But it was already at her lips, and before I could snatch it back she’d downed the wine in one gulp.
Within two minutes her eyes glazed over, and she nearly stumbled on her way to the table.
What People are Saying About This
Mama’s Child is a stunning portrait of a family amidst the agony of recovery from near-drowning in the sea of racism. Joan Steinau Lester writes of the desperate vulnerabilities and the personal triumphs with a deft emotional hand that makes the struggles that have ripped apart this nation more personal than most have ever experienced.
“An astonishing accomplishment. The most passionate, the most honest and brave of books…riveting art.”
"A powerful story brilliantly capturing the complications of the mother-daughter relationship from both sides.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sticks with you long after the book is finished. The book was eye opening toward the cultural and political climate during this time period. While the story is fiction, these sorts of questions and situations were real issues of the day. The story is written spanning about 30 years, from ruby’s early teens to just about age 40, and switches voices from mother to daughter throughout. Joan Steinau Lester does a wonderful job pulling you into Liz and Ruby’s life. Overall, this story was quite different from the book I was expecting. I don't know precisely why, but this story was so much more frustrating that I thought it would be. Liz, Ruby’s mother, is at the front lines of racial and gender social change during the tumultuous 1960’s/1970’s. She is one of the few whites to marry across racial divides and, as would be expected, this takes an enormous toll on her marriage and family. I was shocked by some of the decisions made regarding the children after the divorce. I can’t imagine that making these choices was easy for real parents in this situation at that time; however it seems an inherently bad idea. Liz is, in many ways, as troubled as her daughter while she navigates her new single parent world trying to find her own identity. Mostly, Ruby and Liz have the relationship typical of mothers and teenage daughters, but many of Liz’s choices in that critical time after the divorce just cut too close for Ruby. As a young woman in college, I found Ruby to be very selfish and was consistently aggravated by her interpretation, criticism, and evaluation of everything her mother did and said. Likewise, Liz was so unpredictable and often disappointing in her parental choices that she was difficult to even like at times. The story is captivating and heartbreaking, despite the frustration I feel toward the characters. As a parent, I immediately felt a kinship with Liz’s character, but I could relate to many of Ruby’s plights as well. I found myself sitting up to find out what was going to happen to them both. This story stuck with me long after I finished reading. It made me think about the choices we are making as parents today, how my children will perceive my decisions, will they understand when they are grown why we did what we did. It also made me look back at my own relationship with my mother and look at those early years in our relationship with fresh eyes. I think that Joan has produced a great story, but the reflection she stimulates is better. I would recommend this to any person interested in mother/daughter dynamics, as well as mothers in general, and those interested in the civil rights movement and counterculture history. Also, it should be mentioned that there are portions of the story which cover the exploration of sexuality common during the counterculture period. I feel that this is an important part of the story and I am not easily offended. However, some may find this material undesirable and should be aware of this before reading/buying. Finally, in full disclosure I have been provided a copy of the book for the purpose of providing a review; however the opinions presented here are my own and have not been influenced or dictated by publisher or author.
I enjoyed it.