Until the end, my mother never discussed her way of being. She avoided explaining the impetus behind her emigration from Barbados to Manhattan. She avoided explaining that she had not been motivated by the same desire for personal gain and opportunity that drove most female immigrants. She avoided recounting the fact that she had emigrated to America to follow the man who eventually became my father, and whom she had known in his previous incarnation as her first and only husband's closest friend. She avoided explaining how she had left her husbandby whom she had two daughtersafter he returned to Barbados from England and the Second World War addicted to morphine. She was silent about the fact that, having been married once, she refused to marry again. She avoided explaining that my father, who had grown up relatively rich in Barbados and whom she had known as a child, remained a child and emigrated to America with his mother and his two sisterswomen whose home he never left. She never mentioned that she had been attracted to my father's beauty and wealth partially because those were two things she would never know. She never discussed how she had visited my father in his room at night, and afterward crept down the stairs stealthily to return to her own home and her six children, four of them produced by her union with my father, who remained a child. She never explained that my father never went to her; she went to him. She avoided explaining that my father, like most children, and like most men, resented his childrenfour girls, two boysfor not growing up quickly enough so that they would leave homeand take his responsibility away with them. She avoided recounting how my fatherbecause he was a childtried to distance himself from his children and his resentment of them through his derisive humor, teasing them to the point of cruelty; she also avoided recounting how her children, in order to shield themselves against the spittle of his derisive humor, absented themselves in his presence and, eventually, in the presence of any form of entertainment deliberately aimed at provoking laughter. She avoided explaining that in response to this resentment, my father also vaunted his beauty and wealth over his children, as qualities they would never share. She was silent about the mysterious bond she and my father shared, a bond so deep and volatile that their children felt forever diminished by their love, and forever compelled to disrupt, disapprove, avoid, or try to become a part of the love shared between any couple (specifically men and women) since part of our birthright has been to remain children, not unlike our father. She avoided mentioning the fact that my father had other women, other families, in cities such as Miami and Boston, cities my father roamed like a bewildered child. She was silent about the fact that my father's mother and sisters told her about the other women and children my father had, probably as a test to see how much my mother could stand to hear about my father, whom his mother and sisters felt only they could understand and love, which is one reason my father remained a child. My mother avoided mentioning the fact that her mother, in Barbados, had had a child with a man other than my mother's father, and that man had been beautiful and relatively rich. She avoided explaining how her mother had thought her association with that relatively rich and beautiful man would make her beautiful and rich also. She avoided explaining how, after that had not happened for her mother, her mother became bitter about this and other things for the rest of her very long life. She avoided contradicting her mother when she said things like "Don't play in the sun. You are black enough," which is what my grandmother said to me once. She avoided explaining that she had wanted to be different from her mother. She avoided explaining that she created a position of power for herself in this common world by being a mother to children, and childlike men, as she attempted to separate from her parents and siblings by being "nice," an attitude they could never understand, since they weren't. She avoided recounting memories of her family's cruelty, one instance of their cruelty being: my mother's family sitting in a chartered bus as it rained outside on a family picnic; my mother, alone, in the rain, cleaning up the family picnic as my mother's aunt said, in her thick Bajun accent: "Marie is one of God's own," and the bus rocking with derisive laughter as my heart broke, in silence. She avoided mentioning that she saw and understood where my fascination with certain aspects of her narrativeher emigration, her love, her kindnesswould take me, a boy of seven, or eight, or ten: to the dark crawl space behind her closet, where I put on her hosiery one leg at a time, my heart racing, and, over those hose, my jeans and sneakers, so that I could have herwhat I so admired and covetednear me, always.
By now, the Negress has come to mean many things. She is perceived less as a mind than as an emotional being. In the popular imagination, she lives one or several cliche-ridden narratives. One narrative: she is generally colored, female, and a single mother, reduced by circumstances to tireless depression and public "aid," working off the books in one low-paying job after another in an attempt to support her childrenchildren she should not have had, according to tax-paying, law-abiding public consensus. Like my mother. Another narrative: she can be defined as a romantic wedded to despair, since she has little time or inclination to dissemble where she stands in America's social welfare system, which regards her as a statistic, part of the world's rapacious silent majority. Like my mother. Another narrative: she gives birth to children who grow up to be lawless; she loves men who leave her for other women; she is subject to depression and illness. Her depression is so numbing that she rarely lets news of the outside world (television news, radio news, newspapers) enter her sphere of consciousness, since much of her time is spent fording herself and her children against the news of emotional disaster she sees day after day in the adult faces surrounding the faces of her children, who, in turn, look to her to make sense of it all. Like my mother.
What the Negress has always been: a symbol of America's by now forgotten strain of puritanical selflessness. The Negress is a perennial source of "news" and interesting "copy" in the newspapers and magazines she does not read because she is a formidable character in the internal drama most Americans have with the issue of self-abnegation. The Negress serves as a reminder to our sentimental nation that what its countrymen are shaped by is a nonverbal confusion about and, ultimately, abhorrence for the good neighbor policy. Most Americans absorb the principles of the good neighbor policy through the language-based tenets of Judaism and Christianity. These laws lead to a deep emotional confusion about the "good" since most Americans are suspicious of language and spend a great deal of time and energy on Entertainment and Relaxation in an attempt to avoid its net result: Reflection. If the Negress is represented as anything in the media, it is generally as a good neighbor, staunch in her defense of the idea that being a good neighbor makes a difference in this common world. She is also this: a good neighbor uncritical of faith, even as her intellect dissects the byzantine language of the Bible, searching for a truth other than her own. Which is one reason the Negress is both abhorred and adored: for her ability to meld language with belief without becoming sarcastic. Take, for instance, this story, reported in the New York Post: "The Trinidad woman who lost her legs in a subway purse snatching is not looking for revengebut she hopes her mugger becomes 'a better person' in prison.... Samela Thompson, 56, fell onto the tracks in the Van Wyck Boulevard station in Jamaica, Queens.... She was trying to jump onto the platform from an E train as she chased a homeless man who had grabbed her sister's purse.... The feisty mother of five's attitude is 'you have to take life as it comes.' Thompson wished [her attacker] would know God."
To women who are not Negressessome are whitethe Negress, whether she calls herself that or not, is a specter of dignityselfless to a fault. But eventually the Negress troubles her noncolored female admirer, since the latter feels compelled to compare her privilege to what the Negress does not haverecognizable privilegeand finds herself lacking. This inversion or competitiveness among women vis-a-vis their "oppressed" stance says something about why friendships among women are rare, let alone why friendships between noncolored women and Negresses are especially so.
For years before and after her death, I referred to myself as a Negress; it was what I was conditioned to be. And yet I have come no closer to defining it. In fact, I shy away from defining it, given my mother's complex reaction to Negressity for herself and me. I have expressed my Negressity by living, fully, the prescribed life of an auntie manwhat Barbadians call a faggot. Which is a form of kinship, given that my being an auntie man is based on greed for romantic love with men temperamentally not unlike the men my mother knewthat and an unremitting public "niceness." I socialized myself as an auntie man long before I committed my first act as-one. I also wore my mother's and sisters' clothes when they were not home; those clothes deflected from the pressure I felt in being different from them. As a child, this difference was too much for me to take; I buried myself in their clothes, their secrets, their desires, to find myself through them. Those women "killed" me, as comedians say when they describe their power over an audience. I wanted them to kill me further by fully exploiting the attention I afforded them. But they couldn't, being women.
Being an auntie man enamored of Negressity is all I have ever known how to be. I do not know what my life would be, or if I would be at all, if I were any different.
To say that the public's reaction to my mother's being a Negress and my being one were similar would be egregious. My mother was a woman. Over the years in Brooklyn, she worked as a housekeeper for a relatively well-off Scotsman, as a housekeeper for a Jewish matron, in a beauty salon as a hairdresser, as an assistant in a nursery school. My mother responded to my being a Negress with pride and anger: pride in my identification with women like herself; anger that I identified with her at all. I could not help her react to any of this any differently than she did. This failure haunts me still. I have not catapulted myself past my mother's emotional existence.
Did my mother call herself a Negress as a way of ironically reconciling herself to her history as that most hated of English colonial words, which fixed her as a servant in the eyes of Britain and God? I don't think so, given that she was not especially interested in Britain or history. But "Negress" was one of the few words she took with her when she emigrated from Barbados to Manhattan. As a Negress, her passport to the world was restricted; the world has its limits. Shortly after arriving in New York in the late forties, my mother saw what her everyday life would be; being bright, a high school graduate, and practical, she looked at the world she had emigrated to, picked up her servant's cap, and began starching it with servitude. In her new country, my mother noticed that some New Yorkers retained the fantasy that in writing or speaking about the "underclass," or the "oppressed, silent" woman, or the "indomitable" stoic, they were writing about the kind of Negress she was, but they weren't. My mother was capricious in her views about most things, including race. As a West Indian who lived among other West Indians, my mother did not feel "difference"; she would not allow her feelings to be ghettoized; in her community, she was in the majority. She was capable of giving a nod toward the history of "injustice," but only if it suited her mood.
I think my mother took some pleasure in how harsh the word "Negress" seemed to the citizens in her adopted home. I have perhaps made more of the word "Negress" than my mother meant by it, but I saw and continue to see how it is used to limit and stupidly define the world I certain women inhabit. I think my mother took pleasure in manipulating the guilt and embarrassment white and black Americans alike felt when she called herself a Negress, since their view of the Negress was largely sentimental, maudlin, replete with suffering. When my mother laughed in the face of their deeply presumptive view of her, one of her front teeth flashed gold.
My mother disliked the American penchant for euphemism; she was resolute in making the world confront its definition of her. This freed her mind for other things, like her endless illness, which was a protracted form of suicide. From my mother I learned the only way the Negress can own herself is through her protracted suicide; suffering from imminent death keeps people at a distance. I was so lonely knowing her; she was so busy getting to know herself through dying. When my mother became ill with one thing or another, I was eight; by the time my mother died, I was twenty-eight. When she died, I barely knew anything about her at all.
My mother killed herself systematically and not all at once. Perhaps that is because, as a Negress, she had learned stamina, a stamina that consisted of smiling and lying and maintaining the hope that everything would eventually be different, regardless of the facts. Until the end, my mother avoided the facts; she was polite. She would not die. She became ill, and for a long time, which is difficult to cope with; illness silences the well, out of respect. My mother knew that. Being somewhat generous, she acknowledged her children's helplessness in the atmosphere of her dying by allowing us to live with it so that we could see her physical dissolution (clumps of hair, one leg, a few teeth, eventually all gone) without delineating any of its mysteries. Being children, we could only see her imminent death in terms of our imminent loss; we failed to understand what her dying meant to her. She imposed her will by not telling anyone what was really "wrong"; this kept everyone poised and at her service. She would not speak of the facts contributing to her death; nor would she speak of the facts that contributed to her wish to die in the first place. She was quietly spirited, functional, and content in her depression and love; not for the world would she have forfeited the will she applied to disappearing her own body, since it took her so many years to admit to her need for attention, and being ill was one way to get it. The reasons my mother chose to disappear herself, slowly, are manifold. Perhaps she chose to destroy her body out of a profound sadness at the eventual dissolution of her thirty-year romantic relationship with my father; perhaps she chose to disappear her body out of her interest in the discipline inherent in self-abnegation. Perhaps it was both.
My mother first became ill at the end of her love affair with my father. As with most aspects of my parents' relationship, it is unclear whether or not my father dictated the course their relationship would take. The difference between my mother and the woman he became involved with after my mother was significant: she consented to live with my father whereas my mother had not. After my mother refused to marry him, my father never asked her to again. My mother encountered my father's girlfriend once, on the street. My father's new girlfriend was in the company of one of my father's sisters. My mother saw a certain resemblance between my father's new girlfriend and herself: they were both homely but spirited, like Doris Day. It was clear to my mother that his new girlfriend was capable of withstanding my father's tantrums, his compulsive childishness, and his compulsive lying. It was perhaps not as clear to my father's new girlfriend as it was to my mother that my father lied as much as he did because of his need to rebuild the world according to his specifications while being ashamed of this need. Just like a woman.
I think the resemblance my mother saw between herself and my father's new girlfriend shattered any claim to originality my mother had. And, being a woman, she chose to be critical of this similarity rather than judge my father. Shortly afterward, she was made sick by a mysterious respiratory illness. In the end, I think my mother's long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt she experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people. And it was.
When diabetes cost her one of her legs, she said, politely: Oh, I'm dying now. When they removed a gland in her neck as a test for whatever, she said, politely: Oh, I'm really dying now. When one of her kidneys failed completely and a machine functioned in its place, she was still polite. She said: Well, I'm dying. When she lost her vision in one eye, she said she was dying; eventually she could not breathe without stress, and she said she was really dying; her blood pressure was abnormally high, her teeth were bad, she could not urinate or take sugar in her tea or eat pork or remember a conversation, but she remembered these two things: that she was polite and dying.
After they cut off one of her legs for diabetes' sake, she often experienced phantom pain. The world twitched and throbbed. For my mother, experiencing physical pain became a perspective she could own. In pain, she wasn't anything but illnot a Negress, not a mother of six, not a lover, not a patient. Pain has its own meaning. She passed life by long before she died. When she died, the things she wore in her casketa wig made of a synthetic fiber colored brown; a white polyester shawldidn't look as if they belonged to her at all.
MAN SEIZED IN RAPE OF 3 YEAR OLD IN PUBLIC
A Manhattan man raped his 3 year old niece about 25 feet from the F.D.R. Drive at the start of the rush hour Friday evening.... The suspect, Leroy Saunders, 29, was caught a few blocks after assaulting the girl under a tree on a grassy knoll.... Mr. Saunders, with his pants down to the ankles, assaulted the girl, who was naked below the waist.... The girl's mother, who is Mr. Saunders' sister, said, "You just don't expect that from kin." But she declined to talk about the case. "I just want to go back to my apartment to rest," she said.... Neighbors said the mother, whose surname differs from her brother's, had six children.
The New York Times, July 17, 1991
That is one story about the Negress. That Leroy Saunders' sister was aged twenty-nine and has a surname different from her brother's are not among the pertinent facts that make up the Negress in her. The fact that his sister did not expect such behavior from "kin" is. This word"kin"is a regional colloquialism peculiar to the South; it evokes a narrative. One can imagine Leroy Saunders' sister as an inbred Negress who made her way to New York and bad men and children swollen with need and the welfare system. No husband or father is reported as being attached to her "different" name or to her children. The use of the word "kin" implicated her in Saunders' crime: in a common world, her actions are crimes too. When the Negress is seen in books, such as Toni Morrison's Beloved or Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, that are marketed according to their "anger" quotient; or in films, such as Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger, that are remarkable for their willful construction of the "benign" Negress; or in theater pieces, such as Having Our Say, that avoid reference to class issues among Negresses; or in newspapers like the one in which I found Leroy Saunders' sister, she is shown as less than herself but is still more than our current cultural climate can handle. Angry or silent, colored and female, her starched cap of servitude firmly in place, she carries a tray loaded with forgiveness, bitterness, rancor, anger, defensiveness, and slatternliness. She has rejected language.
Leroy Saunders' sister's use of the word "kin" indicated not only her commonness to her readers but also her unwillingness to give her brother up, regardless of the facts. The fact is, my mother refused to give me up, despite the Negress in me.
At times my mother disliked the Negress she helped create in me, which is another way she tried to impose her will. (She expressed her will through the phrase "auntie man." When I was five or six years old, my mother and I sat on a bench on a platform in a subway station located near our home. Seated not far off from us was a woman my mother knew from our neighborhood. My mother did not speak to this woman, because she did not like her teenage son, who happened to be with his mother that particular afternoon. Like me, he was a Negress. Unlike me, he dressed the part. He wore black shoes with princess heels, and flesh-colored hose, through which dark hair sprouted, and a lemon-colored shift with grease spots on it, and a purple head scarf, and bangles. He carried a strapless purse, out of which he removed, after little or no consultation with his mother, a compact and lipstick to dress his face too. As my mother looked at that boy, she brushed my eyes closed with the back of her hand. And she hissed the words "auntie man!" I never knew which auntie man she meant.)
The fact that Leroy Saunders' sister, mother of six, three of whom are in foster homes, had to "rest" after her daughter's attack on a grassy knoll and perhaps consider the facts later was not an unusual characteristic, given what I assumed when I read her story: that she was a Negress. What was or perhaps was not unusual, given that there was no photograph accompanying "Man Seized in Rape of 3 Year Old," was that immediately upon reading it, I attached black faces to this narrative of "kin" gone awry, a grassy knoll, pants down around the ankles, and a mother's need for "rest" after an atrocity committed against someone else.
The story of the Negress is not difficult to understand if you listen. My sisters spoke the same language of kin for kin, one saying of another: "She is so nasty. Having one baby after another, and none of them by the same father. Like a dog." Any story resembling this one I assumed I owned, in the way that I assumed Leroy Saunders' sister was "mine," being another Negress living in strict avoidance of the facts, just as I assumed his niece was "mine," being another Negress left to a world where her future actions will probably illustrate Leroy Saunders' turn of mind against her. What the Times made clear was how Leroy Saunders' sister and niece would not be a story were it not for him.
Perhaps the man I fucked when I was ten wanted to have the same effect on me that Leroy Saunders had on his sister, niece, or readers. I do not remember him very well, but it was partially through him that I came into my inheritance as a Negress. He worked as a janitor in the apartment building where one of my sisters lived. He was black. He was wearing blue cotton trousers and a blue cotton shirt. He pushed his trousers down around his ankles. He said: You're pretty. He said: Sit on this, and I did. He held me. He thought I was frightened but I wasn't. I performed vulnerability in the hope that it would elicit his maleness. He does not know that I exist still, nor that I grew up forever in the moment I seduced him into taking that nasty turn with me. For years, I thought all of this was a dream, but it wasn't. Seducing men into performing acts defined as male, but in circumstances they would describe as illicit (two scenarios men consider illicit: they have a girlfriend or live with someone else), disempowers their maleness. In an illicit circumstance, men are just as frightened and vulnerable as the next guy. That's what I like. This desire can be developed in childhood and follow you into adulthood, or whatever. That's what your life becomes; it's governed by emotional patterns that distort your reason, or become your reason.
For years I could not face my own complicity with the man in the blue cotton shirt and blue cotton pants. I could not face the way in which I had wanted him to make me a Negress, or the fact that I wanted to be consumed by him so that I could be part of a narrative as compelling to me as my mother's was, a narrative in which I too would be involved with a bad man, resulting in heartache that would eventually lead to depression, an endless suicide, and the attention that can be garnered from all that. I was dwarfed by my mother's spectacular sense of narrative and disaster; she could have been a great writer. I have never been comforted by the idea that writing her narrative down, in fragments, is at all equal to the power of her live-while-trying-not-to experience. She is so interesting to meas a kind of living literature. I still envy her allure. And I still envy her ability to loveno matter how terrible, no matter how coarseand to allow that love to consume her, or, literally, parts of herself. I stand back from the model of her courage, just as I stand back from my desire to be taken in by love, even as I fear its power. I avoid all of this even though I have considered myself a Negress in the tradition of my mother. But I tremble at the thought of losing a leg, and having the world twitch before me because of love. In general, I avoid my mother's remarkable way of being. She had six children whom she cared for, more often than not lovingly, though she remained unconvinced that having children was the solution to the issue of isolation. She did not regard isolation as a problem but something else to think about, whereas I have never been able to view it as anything but the result of separation. Time has not changed my point of view, nor has the knowledge that what divide people are not the dreary marginal issues of race, or class, or gender, but this: those who believe friendship and love dispel our basic aloneness, and those who do not. This was the difference that divided me from my mother. Maybe all I can say in support of my difference from her is that she never missed herself while I was around.
My mother's long, slow, public death was an advertisement for the life she had livedgood or bad is not the point. And not having much control over my thoughts regarding Negressity is beside the point too. What continues to interest me is why my mother, like most women, could never decide which she preferred: to live and to grow, or to die while retaining bitterness and hope.
Having grown up surrounded by the story of the Negress, which has no primary test, I can only piece together a narrative about my mother's religious, cultural, culinary, sexual, sartorial, and humanitarian interests: She attended Sunday services at St. George's Episcopal Church, a Gothic structure in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, surrounded by brownstones, vacant lots, and children. My mother had attended services at St. George's ever since she emigrated to New York as a young girl of seventeen. The congregation was largely West Indian and judgmental of my mother because she had chosen not to marry my father while choosing to have his children. Many of the women in that congregation had children out of wedlock as well, but they judged my mother just the same, because she wasn't bitter about not being married. At St. George's, my mother sometimes sang, in her sweet, reedy voice, "I Surrender All," her favorite hymn.
She also loved the foods of her country: sous, blood pudding, coconut bread, coo-coo. She enjoyed her own mother most when her mother prepared those foods for her on certain holidays: birthdays, Christmas, wakes.
She herself was a mediocre cook who tried to be better at it than she was by preparing elaborate meals culled from French cookbooks. I learned to cook in reaction to the meals my mother prepared. She had no idea what food might be pleasing to other people since she spent much of her time in her own head and body.
She was very clear about being her own person. She never said, "I didn't mean to," or "I couldn't help it," or "I'm sorry." She rarely changed her mind except to accommodate someone else's change of mind. When she lied, it was to spare someone else the embarrassment of feeling too much.
She didn't change her surname after she left her first and only husband. All of her children had the same last name, even though my father's last name is Williams. She didn't notice her children's embarrassment when they addressed my father as "Mr. Als" and he corrected them.
She loved the ocean. She didn't return to Barbados until shortly before she died, but the Caribbean Sea was the subject of her conversation from time to time. Summers, my brother and I were sent to Barbados with packages of clothes and food as gifts. From time to time, the girl children of cousins and aunts she hadn't seen for years came to stay with us. My brother and I didn't like Barbados, but we loved our mother, and preferred to imagine the island through her memories of it. In 1978, when I was seventeen, I read a story by a writer from the West Indies. The story, "Wingless," had been written by Jamaica Kincaid. In it, I read this description of the Caribbean Sea and its surroundings: "The sea, the shimmering pink-colored sand, the swimmers with hats, two people walking arm in arm, talking in each other's face, dots of water landing on noses, the sea spray on ankles, on overdeveloped calves, the blue, the green, the black, so deep, so smooth, a great and swift undercurrent, glassy, the white waveless." This story changed everything. It taught me how language could be made visual and how memory combined with the imagination made the visual resonate. After reading this story, I read it aloud to my mother, as she sat before me, dying. After I read it, my mother said: "Exactly."
She loved the ocean. My father was loving toward my mother and his children when he took us to the ocean. Even after he had lived with his new girlfriend for quite some time, he still took us to see the waves, the sand, people. I watched my parents' adult feet become tiny in the huge expanse of sand.
She was in love with my father until the end. They spoke every day on the telephone. They amused and angered one another. She called him "Cyp," which was short for Cyprian, his given name. When he said her name, Marie, he said it in a thick Bajun accent, so that the "a" was very flat. In his mouth, her name sounded like this: "Mare-be."
She ignored my father when he broadcast his news of the world. She knew that his recounting of certain newspaper factsmurders, boroughs blasted by crime and povertywas really just my father going over the ground of his paranoia and infantile hysteria again. Until I was old enough to realize all of that for myself, I believed my father; after a while I didn't. Now I have a desultory interest in fact, and a profound interest in what the imagination can do.
WHO WILL FEED CHINA?
Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet
By Lester R. Brown
W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright © 1995 Worldwatch Institute. All rights reserved.