- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
New Trade Paper
Ships in 1 to 3 days
available for shipping or prepaid pickup only
Available for In-store Pickup
in 7 to 12 days
The Womenby Hilton Als
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 husband--by whom she had two daughters--after 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 sisters--womenwhose 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 children--four girls, two boys--for not growing up quickly enough so that they would leave home and take his responsibility away with them. She avoided recounting how my father--because he was a child--tried 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 hadother 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 ofGod'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 narrative--her emigration, her love, her kindness--would 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 her--what I so admired and coveted--near 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 cliché-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 children--children 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 theoutside 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, forinstance, this story, reported in the New York Post: "The Trinidad woman who lost her legs in a subway purse snatching is not looking for revenge--but 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 Negresses--some are white--the Negress, whether she calls herself that or not, is a specter of dignity--selfless 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 have--recognizable privilege--and finds herself lacking. This inversion or competitiveness among women vis-à-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 Negressityby living, fully, the prescribed life of an auntie man--what 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 knew--that 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 womenlike 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 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. Shewould 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 involvedwith 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 losther 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 ill--not 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 casket--a wig made of a synthetic fiber colored brown; a white polyester shawl--didn'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 apartmentto 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 atray 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, givenwhat 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 wasblack. 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 me--as a kind of living literature. I still envy her allure. And I still envy her ability to love--no matter how terrible, no matter how coarse--and 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 lived--good or bad is not thepoint. 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 text, I can only piece together a narrative about my mother based on the facts. Certain facts 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 inarm, 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 wavelets." 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-ee."
She ignored my father when he broadcast his news of the world. She knew that his recounting of certain newspaper facts--murders, boroughs blasted by crime and poverty--was 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.
She lived, for many years, with my younger brother, my older sister (eleven years my senior and the one closest to me in age), and me, in a two-story brownstone in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The house had a narrow staircase. We lived in the apartment above the elderly Jewish couple who owned the building, Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz. Sometimes my brother and I would watch television with the Schwartzes. I marveled at the orderliness of Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz's home, the strange smells, the candles that they burned on Friday nights. I was ten when we went to live with the Schwartzes. I loved them. I wanted to be a Jew. I told Mrs. Schwartz: I want to be a Jew, but how? One day, when I was with my mother, Mrs. Schwartz stopped my mother on that narrow staircase to tell her that I wanted to be a Jew. I was ten. My mother looked at me. She told Mrs. Schwartz that I wanted to be a writer. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Schwartz gave me a gift. It was a typewriter that had belonged to her son, The Doctor.
She told one story about being a servant among the Jews when she was a young girl new to America. She lived in Brooklyn. With other teenage girls her age, she would go to the Flatbush section and wait on a particular street corner for people--mostly Jews--to drive by in their big cars, from which they would look to see which girls on that street corner were healthy and clean enough to do day work in their homes. "We called ourselves Daily Woikers," my mother said, in a Yiddish-American accent, laughing.
She called me "Bubala" from time to time in a strong Yiddish-American accent.
She took me with her to Delancey Street, on the LowerEast Side, in Manhattan, to go shopping from time to time. Many Jews owned stores there. She was comfortable with what she called "The Jews."
She had been denied many things because of her attraction to men like her father, who had denied her everything. He was the only person I ever heard her complain about. Having been denied many things, she denied her children next to nothing.
She didn't know that when she began being ill and my older sister, brother, and I were forced to stay with our father's mother for a while, that we went to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem against our grandmother's wishes to see James Brown--she thought he was a "bad American" --whose records we loved and listened to at Birdel's Record Shop on Nostrand Avenue, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, because we couldn't afford to buy them, nor could we listen to them in our grandmother's home. We went to the Apollo to see James Brown in the late sixties, when he still marcelled his hair. We saved money for the tickets by selling glass soda bottles back to the grocer. James Brown was a marvel in his blue silk suit and pointy shoes. He performed being "overwhelmed" by his own musicianship--the first viable aesthetic I ever saw. Onstage, his hair and clothes were as perfect as any Negress's I had ever seen.
She was not ambitious for her children, but she was supportive of their ambitions. When I was eight I told her I wanted to be a writer. Writing things down was the only way I understood how to be heard, there being so many women in my mother's house at various times, talking.For years after I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she would give me, as Christmas presents, writing tablets to write things down in; she would also give me books to read that she brought from the Liberation Bookshop on Nostrand Avenue. The books were almost always books of poems or novels, and were almost always by women, such as Alice Childress' A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwhich, Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks, and anything by Paule Marshall. In between reading all of that, I also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, more than once.
She spent many hours with me alone, in the dark, in her bedroom, listening to me lie. Somehow she knew that most writers became writers after having spent their childhood lying. Or perhaps she didn't know that at all. She was extremely tolerant of my lies. She was interested in where my lies could take her.
She was not impatient with my pretensions. When, at thirteen or fourteen, I began wearing a silk ascot to school and took to writing by the light of a kerosene lamp like my hero at the time, Horace Greeley, the famous nineteenth-century journalist, she didn't say a word.
She read Truman Capote when I discovered him. I was twelve. She liked Other Voices, Other Rooms, but didn't discuss it with me. I read that novel over and over again, fascinated by its oblique homosexual "theme" and, even more so, by the photograph of Truman Capote on the back of the book, lying on a sofa, looking like a homely but spirited young girl waiting to be admired by someone like my father. After we read Breakfast at Tiffany'sshe took me to Tiffany's. We couldn't eat there, so we went to Schrafft's wearing our beige trench coats in the rain.
She became a hairdresser in a beauty salon when I was five; she was a hairdresser by profession until I was twelve or so. She called the salon "the shop." It was frequented by Negresses. I went there after school. At the shop, my mother wore a white smock. She straightened hair and rubbed bergamot into women's scalps. She listened to women talk all day. After a while, problems became pretty general to her. People complained, no matter what; she learned that for some people complaining was a way of being. After a while, she didn't respond to her customers' problems; she knew they didn't want a solution. I heard my mother's customers speak of their problems too, but I reacted emotionally. My mother knew better. She heard women complain about their husbands who blah, blah, blah; their children who blah, blah, blah. The more she heard, the more general my mother became in her support and encouragement of everyone. She addressed most of those women as "Honey" because after a while she couldn't remember their names.
She loved Crime and Punishment. She read it over and over again while locked in the bathroom, her only refuge before she began dying. Her second favorite novel was Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, the story of a Brooklyn-based girl named Selina who is of Bajun descent. Selina wears gold bangles; the bangles are part of her sartorial heritage, the myth being that you can always sell the bangles to book passage back to Barbados. Selina does not take that myth to heart. At the end of the novel, Selinathrows her bangles in a pile of rubbish in an empty lot in Brooklyn. My mother passed this book on to me. I read it eleven times. I was eleven years old. I read the author's biography on the jacket flap, and looked up her name in the Manhattan telephone directory. When Paule Marshall answered the telephone, I told her, in a rush, about how much my mother loved her novel and how we did not live very far from where Selina had grown up. Paule Marshall was amazed. She made her son pick up the extension and listen in. Later, when I told my mother what I had done, she looked at me in amazement. She knew that I had telephoned Paule Marshall for both of us because I considered my mother's rarely ventured opinion important.
She had a mind similar to mine, which is to say a mind that is attracted to self-expression as it is filtered through an elliptical thought process--writers that don't tell the full story, movies that don't have much exposition, and so on. We weren't alike emotionally; in the end, I am a moralist and she was not. I think all that was interesting to both of us, but I can't speak for her.
She took adult education classes for a year, five or six years before her leg was cut off. She had to read Sophocles' Oedipus plays. She had trouble grasping the conflict.
She was very visual and had a quiet, minimal style of dress. She didn't read fashion magazines, pay attention to trends, or have enough money to be fashionable. Each of her daughters made many of their own clothes, or she made clothes for them. Many people remarked on her daughters' unique style, which was an amalgamation of some aspects of West Indian style (gold bangles, gold earrings, loafers), American style (circle skirts or straightskirts with kick pleats and silk backing; cardigans), and their individual style (orange lipstick and, eventually, nose rings).
She had one fox-fur stole, a gold front tooth, short, loosely curled hair, small feet that had been misshapen from many years of wearing shoes that were two sizes too small. When they cut off one of her legs, my eldest sister said to our mother, "Well, at least we won't have to look at those two ugly feet anymore." My mother laughed.
She loved to dance. When she was a young girl, friends used to call her the Girl of a Thousand Steps. My father did not like to dance. Perhaps they learned a great deal about other people through knowing one another.
She had performed the role of Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore when she was a schoolgirl. Sometimes, in the morning, when she was opening the drapes and I would groan at the encroaching sunlight, she would sing, "I'm called little Buttercup / Poor little Buttercup / Though I could never tell why." Without prompting, she would also sometimes sing Joyce Kilmer's "Trees."
She dropped her West Indian accent a few years after she became a U.S. citizen in the late forties. She didn't like people who capitalized on being exotic. She didn't like accents in general. She lived in America and wanted to sound like an American. She did, unless she was angry. She thought accents were rude in America, especially if the accent was British. Having a British accent after living in America for a time was, to her, like mourning one's privileged relationship to a disappointed and disappointing empire, or imposing one's privilege on a new land. Shemoved on when she could. She was not nostalgic but she cherished everyone else's past.
She had one friend who was an auntie man. Unlike other women who knew him as well, my mother didn't find her friend's sexual predilection confusing or anger-provoking. Besides, auntie men were not mysterious beings to her; in Barbados, most ostensibly straight men had sex with them, which was good, since that left women alone for a while. During the course of her friendship with Grantly the auntie man, she focused on him. Had she had access to other people besides her children, lover, employer, doctors, she might have been a fag hag, fond of auntie men, music, and movies.
She loved Mary Astor in the film version of The Maltese Falcon. In that movie Mary Astor is undone by her deceit. She also loved Mary Astor's short haircut and little gold hoop-shaped earrings. At one point, when I told my mother that the playwright George S. Kaufman, who was married, had given Mary Astor those earrings at the height of their "illicit" affair, she laughed.
She had a romantic attachment to Kim Novak in the film version of Picnic. In it, Kim Novak describes herself as a pretty girl "who gets tired of being looked at." In particular, my mother liked the rendition of "Moonglow" that plays in the film, to which Kim Novak, wearing a blue dress, dances with William Holden. They do not speak while they dance; they fall in love without talking.
She was intrigued by the sexually repressed atmosphere in Elia Kazan's film Splendor in the Grass. She disliked sexually explicit language. She was a product of her time in this respect only.
She knew of one entertainer. She was friends with a man who worked as a gardener for the Pleshette family in Westchester. The Pleshettes had a daughter, Suzanne, who was an actress best known for her work as Bob Newhart's wife on The Bob Newhart Show.
She also loved Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. One scene from that film haunted us. The antiheroine, Cathy, is in the kitchen with Ellen discussing her childhood love, Heathcliff, whom she'd like to abolish from her life, but can't. A flash of thunder illuminates Cathy's soft and greedy face when she says, "Ellen, I am Heathcliff." Cathy's identification with Heathcliff is the dramatic center of the film; my propensity for identifying with women has been the dramatic center of my life. My mother was spirited but not imaginative.
She didn't like Eartha Kitt or Billie Holiday. She considered Eartha Kitt pretentious. When I was twenty, I began playing Billie Holiday records all the time; I was interested in how disaffection could be conveyed in a narrative structure. My mother said: "Why do you play those albums all the time? When I saw Billie Holiday perform, she looked quite respectable."
She had a real sense of most things. She could not bear how interracial children with red or blond hair looked. She called them "riny," meaning they reminded her of orange rind. She did not have much resistance to the idea of any of her children being involved with an American white person, or a European, since she associated white people with ghosts. In her culture, ghosts were called "dupies" and could be useful: they frightened one's enemies away, or came to one in dreams and unraveled mysteries thetroubled dreamer found disturbing. She used to say that if any one of her children became involved with a dupie, the least they could be was attractive. She did not like to see white people dance.
She could not bear the false idea of happy families. To her, children who had grown up in a happy family inherited a tragic hope: that they could replicate their memory of familial unity in their own homes. But they never learned how, resisting any experience other than the categorically "wonderful." She saw those children remain children as they complained about a world their parents never made, which, in turn, they could never inhabit.
She never used the sanctimonious tone of voice most women she knew used when they discussed their children; she disliked the morally "correct" attitude most women she knew adopted after giving birth, dividing the world into those women who were "good" because they had children and those women who were morally disreputable because they didn't. She saw the issue of children as just one more opportunity for women to be competitive among themselves. Two reasons she had children were, one: an opportunity to experience unconditional love, and, two: her curiosity about how lives get lived. With a child, who knew what would happen next?
She was slightly ambivalent about my appearance. Even when I was no longer a small boy, I was Cute and Adorable in a way reminiscent of illustrations of generic Negro boys on Hallmark cards. Sometimes she preferred my brother's company to mine. He was quieter and less emotional. I always wanted something from her.
She didn't like it when her sons began experimentingwith certain aspects of boyishness, like spitting on sidewalks or jamming their fists in the pockets of their jeans. She couldn't imagine what most boys meant by anything.
She invited homeless women into her home for the afternoon, where she offered them a cup of tea and unmitigated attention. They were women whom she came across in our neighborhood. When she saw them, she would stop and invite them up. I do not think my mother identified with the women she brought in, but I did. I felt my desire to be a Negress looked as mad as their misfortune. I feared my desire to be like my mother and sister looked as disjunctive to the women in my family as those homeless women looked to me, with their long, filthy scarves draped across the clear, crunchy plastic covering my mother's pink velour sofa, their giant oil-stained shopping bags filled with (I imagined) junk, money, and diaries, all of which crackled at their homeless feet, the same feet that burned holes in the roses patterning my mother's dusty polyester living-room rug.
That I was a Negress became clear to me when I was thirteen. My mother's leg had yet to be cut off, but she already had diabetes. That year, I went to a party being held by one of my mother's relatives. I didn't know why my mother had not attended the party until I returned home and told her about it. We were standing in the kitchen. I told her how I had met a man there who had asked after her. I described him: bald head, a square figure,very dark skin. I met him on the stoop leading away from the house where the party was being held. I remembered everything about the meeting and spoke of it excitedly. I didn't tell my mother about the man's charm and my attraction to his charm. Nor did I describe the roundness of the orange sun setting behind his large brown head; rubbing my moist hands against the stoop's bumpy concrete; admiring his graceful saunter as he walked away. My mother's face became hard when I mentioned his first name, Eldred. She would not look at me as she said: "That was the man I was married to. That was my husband." The air was still between us; it became a wall. I knew I was a Negress because of the jealousy I felt over her having left someone I coveted. I glanced at my mother; her face, her body told me that she had been where I wanted to be long before I began imagining being a Negress. We stood in the kitchen for quite some time. I saw myself in my mother's eyes; the reflection showed a teenage girl, insecure, frightened, and vengeful.
As a pubescent Negress, I spent a great deal of time in thrall to the sister who was closest to me in age and who continued to live at home for years after our older sisters had left.
She created a world in her bedroom that resonated with spitefulness and intellectual possibility. In her room, we danced to Dionne Warwick singing "Don't Make Me Over" as she began getting dressed for the evening. Shewas the only college student I knew. From her asking my advice on what to wear, I knew she was pleased that I was absorbed by being a Negress. My empathy for her bordered on repression: in order to be like her, I couldn't admit to having a self that was in the least different. Sometimes, in a sudden fit of pique, she would demand to know what I was anyway, hanging around a girl's bedroom. In those moments, I was startled into accepting our difference: she was competitive with me; she felt my Negressity would eventually loom over hers. I was tall, and already better at Negressity then she was.
She was beautiful. She had long legs and a long neck and a keen intelligence. She had black shoulder-length hair that she wore in a chignon. She also wore straight skirts and cardigans and flats. She was adored by many men; she was not ambivalent about their adoration. "Who says people don't love objects?" she asked me once. She had many lovers, which prompted one sister to say about her later, "She's so nasty ... . Like a dog." Her physicality and sartorial sense was a style--my first brush with that powerful conundrum. Through her, I became fascinated by the question of appearance, and how it manifested itself in the popular music of the girl groups we listened to as my sister got dressed for the evening. Their music was lyrical; those girl groups had names like clothing: the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Ronettes. The records had been left behind in our mother's apartment by our older sisters. Those girl groups were armies of female perfection. Through them, we began to understand the continued popularity of black dance music, and two concepts it expressed, which my sister and I knew were not conjoined: "reality" and "fantasy."We understood how the Crystals' "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" introduced the painful exigencies of Negressity to popular music. We understood how "Dancin' in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas advocated funk as the ultimate fantasy or "trip," serving as a release for Negresses made to feel common in this common world.
My sister's style became more complicated as she grew older and began to admire other aspects of American culture. When she was in her early twenties, her makeup and dress became the physical realization of the music she loved most: jazz. She applied large amounts of rouge to her cheeks and forehead; she wore white lipstick. She had one hairdo that looked like an open book standing on its spine. The more my sister became interested in certain facets of American culture, the more her body resembled a sound without a scale. My mother made some perfunctory objections to my sister's extreme makeup, but silently she admired her because you couldn't not admire her if you were in the least visual. My sister played the trumpet and wore my father's mother's old clothes and kept her hair up in one interesting design or another, but she never moved past the parameters of her bedroom wall into the world with any of this. Through her, I learned what the moral impulse behind making art was: doing it for yourself because it expressed bits of this, bits of that, all making up a person. She had a fascinating inability to separate her mind from her body or either from music. She was a great writer who could only perform it.
Her other interests included reading Milton, and Spenser's The Faerie Queene. She would lock herself in thebathroom, where she wrote poetry in a strange hand; on the page, she wrote her poems sideways instead of up and down. In the bathroom, she also wrapped her sanitary napkins in newspapers and shoved them in the pipe that stood between the toilet seat and a crumbling wall. She never explained why she did this, and no one asked her why, just as no one asked me why I sometimes wore her drawers.
I learned a little about Negressity from her as I sat crouched behind her bedroom door, listening to her experience some of the words she could not join together to tell her story. Perhaps she didn't want to tell her story, but I wanted her to. Lying first with one man and then another, like a dog, she would say, over and over again, "Oh, oh, oh." Perhaps my sister's word was uttered in disappointment; I'm not sure. Listening to her word, I wanted to hear disappointment since I was disappointed that I was not physically a woman. Hearing disappointment, I immediately formed a narrative inside my head: that men provoked the experience of words; that the words the Negress utters during her experience with one man or another are about her disappointment. When I was with the man in the blue khaki trousers and blue khaki shirt, I didn't utter a word, having already memoized my sister's.
I grew up with my sister during the seventies, a period characterized by a breakdown in the traditional social order,at least as we had known it. We didn't pay much attention to our "times."
The seventies were a synthetic version of the more successful active radicalism of the sixties. As a leftover time, the seventies suited our Negressity perfectly since we considered ourselves leftover people. Although we did not know it then, my sister and I used our cursory involvement in the Black Power movement--sit-ins in Harlem, many, many poetry readings in the Bronx, and demonstrations everywhere--to catapult ourselves past our mother's increasing disinterest in the world at large. Being younger and, in some respects, less intelligent than our mother, we were conscious of wanting to develop our own social stance, even as we affected hers, because we admired her. I think we misread our mother's exhausted concern as lack of concern; she never didn't care. Unlike our mother, we affected an interest in people who, because they had the same skin color as our own, presumed we were interested in the race and its struggle. We were not interested in the race and its struggle. We were not interested in strident abstractions, being so emotionally abstract ourselves. We were West Indians living in New York; we were smug in our sense of displacement; we took freely from both cultures in order to be unselfconsciously interesting. The furor and energy that our black American contemporaries focused on dreams and hopes, we found ridiculous. Their ideology was totalitarianism made simple: economic independence from "the man," an entirely black-run government, and so on. We were especially amused by the movement's xenophobia. Xenophobes first,members of the Black Power movement referred to West Indians, and their ambitious progeny, as black Jews.
Being our mother's children, we had no interest in the world at large, especially if its events did not reflect our individual internal worlds.
We adopted the revolution as our cause; it was a chance to brush up against a reality that was distant enough from our mother and her imminent death. By 1975, when I was fourteen, my sister and I had not been aware of much outside our mother's by then six-year-old suffering. Marching in Harlem for a separate-but-equal economic system, or watching my sister bed one or two or five black revolutionaries who still lived at home with their respective moms and who used their nationalist rhetoric and nonthink speak in a vain attempt to impersonate the kind of man my sister and her ilk imagined they wanted, was, for me, oddly preferable to our mother's voice saying: Well, I'm dying.
It is not outrageous of me to say that my sister and I probably considered American blacks disgusting on some level, even though we didn't admit this to ourselves, given our melodramatic silence and "feelings." We weren't attracted to much that we didn't find repugnant. I believe we probably thought American blacks were awful because they weren't us. We wanted to save them from themselves. We were very big on rescuing people, having had a mother. On the other hand, we hated our older sisters' smug Negress disapproval of anything that wasn't them, even as we tried to imitate them by not liking white people--for a while.
My sister discovered Black Power around the same timeshe discovered her need for a father; the movement was the inversion of our father's cruel teasing; as a concept it lent itself to the fantasy of "serious" black men who were "committed." My sister was drawn to Black Power because of its distinctly American male cast of mind. As a girl of West Indian descent, she considered American black men exotic, charming in their narcissism and in their ahistorical stance and desultory desire for social change.
The part of our outings I looked forward to most was not picketing or canvassing votes for now forgotten community leaders, but listening to women who sometimes took the stands at rallies and spoke, women who wrote and published books and recited their words in public, unlike my sister, who hid or burned her diary, and buried her language in the creases of her careless lovers' necks.
The women writers we heard recite their verse--Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni--were addressed as Sister. They wore brightly colored dashikis and robes. Their poetic skills were limited. Their work was strident, empty, and invigorating. They valorized the black male. In actual fact, the black male those poetesses and my sister imagined did not exist, which is one reason they had to imagine him. Those women embraced the ideology spouted during the revolution that was always about to be, because they wanted to maintain the fantasy that the revolution was the assertion of a black masculinity that was about to happen. That masculinity would serve my sister's purpose: it would be forceful enough to dismantle Negressity and its aura of depression. That the male fraction of the black revolutionary movement was irresponsible and childlike was also beside the point. The fact that the male fractionof the black revolutionary movement was in search of the same authority figure--Dad--that their female comrades were looking for was beside the point. What made the women different from the men in the movement was interesting: the will those women applied to creating Dad, which their black male counterparts couldn't.
The poetesses my sister and I heard wrote verse that was essentially romantic, devoid of fact or observation, an outgrowth of early "imperialist" influences, like Jane Eyre. In the delusional fervor of a revolution that did not take place, the poetesses we heard and read imagined, like my sister, that the black male was poised on the brink of becoming what they wanted him to be: invincible, domineering, revolutionary. But "maleness" is not a viable construct in colored life. Colored life is matriarchal; any matriarchal society can be defined as colored.
If maleness manages to brush up against the Negress, it is usually violent, so its presence is felt. And it eventually absents itself from the Negress because the Negress's intellectual and physical focus on surviving diminishes any and all ideas maleness has about being central; there's no room for it. The Negress's will to survive is enhanced by her need to survive for her children. But being the source of such strength is sometimes too much for the Negress. Sometimes she contrives to marry something other than herself or her children in order to escape it, that something being the product of her indefatigable will, an invention: a black male. My sister eventually married one after the revolution; she rebelled against my mother's brand of independence by marrying not for love but to prove a point: that she could be dominated by her invention--a blackmale. Her marriage didn't last long. Even disguised as a wife, my sister had a hard time masking her intelligence.
The poetesses my sister and I listened to commanded the respect of their male "comrades" because they were inventing them as officers of war. As those women poets spoke in their conspiratorial, syncopated voices, another tone expressive of something other than the self-congratulatory broke in. That tone expressed their need for Daddy to shut them up. As those women poets spoke, it became clear to me that their language was not the product of reflection or the desire to reflect; if they thought before they spoke, they'd be forced to realize that what they were screaming about was their need to be silenced. Instead, they called their need to be oppressed by the black male who does not exist an emergent black tradition, its foundation being abstractions: Black Motherhood and Black Pride.
The movement's most popular poet, Nikki Giovanni, wrote in a poem titled "Seduction," published in 1970:
one day you gonna walk in this house and i'm gonna have on a long African gown you'll sit down and say "The Black ..." and i'm gonna take one arm out then you--not noticing me at all--will say "What about this brother ..." and i'm going to be slipping it over my head and you'll rapp on about "The revolution ..." while i rest your hand against my stomach you'll go on--as you always do--saying"i just can't dig ..." while i'm moving your hand up and down and i'll be taking your dashiki off ... then you'll notice your state of undress and knowing you you'll just say "Nikki, isn't this counterrevolutionary ... ?"
And Sonia Sanchez wrote in "Black Magic": "magic / my man / is you / turning / my body into / a thousand smiles. / black magic is your / touch / making / me breathe."
In each of these poems, the Negress does not take responsibility for herself, let alone another Negress. Nor does intimacy exist between her and anyone remotely identifiable as a person. Rather, these poems, and the many others like them, are evidence of the mind's ability to convince itself that it has talent; before these poetesses displayed themselves on the page, they had the approval of an audience.
During the revolution, the Negress replaced her starched cap of servitude with a brightly colored turban made of kinte cloth, but she did not reinvent her internal structure. And like much of the work written by and about the Negress during that period, the images they offered in their verse--a simple, uncomplicated, thuggish sexuality projected onto that phantom construction, the black male--was perfectly legitimate but dumb, easily cooptable by the pornographic imagination that continues to produce magazines such as Black Tail, Sugah, and Ebony Heat,in the uncontested knowledge that the Negress is nothing if not accommodating to her audience.
Despite the revolution's collapse into other black ideologies, which have all been based on a longing for a daddy who could destroy colored matriarchy, my sister continued to believe a revolution would come. But not really. She was in thrall to her criticism of the revolution's poetesses: "They're bad writers and ineffectual as leaders," she said. This freed my sister from the guilt she felt about not liking other Negresses very much at all.
After the revolution, my sister became interested in astrology and "primitive" painting. She rejected the idea of language being transformative of anything. She became a Muslim for a while, among other things. She moved to Kansas with her husband, who was a Muslim. They moved to get away from Brooklyn. She wrote to me that she loved the men in Kansas, with their big Stetsons and pointy boots; she loved any part of the world that had a strong aesthetic, or an aesthetic that she could identify as indigenous to the place she was in. She had children. She had learned certain things about motherhood from our mother, but being more theatrically intelligent and spiteful than our mother, she rarely made room for her children to exercise their own intelligence. My sister refused to suffer much of anything, let alone because she was a Negress.
My sister's disappointment in being a Negress was nearly equal to my interest in Negresses like my sister. As I grew up, it became increasingly clear that one of the reasons behind my sister's occasional sharp annoyance with me was this: she wanted me to be a black male and give up being a Negress so that she could see herself in contrast to me, rather than as a competitor. As I grew older, it became clear that my mother and other sisters wanted me to become a black male for the same reasons. I thought being an auntie man was a fair compromise, but it wasn't enough. They wanted me to be in the world as a black man who was for and against them. Ultimately, the weight of my being a Negress was too much. For a time, I tried to give it up, because I adored them. I went out into the world. I became a student and, eventually, an office worker. I was too emotional to do either very well. I failed to recognize the students and workers I was supposed to compete with, because I was intent on being a good neighbor. It is difficult to be Negress-identified, since the Negress rarely identifies with herself.
That the Negress exists somewhere between her "good" public image and "bad" pornographic one accounts for her continued popularity. One popular story about the Negress appears in a very bad American novel titled Imitation of Life, published in 1932 by Fannie Hurst (Douglas Sirk adapted this novel for the screen in 1959). Annie the Negress gives birth to a girl, Sarah Jane, who blamesthe absence of her "practically white" father on her very black, very forgiving mother. Sarah Jane grows to hate her mother's propensity to forgive. Annie the Negress casts a pall over her daughter's speech; she punishes her daughter for wanting to separate from her by being tyrannically nice--a niceness that Sarah Jane cleaves to and despises but never frees herself from. Annie the Negress continues to live on in popular novels being written by American blacks today. In most of the books written by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Terry McMillan, the author becomes Sarah Jane in relation to the Negresses they create; they never question what the Negress means, because they cannot face her; if they do, it is as a symbol of the physical distance they would like to put between themselves and the Negress's ability to overwhelm her progeny--or her recorders. In their books, the Negress is shut off from ideas or speech of her own as she dons the cap of servitude, incapable of explaining what goes on beneath it. Like the mother in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love:
It does no good to write autobiographical fiction cause the minute the book hits the stand here comes your mama screamin how could you and sighin death where is they sting and she snatches you up out your bed to grill you about what was going down back there in Brooklyn when she was working three jobs and trying to improve the quality of your life and come to find ... that you were messin around with that nasty boy up the block and breaks into sobs.
Or like Eva, another mother, in Gayl Jones's Eva's Man:
He undressed me and he was sweating. And then he held onto my shoulders and drew me toward him and I was naked and sweating, not with my own sweat, but with his sweat. He had no tenderness, no none, and then he laid me on my back on the bed. He didn't play first. No, he went in before I was ready ... .
"Felt good, didn't it?" "Yes." "I bet it felt good." "Yes." "You could've shared it with me." "What am I doing?" "You fucking me." "What am I doing?" "You fucking me."
In describing the Negress, writers describe themselves away from her as they rush headlong into the void of patriarchy. In their books, the Negress is replete with tears. She smiles. Her chest heaves. Her body is that of a servant not begging for respite. She burns brightly in the imagination, like a dull witch. In order to understand her, I have written my life in the margins of hers. Is this love? How did I love my mother? After a certain point, I rarely expressed it physically for fear her touch would be so hideous and lonely. How do I love her still? In my imagination.
What would the Negress be if she were stripped of her role? Would she be just another banal woman undone by domestic despair, held upright by her class aspirations and fantasies about being fulfilled through marriage? Given the written material in which she appears, it is difficult to feel one is in the presence of a person; by extension, it is difficult to imagine her making an appearance in literature as anything other than a tiresome colored woman, weeping over her attempts to be a good neighbor. It is difficult to imagine the Negress being anything other than what she has come to symbolize in contemporary literature: authorial conceit. What Bambara, Jones et al. are at pains to disguise is that the Negress represents their ambition: they are intent on building an empirical universe in which the only voices heard are their own, and since the Negress does not speak, but moves through their fiction as either an adventurer or a victim, she is dependent upon the fictional system they build for her in order to exist at all. Part of that system is based on this dialectic: creating the Negress in order to kill her since she represents the matriarchal society these authors are at pains to forget, even as they cling to the Negress because of her ability to milk sympathy from the audience--or provide it.
In most contemporary fiction, the Negress is rarely allowed to express authority, let alone be responsible for another woman, as Grace Strasser-Mendana is in Joan Didion's novel A Book of Common Prayer: "I will be her witness. That would translate seré su testigo, and will not appear in your traveler's phrasebook because it is not a useful phrase for the prudent traveler." Nor does the Negress lay claim to her own life, as the narrator of ElizabethHardwick's novel Sleepless Nights does: "It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today."
The Negress in literature is a nearly dead construct who does not exist independent of her creator's need to fulfill his or her audience's expectations of performing "black" writing. She is a necessary component in the building of a black writer's career: she signifies "oppression" and, by extension, blackness; she is never complex, or rich, enough to be fucked up. If the matriarchal society the Negress represents--in fact, and in these authors' imaginations--is so despised, she should be killed off along with it. But Wideman and Alice Walker, among others, are too admiring of their egos on the page, and depend on the Negress's presence too much, to unravel how they are bound to her, for fear that without her, they'd have no careers whatsoever. They keep the lid shut tight on the Negress's curly Medusa head and go on speaking, uninterrupted.
Also: they make the Negress bigger than she is in order to mythologize her. As a myth, she does not have to be complex or subtle. She is larger than life, like Pilate in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. She is uglier than life, like Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. And she appears to superb theatrical effect from time to time, especially when her presence represents someone else's failure of expression, as in the late British author John Osborne's The Entertainer:
Archie: Do you know the most moving thing that I ever heard? It was when I was in Canada--I managedto slip over the border sometimes to some people I knew, and one night I heard some Negress singing in a bar. Now you're going to smile at this, you're going to smile your educated English head off, because I suppose you've never sat lonely and half stewed in some bar among strangers a thousand miles from anything you think you understand. But if ever I saw any hope or strength in the human race, it was in the face of that old fat Negress getting up to sing about Jesus or something like that. She was poor and lonely and oppressed like nobody you've ever known. Or me, for that matter. I never even liked that kind of music, but to see that old black whore singing her heart out to the whole world, you knew somehow in your heart that it didn't matter how much you kick people, the real people, how much you despise them, if they can stand up and make a pure, just natural noise like that, there's nothing wrong with them, only with everybody else ... . There's nobody who can feel like that. I wish to God I could, I wish to God I could feel like that old black bitch with her fat cheeks, and sing.
One of the more powerful examples in contemporary literature of the black American author's fear of the Negress is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In it, Malcolm expresses his physical horror at the Negress from the start. Besides categorizing the Negress as a culturally and racially different species, he makes palpable and personal his physical repugnance at her difference by identifying the Negress he would destroy if he could: his mother, Mrs.Louise Little. "My mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro's." In the Autobiography, Malcolm inflates the part of Mrs. Little he hated, feared, and admired--her whiteness--which, in turn, propelled his career as a "militant" black nationalist into being. Even so, he could not help projecting his face onto his mother's: "My mother ... looked like a white woman ... I looked like my mother." The Autobiography is a primer on how not to write about the Negress--that is, from the small and banal vantage point of the monstrous ego that prevents her from living on the page.
I began trying to pry Mrs. Little out from under the Autobiography by imagining: What if one did not write about her as a mother at all, but as Louise adrift in Grenada, in what was then the British West Indies, in her crepe de chine dress--her only one--making her way to America? What if one tried to unearth the reasons behind Mrs. Little's emigration from Grenada to America? Malcolm is short on the biographical details of his mother's life, since he can only see Mrs. Little as the more complicated reflection of himself. And he obscures the powerful emotional energy Mrs. Little may have resonated with by dominating her story with his rhetoric, especially as she takes focus in his memoir as she slides into madness after her husband's murder and, following that, the removal of her children to one foster home or another. She was so alone. What price did she have to pay for her forbearance? And why did she not make the world pay for it, like Malcolm? Malcolm lived less for other people than he did forpower. His mother had no choice but to live for other people, being first a woman and then a mother. She was not alone long enough to know herself, emigrating, as she did, from Grenada to Canada, where she met Earl Little, "an itinerant minister," whom she married and settled with, finally, in Lansing, Michigan, in midwestern America. No biographer--including Malcolm--has reported what her age was when she emigrated to Canada. In Canada, what did Earl Little preach as an "itinerant minister"? Was Louise Little charmed by his speech? Was it as mad as Malcolm's? Was Earl Little charmed by Louise's crepe de chine dress as he limped through the provinces, preaching what? Did Louise Little have more language than her husband? No one knew what her presence would mean to the United States and its future. Her emigrating to the States is never explained, let alone described, in the Autobiography. She exists in the Autobiography to give birth to Malcolm, go mad, and look nearly colorless. What did Louise feel, growing up in Grenada, with its green limes and blue sea, having never (according to Bruce Perry's biography Malcolm: The Life of the Man Who Changed Black America) seen her Scottish father during all the time she'd spent there. The dupie that was Louise Little's father hovers happily in the Autobiography. He is what Malcolm longed to be--not a Negress, but a male as mythic and powerful as Grandfather. Earl Little is reported to have said to his parents, on the occasion of Malcolm's birth: "It's a boy ... But he's white, just like Mama!" Malcolm is reported to have to said to Alex Haley, his collaborator on the Autohiography: "Of this white father of hers I know nothing except her shame about it."What is Louise reported to have said about her own father? And of her "shame"? Did she ever describe it as that? And to a child? Malcolm said: "I remember hearing her say she was glad she had never seen him. It was, of course, because of him that I ... was the lightest child in our family." Was Louise Little glad not to have seen him because she was frightened by Malcolm's more than physical resemblance to her father? Malcolm had so much ambition--was it genetic? And his need for love on his own terms: from whom did he learn just to take it? Grandfather? Grandfather did not wear the mask of piety. In order not to, one must believe in oneself to the exclusion of other people. Malcolm believed in the reality of his experience to the exclusion of all other realities except one: Grandfather, who was a dupie.
Malcolm attached himself to Louise's male, noncolored half. Louise did not have to meet her father; Malcolm lived him by competing with his ghost at every turn. Is that why Malcolm loved and feared his mother? Because she looked like the memory of the power he wanted to possess and eventually did as a world-famous minister of sorts? His success was greater than that of his fake black male construction known as his dad, Earl Little--a a preacher who roamed the provinces "spreading the word of Marcus Garvey" in the early 1920s in one place after another.
Malcolm held Louise Little's father responsible for his mangled consciousness and, indirectly, for the eventual absence of Earl Little, who was dark-skinned and ineffectual--unlike Malcolm or Mrs. Little: " ... I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane enough to feelthat it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned ... . But ... later, I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist's blood that is in me." I am sure Malcolm did not mean this literally. First of all, how do we know Louise Little's mother was raped? How do we know that Louise Little's mother--who is not mentioned in the Autobiography at all--did not love Louise's father? How do we know that Louise Little's parents did not meet on the side of a road in Grenada? And that Mrs. Little's future parents were not both on foot? How do we know they didn't hear the sound of crickets or a mongoose's stuttering run and, being frightened of both, Mrs. Little's mother didn't collapse into her father's arms--a gesture of trust which Louise Little's father was grateful for? In pausing to look at one another, did they pause to consider the eventual outcome of their meeting: Louise Little, Louise Little in America, Louise Little in America producing Malcolm? Louise Little's life is a series of sentences that amount to a question.
Does history believe in itself even as it happens? Malcolm wrote: "I feel definitely that just as my father favored me for being lighter ... my mother gave me more hell for the same reason. She was very light herself ... . I am sure that she treated me this way partly because of how she came to be light herself." Which was? "Her father." In every sentence of the Autobiography, Malcolm is attempting to dismantle that fake construction known as the black male--his dad, Earl Little--especially as he clings to what his ideology would call Earl Little's "adverse, negative oppressor": Grandfather, the dupie. Malcolm knew next to nothing about his mother's culture; in any case, he had tostruggle against their sameness if he was going to survive Negressity as a man. What resonated for Malcolm most about his mother's past was the fantasy of Grandfather, his "rape." It is clear Malcolm may have been attracted to the potential fantasy of Grandfather as rapist because it endowed Grandfather with the power Malcolm needed to emulate in order to learn how to take and take in this common world.
Mrs. Little was "smarter" than Mr. Little. Malcolm said: "My father and mother ... seemed to be nearly always at odds. Sometimes my father would beat her. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother had a pretty good education." Malcolm disliked his mother's intelligence because he admired it. For him to admire it without malice would have been to accept his own nature as a Negress, which he could not do in order to be that figment of his imagination--a black male. He admired his mother's mind in the way he admired most things--with loathing and fear, if he couldn't control it. Malcolm said: "An educated woman, I suppose, can't resist the temptation to correct an uneducated man. Every now and then, when [my mother] put those smooth words on [my father] he would grab her." Being intelligent made Mrs. Little feel different. Being intelligent made my mother retreat into silence so that other people wouldn't feel entirely different from her. Did Mrs. Little ask, by speaking, to be punished? Is that how she lost her mind? The famous photograph of Malcolm in his house with a gun, looking out the window--I believe he is on the lookout for his mother. Looking out that window, did he seehis mother's quite appropriate anger, based in part on the fact that in the Autobiography he refers to her as Louise while Bruce Perry refers to her as Louisa? What was her name? Her date of birth? What parish in Grenada was she born in? When Malcolm looked out that window, did he see his mother holding a diary? What was written in it? Mrs. Little did not write: He did not know my name. He could not bear my presence. What would Mrs. Little have written? She didn't write anything that has been "rediscovered." I am writing the idea of Mrs. Little, with practically nothing to base it on.
Therein lies the paradox of trying to create an Autobiography Mrs. Little can inhabit. Since I am not capable of writing about the Negress without seeing myself, I cannot discuss Mrs. Little without seeing myself in her narrative--not unlike Malcolm. My portrait of Mrs. Little would not be objective. But there would be attempts at objectivity in it from time to time, as in my being able to surmise and delineate how Malcolm showed his endless fascination with his mother. He showed it in his violent attempts at Negress avoidance. Malcolm writes of the effect his father's death had on his mother, but only as it reverberated for him: "We began to go swiftly downhill. The physical downhill wasn't as quick as the psychological. My mother was, above everything else, a proud woman, and it took its toll on her that she was accepting charity. And her feelings were communicated to us." Malcolm can't imagine what the emotional truth of the following may have meant to Mrs. Little: " ... I remember waking up to the sound of my mother's screaming again ... . My father's skull, on one side, was crushed in, I was told later ... . Negroes in Lansing have always whispered that he was attacked, and then laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him. His body was cut almost in half."
Mrs. Little lost her mind for political reasons, in a sense. When Mrs. Little lost her mind, she was perhaps not quite ready to relinquish the idea of that construct known as a husband, onto whom the Negress displaces her dreams and her will. When that construct no longer exists for the Negress, does she go mad trying to hold in what her shadow-husband once absorbed? Perhaps that was one reason for my mother's illness: after my father left, she had to create another body that could absorb her dreams and will. My mother constructed something far stronger, more reliable and controllable than a husband; she developed a body founded on pain; it was the only thing she knew that could further withstand the self-punishment and hope her mind would inflict on it at every turn. Malcolm became the body Mrs. Little needed to absorb her fear and confusion after Earl Little's death, but Malcolm couldn't take it, being too full of the fear and resistance in regard to the Negress that defined many of his actions.
As Mrs. Little went mad and Malcolm became more famous, Malcolm visited her from "time to time" in the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, where she was committed--by whom?--for twenty-six years. She existed there, Malcolm says, in "a pitiful state" as her son roamed the world. What was her bed like in that institution? What did Malcolm speak of to this woman? Did other inmates call her Madame X or Mrs. Little? When he saw her face,did he see his own? Did she slap him? "She didn't recognize me at all ... . Her mind, when I tried to talk, to reach her, was somewhere else ... . She said, 'All the people have gone.'" Gone where? Malcolm did not ask. Did he attempt to convert her? Was it too late? Did anyone place a sheet of paper before her? A pencil? She did not write the book we need. Mrs. Little survived her son--insane, by all accounts, but she survived him. Did she read his book? Did she find herself missing from it? Did she consider writing her own? She could have followed the tenets of "black" writing, repeating the same story over and over again for audience approval--a story that includes Mom wearing the mask of piety, and what have you. Did Mrs. Little believe her son's book could not be surpassed? Did she ever possess the confidence to believe she could smash the mask of piety that was forced over her face as a Negress by writing its destruction down? She was a mother, and therefore responsible for the life of her children, one of whom did write her life down, but for himself, not for her, and in scraps, and falsely.
The Autobiography remains a hit because it has all the elements that make most black writing as performance successful--a Negress driven mad by her husband's murder, the dust of patriarchy, religious conversion into the sublime--and yet it gives nothing, including intimacy. How could it be rewritten by Mrs. Little, a Negress who did not look like one? Could she create an Autobiography rich in emotional fiber, with a love of God and children and so forth?
Consider Louise Little's story inside the model of the Autobiography. Malcolm's book begins:
Chapter One: Nightmare
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away.
Louise Little would have been incapable of writing nothing but anger and confusion. She was a Negress.
If Louise Little had written the above, would she have written: I am fat. When I opened the door to my home in Lansing, Michigan, one evening, some men saw me and my children. Could the men see I ate food replete with many empty calories? In a fat body, did I appear self-sufficient to some, a mountain of solace to my husband and children from which they took as they grew? Could they see I required nothing in return? I'll go mad if I continue to say I require nothing.
Would Mrs. Little have written: Long before I stood at the door to my home in Michigan, I was in the West Indies, standing in the sun. I became a mother lost to history, driven partially mad with love for my children. In Grenada, I was a young woman with broad feet curled in gray or yellow sand; later, my feet curled around my husband. I wore dress shoes two sizes too small. Eventually my son, Malcolm, killed me with his language. Now, I lie dead upon the verbal catafalque he created and he sits inmy death still, resembling every inch of my face, speaking loudly, hating everything, saying nothing.
Like my sister, I grew up to lie with first one man and then another, or, more accurately, to bend over one man and then another in parked cars that lined the piers on the West Side Highway. Until the end, I avoided recounting these facts to my mother. I avoided explaining the impetus that propelled me to leave my mother's home in Brooklyn for the piers on the West Side Highway. I avoided explaining that I had been motivated to sit in parked cars with one man and then another by the same desire and romantic greed that had propelled her to move from Barbados to Manhattan. I avoided explaining that when I sat in parked cars with one man and then another, I felt closer to my mother's experience of the world than I ever did in my mother's actual presence. I avoided recounting how I met other Negresses like myself on the piers. I avoided mentioning how those other Negresses were like me, the boy children of women who had emigrated to New York from islands like Jamaica, Cuba, Antigua, Anguilla, Barbados, Barbuda, to find themselves in New York with bad men and children swollen with need. I avoided recounting how some of the Negresses I knew on the piers manifested their need: how M. spent much of his time gagging on the cocks he took down his throat until he vomited, which was his fetish; how K. went toone bar where men with dull eyes pissed on him. I also avoided mentioning that what most of us Negresses were looking for on the piers was that construction known as male, necessary for shutting our Negress selves down.
I avoided mentioning how, as we looked for those men, we would stop in bars and play the jukebox, which emitted songs with words that said more about our desire than we could ever say.
I avoided mentioning telling those men in parked cars how, even though language was powerfully present in my home, it was rarely evoked, and how we lived in an atmosphere of High Anglican style, and a nearly baroque silence. I avoided mentioning how the men I seduced were almost always white, because I did not visually associate their color with anything that mattered, such as Negressity, home, my mother.
I avoided recounting how, with my mouth tentatively poised over one man's mouth and then another's, I sometimes thought: I am not my mother; this is my story. I sometimes thought: If she knew that I was performing this act, this gesture, she would perhaps die, releasing me to live fully in the moment. Removing my mouth, I sometimes thought: This is my life; I am a Negress and I will suffer because of my pleasure. I will live a narrative of my own devising--one that competes with my mother's. I avoided recounting how, when one man or another would hold me, I would remember how my mother was about to be ill and how my father might have cared for me if I were ill. Like my sisters, I was a Negress. As a child, I had yet to adopt being a good neighbor as my social way of being. As this man, or another and another, would fondleme, I did not think: This is what love is: the perpetual struggle to try to recapture what the heart responded to as the Good, maybe once, long ago.
And I avoided recounting how, when we left those cars and bars in our soiled blue jeans, after the long subway ride home to Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx, we were met, at the kitchen door, by our mirror image, Mom, a Negress, who rarely recounted anything about her life at all.
Because my mother spent most of her time dying, many women she knew--my father's sisters, my sisters, one or two of her neighborhood friends--created a circle around the event of her long-anticipated death. These women knew there was power in it. Some of them even co-opted it as the greatest event, the greatest story of their lives. These women marveled at the defeat and loss, the bitterness and recrimination, the silence and cunning, the love and generosity, that my mother, living and dying, had borne with the alacrity of a stoic. In their lives, these women had experienced similar emotions, but had tried to obfuscate them with the vows of motherhood and marriages which no illusionary veil could obscure the pain and boredom of. To these women, my mother was a kind of Cassandra, who saw their future as well as her own. What they saw in my mother was a woman who, having disavowed the conventions of marriage, chose to control her own demise instead. I have yet to stop considering either as life's only options.
The central link in this circle of women was my father's sister, who remains the first Negress I ever knew who did not avoid recounting the facts of her life. My mother was attracted to her because of this, but she also shied away from my aunt's speech; it made my mother's silence more pointed and my aunt's Negressity more entertaining. My aunt had already established her presence in the world by becoming a dramatic alcoholic. When I went to stay with her--generally when my mother was in the hospital for one thing or another--I would watch her turn large and green with alcohol. Her alcoholism was the event of her life, and it dwarfed the emotional life of those around her: her widowed mother, her husband, her daughter, my father, and (sometimes) me.
My aunt made up her internal physiognomy far too garishly; and her rouge pot consisted of violent language. Like the poets my sister would eventually introduce me to in Harlem, she was too rhetorical in her stance. There was no way into her language, but her performance resonated for her audience. She poured glass after glass of scotch and the brown liquid gurgled as her large eyes became larger, then her neck, and then her entire body. She observed the events of her life as if from a great distance--that distance being the land spit of her mind and body. And as I observed her--the way my mother sometimes did--she became literature: that is, she took on the contours of a figure who could engage my imagination. She was a Negress. She drank to forget the fact that she felt dwarfed by my father's exceptional beauty. She drank to mourn her older sister's renunciation of a promising career as a jazz musician because their father had told her thatplaying jazz is for whores. She drank because her second child, a boy, was born dead--twenty years before I knew her--and I, who was alive, was named after him. She drank when she suggested that she "killed" him. She drank because her mother had not wanted her to be born. She drank because she was a woman. She drank because she was a nurse. She drank because of the fecklessness of men, the despair of all women, and the fact that she could not write her language and somehow claim her life--it was too oratorical, too rhetorical.
So she replaced her life with its mundane exigencies. Every day of her married life, she argued with her husband about what he had not turned out to be, what her daughter would turn out to be ("a bitch"), how the world had turned against her. She had the gift of language, but she couldn't use it. Her drinking brought forth the sense that language had turned to waste in her twilight mind, which lived in the past while she went on uttering the old, old female story: her inability to forgive life for what it had not allowed her to claim: herself.
Until I knew my father's sister, I did not know that class issues had an effect on the daily life of the Negress. I realized this when I observed that my father's sister and her daughter had more of most things--money, clothes--than my sisters and mother had. When I noticed this, I was five, or twelve; at any rate, I was a child, and impressed by the glamour of their prosperity. My admiration was mademore delicious by the fact that I experienced economic envy of another Negress. Until then, it had not occurred to me that the Negress world I had been born into was not the entire world. My daily life with my mother and sisters was so different from my aunt's. My mother, my sisters, and I spent a great deal of our time going to the storage bins that families on public assistance were required to go to then, to pick up large tins of ketchup, corned-beef hash, empty calories. We filled up on the empty calories we consumed. A social worker came to our home to find out if my mother worked, or whether she had a boyfriend who helped her financially. I learned how to be a conversationalist as I amused the beleaguered, suspicious social worker while my sisters and brother hid the possessions my mother had acquired through her employers: frying pans, a small black-and-white television set, a typewriter.
My aunt knew very little about all this. She was fat with drink and privilege. As my aunt drank, her eyes took in her possessions and numbered them: the beautiful house with dark wood paneling, heavy drapes, and wooden blinds, all of which my grandmother had acquired through thrift and fortitude, ostensibly for her children, who could not see any surroundings without projecting their despair onto them.
In certain photographs taken at her marriage, my aunt wears a wedding dress of green satin and carries a smallcorsage. Copies of the same photograph were on prominent display throughout my grandmother's house. My grandmother cleaved to achievement of any kind. My grandmother's children--my aunts, my father--had achieved nothing in this common world except marriage and children and maintaining a sense of their own privilege. And alcohol on my aunt's lips could never dispel the words that tumbled over each other, picking over each bitterness. When she looked at her wedding photograph, she saw not how the dress fit her, but its creases.
In the privacy of my home, I consider certain facts: that my mother died in Barbados, our ancestral home. Before she left New York for Barbados, I did not visit her to say goodbye; this was only one of many leave-takings. When my mother left New York for Barbados, she did not say goodbye to many people who had known her. My mother could not bear to say goodbye to anyone, although she did it continually. I have acquired this tendency of my mother's without quite knowing how. I have also acquired her drive to suicide. But I have only shown it once. I had learned from many years of watching my mother that one way to join the body and mind together was through suicide. After she died, I tried to kill myself. But I laughed so hard watching myself do this in the bathroom mirror that the pills in my mouth spilled out. How could a handful of pills compare with the years my mother spent dying?
In Barbados, my mother did not say goodbye to hersister who lives there still. "I knew she wouldn't come back. I knew she would die there," my mother's sister told me when I went to Barbados after my mother's death to see where she had died and perhaps retroactively to spend time with her (I was so lonely knowing her alive; now that she is not alive, she is everywhere, like words). My visit meant nothing to my mother's sister. She is not interested in the facts of anyone's life--a family trait. She said several things when I went to visit her in her ugly house surrounded by coconut trees on a pitiful plot of land. She said: "Your mother was so angry at the end." She asked: "When did you know you were going to be an auntie man?" She asked: "When will you write a story about me?"
I did not ask: Am I not a Negress too? Incapable of making a gift of myself to myself? In that ugly house in Barbados as the trade winds blew, my aunt was telling me I could.
Copyright © 1996 by Hilton Als
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like
History and Social Science » Ethnic Studies » General