Category Archives: Memories and musings

Mama in a Blue Dress (Essay 2/ 52 in 2017)

If Mama was moving, she was making something. She was making my brothers and me behave. She was making the house a little neater. She was making one of us a better writer, red pen in hand, laboring over a written-in-the-last-minute-but-due-in-the-morning essay well after bedtime. But on the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville in the early nineties, I watched my Mama make herself and there are no words for what she made.

Do you remember the moment you saw your mother as separate from yourself? As someone who both was and wasn’t you? And the part that wasn’t you was the part that seemed ancient, as it began well before you were born and would keep evolving well after you move out from under her roof? The moment you see her as separate from her belt, her dishes, her clothes-folding, her sweeping, her homework editing, her scolding, her cajoling, her reading of bedtime stories or admonitions to hush all that noise cuz she can hear you laughing when you should be sleep? And you wondered where this woman came from and where she hides while you are tap dancing on her last nerve?

Let me tell you about my Mama’s blue dress. It was raw silk and the most saturated blue I’d ever seen. It was the color blue that ought to make a peacock shamed of hisself. That’s how blue it was. This blue was not in the 24 pack of Crayolas and it was more beautiful than the basic blue of primary paints. It was a color the goddesses designed when they were tired of looking down at our simple sky, our lackluster oceans. It was the color they must have created when they started competing with each other to make a better blue, some color without a name, a blue that looked like a full ass band, saxophonist, drummer and all. That’s the color blue it was. Some people call it royal because they idolize monarchies, have never seen a working woman turn herself into a queen but then they never met my Mama and neither had I until the night Martin Lawrence came to town.

To appreciate this blue against my mother’s skin, you might also have to know what color my mother is and this is where things get tricky because there are no words for her color brown that do not reduce her to some sweetness that just wasn’t her style. It’s not that she was coffee-bitter either, but I don’t drink the stuff and wouldn’t know how much milk to tell you to stir in to get the color of my mother’s skin. Maybe her skin is what happens when hickory and cinnamon fall in love and don’t realize that antibiotics throw off birth control and now they have this new mouth to feed but look at her, isn’t she beautiful? Wasn’t it worth it? That’s the color brown my mother is. Clear skin dotted with raised moles that look like dark freckles– beauty marks begging you to notice how high her cheekbones reach when she makes her mouth an “O” and sweeps red blush along them. Which is what she was doing the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville.

I’ve never seen my mother smile in the mirror. Not even that night when the mirror didn’t give a shit about the fairest one of all was because the most beautiful brown girl was standing right there in front of it. When Mama put on makeup, she acted like she was doing something perfunctory rather than magical. Like the mascara that made her eyes pop was just a pre-made bow pressed onto a gift for someone she ain’t like that much anyway. Like the red lipstick she spread across her bottom lip was the color of some ordinary bird you could see walking down any street rather than the rare cardinal you had to sit real still to spot. Pressing her lips together to get the color even, she stared into the mirror like the goddess was handing out perfect cupid’s bows to just anybody– like there weren’t women in other mirrors drawing on their top lips, trying to create the “v” that she had naturally. It might be a crime to go through life without seeing your own dimples in the mirror, especially if you looked the way my mother looked the night Martin Lawrence came to town.

This might get weird, but I have to tell you about my mother’s breasts in the blue dress. I have to tell you that I didn’t know what a square neckline could do until that night, flat chested as I was and would remain until the first months of my pregnancy when I stuffed myself into a too-small dress and thought of Mama getting ready for Martin. It’s not that her dress was too small; it’s that it wasn’t the kind of dress you were supposed to breathe in. This wasn’t a Dress Barn frock with fluid lines and minimal darts. This was a dress with boning, a dress that had one shape on the hanger and another stretched tight across hips. This was a dress your body blessed and not the other way around– a dress you needed “foundations” for, which is what they were called at Bacons on Dixie Highway. And though we’d shopped the foundations section just a few days before, Mama looked at the mirror with a worried face before going through the kitchen drawers in search of duct tape. The rips and tears I heard that night from my bedroom down the hall from my parents’ were like a blueprint for an improvised life. The lengths you must sometimes go to hold yourself together were measured in strips of tape and Babaaay when I tell you they worked, well you’ll just have to imagine the deep square cutout of this too-blue-to-name dress filled to brimming with cinnamohickory skin that jiggled with every step my mother took in the silver pumps that matched the clutch she carried the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville.

There are no words for what Mama made in the mirror the night Martin came to town. I am of the tribe that wrestles with language to travel in time, to distill the real to what a page can hold. And the page cannot hold my mother. She is what the women mean when they say, “That girl is just too much” while smiling at the inventiveness of their kin.

I think of Mama on Martin night because it is the eve of my first day back in the classroom and the professor who I invented last semester was not enough. That girl was a nervous wreck and had the nerve to let imposter syndrome come in and obscure her own light. In the beginning of the semester, she wore African print skirts every day, hiding in the metaphor of motherland to avoid her own face in the mirror. When the weather changed, that girl made a uniform of jeans and sweaters, hoping that relatability would make up for all she was holding back. Her evaluations said she was “too close to our age to be a professor” and “the worst professor I ever had.” And here’s the thing: I know that misogynoir colors my evaluations. Teaching at an HBCU does not limit the reach of the internalized hatred of the black mother within ourselves. Some of the evaluations were so obviously projections of this hated girl that I wanted to ask the anonymous reviewer, “Have you even met me?”

I posed the question to myself and realized that they hadn’t. I’d spent so much time “flipping the classroom” that I forgot my birthrights. The sermon is my birthright. I get it from my grandfather. The way a soloist can make a crowd hush and shout is my birthright. I get it from my Mama. Call and response is mine. I get it from my father, a pianist who could navigate the somber notes of an intro while anticipating the joy of the bridge. In my own HBCU experience, the lecture was so much like church that it felt like home– only the good news was the glory of myself, the lies my former teachers taught me corrected and deflected. I owe it to these students to walk fully into my birthright, all the lessons I learned at home and Howard.

My mentor said as much when she gently nudged me toward my mother’s mirror. “At least for the first few weeks, you’ve got to be suited. You have to show these students that you are not them. You went to an HBCU. You know how we do.” I sat across from her wearing a bell hooks tee-shirt, ripped jeans, and Coach sneakers. After taking a style quiz online, I’d discovered that I was a flamboyant gamine and I was wearing the suggested uniform– graphic tees, skinny leg pants, sporty jackets and sneakers with a feminine edge.  I felt like I’d finally found a home in fashion– that land where my mother lives comfortably. That place I am afraid to visit. The rules are not transparent enough. The choices are too many. The stakes seem too high. And now I was being asked to move again. What if the person I create in the magic mirror is also not the person they want? What if an imposter in a suit is just an imposter in a suit?

I stayed up late the night that Martin came to Louisville. I wanted to know if the crowd parted like the red sea when my parents walked into the building. I imagined my mother in the front row, holding my father’s hand and laughing until her dimples pierced her face. I imagined Martin calling her “Baby,” looking at her like Gina but toning it down for my father. I asked her what happened. My mother said Martin was too crass. He’d made some “Women be shoppin!” non-segue to Afrocentrism, asking the audience if they believed that they were all from Africa. When the audience cheered, he’d said, “Then women, pull out ya titties!” My mother frowned when she told the story and I thought of all the trouble she’d gone through to arrange her breasts just so. All the dazzle she’d applied in the time she spent making herself over, daring to be both beautiful and bold. All that work overlooked in this backward-ass joke. Even her best not enough in a nation in which everybody wants the tit– wants to be nurtured by the metaphor without breaks, the black woman caregiver who loves on everyone but herself, who works without thanks, who makes herself available to whatever need presents itself, who pulls out titties or money or perfect syllabi or fitted suits or informative lectures and then some asshole asks for more. Demands more. Laughs at his own demands. Chides those who he made uncomfortable.

Maybe Mama wasn’t bothered. Though we are both from the tribe of word-wrestlers who hold onto slights in an effort to trim their impact to what a page can hold, her hands were already full the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville and acted a fool. In the telling, he was just a fly she swatted away with a rolled eye, stepping out of her silver pumps and still smiling at her child-free night. Maybe what I need from this memory is the time she spent with herself, those moments in which she perfected a stepping-out mask, became both the not-Mama-tonight and the pre-Mama in one body. Met the ancient in herself and loved her fiercely. Maybe I blinked when she smiled and I missed the thing that dazzles when the seer is the self.

It Was All a Dream

I have lived this day before. In a dream. Shortly after my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to pre-grieve. If you  know me, then you know I have type-A characteristics and it should make sense that I would immediately try to perfect grief. But months after his diagnosis, a dream slowed this impulse down for me: I dreamed that I was in my family’s bathroom and crouching to clean out the cabinet. I came upon my father’s toothbrushes– the no-frill ones that had his family dentistry business information stamped on them. These were the toothbrushes I used most frequently growing up, and the meaning of the dream was immediate: Soon, these toothbrushes will be what you have left of your father. For now, you have the real thing just feet away in his room. Get up and live.
I woke up and immediately Picture of my father with me as a baby. We are laying on the bed and I am laughing. We both look into the camera. 10277548_10104047529300699_5061307054517493345_napplied the dream to my life. I became present more with my father, willed myself to push the end of his life to a corner as I enjoyed his company. I didn’t always succeed but he lived for 8 years after cancer and I laughed with him more than I cried for him during those years.
I believe time is cyclical and the dream was a premonition. Today I cleaned out the cabinet in my family’s bathroom and found the last two remaining toothbrushes from my father’s business. I wept like I did in the dream but this time there was no waking up to a reality where he was actually there. I can’t feel his stubble anymore when I kiss his cheek and he is not here to tell me my head is too big to lay on his shoulders. Maybe the dream was this moment’s version of myself communicating with the girl I was in that eight year span that was neither BC (Before Cancer) or AD (After Daddy). I needed to be present in those limbo years and I’m glad I found a way to give myself that heads up. But what of today? How to be present with grief?
I am a big, grown Daddy’s girl and today I had to go looking for him in the wind. What I did to find my Daddy today:
1) Cry in public.
This morning, I posted a long, emo post about the struggle of being in the red again when my daughter asks for toys. I felt like my father. He frequently cried in public and only jokingly called it allergies. The difference is that he was very private about financial matters. Although he struggled under the weight of Reaganomics while raising 4 kids, I doubt he told anyone but his closest friends. Hell, I didn’t even know how much he struggled until the limbo years. I wonder now if it killed him. Slowly. The worry over the collapsing American dream (the one Trump’s wife plagiarized)  building like cancer in the blood. There are so many other things worth dying for. I will not die in service to the American dream. My first name is not Horatio. My last name is not Alger. I have no investment in this fiction. So I cry about it in public unashamed.
2) Hold a baby.
When my father was first diagnosed with cancer, the meds made his hands shake and he couldn’t work for a while. Dentistry was integral to his identity not because he loved it (he didn’t) but because it was his livelihood. He struggled in those days to feel a sense of worth as he wasn’t contributing as much financially and this society paints financial contribution as the only way to participate in full humanity. I call bullshit and so did he… by holding my godsister everyday. He shared his diagnosis with the family in December and she was born in May. During the first months of her life, he visited her ever day. He held her to stare at her and sometimes he cried.  I know that holding her and holding others is what kept him alive longer than his diagnosis. He was given 1 – 5 years and he lived for 8. Today I held my godsister’s baby sister who is a month and a half old. I held her and wondered if my father also meditated on the fragility of human life– on the fact that we were all once this dependent on others to live. On the irony that a few tiny cells gone haywire could render us this helpless again.  Back then, he told my godsister’s mother that when the baby smiled in her sleep, she was talking to kinfolks on the other side. He wondered out loud who she could be talking to. Today, when I held the sleeping baby in my arms and she broke into huge grins, I didn’t wonder. I knew.
3) Let people feed me. 
Daddy was as much his Momma’s boy as I am Daddy’s girl. During the limbo years, he took long lunch breaks at his mother’s house and she fed him and let him sleep. Daddy was good at being company. He wasn’t funny about other people’s food and he was everybody’s welcome guest. One of his favorite stories is about the only sentence he knows how to speak in Spanish, “La comida es muy buena.” He learned it in dental school when he went home once a week with a colleague whose mother cooked for them. He told me that he said it every week and she always laughed. Today I was my Daddy’s daughter and people fed me and my daughter all day. It was humbling and new and joyous and my new shit. My Daddy was a magnet for “Come on over” friends but I am just growing into this comfort with interdependence… I’m no island. Peninsula maybe (shoutout to Andre)… Being fed by people teaches me to feed folks. I have new dreams for my future kitchen, my future space. I imagine making big pot dinners like the ones my father used to make. I imagine stretching meals like he used to so I can accommodate people who drop in. I imagine people dropping in. Letting loved ones feed me today has helped me imagine my own home. My own couch. My own table.  Since I first moved back into my mother’s house, the dream of my own space has grown more vague with every failed attempt to “get on my feet.” Today I know that there is joy to be had even before you are able to walk. And I know that when I am able to afford my own space, it won’t just be my own space.
4) Write a messy blog as if with horse hooves.
Daddy was a musician. He played the piano, organ, and the bass guitar. He read music and played by ear. He listened to songs over and over and picked out their tunes until he learned them. He had a piano and a Rhodes, the first in the living room and the other in the den. What I am trying to day is that my father didn’t have a “piano room.” A place to practice and fumble in private. He worked out his songs in company. Once when he was preparing for a church concert and wearing out a chord that he was trying to get right, I joked that he sounded like he was playing with hooves. He laughed and kept hoofing. By the time he got to the concert, he’d grown enough to play the song he heard in his head. Today I have decided to write like my Daddy played the piano. While it is true that music is both his talent and passion, it is also true that he wasn’t immediately great at every song he tried. He gave himself permission and humor in flubbing and he found joy in practicing– even before a critical audience. This blog post in particular feels like Daddy fumbling through that song. The right way to say this or that hovers just above my head, which is cloudy with grief and exhaustion. This blog post is not the way I like to write. There is little poetry and craft is all over the place. I am trying to get at something and I’m not sure what it is. I am writing to learn, much like my father played that jumbled chord over and over until he learned to control his fingers, perfect his timing, and match his imagined sound to his real one. I am tired of the writer’s room, the lonely coffee shop and the journal corner. I am the daughter of a Baptist pianist. I play to bring on the shout, release the tears, and punctuate the part of the sermon that promises to set you free. But this is living room practice, so I appreciate your hanging around as I fumble through it.
Jay Z in a hoodie and black sunglasses.

On Jay Z and Bragging Rights

The Blueprint 3 kinda sorta saved my life. That’s dramatic. It really just helped me keep my chin up during a moment I thought was the worst of my academic career that was actually pretty tame compared to the worst.

During this time, I was in a battle of wills with someone backed by the power structure that is the university system (aka “the official”). The official wanted me to TA a class that was unrelated to my teaching interests. Back in the day, I thought exploitation was what happened to people who didn’t speak up. So I spoke. And I was labeled a problem. My reputation preceded me, so when the white woman I TA’ed for thought I was giving attitude, she called in the dogs.

I was a second year graduate student in a PhD program. Every week, someone was writing about the shrinking job market, the lack of opportunities, the cut-throat world of academia. My success seemed unlikely even with white allies and impossible with white enemies. Students in my department were whispering about the drama; they were saying I was stupid, irresponsible, not worthy of the fellowship I’d received. In short, I was afraid. Terrified, even.

Enter B3. That year, “swag” was only beginning to be a cliche and the album dripped with it. I became one of the students who stomped the yard with my headphones in, always looking straight ahead. Zoning out was a strategy I’d learned from other students of color at PWI’s. I hadn’t needed this strategy when I was a student at Howard. The yard was full of friends or at least people I knew. To walk the yard was to risk losing track of time, as running into a friend could derail your plans. It was love.

I was a second year graduate student and I hadn’t learned to find the love in white spaces. The blanket of whiteness terrified, then choked me. I didn’t know enough to hang around the Af-Am studies department, chatting with the secretaries who had saved and salvaged some of my friends’ academic careers.  I didn’t know enough to find the black staff across the university and stay close, or at least identify the spaces in which I could recharge. Whiteness is draining for Morrisonian scholars who daily read about the brutality of which white folks are capable.

I spent the hour after that meeting listening to Jay Z while crying on the bench outside of the library. I listened to “Thank You” on loop, trying to absorb some second-hand swag. I got the feeling that the lyrics were about haters, a middle finger to those who’d doubted his potential. He was thanking the former naysayers from a high throne and the gratitude was a storefront church, belying the shouting that went on inside. I went inside the church, imagined myself on a pulpit thanking the white woman and the official.

The reason I am reaching for this memory now, seven years later, is that I’ve descended rather than ascending. Both of the professors involved have health insurance. I don’t. Both of them have homes. I don’t. The official’s children go to private school that he can afford and they have certain futures, paid for by the university whose gates were so difficult to climb. My child’s future is a question mark that haunts and terrifies me. It robs me of sleep. And I’m struggling with this: what right does a poor mom have to swag? On what is it based?

Here’s Jay’s list of bragging rights from “Thank You:”

  1. Balcony seats at the Opera
  2. A Black tuxedo
  3. Media popularity
  4. Sitting close enough to a Pacquaio fight to get snot on himself
  5. 10#1 albums while rapping on a likely 11th
  6. Successfully selling kilos of cocaine
  7. Having enough money to tip the waiter $100
  8. Putting cocaine on street corners
  9. Popping champagne with beautiful women
  10. Selling much more music than his rapper rivals/ killing their careers

I don’t remember what perch I’d imagined on that bench 7 years ago. Perhaps success as a writer? A finished PhD and an appointment somewhere 1) enviable or 2)safe? Maybe just distance from the fateful meeting?

Weeks later, the official wrote me to encourage me to enjoy the holidays. He said that things have a tendency to seem bigger than they are when your world evolves around the university. I wasn’t ready to see the truth in that email or recognize the olive branch for what it was. My brain is trauma-trained to believe catastrophe both inevitable and ever-present. Unlike me, he was married with children. His wife was a non-academic. His world was richer than the university, and he had no way of knowing that the university was my only safe space. Outside of it, my father was dying, my brother was facing a prison sentence, another brother’s heart was failing, and I had trouble maintaining hometown relationships over the physical and emotional distance I’d created to protect myself. The official had made my safe space unsafe and I felt my walls caving in. Swag borrowed from an unpredictable future seemed the only way out. And now the past is asking me to pay up, to cash in on the swag I borrowed those years ago and my hands seem empty.

Resilience doesn’t seem like enough of a downpayment, but it’s all I have right now. The fact that I’m still alive. That my daughter laughs every day and doesn’t seem to know how broke we are. The fact that I’m still writing. The gift of hindsight– the fact that I can see an earlier version of myself crying on that bench and tell her that she belongs on that campus. She belongs, I belong, we belong anywhere and everywhere we want to be. Perhaps that is a bragging right.