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.