"My work may be garbage but it's good garbage." Mickey Spillane
Mama was a feminist. Mama was my grandmother who raised me. She was also a throwback in a lily white family. She looked like her mother’s grandmother who was “a woman of color.” Her mother despised her for being a throwback and thus betraying the ugly family secret that there was a colored person in the family ancestry.
Until relatively recently in the south the tiniest drop of Black American blood made you black in the state birth records. You could be blonde and blue-eyed, the perfect image of white America and still be listed as black because somewhere in your ancestry there was a black American. I would use the term my great grandmother used to me, but then Maurice Broaddus would prolly slap me silly.
Nonetheless, it was a fact of life back then and the facts should not be covered up and ignored if we are to fully understand how our culture arrived where it is.
If you want to see what she looked like you’ll find Mama’s picture on my website
She used to complain about her “dark old skin” which I thought was beautiful. It was beautiful to me because I loved her. It took me years to realize why most of the characters I wrote about were dark skinned and black-haired. It was because they were all Mama.
At one point in my life I lived in the same house with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I started noticing that Mammy (great-grandmother) treated Mama badly. At ten I confronted her on it in the blunt honest way of children. She told me about the family shame (having a black in ancestry) and how disappointed she was that her only daughter had turned out dark. The rest of the family was light-skinned, mostly blonde or light brown hair and blue-eyed. Mama had brown skin, black hair and gray eyes.
I adored her.
She was indeteminate looking enough to pass for white in a Mediterranean kind of way.
When she would take me to the doctor as a child, the doctors would politely remark on her “healthy” skin as a way of asking “what the hell are you doing with this pale, blonde, blue-eyed child?”
I caught onto that fast and decided the problem was me because I had been born the wrong color. To society at large, I was the right color and she was the wrong color. However, children have a different kind of logic.
She weathered it all well. At least I thought so until I started catching her applying bleaching creams to her skin. They never worked, but she kept trying. She was a proud woman. She also had a wit that could strip the muscle from your bones.
Her voice was hoarse and harsh from having had whooping cough as a child in an epidemic that killed four of her siblings. Years later she would still get tears in her eyes talking about it.
Mama was ferocious when it came to equality. I’ve told the tale of Montana and the banker before, but I took all the old posts down last year, so I’ll tell it again.
She was working as an assistant manager in a restaurant in a small Texas town in the 1940s. The dishwasher was a black man named Montana. He also helped her every way he could and was a good worker. Mama thought a lot of him.
One day the town’s banker came in, as he did each day, for lunch. Only that time he didn’t take his usual table and instead took one where he could see into the kitchen. The banker spotted Montana and launched into a loud complaint about “lazy N****rs.” Mama saw Montana wince. Her temper, which could burn as hot as Mt. Vesuvius flared and she charged into the fray without thinking. She informed the banker that Montana was a better man than he would ever be. The banker got indignant and stood up, demanding that the rest of the patrons ackonowledge what she had just said.
Mama went to work the next day, fully expecting to find that she had been fired. To her surprise, she still had her job. To her further surprise, the banker showed up. He held his hands up in a fending off gesture and said “now Mrs. S*** I didn’t come to fight with you. I just want my lunch.”
Mama never learned what caused that change in the banker, but he never said another bad word about blacks in front of her or Montana.
Mama was awesome.