black mama white son

black mama white son


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 I’m at the center of all their fears. They find no ease with me.

I am their nightmare, a relic of an forgiving past.



Black Mama, White Son

                                                      for Mary Lewis (1875-1959)

By Rudolph Lewis  


1 November 1955

Two sons, Pompsie and Percy, just walked out the door. Gone out into the cold night. They said their good byes for the final time. Pompsie’s gone to Ella, his wife, and his chillun. And Percy I don’t know where. They leave me to fall into the darkness of my memories and the silence of the purple night.

I try to hold myself still. I wring my hands and cry finally out into the dark to the ghosts of night. To the great heavens above. Help me, Lord, help me. Tell me Jesus, what brings a son to cut hisself off from his mama? A son to want to kill his mama?                                                                                     

                                                                                                                                                                                                       photo right Percy Lewis

Is the earth ready to split wide open and swallow me whole? Take me now, Death, my end is near. If this be my reward for the life I’ve lived. Let Death take me now. Isn’t this the harshest bullet yet. I the bull’s eye of discontent and uneasiness. Or is there yet more I must endure?

No word from Him fills the silence.

A cricket chirps in the corner. A dog barks to the wind. Take me now. Damn it all!

Still no answer from Him. My prayer rises to the ceiling and falls back upon my blackened breast. I pull myself back into my chair. And wait.

There are only questions, floating around my head, to disturb my rest.

My Lord, how many chillun did your mammie have? Two, three? And she, I hear some say, became the queen of heaven. And by some the holiest of saints.

But what of me, Lord? Should I not have some peace and comfort in my old age? I raised eight sons to manhood and Sally’s Blind Dick. And me, every day of my eighty years I have had to scramble for every crumb. Walking and talking all night long, to you Lord, wondering what will you have us eat tomorrow.

What of me, Lord? I who never had a daddy other than Thee. My father, I have only his last name, Lewis. All my sons carry his name. That’s all I had to give them that had any value unearned. My mama never held onto a man longer than comfort.

I own nothing, not the land I live on, not the house that gives me shelter. Not a mother’s love, I a white man’s woman in the invisibility of black life.

All I have ever had was my sons. They were the one constant in the chaos of my loss. They were my joy, my pride, my hope. Rather than a rope of escape from the terrible flood, Percy brings me the hangman’s noose of white laden guilt.

Fifty years after his birth, I still scramble for every crumb and my sons remind me that I’m the root of their grief. And they see me dead in their hopes and dreams. Stretched out in black.

Their fathers have come and gone. Those I knew and loved have fallen by the wayside. A mother, a father, a sister and a brother, and two sons.

Men whose arms held me close. Who is left, who remains: Joe, Pompsie, Richard, Arthur, Billy? Grandchildren? Great grandchildren? Do any care? I’m at the center of all their fears. They find no ease with me. I am their nightmare, a relic of an forgiving past.

*   *   *   *   *

What Percy talking about he ain’t never had no daddy? He now a man close to fifty years old. If you ain’t had one all these years he ain’t missed nothing. What is a man gonna worry about something like that and he old enough to have chillun and grandchillun of his own.

I ain’t never had no daddy neither. What difference that make? But I ain’t never thought to tell my mama I can’t see her no more.

None of my other boys dare tell me nothing like that, either. Edward’s father died when he was a child. He don’t go about crying he ain’t got no father. They all had a black mammie who worked her hands raw for them. Chopping fields, picking cotton, taking in wash.

Anything I could do to put food in their mouths and clothes on their back and shoes on their feet. What if they all had no daddy that amounted to nothing. They still here strong and healthy. Ain’t that got some value. All they got to do is go on and live. Take what you got and do what you will with it. Be as much a man and force as you be, whatever the hurdle or pitfall.

I ain’t making no excuses for who nor what I am. I done all I could for each and everyone of them. And maybe I did more. The goddamn nerve of him! The poor, ungrateful wretch!

We all got pain, I know, and hurt we got to carry, balancing sins on our head like dirty clothes in a basket. And I have had my share. But that’s all right. I ain’t got no complaint on that score. Going against the odds—ain’t that what living is about?

I didn’t stray from my mama’s door when she too old to take care of herself. I didn’t tell her she couldn’t be my mama no more. That I could never give her a hug or a kiss, never laugh or cry with her, never no more. There is nothing so precious that could make me do that. No man, no woman, no son. Whatever fault they think I got, he didn’t get this ugly way from me.

Taking leave of a woman, mens is good at that. All they gots to do is pull up their pants and leave. Walk right off and never look back. The whole bastard lot of them.

He want to be his own man. Live his own life. He can’t see how I fit in that. He gonna become healthy by denying his mama. What kind of nonsense is that? Whoever heard of such craziness. He want to be free, he tells me. Free not to have to explain. Free to live as if he free, blend into the greater whole. Free himself of his black past.

Percy, my dear silly boy, talks like a crazy man, like a man he’s not. He gonna be mine whether he want it or not. I know where he issued, from between these black thighs. There ain’t no making one’s self again. One is or he is not. A man, and a woman too, is got to learn that for hisself. And he got to learn how to live with that. That’s what make a man a man and a woman not a girl. He talks to me as if I am ignorant of life and its footfalls. I know his hurt better than he thinks.

*   *   *   *   *

Who hasn’t been driven off the wooded pathway of integrity and honesty.

To hell with them if they hurt someone you love. They all think it’s somehow different and easy for a woman, especially a woman who has sinned like me. Who kept food in their bellies and clothes on their back and shoes on their feet and shelter over their heads. They can’t remember that. That’s the gratitude they give their mama.

Who hasn’t hoped for the big house on the hill but was kept to the shack on the slope? What would life be if we all got what we thought we needed? Where is glory in that? So many whiners I have birthed in pain and anguish.

He think his situation special. That he’s different from his brothers. But he can’t see beyond the blindness of others. We all got to wrestle with our demons who step around the corners of darkness, the lust and guilt of desire.

If he loved his mama like he oughta he’d understand that. He’d understand what it is to live alone in the world, nothing but your wits, and a body that is loved and hated with the sting of shame, and your God, and, most of the time, he ain’t around when you want Him.

Each feels that hang face of uneasiness for his mama. A tight bundle of hate stored away tightly in each of their hearts. And I did no more than any woman would do who loved a man or a mother would do to fend for her chillun.

Sins others condemn me for were sacrifices I made for them. To hell with the chatter others make over my life. They didn’t put not one crumb in your belly. Not one belonged to his daddy. They belonged to me. They’ll never get away from that, I don’t care how much they run, or which way they turn. My mark is on each one of them until they line run out.

*   *   *   *   *

Percy could have gone off and said nothing. Stepped away from this shanty of misery and shame into his bright room of hope and promise.

But he found no peace that way. Arrow of blame aimed at the black core of me. He has brooded for years. His resentment a growing and strangling thing, like ivy on a pine. Like a boil needed to head and pierce. He wanted to have it out before he walked away through blue and languishing smoke into the white light of his hope. He wanted no knots untied, a guard against us looking for him and casting shadows on his brighter life.

Deep down he still loves his mama. In tears, he begs me to forgive him for what he’d already done in his heart. So I tell him if that what he got to do, he should go ahead and do it.

Yet I wanted him to know that denying his family is a hard way to make a better life.

*   *   *   *   *

I stood between him and his father. I the fly in his soup. The cause he has no father. I the dark impassable hedge wall between him and his happiness. He knew as well as the foul-minded, his father lived across the field in the big house with his wife and son. He worked for his father. If he the man he want to be he could’ve walk up to his father and his brother, though I advised against it, and threw his arms about their necks. How can I be blamed for his lack of nerve and backbone? I didn’t make the world he lives in, nor the one I inherited.

Which one of them would take me in his arms, and hold me lovingly, and say, “Mama, I love you”? No, the bastards all walk around sullen and silent.

They carry chips on they shoulder big as a truckload of pulpwood, as if that way was gonna make the world better for themselves or for me, or build a house or a home.. Their drinking, their rise in distrust and temper, and the rush of violence come, I know, from the shame and hatred of their mama, as if I had set their world upside down. To hell with church respectability!

What if I did screw a white man (and loved him good) what that got to do with any one of them? They so concerned what other people think. I ain’t told them since they came grown what to do with their sex. But they want to be my daddy and the guardians of my behavior.

*   *   *   *   *

And my son Irvin. He gone shoot his mama with a shotgun for “sneaking around with white men.” Did they want me to take him arm in arm to Jerusalem and sit him on the mourner’s bench. How am I gonna sneak? My life is an open book to the mean-spirited.

Irvin, he ain’t got courage to say who he talking about, but he gone kill me like I ain’t nothing. Here he farms for the man he believes has transgressed the bounds of decency, working for the man and living on the man’s land, depending on him for his everything. And it’s with me he wants to fight, with me he wants to murder. Marvin Owen, Percy’s daddy, is his master as well as my own. However black the cheese is sliced.

And Irvin, lazy like his father Charlie Scott, work only when his belly growls. If he needs shoes he works a week at the sawmill and then nothing. And this is what’s gone be the judge of his mother.

Me and his wife Deasy just talking and he gets up on his high horse and says, “While you sit here talking about someone else, someone is out there talking about you.” And he tells me he gonna “smack the damn hell out” of me. What a piece of work he is.

His father sure was a mistake. Little Eddie’s father that was the love of my life, George Graves’ boy. My, my, my, he was handsome and all that wavy hair. And he just up and die and leave me to a life of misery.

*   *   *   *   *

But Irvin’s brother Joe, he turned out good after the military polished him off. But like their father they can’t let the moonshine just be. They greedy and want to drink it all until it’s all gone. But who can swallow the sea. Hating hisself, hating his mama just eats a man up, makes him crazy wild, makes his head swell bigger than what his neck and shoulders can carry.

If I hadn’t ducked behind the house Irvin, “TeeBee,” his friends call him, the damn fool would’ve shot me deader than hell. He such an idiot. Blind in his hatred, he shoots himself in the neck. Bullet lodged there in his neck and never removed for fear it would cripple him. He couldn’t move his neck after that episode, his heart bursting beyond civility. So my boy dies in his thirties in his madness. That bullet poisoned his blood, the doctors say.

I know better. These doctors don’t know nothing about a man’s heart or his soul. They don’t know nothing about that kind of sickness in those set aside in the squalor of denial. My boy murdered hisself cause he cared what other people gone say, what they say about his mama.

What care I a good damn about folks, Negroes or whites, and they wagging their tongues? Yes, I’m concerned about the talk. I don’t want to hurt nobody. But Mary still has to live and that’s for sure. They don’t know no more than anybody else about “spectability” or respect.

The sons of bitches! They’re liars and hypocrites. How did so many of them like the Masons and Stiths and Fords get so white? And stay so white. Talking about somebody being black as sin and swamp mud.

At least I ain’t going round sleeping with my first cousin.

The Jerusalem Church people, oh yes, they got a nerve. They high-minded, all right. Higher than the sun in the sky. But just let the sun go down. And you can’t tell who’s bitching who. They’re meaner than the snake belly of sin, then, under the cover of darkness.

I know’em. They done been under my covers. Two of the good deacons of Jerusalem, that half-white nigger George Graves, Pompsie and Dick’s daddy, and blacker than night, the  sins of Daniel Robinson, Arthur’s daddy. O yeah, they know how to get around in every little corner when nobody’s looking. Neither of the pompous bastards was born in marriages. Both of them born in slavery times.

Why Irvin wanna die for them and make me look like a fool? My now ain’t no different than back then, for I who have nothing, inherited nothing, pushed here, driven there.

So many take what they want and kick you onto the road with the nothing of not even a thank you mam. Is there no one to come to my defense, my mama, my family? Not even my sons? A grandson? A great grandson?

*   *   *   *   *

Marvin Owen old enough to be my father, his whiteness didn’t frighten me—a man is much more than the color of his skin and the blackness of his desire. He was no different than George Graves, who think he so smart, nor Deacon Daniel Robinson. All men hunger for the freedom of a woman’s love. To a woman a man’s hunger, no matter how they dress it up, is just a man’s hunger. And when that hunger is satisfied and they don’t need you, they wave, “See you later.”

For me, all thought of a married life ended with George Graves. A man half this way and half that way—loving black, only when the sun go down. He don’t know what he is and what he want to be. Like my son Percy is now.

With five boys, I knew few men would have me as wife. No man strong enough. Them many chillun at a woman’s feet, romance is no longer play or a game. But he had bound hand and feet, if he had really wanted me, wanted to struggle for me — to love me, like his son loved me.

And then came six, with Arthur from Daniel Robinson It’s like it’s always been, nothing but the sweet drugs of survival, tending to one’s business. But I couldn’t abandon them, sell’em down the river of loss and forgetfulness. I ain’t that low down, ain’t that unforgiving, that I’d sell my own blood for my comfort and ease.

*   *   *   *   *

Marvin owned everything I could see from my front door, except the twenty-five owned by George Graves. But he didn’t own me. I slept with him cause I wanted to.

And he wanted me. There are white men like that. And the blacker the colored woman the better. It’s like the real thing. As if I just got off some ship from Africa or something. Everybody got their fantasies. That’s what a woman’s got to learn early, that and a man’s hunger.

He was no worse than the rest. In some ways better. I did not pine for his love, nor expect his love. I knew I was a desire for a moment. Make him feel bigger than he was, in his desert of uprightness and privilege.

He wanted me and that was enough. I made it clear to all the rest I was no white man’s nigguh. I go and come as I please.

And to make it clear to all of them, including Marvin Owen, I invited Joe Massenberg to my bed. He was young, hard, and muscular. After three men old as my father, the soft flab and unforgiving of old age, I needed something firm and steady even if it were for only a night.

I gave Joe a son he didn’t want. It’s like these men just look at me and I get pregnant as if God had his own plan for me. But I knew Theodore would be my last child. With nine chillun under my feet I was finished with all that. More would be my death. And I still had much to live for.

*   *   *   *   *

So I gave them my all. What else can chillun ask of their mama. And I drove them to give their all so that we could survive until tomorrow. Yes, I worked them. As soon as one could carry a piece of wood from the yard to the house.

To stay strong, to get ahead, we had to work hard, long into the night and steady day after day, year after year until we got to where we needed to go. I taught them how to work and to love work. Even when the sun is high, salty sweat blinding the vision, muscles stiff and bitingly sore from exhaustion work. Work was yet more than the misery of body, but a mystery of escape, a way of losing myself and making myself again. The spirit deep rubbing, soothing, and deadening the pain of weariness and hopelessness.

I found work for them with farmers, tradesmen. Pompsie got good at building houses, digging wells. I wanted them to be men, better than their fathers. They did not work for money. They worked for me, for each other. The money they earned they gave to me. There was no room for no foolishness. They hated that. I taught them how to do without, though Irvin took the lesson like a fool. I put what we had where it was needed and if there was extra, then we satisfied our taste.

I got them all to manhood, strong and healthy as mules loosed from the yoke. What more can they desire of their mama? Where is my thanks? Where is pleasure and satisfaction as the grave draws near? I’m eighty and they still trying to get back at their mama black as a moonless night. Damn them then if that is the thanks I get!

Let Percy go his way. If his mind becomes clear and clean by being a white man, let it be. I still have other sons. Pompsie will stand by me.  

*   *   *   *   *

There’s a rapping, rapping in my dream of consciousness. A knocking at the door. More like a dream. The exquisite hurt. I can’t open my eyes. Knocking, knocking, on and on. I am shaken. Stop shaking me! I hate the hate that makes them hate me.

“Mama, are you all right? Mama, wake up!”  Wake up!

It is Pompsie. One out of eight ain’t bad, either. I open my eyes and he is standing above me. 

“Mama, you been sitting here all night? Are you all right?”

I tell him I am fine. He begins to make a fire. I push myself up, toss my shawl back to the chair, walk to the kitchen, and pour water in the basin. I wash my hands and then my face. I towel and thank the Lord, for this day. He is yet a merciful God.


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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

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*   *   *   *   *

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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updated 7 October 2007 




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