The Death of My Mother

The Death of My Mother


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



“I’m talking about your real mother, the one the white man took out and killed.”



 Books by and about Daisy Bates

Long Shadow of Little Rock (Daisy Bates,1998)  / Daisy Bates Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas (Grif Sockley, 2005)

The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine (Fradin, 2004) / Young and Black in America (Julius Lester,1972)

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The Death of My Mother

By Daisy Bates (1914-1999)


Shortly after my eighth birthday I was playing with other children on a neighbor’s steps. An older boy, whom I didn’t happen to like, came up to me and began pulling my braids. I said I was going home. The boy said, “You act so uppity. If you knew what happened to your mother, you wouldn’t act so stuck up.”

Nothing’s wrong with my mother,” I retorted. “I just left her.”

“I’m talking about your real mother, the one the white man took out and killed.”

“That’s a story and you’re a mean and nasty old boy!” I began to cry.

“It ain’t. I heard my folks talking about it.”

Just then the mother of one of my playmates came out on the porch and yelled at the boy. “Shut up! You talk too much. I’m going to tell your mother, and you’ll get the beating of your life.”

“Honey,” she said to me, “don’t believe nothing that no-good boy says.” Still I wondered what if he was telling the truth?

At dinner that evening I looked intently at my parents, all the while trying to decide whether I looked like them. I could see no resemblance or likeness to myself in either of them. I remembered many little things, like the day Mother was talking to a salesman when I came in. He glanced at me, then turned to my mother.

“Have you heard from her father?” he had asked her.

When my mother said she hadn’t, the salesman nodded toward me. “Does she know?”

“We haven’t told her,” my mother had said.

During the next few weeks I kept so much to myself that my parents decided that I must be sick. So I was “dosed” up with little pink pills. My cousin Early B. came to visit us. He was several years older than I, but I was always glad to see him because he protected me from the boys who liked to taunt and tease me.

One afternoon as we walked along the millpond, I asked Early B. to tell me about my mother. He looked puzzled.

“Your mother?” he said guardedly, and pointed in the direction of my house. We could see her sitting on the porch.

“No. I mean my real mother.”

“You know?”



“Well, almost.”

“Who told you? I’ll knock his block off! Have you told your mamma and papa?”


We walked in silence until we stood on the bank that divided the millpond from the town’s fishing hole. Large logs floated in the water. The smell of fresh cut lumber mixed with the odor of dead fish. As we stood there, Early B. told me about my parents.

“One night when you were a baby and your daddy was working nights at the mill, a man went to your house and told your mother that your daddy had been hurt. She rushed out, leaving you alone, but she met a neighbor and asked her to listen out for you while she went to see about your daddy,

“When your daddy got home the next morning, he found you alone. He went around asking the neighbors if they had seen your mother. The neighbor your mother asked to look after you told him what had happened the night before–that she saw a man who looked like he was colored, although she didn’t get a good look at him because he was walking in front of your mother.

“The news spread fast around town that your mother couldn’t be found. Later in the morning, some people out fishing found her body.”

Early B. stopped talking and sat down on the pond bank. I stood over him, looking into the dark, muddy water.

“Where did they find her?” I asked.

After a long silence Early B. pointed at the water and said, “Right down there. She was half in and half out.”

“Who did it?”

“Well,” he answered, “there was a lot of talk from the cooks and cleaning women who worked in ‘white town’ about what they heard over there. They said that three white men did it.”

“What happened to my father?”

“He was so hurt, he left you with the people who have you now, his best friends. He left town. Nobody has heard from him since.”

“What did my parents look like?”

“They were young. Your daddy was as light as a lot of white people. Your mother was very pretty–dark brown, with long hair.”

Early B. friends came along and he wandered off with them. I sat there looking into the dark waters, vowing some day I would get the men who killed my mother. I did not realize that the afternoon had turned into evening and darkness had closed in around me until someone sitting beside me whispered. “It’s time to go home, darling.” I turned and saw my daddy sitting beside me. He reached out in the darkness and took my hand.

“How long have you known?” he asked.

“A long time,” I said.

He lifted me tenderly in his arms and carried me home. . . .

In Arkansas, even in the red clay soil of a mill town, flowers grow without any encouragement at all. Everyone’s yard has some sort of flowering bush or plant all spring and summer. And in this town of Huttig, where there was so little beauty, I passionately loved all blooming things. In the woods I hunted out the first of the cowslips and spring beauties, and from the open fields, the last of the Indian paintbrush. I was always bringing home bouquets.

All of the neighbors knew that flowers in our yard were my garden, not Mother’s. I had no favorite and delighted at each flower in its season. When the last rose and zinnias had died, I knew in a few short months the old lilac bush would start budding, for winter in Arkansas was short-lived. But this year was different. One morning I was out before breakfast looking for flowers to pick. All I found was a single red rose, the dew still wet on it. I can close my eyes today and see exactly how it looked. Unaccountably I turned, leaving it on the stalk, and walked into the house crying.

My mother met me at the door and I saw her face cloud with anxiety. What was the trouble? “All the other flowers were dead,” I sobbed, “and my rose will die, too.”

That night I heard her say to Daddy, “I can’t understand that child crying over a dying flower.” Then I heard my daddy say, “Let her be. It just takes time.”

Later in the fall on a Saturday afternoon, my father and I took a walk in the woods. It was a brisk day. Daddy thought we might find some ripe persimmons. Also, some black walnuts might have fallen from a big old tree he knew about. We walked along sniffing the air, sharp with the smell of pine needles, then came out in an open stretch in sight of the persimmon grove. I was always happy on these excursions with Daddy. I guess it just the feeling that I couldn’t be happy now, couldn’t let myself be, that made me ask the question.

“Daddy, who killed my mother? Why did they kill her?”

We walked a little way in silence. Then he pointed to some flat rocks on a slope, and we made our way there and rested. The persimmons and the black walnut were forgotten. He began in tones so soft I could barely hear the words.

He told me of the timeworn lust of the white man for the Negro woman–which strikes at the heart of every Negro man in the South. I don’t remember a time when this man I called my father didn’t talk to me almost as if I were an adult. Even so this was a difficult concept to explain to an eight-year-old girl; but he spoke plainly, in simple words I could understand. He wanted me to realize that my mother wouldn’t have died if it hadn’t been for race–as well as her beauty, her pride, her love for my father.

“Your mother was not the kind to submit,” he said, “so they took her.” His voice grew bitter. “They say that three white men did it. There was some talk about who they were, but no one knew for sure, and the sheriff’s office did little to find out.” 

He said other things about the way the Negro is treated in the South, but my mind had stopped, fastening on those three white men and what they had done. They had killed my mother. 

When we walked out of the woods, my daddy looked tired and broken. He took my hand and we walked home in silence.

Dolls, games, even my once-beloved fishing, held little interest for me after that. Young as I was, strange as it may seem, my life now had a secret goal-to find the men who had done this horrible thing to my mother. So happy once, now I was like a little sapling which, after a violent storm, puts out only gnarled and twisted branches. . . .

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Daisy Bates Desegregating Little Rock 

By Julius Lester

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This historic ruling struck at the very core of the social structure of the South and it was to be expected that many cities and states would be unwilling to put it into practice. The first big confrontation came in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1957.

Nine black students were to enter all-white Central High School. A few days before school was to open, Orval Faubus, then governor of Arkansas, ordered the National Guard to surround the school. He reasoned that violence would occur when the nine blacks tried to enter the school. However, instead of ordering the National Guard to stop any violence which might occur, he ordered the Guard to keep the blacks out of the school. This was the first open defiance of the Supreme Court decision by a top state official.

The nine black students, their parents, and advisers, had a difficult decision to make. Should the students still try to enter Central High? It was decided that they should. When the day came mobs of whites lined the sidewalk and filled the streets in front of the school. The National Guard blocked the entrances, pointed bayonets at the black students, and refused to escort them to safety through the crowd of whites. As the students tired to make their way through the mob, they were spat upon and beaten.

The central figure in the drama was Mrs. Daisy Bates, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Born and raised in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas, Daisy Lee Gatson married when she was eighteen years old and with her husband, L. C. Bates, moved to Little Rock. There, they decided to assume the ownership of a weekly newspaper, the State Press. Together, they slowly made the paper into the voice of blacks in Arkansas, protesting police brutality, the lack of equal rights in housing, in jobs, and in the courtroom.

In 1952 Mrs. Bates was elected president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP. The NAACP had taken the lead in the fight for the desegregation of schools. It was involved in trying to make sure that the 1954 ruling was put into practice. Such an effort required not only the skills of lawyers, but also the commitment of many anonymous people, like Mrs. Bates, who were responsible for building strong organizations on the local level to prepare for the day when desegregation came. Just how important such preparation was did not become clear, however, until the confrontation around Central High.

When the governor said that there would be no desegregation, the blacks of Little Rock could either bow their heads or fight. Much of the burden for the decision was carried by Mrs. Bates, as a leader of the black community. The decision to fight placed the lives of all who were involved in danger. Without the kind of leadership and courage shown by Mrs. Bates, the ordeal could not have been endured.

Mrs. Bates’ life was constantly threatened and for many months. She did not leave her home without carrying a gun, or go to bed at night without armed guards posted outside her home. The newspaper which she and her husband had built was forced out of business by whites. Yet Mrs. Bates and the blacks of Little Rock persevered. Her book, The Long Shadow of Little Rock is more than a personal story. It is the story of countless blacks who, in extraordinary times, have had to show extraordinary courage


Source: Young and Black in America (1972), edited by Julius Lester

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Commentary on Daisy Bates’ How My Mother Died

By Amin Sharif 

Daisy Bates is representative of the kind of unselfish black woman raised under the Old South tradition of racism and segregation. Not a feminist, nor a womanist—Daisy was a Race woman who placed the needs of her people before her own. In her How My Mother Died, we are given a unique portrait of how complicated life was for every black man, woman, and child in the early and middle decades of the 1900s.

Told from the perspective of an eight year old, Daisy’s writings soon confronts the reader with issues of race and murder-subjects one would think would hardly enter into the mind of one so young as an eight year old. Yet these subjects are not only on Daisy’s mind, they forever separate her from her childhood joy. When she is confronted with her first incident of racism by a white butcher, Daisy finds herself  “praying that the butcher would die.” And later, when Daisy finds out that her mother was murdered at the hands of white men, she gives up “dolls and games” and vows to find the men who had killed her mother.

All of this would seem like so much sensationalism if these issues were not handled so well by Daisy. There is more sadness than rage in Daisy’s writing. And we find out early on why Daisy’s response to her mother’s death and white racism does not set her on a path of self-destruction or pessimism. The reason for Daisy’s stability is her father or step-father. It is this man who established a rock solid relationship with Daisy and who shepherds her through her early crisis. As much as the themes of racism and violence, the theme of love between these two—father and daughter—draws the reader into Daisy’s complex world. In the end, it is the love of this wise, understanding man that would transform Daisy and make her into one of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement.

Source: Young and Black in America (1972), edited by Julius Lester

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Charles Mingus: Fable of Faubus

“Fables of Faubus” is a song composed by jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. One of Mingus’ most explicitly political works, the song was written as a direct protest against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers. The song was first recorded for Mingus’ 1959 album, Mingus Ah Um. Columbia refused to allow the lyrics to the song to be included, and so the song was recorded as an instrumental on the album. It was not until October 20, 1960 that the song was recorded with lyrics, for the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which was released on the more independent Candid label. Due to contractual issues with Columbia, the song could not be released as “Fables of Faubus”, and so the Candid version was titled “Original Faubus Fables.”

The personnel for the Candid recording were Charles Mingus (bass, vocals), Dannie Richmond (drums, vocals), Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone), and Ted Curson (trumpet). The vocals featured a call-and-response between Mingus and Richmond. Critic Don Heckman commented on the unedited “Original Faubus Fables” in a 1962 review that it was “a classic Negro put-down in which satire becomes a deadly rapier-thrust. Faubus emerges in a glare of ridicule as a mock villain whom no-one really takes seriously. This kind of commentary, brimful of feeling, bitingly direct and harshly satiric, appears far too rarely in jazz.” The song, either with or without lyrics, was one of the compositions which Mingus returned to most often, both on record and in concert.—Wikipedia

photo left: As fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford tried to enter the school, soldiers of the National Guard, under orders from Arkansas Governor Faubus, would step in her way to prevent her from entering.

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Fable of Faubus

                                   By Charles Mingus

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us! Oh, Lord, no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools.

Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond. Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate. H-E-L-L-O, Hello.

Orval E. Faubus was the governor of Arkansas in 1957 and against desegregation. He sent the National Guard to prevent black children from attending high school in Little Rock.

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Bill Moyers Interviews Douglass A. Blackmon

Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008)

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Woodard’s conclusion descends into rhetoric as he urges support for a school system to “develop oppressed groups into self-conscious agents of their own liberation,” while offering no specific, practical suggestions. Woodard’s need to be both scholar and prophet are in conflict, and the prophet’s voice undermines the scholar’s.—Publishers Weekly

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The text itself is easy to read and flows nicely. Different typefaces distinguish the characters’ monologues, their dialogues with one another, and their memories. Still, middle school readers may have some difficulty following the plot until they get used to the unusual format. Altogether this novel does a superb job of showing the inhumanity of slavery. It begs to be read aloud, and it could be used in sections to produce some stunning reader’s theatre.—School Library Journal

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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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 28 May 2012




Home    Civil Rights: Struggle for Black Power    Religion & Politics Religion & Politics   Amin Sharif Table

Related files: What It Means to Be Negro  The Death of Daddy  The Death of My Mother  The Little Rock Nine

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