Driving the Blues Away

Driving the Blues Away


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Daddy’s father George Graves, born twelve years before Cox’s Snow,

was a deacon at Jerusalem. As Baptist deacons go, Daddy could have been

a deacon at Jerusalem, but he shunned pious hypocrisy



Generations — Memories Thanksgiving 2004


Driving the Blues Away

Or Dying By Degrees

By Rudolph Lewis


“Don’t worry for me, let me worry for you,” she told me, calling me from Jerusalem.  She assured me she was okay and wanted to know when I was coming home. I’ll be there, I’ll be there soon, I told her. So I went home to Jerusalem for Thanksgiving.

I left Thanksgiving morning for a four-hour drive south across the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the Appomattox, the James, and then finally home across the Nottoway.

It is an eight-hour ride on the Greyhound, a two-hour layover in Richmond, for most of the buses by-pass the local towns. And they don’t let you off beside the road, anymore, only at the Emporia station, which is ten miles from Jerusalem.

She seemed fine when I was there in August. Though moving her frail frame about with a walker, she fixed me breakfast and dinner nearly every day of my week stay in that house I grew up as a child, as a farm boy, the old-fashioned way, when people did the best they could. We had a mule and a few acres of land. I was born when times were good. And Mama always had some good-tasting meal on the table.

They had been sharecroppers, Mama and Daddy, and their five daughters. But the year of my birth they became landowners at Jerusalem, ten acres. In those days a Virginia man living on the land had to know many trades, have much knowledge, scientific and esoteric. Daddy built the house I grew up in, a huge eight-room house on one floor. He knew how to smoke meat and preserve it through the winter and the summer heat.

Mama furnished our home. She knew how to can vegetables and fruits, how to have quilting bees with Miss Geraldine, how to save. She gave plain brick, board, and plaster life. Mama always liked nice things and she has always been willing to work hard for what she wanted. Buying things on time, the merchants knew she scrupulously paid her bills. She didn’t drink nor smoke, nor keep a bawdy house.

Mama bought my first writing desk. It is still there. But used for storage or taking phone messages. She worked thirty years as a cook at Jarratt Restaurant and Motel. And after eight hours standing on concrete over a hot stove, for six dollars a day, she’d come home and pick the few acres of cotton Daddy had out back.

She was a big woman. Maybe stout is a better word, like Bessie Smith, for she was a strong woman.  When I was a child, she claimed she was stronger than Daddy and Daddy was a strong man, powerful, rooted, not easily moved. He had a quick temper when his dignity and integrity were threatened.  And his one eye became fierce as lightning on a dark, loud night of silence.

When I was a child they were like two great Titans grappling over a shotgun. Daddy declaimed that he was going to kill himself. And Mama wouldn’t let him have the gun to fulfill his dearest desire. And while in their struggle over the shotgun, I was engaged, I was crying mostly, he orders me to go get the shells. And she tells me not. I was torn. Finally, she relented. I wept and wept until, she says finally, “Shut up boy, your Daddy want to live like everybody else.”

In my sixteen years in that house, he never raised his hand against her. She was a deep woman. She learned from her mama how to wait a man out, even when he was stepping out in his sweet-water pants. She was the steady rock of assurance when Daddy got crazy. And, unlike Daddy, who passed early 1970, she never raised her hand against me.

A “mama’s boy” is one of those children raised by his mother’s parents. She was seventeen, and had grown up during the Depression in small-town rural Virginia where some felt blessed to make seventy-five cents a day. They were living near Sansee Swamp then, on Creath land. She dropped out of Waverly Training School, forty miles on the other side of the county.  In the winter her day began before dark and ended after dark. There were fires to make, chickens and pigs to feed, and other chores, and preparations before she caught the bus at 7 am.

Children then were integral to the economic viability of the family. As soon as a child can carry a piece of wood begins a long life journey of work, performed steadily and earnestly. Most pressed themselves against being driven, one way or another.

She didn’t mind so much about working—picking, chopping, digging, like many. But to end the year with no real Xmas may have drove many to the promises of the big city lights, to electricity, running water, and telephone. She went to Richmond with Uncle Richard and then to Baltimore to live with Aunt Sal on South Freemont, one of the old sections of Baltimore not far from the Harbor, not far from Washington Boulevard.

I was born at nearby University Maryland Hospital. As a maid at the Baltimore Hotel, my mother, she, Mama convinced her, could not work and raise a child in the city and Aunt Sal, who was clerk at the corner store, had too many people in the house already. So my mother’s parents raised me, as if I were their child. Mama had just turned thirty-seven. And Daddy on Xmas Day would be forty-three.

Their other grandchildren called them, “Big Mama” and “Big Daddy.”  But for me, until finally about ten or twelve, I allowed what people whispered and some said aloud to my utter distress was true and that I lived a kind of fantasy. But Mama assures me ever that she is my mama despite how other people think they know.

Both Daddy and Mama were religious, but differently. I near drown in it in our Christian, Negro Baptist home. Until I discovered Marx in the late sixties, I did not know a history existed as systematic and meaningful as biblical history. Nothing had greater hold of my imagination.  I knew the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and a number of spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” And I was baptized when I was about twelve. By the time I was fifteen and had discovered girls and basketball, I stopped being a churchgoer.

Daddy’s father George Graves, born twelve years before Cox’s Snow, was a deacon at Jerusalem. As Baptist deacons go, Daddy could have been a deacon at Jerusalem, but he shunned pious hypocrisy. But Daddy was a deeply religious man, he taught the Bible in his home and he prayed at the dinner table, and shockingly, in the middle of the night, cried out aloud, agonizingly, to his God, so all could suffer along with him.

But Mama was one of the leading lights in the Jerusalem Choir. She knew how to swing a spiritual, she never had a powerful voice, it was steady, and sweet, and powerful in its own way. She could make you cry or shout for joy. During a revival night prayer meeting in 2003, at ninety-two, she raised the spiritual, “Walking into Jerusalem Just like John.”

She was using a cane then, and she no longer walked as tall and straight as she used to, balancing other people’s wash on her head. I wasn’t there, but they tell me the church was moved, and got heated. Listening to their good time, I was glad I wasn’t there, for I’d have wept copiously.

Mama can no longer go to church. Life sometimes seeps out of you slowly. My sister  who bathes her said Mama is near skin and bones. She is not as large a woman as she used to be. I was quietly shocked a decade ago when she lost all her teeth and was stuck with ill-fitting dentures, now distorting what had been a wondrous and infectious smile.

Her chin is not as strong as it was, nor is her face full and plump, filled with the fullness of life. The troubles of the years weigh more heavily on her now. Near bald. she wears a wig always, except to bed. Her voice and spirit remain strong in her. But she has turned inward, lost interest in the mid-day soaps, she has watched for forty years.

I sat with her on the side of her bed, after playing several games of dominos with her. She won the first game. I moved onto the bed with her, had my left arm on the bed pressed against her back, and kissed her on the cheek and neck, and had her right hand in my right hand.

“Looks kind of ragged, doesn’t it?” She asked me. Her walnut skin was wrinkled and sagging. No, mom. It’s a good hand. . . . I did not want to cry.

Mama is a deep thinker, as she sits on the side of her bed. She sits near the light away from the door. That is where she takes her meals now, when she will eat.  My mother says she is dumping her food out, for fear someone is trying to poison her. When Norman, her oldest grandson, made the unusual gesture of bringing his grandmother a plate of food, Mama told me that I could eat it.

However one braces oneself for that moment when Death comes, one is never fully ready, especially when one has lived a long upright, blessed life. Every thing bends toward this moment. That final test, but who can stand in the light that moment bold enough to be judged aright. When one truly gives thanks to God’s blessings, despite the hardships, the Lord has a plan of deliverance, she believes, however the wise, the ignorant, and the stupid may scoff. God does not abandon the righteous. Not even at Death’s door.

And so she waits, alone, left with only her faith, as worldly matters recede.

I sat on the roots beneath this massive oak at City College, and wept. My mother called me after she came back from Virginia. That Mama had tried to make her see a man going through her pockets that my mother said was not there. My sister Tine said Mama said she needed to get out of the house, she could not stay there another minute. Her world was drawing tighter, old freedoms draining away.

Besides the goodness of her heart, what I have loved about Mama was the ever sharpness of her mind. You could not put anything over her. Death will not sneak up on her. Few could outthink her, though she had always been long suffering, a woman who knew her duty to God, husband, and man however many may slander her in private and public. She senses Death is creeping up on her. The reports made Mama losing her mind, that she was both paranoid and delusional.

My aunt says she’s like a child. My niece emailed me and said she seemed sharp to her. So I begin to think that maybe Mama is just playing a game with them. Maybe time folds into a continuum when you become 93 sitting on the edge of your bed totally dependent on the kindness of others.

All three in the house are on social security, no more than $500 a month each. Everyone in the house has some ailment, high blood pressure, mostly. High medical bills. With kerosene as costly as gasoline, they switched to a wood heater. They didn’t ask for help.

I grew up with a wood heater and I know what it’s like. One winter with snow on the ground me and Daddy went back up into the woods where Old Jerusalem used to be with the mule and wagon to cut down a red oak tree for firewood. I don’t remember being ever so cold, I don’t think I had yet reached twelve, but I knew how to hitch up a mule to a wagon and pull a cross-cut saw through a standing tree.

If one doesn’t stay up all night, however many patchwork quilts to cover, the house gets icy cold in the wee hours. Daddy was up by four or five to make fire in the middle sitting room and in the kitchen. It is always hottest near the heater but I slept upstairs. So Mama has become ever more dependent. Burning wood is not like turning on a switch.

There were no piles of wood at the woodshed. My aunt’s husband is cutting down one tree at a time. His high-blood pressure is 190/120.

So Mama is sitting on the edge of her bed waiting, faithfully, steadily, for Death to come. She seems to have given herself over to that, like a Buddha, the inevitable accepted and near desired, knowing that it will be sooner, rather than later, if not today, tomorrow. When everything stops, that life you’ve lived, all becomes dream.

One must die as one has lived in one’s own home where things are familiar and under one’s management, as much as that’s ever possible, fully. For a decade or more her youngest daughter and her husband have lived there in her house and have been helpful. A nursing home has no attraction for Mama. She mentioned Baltimore, as if she’d follow her mother, our Grannie, coming to Baltimore to live with her daughter because she could no longer take care of herself and because Mama didn’t have a husband who could afford for a woman not working, plus there was me. Grannie came to Baltimore to die.

Mama told me to pray for myself, for her, and for the whole world. God answers prayers. She ever reminds me, He may not come when you want him, but He’s always on time. She speaks life she lives. Her courage and fortitude, the way she carries herself at this great moment in our lives, no tears, no agonizing regrets, I pray I be so steady, so boldly and confidently, struggling for righteousness to the last breath.

I do not think Mama will come to Baltimore to live with my mother. She will continue to sit on the edge of her bed. And when her strength will not hold up further, she will lie there like Grannie in the photograph, head in hand on her bed, waiting until He comes, waiting to join all those of her youth, gone on to Glory. 

But for now, Mama carries on a very personal struggle, on the battlefield, with sword and shield, driving the blues away,  as we each must engage the Spirit, alone. She holds herself, trusting in the Lord, dutifully in His name, holds His unchanging hand, through the night, as all her sins are purged  . . .  a child blossoms when He comes  . . .

Or maybe, deep down, she realizes, like O’Neill, we’re all doomed. And the joke is on us.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

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#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

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.


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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong’o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their country—the teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

*   *   *   *   *

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)

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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

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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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posted 11/28/04 




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