Mama, White Son
Mary Lewis (1875-1959)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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!"
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.
* * *
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
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
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
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,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
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.
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
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
* * *
updated 7 October 2007