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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
* * *
* * *
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
* * *
Weep Not, Child
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
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
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *