Tag Archives: literature

Loving Your Mammy Isn’t Going to End Racism

Back in college, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel about race. I remember feeling honored to be asked, but I only recall one thing that I said that night. We were deep into the session and people began to get honest about the way they saw racial divides showing themselves on our little campus–in the classroom, in the dining hall, on elected boards.

At that point, a young white woman who was a well-known campus leader took the floor and said, with exasperation shaking the bow in her hair, “I just feel like we’re LOOKING for a problem here. I mean, nobody’s stopping anybody from sitting where they want to in the dining hall. I’m not a racist if I want to eat lunch with my friends. I mean, I was RAISED by a black woman…I love black people!”


I remember my friend, Terri, catching my eye and looking like she was about to bust. I spoke up and took a chance on satire:  “I loved my Mammy too but that doesn’t fix the problem.”

The punchline worked. It got a good laugh and kept the discussion on track, without saying, “Sit down and shut up, Miss Scarlett.”

And it was true–I did spend several of my formative years under the care of Ms Jenny Mae Bray**, better known in our town as “Quicker.” She never liked her given name so she went by her family nickname, a reminder of how fast she got things done. Quicker watched us while our parents were at work. Now, don’t get any highfalutin’ ideas–we lived in a single-wide trailer with some wooden steps on the front. She had full reign over us and what Quicker said WENT. One time Joe snuck out into the yard without Quicker’s permission and she spanked him with my Bolo Paddle until it cracked in two.

Quicker was a giant presence in my youth. I lost touch with her after we moved when I was in second grade, but my memories of her are sweet and rich. When I was all grown up and in graduate school, Mom took me by to see Quicker at Baby Sister Argroves’ house, where she was working. Later that afternoon, I saw my brother and said, “Joe? How big was Quicker?” He blew out a long breath and said, “Oh man, she had to be six feet at least and maybe 225, 250?” I held up my hand at my shoulder and said, “She comes up to HERE on me! She’s tiny!” We marveled at the truth that time had revealed. And we agreed that we still wouldn’t try any foolishness while she was in charge.


Yes, I loved Quicker. I still remember how, when she gave me a bath in the green tub, she squeezed the washcloth filled with warm water on my shoulder. I do that to my children and think of her. I remember the smell of her egg custard pies and the way she would put a little pat of butter in the center of each while they cooled on the kitchen table. I remember the smell of the iron and how she sang to herself while she ironed shirts in the center of our tiny living room.

I loved Quicker, but I didn’t know her. I only knew the narrow part of her life where it intersected with mine. That’s why I said what I said on that panel about race at Wesleyan. Loving one person through a narrow lens doesn’t mean you understand what life is like for her or her family or her race. Proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. That’s why the first step in joining the discussion about race in America is listening. Widening the lens that we’ve used for so many years to “see” our neighbors, our friends, our beloved.

Spoiler Alert I’m about to talk about a scene in “Go Set a Watchman.” Yes, I read it. Go ahead and judge me.

A lot of people didn’t want to read Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” first novel because they didn’t want it to change the way they saw the characters that we’ve all grown to love from To Kill a Mockingbird. How could Atticus be a racist? How could Jem not be around? How could Scout be a grown woman drinking booze and kissing men?

In reading another view of them, from 20 years past the TKAM storyline, I might have to widen my lens. Kind of like getting to know someone like Quicker, who had been a big part of my life, but only on my terms.

The scene that most moved me in Watchman was when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia at her home. Calpurnia’s family has suffered a great blow with the arrest of her grandson. The situation is made hopeless by the racial politics of the time (because if the racial roles were reversed in the car crash, and a young white man had hit a drunk old black man, no charges would have been filed). When Jean Louise shows up at Calpurnia’s knee, she is devastated to find that Calpurnia “is wearing her company manners.” Jean Louise is not welcome; she is cast out into her whiteness. In shock, Scout cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal what are you doing to me? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

And Calpurnia answers, “What are you all doing to us?”

With those words, Jean Louise’s lens is shattered because Calpurnia insists on being seen in her entirety, not just as a part of Scout’s life. “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks.”

Quicker took good care of me. Because I loved her, it’s my duty to honor her too. To seek to understand. To listen. To widen my lens. To right what has been wrong.


**Edited to change Quicker’s name from Strozier to Bray. My mama corrected my memory. I think the fact that I didn’t even recall her name correctly is a great comment on the point I was trying to make: I loved her, but I didn’t know her.

The Alone Part and the Adventure Part

boxcarVivi and I went to the library today.  She chose seven books from The Boxcar Children series.

I never read these books when I was a kid.  Did you?  They were mentioned this week on The Writer’s Almanac:

The Boxcar Children series is the story of four orphans, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, who range in age from six to fourteen. Their parents die, and their grandfather is granted custody. But the children are afraid that he is a cruel old man, and so they run away and set up house in an abandoned boxcar, supporting themselves and living an independent life.

Gertrude Chandler Warner said that after it was published, many librarians objected to the story because they thought the children were having too much fun without any parental control. Warner said, “That is exactly why children like it!”

As we were driving home, I told Vivi, “You know, when those books came out, some people didn’t think kids should read them because they didn’t think it was right for children to read about kids who lived on their own and had fun adventures without any grown-ups around.”

I looked in the rearview mirror and she was gazing out the window, nonplussed.  I asked, “What do you think about that?”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t think about the alone part as much as I think about the adventure part.”

Huh.  That pretty much sums up the first three years of therapy for me.  When Fartbuster and I divorced, I spent at least a year staring at the alone part instead of at the adventure part.  

The Alone Part–that’s the part where you end up sitting on the edge of your bed and asking yourself, “How did I get HERE?” (to quote my friend, Heather).  The alone part is the part where you can’t breathe or sleep because your brain is hashing up every NEVER AGAIN and ALWAYS that it can lay hands on.  The alone part demands logic and reason and a really sound explanation.  The alone part asks, “WHY?”

The Adventure Part–that’s the part where you end up sitting on the edge of your bed and asking yourself, “What do I want to do today?”  The adventure part is the part where your whistle comes back and you get some jig in your giddy up.  The adventure part sleeps at night and dreams during the day.  The adventure part demands leaps and giggles and doesn’t care to explain itself.  The adventure part asks, “WHY NOT?”  

Boys Who Love Boys

SongAchilles-pb-c“I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.
If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.
As if he had heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.
“Patroclus,” he said. He was always better with words than I.”
― Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

I just finished this mesmerizing book last week and I don’t even want to return it to the library.  I don’t want to download a copy on my Kindle–I will go buy a physical copy of this book so that I can touch it whenever I wish.  It’s THAT good.  There’s action, lyrical language, adventure, exquisite characters, classical mythology, and a heartbreaking love story.

I’m not sure how easy it would be to get swept up in the story if you weren’t already familiar with the characters and the twists of The Iliad (Homer’s epic poem of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks).  Part of the anguish for me was knowing what was going to happen in the end, but being completely absorbed in the inescapable trek towards the final fate of each character.  Well, that’s a lot of 50 cent words for this–I knew everyone was going to die in the end.  I remembered from lit classes who killed whom and why, so it wasn’t a suspenseful tale.  Madeline Miller spins a story so rich that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

My six-year-old daughter saw the book in my purse the other day when I picked her up from school and asked about that thing on the cover.  I told her that it was a soldier’s helmet from four thousand years ago.  She wanted to know who was fighting back then, so as we drove to get her brother, I explained the basic arc of the story like this:

Patroclus and Achilles become friends as kids.  They fall in love.  Achilles is a great fighter, the best ever.  He’s half god–his mother is a sea nymph who lives under the ocean.  Patroclus is more gentle and shy; he likes being a doctor.  A war starts because this queen, Helen, runs off to Troy with a prince who isn’t her husband and her husband gets mad and asks his brother to get all of the other kings to help him go steal her back.  Achilles decides to go along because he wants everyone to know how good he is at fighting.  Patroclus goes with Achilles because they don’t want to be apart.  Achilles and the Greeks fight the Trojans for years and years and years.  Then Achilles gets mad at the king because he insults him.  Achilles stops fighting.  The Greeks start to lose.  Patroclus doesn’t like seeing his friends get hurt, so he begs Achilles to go back and win the war.  Achilles won’t do it because he’s too proud.  The Greeks are about to get wiped out.  Patroclus comes up with a trick to get the Greeks fired up again–he dresses up in Achilles’ armor and helmet and leads the Greeks into battle.  It works!  The Greeks start beating the Trojans, but then the best Trojan of them all, Hector, throws a spear and kills Patroclus because he sees the armor and thinks that it’s Achilles…

…and this is the point where Vivi interrupts me and says, “Wait.  I thought Patroclius is Achilleseses’ wife?  Is he a boy?”

I parked in front of the day care and turned around to face her.  “Patroclus is a boy.  Well, a man by the time the war happens.  He and Achilles love each other–they’re boys who love boys.”

“Oh.  Can I see that book?”

“Sure.”  I handed it back to her in its crinkly plastic library book cover.  “I’m not sure you’re going to like it–there aren’t any pictures.”

She gave me a look.  “I don’t need pictures anymore.”

Oh yeah, right.  She opened the book to a page in the middle, stuck her finger in her mouth and set to reading.  By the time I got back to the car with her brother, she peppered me with questions:  Who is Apollo?  What’s a plague?  What’s a chariot?  Who kills Achilles?  Why?  Does Patroclius become a ghost?  Who wins the war?  Are these people real?  Where is this?

I answered her questions, every one.  She was stumped by things like goddesses who live under the sea and prophecies that come true, but not the least bit surprised that Achilleses and Patroclius were boys who love boys.  I am so overwhelmed with gladness that she is growing up in THIS world.  “If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.”

Good Night Moon

Goodnight Moon

In the great green room…

Tonight, Carlos chose “Goodnight Moon” for his bedtime book.  We haven’t read it in a few months–I never got the sense he really liked it, but what do I know?  He likes to say “mush” and “bears” and “chairs” and “yight.”  Our copy of this board book was Vivi’s favorite for a while, too, so it is soft around the edges and broke backed.  We find the mouse on every page and we whisper good nights to the kittens, the mittens, the comb, the brush, the old lady whispering hush.  When we got to “good night stars, good night air, goodnight noises everywhere,” I choked up on something that’s been making me sad all week.  

Absence.  Emptiness.  Distance.  The space between the stars.  The empty places in the trees as the leaves begin to fall.  

Goodnight Moon has been around for seventy years.  Phones and clocks don’t look like that any longer.  Who eats mush?  When I was younger, I remember seeing that book and thinking how godawful the colors were.   And the plot!  Bleh.  Now I find such peace in that tidy room.  Margaret Wise Brown takes the fear and loneliness of darkness and going to sleep and turns them into cozy comforts.  That room’s never lonely even when it’s quiet.  

I’ve been lonely this week with G out of town.  I’ve been really proud of myself for taking care of the family single-handedly and hitting all my marks.  But I had a few conversations about grief/loss/change/sorrow this week that got old feelings bubbling up, and once the kids are in bed I have all this time and quiet on my hands.  I walked downstairs the other day to retrieve something for Vivi and passed a picture of Richard’s and my feet propped on a balcony in New Orleans.  I sobbed before I knew what was happening because that big toe doesn’t exist anywhere in the universe any longer.  Our waitress at Steak and Shake wanted to talk about leukemia when she saw Vivi’s tshirt.  I met my fundraising goal in his memory and his mother wrote me to say that it warms her heart when I do that every year.  His classmate sent in a donation.  So did people who never met him and only know him through my stories.  

When I carried Carlos to bed, he held Goodnight Moon in both hands, clutched to his chest.  After I tucked him in under his monkey quilt that my high school friend, Valaria, made for him, he seemed to be drifting off.  I took the book and put it on the table.  In the dark of his great yellow room, he wailed, “MY BOOOOOOOOOOK!”  I brought it back to him and he laid it across his chest.  

As I was washing dishes and crying for people I know who are hurting and for things that have gone away, I remembered a snippet of a song I heard 10 years ago on an Oxford American Magazine Southern Music CD:  “Goodnight moon, goodnight stars, goodnight old broke down cars.  Going away, leaving soon, goodnight darlin’, goodnight moon.”  And lo, through the magic of Google and YouTube, I got to hear the song again tonight while the dishes dripped dry.  

It’s by Will Kimbrough.  Here’s a clip of Will singing it live at the Bluebird in Nashville:

I also liked this version.  It’s tuned higher and the arrangement is spare and elegant.  It’s Jason Vincent doing a cover of Will Kimbrough’s song “Goodnight Moon”:

After listening a few times and a few times more, I felt better.  I remembered that the same moon shines on all of us, wherever we are, whenever we are.  The moon that my grandparents kissed under is the moon that lit our path when Richard and I walked along a beach in Crete.  It’s the moon G sees in Brasil, and Erica in Chile, Rhonda in Canada, Frances in Ecuador, Beth in France, Catie in Bhutan, Marian in the Netherlands, Heather up the street, Jean a mile from her, Rachel down in South Georgia, and Ginger in Ohio.  Goodnight y’all.  Goodnight all.  

A Tale Told By An Idiot, Full of Sound and Fury

William Faulkner rendered in words from The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner rendered in words from The Sound and the Fury

My afternoon drive home today got me to thinking about William Faulkner’s masterpiece The Sound and the Fury.  Have you read it?  Do you find it infuriating or mesmerizing?  I’ve read it 4-5 times and it gets better with every read.  The first chapter can drive a reader mad because it is narrated by Benjy, an adult man with the mental capacity of a young child.   Benjy simply has a different sense of the flow of time.  The narrative shifts between time periods, three decades apart, with little orientation to the shifts.  Benjy’s thoughts about his long gone sister, Caddy, flit from one time to another like a drunk butterfly.  I love it, because I love me some drunk butterflies.

Faulkner wanted to cue his reader to shifts in time by presenting the narrative in different font colors, but the printing of the book would have been prohibitively expensive.  Oh well–the publisher did agree to some use of italics to indicate a shift. 

Have I bored you to death yet?  Well, if you’re still reading along at home, here’s why I thought of Benjy on my drive home.  There I sat in an SUV filled with:

  1. a frazzled mother carrying a five lb sack of mommy guilt at having spent the day away from her babies who therefore wants to have Quality Time and Meaningful Conversation
  2. a loquacious almost-six-year old who is attending theater camp to ratchet up her innate dramatic tendencies
  3. a babbling toddler who has discovered His Voice but has not yet mastered English

All trying to talk at once.  It goes something like this.

Mommy?  Yes?  PeePeeBooBeebee  We um played this game there was this boy named Aidan and he was by the fire?  I mean a pretend fire.  Was this a scene you were acting out in theater camp? Peekaboo Beebee!  No, um, Mommy, wait…let me start over   Peekaboo Peekaboo Peekaboo Beebee  Mommy?  Yes?  Aidan saw Bigfoot in his backyard.  Dukadukaduka Dukadukaduka Dukadukaduka   Huh, I’m surprised by that.  Usually people say Bigfoot lives in really remote places.  What’s remote?  Daddy!  Up in the mountains or far away from everyone.  Aidan has a big yard. AIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEYYYYYYYY!  OK.  So what happened when you were around the fire? MOMMY!  Peekaboo Beebee There wasn’t a fire.  Peekaboo Beebee We were ACTING. Right. Shoe!  Hand the baby his shoe.  Thank you.  Why is the O in Schlotzky’s a different color?  PeePeeBooBeebee  That’s called marketing–their sandwiches are round so they’re trying to get you to associate the shape of the O with the shape of the sandwich.  Peekaboo Beebee So um this girl not that other girl but this new girl she was NOT listening to Miss Dukadukaduka Kimberly today and she got in trouble.  She was on red? Dukadukaduka  Noooooo!  That’s school.  Dukadukaduka  This is CAMP.  Can I have a show?  After you’ve had your 10 minutes. Dukadukaduka  CarLOS!  MOMMY!  Carlos hit me with his shoe!  

And trying to keep up with all these threads?  This is why Faulkner drank himself to death.

It’s a lot to manage, this working mother gig.  But now that they are in bed, the lunches are packed, laundry sorted, clutter ignored and bills paid, I creep into their rooms to listen to them breathe and I try to tell myself that I’m doing an OK job.  The last lines of Benjy’s chapter are some of my all time favorite.  They capture the peace and wholeness of falling asleep as a child wrapped in the arms of someone who loves you.  Even if that world has fallen away, it was there for a time.

“Caddy held me and I could hear us all, and the darkness, and something I could smell. And then I could see the windows, where the trees were buzzing. Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep.” 

The title of this piece, like the title of Faulkner’s novel, comes from Act V, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Our family lore holds that my dad has been known to quote this passage when he’s had too much bourbon, which hasn’t happened since shortly before my birth.  Legend has it that he got knee-walking drunk one night at a cocktail party, started quoting this soliloquy and my mother decided to drive him home.  Unfortunately, she was nine months pregnant with me, 5’2″ tall, and stuck trying to drive a stick shift.  I think she cussed him so bad that he hasn’t been past tipsy since.

GEEK ALERT!!!  In researching this piece, I found awesome news for Faulkner fans.

Well, thus ends today’s lesson.  Please read Absalom! Absalom! before tomorrow’s quiz.