Mother to Son: A Conversation on Black Womanhood & Survival – The Feminist Wire

Mother to Son: A Conversation on Black Womanhood & Survival

With: Darnell Lee Moore and Diane Lee Chism

So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. 

-Langston Hughes (a segment from “Mother to Son”)

Hughes’ celebrated poem, “Mother to Son,” was one of the first literary works that I was required to memorize in grade school. During each reading, I would imagine my own soft-spoken Black mother, Diane Lee Chism (nee Moore), offering up revelatory words of advice about survival in poetic voice. I needed her words as a young, peculiar black boy growing up in Camden, New Jersey. I wanted badly to know that the violence often afflicted upon her at the hands of men would not break her spirit and terrorize her mind. I wondered how she managed to care for me and my younger sisters. I wondered how she cared so well, after having given birth to me at the age of 16. And, here I am many years later in a dialogue with my own mother similarly positioned, like the son in Langston’s poem, as listener.

And, I hear her. I hear my mother in ways that I hadn’t before. I often tell folk that I was introduced to feminism far before my moving and life altering encounters with Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Cherrie Moraga, Cheryl Clarke, bell hooks, The Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. I grew up with a mother, a black woman whose very survival, persistence, love, mothering, sharing, tears, laughter, and triumphs were acts of resistance against the many salient and veiled manifestations of patriarchy and sexism (and their contingent forms of violence and violation) in her life. The fact that she is alive today, after many of the men in her life (including her father and boyfriend) tried to beat it out of her, animates a type of black feminist resistance that shaped my understandings of sexism, male domination, intimate partner violence, patriarchy, and male privilege. Indeed, I was shaped in the process and grew up constantly interrogating how I might be different and act contrarily to society’s constructed, constricted image of manhood. I knew that I would also need to critique my own sexisms. So, I am thankful for my mother—who I situate within a genealogy of anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal warriors who’ve shaped my life. She not only helped me to be a better man, but she has helped me to be a better human. And that’s a radical feminist act.

I was inspired to talk with my mother after I was interviewed by Esther Armah-author, playwright, and radio host of WBAI’s 99.5 FM’s “Wake up Call”. During the show, Esther discussed her very important work on “emotional justice” and I ended our conversation with a strong desire to talk to with my mom about the violence that affected both of our lives and the transformations that occurred. What follows is a portion of the interview.

Son: Let’s start at the beginning. Where and when were you born? What was life like for you as a child?

Mother: I was born in Camden, New Jersey on March 27, 1960. My childhood—growing up as a young female—was okay, I guess. I don’t remember much of my childhood. I do remember being about ten years old in the fifth grade and taking care of my younger brothers and sisters. That’s when I started to learn how to cook. My family? We were okay. Most of the time we got along. There were eight of us: two boys and six girls. I’m second to the oldest. Growing up, I just wanted to be a kid and do kids things instead of being the “mother” to my siblings.

Son: You had your first child, me, at 16. I am happy to be here (smiles), but I can’t imagine how your life may have been impacted. How did an early pregnancy impact your life? What was your family’s response?

Mother: Having a child at a young age…well, at the time it really didn’t hit me. I was still doing normal things as if nothing happened until my friend told her mom and her mom told my dad. That’s when all hell broke loose. I got an ass beating out of my life. My dad beat me until I pissed myself and was left lying in a puddle of urine. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was going on. And it wasn’t the beating that scared me because my dad used to beat me all the time. I just said to myself, “I’m having a baby. I’m so young. What are people going to say? How will I take care of a baby?” All kind of thoughts were going through my head. My mother didn’t say a thing. She just sat back like she always did. She always allowed my dad to take care of everything. I believe that my mother remained quiet because that’s all that she saw other women do. I guess she thought that a woman should stay quiet and not say anything…that a woman should just go with the flow and not talk back and remain unspoken whether the man is right or wrong. I guess she thought that a man is the head of the household. Men take that the wrong way.

I went to school the whole nine months. When that day came for me to have you, my baby son, I was scared to death. I was freezing cold, shaking, crying, my mother and eldest sister dropped me off and left because my mother said they had to go to work. I remember hearing the nurses in the hallway saying, “She left this little girl all by herself.” So one of the nurses that was getting off that morning stood over me, held my hand, and fed me ice. She said, “Everything is going to be alright.” She stood there until I had my baby. My dad, my friends, and two of my younger sisters came to see me. I didn’t see my mother that whole week and your dad came up trying not to run into your grandfather.

Having a child at a young age definitely impacted my schooling because my dad figured that since I had a baby I would have to be around to take care of it. So I couldn’t go back to school. I had no income or education. I had to buy clothes, diapers, carnation milk (canned milk). I wasn’t allowed to let your father, or his family, see you. I wasn’t allowed to take anything from them. I had to give everything back and sneak you around when your grandfather wasn’t around. I would give everything that they gave me back to keep the peace. If anyone knows me then they know that is what I like to do, keep the peace. I knew that my family was ashamed of me. I knew how to do a lot of things to be so young and I really wanted to go back to school, but they wouldn’t let me.

My sister (Tamisha), my mother, and youngest sister (Sekeena) in the 80s

Son: What was it like bringing up children, primarily solo, in the city of Camden? What motivated you?

Mother: It wasn’t hard raising children on my own. It wasn’t hard for me having always cared for my siblings. Providing for you all was the hardest. Watching you all grow motivated me even more, however. I just wanted the best for you. My sisters were my support system, especially your Aunt Arlene. She helped me in so many ways.

Son: Looking back, what do you think shaped your thoughts about motherhood?

Mother: I didn’t know anything…not one thing about taking care of a baby. I was clueless. I was still a baby myself, but I did the best that I knew how. Your father was a year younger than me. We didn’t think about having a baby. That didn’t cross our minds. No one taught me how to be a parent; I learned a lot on my own.

Son: How would define “mothering”?

Mother: Mothering can be defined as loving your children, listening to your children, if there’s more than one not favoring one over another, expressing your love during good or bad times, and being the best you that you can be.

Son: What do you think shaped my father’s thoughts and actions? Was it his age, his own upbringing, his friends, etc.?

Mother: All three: his upbringing, his age, and his friends. He didn’t have a mind of his own. He always seemed to be a follower and not a leader.

Son: You were the victim of domestic violence. If you are comfortable talking about it, when did that begin in your life?

Mother: Domestic violence, mental abuse started at a young age. My dad physically beat me and I felt mentally abused by my mother. All of my life I would hear, “You and your kids aren’t going to be anything.” That’s all that I heard in my head just because they didn’t like your father. But it just made me strong, not weak. I’m strong. I’m a living fighter, that’s for sure. I’ve been through hell and back and still going strong and am loving my life. I can remember my dad saying the reason that he would beat me is because he loved me. Well, that’s a hell of a way to show love. So, when men in my life beat on me I thought it was love.

My being a black woman isn’t hard. It was hard being a young mother and a dropout. I survived despite hearing in my head that I wasn’t going to be anything. That which made me weak also made me strong. I have memories of your father—who was my hero at one time. There were days when I was hungry and he fed me. The day I was damn near raped, he saved me and stood posted in my yard every night. Now, he got his ass beat by the guy, but he still slept in my backyard. We were in our teens. He was one of my friends who gave me a little money every now and then and a shoulder to cry on when I needed one. It took me having four children, though, to wake up and tell myself that I deserved better…that I deserved no more beatings. I got beat all of my life and I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t regret having my children, though. I love all of you. That’s the best gift that your father ever gave me.

Son: What words of advice can you share with other victims of domestic violence?

Mother: My advice to other victims of domestic violence: get out before it goes too far and don’t every think that you deserve to be abused no matter what you’ve been through. Abusers will make you think that it’s your fault and that, for sure, is not love no matter what they say.  Know that there is someone out there who loves you and that you have god and yourself. We don’t need love that bad to accept physical or mental abuse. And, keep in mind, most of the time, if a man treats his own mother, sister, or any other female with no respect it’s likely that he’s going to treat you the same way.

Son: Was male domination something present in the lives of the black women close to you?

Mother: Yes, male domination was something present in the lives of black woman close to me. I can recall some of my aunts getting beat by their husbands. My mother didn’t stand up for herself. I think many of the women were affected by it. Most men, this is what they were taught and what they’ve experienced all their lives.

Mother and Son 2012

Son: You are now in a GED program. What is life like without it? What motivated you to go back?

Mother: Yes, I’m getting my GED. Life without a GED or high school diploma stops your career growth. I just don’t feel complete without it. My children, grandchildren, and desire for growth at my jobs motivated to go back. This is also something that I wanted to do for myself. My dream is to eventually open a home for young mothers and their babies.

Son: What do you think that black women need to survive? How do your survive?

Mother: We, black women, have to hold our heads up high and be proud about our blackness, love ourselves, don’t be ashamed, don’t act fake just to get ahead, and just be ourselves. I survive because I have god in my life, my children, and my husband. I survive by being real and loving myself and not depending on love from anyone else.