A Different Remembrance – The Feminist Wire

A Different Remembrance

I found, while thinking about the far-reaching world of the creative Black woman, that often the truest answer to a question that really matters can be found very close. So I was not surprised when my own mother popped into my mind. –Alice Walker

I realized, when meditating on Alice Walker’s “In Search of my Mother’s Garden,” that I have allowed my celebration of the many black mothers in my life to be shaped by a type of patriarchal vision that has, up until now, parodied the so-called normal: Mother’s day cards thanking mommas for taking care of all of us children, for keeping us clothed, fed, warm, nurtured, alive. Yes, they’ve done all of that and so much more. And they deserve cards, poems, toasts, and special dinners. But the black mothers in my life deserve to be freed from my stale idea that motherhood is synonymous with domesticity only. The black mothers in my life have not only produced children, they have reproduced warriors, politics, new imaginings, and ways of being. My black mothers are artists, creative forces, always fashioning vision in the place where hopelessness sought to reign.

So, in celebration, I summon a different remembrance, different images of the black “mothers” in my life, somewhere beyond domesticated living rooms and overheated kitchens, somewhere other than congested bus stops and mundane work places, somewhere else and not the grasp of a needy man’s arm or the gaze of wanting children. Today, I choose to remember, in ways different than I often do, the amazing black mothers in my life.

Latasha, Tamisha, Sekeena (my sisters) and Tamara (my cousin): You all started dancing shortly after you learned to walk. I have fond memories, and pictures, of you in fluffy, laced ballerina dresses and ballet shoes. Some years went by and all of you moved to toe shoes.

I remember when Sydney’s Dance School closed its doors after you all had danced there for many years. By the time it closed, each of you had served as student teachers and had co-facilitated classes and assisted with choreography. What’s amazing to me is that you never stopped encountering all the trials and successes that accompanied life as young females growing up in Camden and Pennsauken. I can remember the fights, the parties, the time Tasha was sent home in a police car for “tagging” her name on public property (smiles), Tamara’s many broken ankles, the graduations, the boyfriend drama, your best friends, and your love for each other and our cousins. And now, three of you are the most loving mothers I know who have offered the world five beautiful children, but that is not what I wish to praise you for here.

I want to celebrate you as artists, as creators of options for so many young women. After Sydney’s closed, you all decided—after Tamisha’s lead—to open up your own dancing school. You all were so young, too. But why did you do it? Because you loved to dance and you knew that the many young women who you had previously taught would have nothing else to do with their time. So, with no money or experience running your own business, you decided to begin Paramount Dance School. It was a paramount family affair, indeed. You managed to convince our aunts to work shifts (or all day) and our mother to be the resident disciplinarian (well, go-to-person). Your passion resulted in a community dancing venture in Camden that quickly enrolled at least 100 young women a year. For five years you did this, losing more money then you raised. As a result, there are hundreds of young women who can look back at that experience as a source of inspiration. There are some who have even become wonderful dancers. And I offer you praise.

You fantastic black women have redefined motherhood by teaching me that mothers birth promise and possibility.

Ruth, Ella, Arlene, Barbara, Lorraine (my aunts) and Toni (my second cousin): Because of you, all of us nieces and nephews have come to understand the true meaning of sisterhood/brotherhood, of family, of friendship. If one of you were in need, the others would figure out a way to provide assistance. Like magicians, you made invisible resources visible. Homes became communal hostels. Kitchens were often pantry spaces for those in need. Friends of the family were provided access to clothes and shelter and dinner and comfort and laughter. But that’s not the reason for my celebration of you today.

Every holiday we had some sort of big party. Grandmom’s house would become a haunted house during Halloween, Santa’s workshop on Christmas, and an Easter egg hunt playground during the Holy Days. Your nieces and nephews would be transported from our house in Pollock Town in Camden to some wonderland full of smiles and positivity only accessible because of your imagination and creativity. Do you realize that the spaces you’ve created for your many children and your friends and their friends and our neighbors and strangers made it possible for us to dream, to hope, to be? We all know what some of our other days were like: some were melancholic and difficult to say the least. Yet you all made community even in the midst of the most trying of circumstances. You taught us to challenge normative definitions of “family” every time you welcomed some others into our shared space. You taught us that economic struggle can be overcome with love and ingenuity. You taught us that lack equals an opportunity for the offering of support. You black women, architects of community, exemplified radical love.

Mom and Grandmom Jean: You grew up in different times, but share so many similarities. But one in particular comes to mind. I never realized that both of you had to halt your educational pursuits because you were raising children. While I could focus on the fact that both of you did a wonderful job raising us children, despite the obstacles you’ve faced, I would rather focus on your tenacity and self-determination as black women. Grandmom, you had eight children and, at the prompting of the Sisters at your neighborhood church, decided to enroll in Camden County College and completed your Associates in Early Childhood Education. You even completed additional credit hours at Glassboro State College. You had eight kids, a husband, bills, and autonomy. You carved out the space necessary to achieve your goals. It’s an innate warrior power that your daughter possesses, as well.

Mom, in less than two months you will be the bearer of a high school diploma. You were unable to complete high school because you had to raise me. No one ever asked what your desires and dreams were, nor did any of us consider the fact that you actually maintained aspirations beyond taking good care of your children and everyone else in our large family. But you had and have dreams. Today, you are working hard to actualize them in the same way that your mother did in spite of a husband, grandchildren, work, and bills. You are the possessor of black women warrior power—the kind of power that turns obstacles into bridges.

I praise both of you for possessing a fierce type of selfishness that allowed you to go after your dreams, alas. For in your pursuit, your children are equally enriched.

Yvonne Joyce Burrell (9-30-39 to 5-05-12): How ironic it is that you would make your transition before Mother’s Day? It is almost as if we are being asked to consider the ways that mothering is not a gift of one woman only, but a familial and communal act. You have always been good at dismantling the barriers that separated family members. Well, you did it again just like the love engineer that you were/are. Thank you for catalyzing unity even in your rest.

In sweet memory of Yvonne Joyce Burrell and Shelly Harrity, whose love and embrace can still be felt in the lives of many even today. Happy Mother’s Day!

Yvonne Joyce Burrell (with glasses) and Shelly "Cookie" Harrity