Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home
© 2003 by Gloria Wade-Gayles. Boston: Beacon Press
"For My Children’s Remembering"
It always happened during the summer. The children knew that. They also knew never to ask me when a southern heat owned the night and made even empty beds sweat. That would have been the logical time to “give in,” but it was never about logic. It was about remembering my own childhood and making it magical for my own children. Only cool summer nights, I was convinced, were made for magic.
The steps were always the same. I would sit on the floor next to the bathtub while they played with their favorite animals or their imaginary friend who dressed in white suds and spoke in a little bitty voice. When they were so clean their brown bodies glistened like polished oak, they raced to their beds where Winnie the Pooh or Babar the Elephant lay waiting to cover the nakedness that felt good to them, and to me.
Dressed cuddly, they returned to the bathroom to stroke their teeth and sing the song I had composed just for them: “Mister Yellow, Mister Yellow. Won’t you come out. Oh Mister Yellow, you gotta come out.”
And then the inspection. Tiny fingers stretched tiny lips to reveal tiny teeth we named “you-can’t-find-any-cavities-here teeth.”
“Story time!” The children would grab their books, usually too many, and race to the family room to the long leather sofa that had been reupholstered several times. We rarely used the small bedroom they shared because reading stories involved all four of us, and it required moving-around-in space. We would read the stories and then turn them into dramas the children would act out to the background sounds their father and I provided. Reading bedtime stories and touching were inseparable.
On a cool night which promised magic, it would happen. I would give in, having decided to do so before the children asked. I would read the last story, announce that it was time for bed, and then the game would begin. On a cool night which promised magic.
“Mommie, tell us about the girl named Harriet,” one of the children would request. “Harriet,” they knew was the imaginary girl whose experiences in Memphis, Tennessee, were exactly the same as their mother’s. Harriet is their mother.
I would, of course, say no. That was one of the rules of the game. We had to pretend that I didn’t really want them to stay up later, but that they had succeeded in changing my mind.
“Not tonight,” I would say in mock firmness. “It’s already past your bedtime.”
The rules called for them to beg for stories about Harriet by covering me with kisses and hugs.
“Please. Please. Please, Mommie,” they would whine in unison. “Just a little bit. Please. Please. Please. Pretty please.”
I would give in.
“Okay, just a little bit. Just two minutes and that’s all.”
The children would quickly arrange themselves on the floor. The sofa would become the stage from which I would tell the stories about my childhood that the children had already heard many times.
“Once upon a time,” I would begin.
“There lived a girl named Harriet,” the children would say.
“How old is Harriet this time?” I would ask.
They were never in agreement, and they never chose the age I wanted, which didn’t matter because my remembering went in and out of years. The story was pretty much the same whether “Harriet” was seven or seventeen.
“Let’s say she is twelve this time,” I would tell them. The questions guiding me through my remembering would begin.
“Is she pretty?”
“Well, yes and no,” I would answer. “Let me describe her for you, and you can decide whether or not she’s pretty.” Images of me as a young girl were always vivid.
“She is tall for her age, and she is small. The children tease her because she is small. They call her Skinny Harriet and sometimes Boney Maroney or Toothpick Tillie.”
Making happy or sad faces throughout the story was the children’s contribution, and they loved it. They made a sad face.
“Does she cry?” one of them asked.
“At first, yes, but that was before her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt teach her how to like herself just the way she is.”
“Because she is special,” one of the children would remember from my earlier remembering. “And there is only one Harriet like her in the whole wide world.”
“Right,” I would say and continue. “Because, the other children are jealous of her.”
Faces with question marks.
“Why are they jealous?”
“Because Harriet is happy. You see, when you are happy, you are pretty on the inside, and when you are pretty on the inside, you are also pretty on the outside.”
I could hear the three women in my family talking to me, their voices a cacophony of love. In a world where being neither black nor female was an asset, I had incredible self-esteem. I owe it all to my socialization in a family of women who groomed my spirit and my mind. When I listen very closely to my remembering, I hear more references to my being “a girl” than to my being a “Negro.” No one talked then about women’s empowerment, but that was precisely what I learned. Empowerment. According to their teaching, that meant loving myself and grooming both my spirit and my mind.
The children rarely began their questions with where “Harriet” lived. Children see people before they see places. Only after I had described Harriet would they ask, “What kind of house does Harriet live in?” They knew the answer.
“She does not live in a house. She lives in a housing project.”
“What’s a housing project, Mommie?”
This was always a difficult question to answer. Children apply word descriptions to places they have seen either in life or in books. Jonathan and Monica had never seen a housing project, not like the one in which “Harriet” was reared. I could take them to one of the projects in Atlanta and say, “This is a housing project,” but they wouldn’t see the project I remember.
How could I explain that housing projects were stretches of red-brick units facing clean boulevards and beckoning to passerby with petunias, buttercups, and violets.
The flowers said, “This is our home. We love it.” The flowers said, “We are a proud people.” The flowers said also, “Do not trespass.” These flowers were no ragged patches of wild blossoms scattered here and there throughout the community. They were gardens, designed and nurtured beauty representing the people’s dignity and their hope.
The “project,” my home, was a class-mixed community, a concept the children would not understand.
Professionals, semi-professionals, skilled laborers, and unskilled laborers lived in my community. And regardless of class, the people worked hard, saved well, and, in time, moved into private homes, proud of their achievement, but remaining connected to friends in the old neighborhood. Whenever a family moved, their neighbors were jubilant, not jealous. The promise of upward mobility belonged to all of us.
I do not explain all of this to the children. Instead, I tell them about the many look-alike units and large park in which community children played. I also tell them about my love for the Mississippi River. They remember my past remembering.
“It is long and wide,” one of them says.
“And it is real, real deep,” the other adds.
They demanded that I tell them again about Harriet’s skill in making flat rocks skip one, two, three across the muddy bosom of the river. I show them how she angled her hand, and for their delight I throw an imaginary rock across an imaginary river. The children count, “One, two, three, four…” I do not tell them that the real Harriet was rarely without pain when she skipped rocks. I do not tell them that I could skip rocks only from an area overgrown with weeds. Downstream. Away from the riverboats.
Isolated. And without a park. The park near the river was a wonderland of flowers and white benches painted each spring. Where it ended and the river began, no one could measure. It received kisses from the Mississippi. It was a beautiful park open only to whites. I remember as a young girl wanting desperately to sit on one of the benches and pretend that I was giving orders to boat captains on the Mississippi through a walkie-talkie. I remember my mother’s fear that, in my defiance, I would one day walk into Confederate Park and claim the whitest bench as my very own.
I loved the Mississippi River. It was grand, spectacular, powerful, and in charge of itself. It seemed to be lying on its back communing with the sky. Nothing stood between the river and the sky. I envied the freedom with which they spoke to each other.
How could I explain my love-hate relationship with the Mississippi? That I could love it passionately at one moment and, in the next, hate it intensely? That I loved its majesty and hated its cooperation with people of violence? For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of my people, it is a watery grave.
But it was the love of my youth, the source of my most exciting fantasies and dreams. Until I began by remembering with my children, many decades after my youth, only the Mississippi and I knew about our love affair.
The children become restless. I have not moved quickly enough to the remembering they like best. And so I call for the question that will move me where they want me to go.
“Did we decide what day it is?” I ask. “You know we have to name the day.”
“Monday,” Monica says. “It’s Monday, Mommie.”
“No, it’s Saturday,” Jonathan predictably insists since Saturday is his favorite day.
If it is Monday or any other day of the week, and summer, my remembering will bring into sharp focus the segregated schools Harriet attends. If it is Sunday, I will tell them about preparations Harriet is making for church. My mother is in the center of my remembering. On Sundays, she would awake my sister and me with the aroma of fried sausage, scrambled eggs, grits, and biscuits she had made from “scratch’ while we slept. Our destination was Sunday School at a Baptist church within walking distance of our home. We would be dressed in the colorful outfits my grandmother had made on an old pedal machine that stood prominently in the kitchen to the right of the back door.
I see again my Grandmother laying newspaper on the kitchen table. Again, she is cutting the pattern for a dress she has seen on one of her trips to Main Street. She is laying the pattern on colorful fabric. She is cutting. She is pushing the pedal rhythmically. She is hand stitching. She is calling my sister and me for fittings. She is smiling.
I tell the children again about Sunday School, Easter pageants, and Christmas plays; about the little old ladies who were in charge of the “sunshine band” for young children; about my aunt, their great-aunt, whose voice was all by itself a choir of angels; and about my mother, their grandmother, who could not carry a tune, but who always sang the words with passion.
They like Sunday remembering because I sing old songs for them: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me.”
But today is not Sunday. It is Saturday. Harriet is waking up on Saturday.
“What do you think Harriet is doing?” I ask. “She is just waking up.” I yawn and stretch for them. They imitate me.
“Cartoons,” Jonathan says after his yawn. “She’s watching cartoons.” That is what middle-class children do on Saturdays, I tell myself. My children included. They awake at the crack of dawn, and at the crack of dawn media is prepared for them. One cartoon after another flickers on the screen.
“No, Harriet is not watching cartoons,” I tell them.
“How come?” Jonathan asks, disappointed.
“Not ‘how come,’” I correct him. “What should you say?”
“Why? Why,” he says with emphasis on the correct word, “can’t Harriet be watching television?”
“Because her mommie and daddy didn’t buy her a television,” Jonathan says.
“No, that’s not the reason,” says Monica.
“ Well, how come. I mean why can’t Harriet be watching television?” Jonathan asks again.
“Well, she has a television,” I tell them.
“Is it a color television?” Jonathan asks.
“No,” I answer.
“How come?” they ask in unison and correct themselves in unison, “I mean why?”
“Because color televisions cost a whole lot of money,” one of them says.
Sad faces again. Monica says, “Harriet’s family is poor.”
“You are forgetting,” I tell them. “Remember? Remember we said that Harriet’s family is rich?”
“Rich in love.” They are proud that they come in on cue to repeat the phrase handed down from my mother.
“Harriet isn’t watching cartoons,” I explain, “because cartoons weren’t all that important then.”
“Well, what is she going to do?” In their world, what else can a young girl do on Saturday except begin the day by watching cartoons?
I tell them about spring cleaning days. Washing windows, scrubbing floors, cleaning the oven, and putting curtains on the stretcher. Each time, they say “stretcher” makes them think about very sick people. Well, they have a point. But stretchers stretched curtains. They were wooden frames filled with small nails that could be adjusted to different sizes. We would wash curtains, soak them in starch, and stretch them, dripping wet, from nail to nail, leaving them to dry outside, propped against the wall underneath the kitchen windows. We would have all of this work completed no later than nine in the morning so that the curtains could get the full morning sun. Our parents valued work and cleanliness.
Jonathan and Monica are much too young to understand such heavy chores. They are responsible only for minor tasks. When they ask whether or not Harriet liked doing that work, I answer honestly that Harriet was anxious to get outside where she could play games, talk to boys, or go to the Saturday matinee with her friends. But I add that Harriet will learn when she is older what the chores meant to her. In spite of all the hours of play the chores stole from me, I value them. They made my mother, my sister, and me workers together and, in so doing, they gave me a sense of worth. They taught me the meaning of cooperative effort, the joy of accomplishment, and the importance of planning which is all about priorities and about sacrifice as well. My mother, and other adults with her, planned Saturdays, especially spring-cleaning Saturdays, with skill.
The children remember my remembering of these special Saturdays, mainly because my remembering usually includes stories about a horse.
“It could not gallop from your nose to your toes if his life depended on it,” I tell them.
“And when Harriet puts the curtains on the stretcher,” one of them asks, “is that when the horse comes clippety-cloppety?”
This gives them an opportunity to stand up and imitates the horse. They move around the room, saying “Giddy up,” and “Clippety. Cloppety.” I let them enjoy themselves for a few seconds, and then I say in a deep voice, “Whoa, horse. Whoa.”
In the summer, an Italian marketman came down our driveway every Saturday morning, early morning, with a wagonload of greens, onions, yams, corn, and other vegetables sold at higher prices at the market down the street and across the boulevard named Mississippi. The wagon was old, and so was the horse. And so, too, the marketman. I remember that he had snow-white hair which contrasted sharply to the dirty clothes he always wore. Since our unit was midway through the court, he stopped his wagon almost directly in front of our door. Women from units on both sides of the street came from their kitchens with money in their hands. We had no fear of robberies.
The marketman was grouchy. I remember that. When I was older and processed race differently, I was incensed that he was grouchy. He, an outsider coming into our community to sell his wares! How dare he be grouchy! And why did the women purchase his wares? Why didn’t they kick him out of the neighborhood. All they had to do was lean a little too hard on the wagon. It would have collapsed. Or they could have tapped the old horse on his nose. He would have rolled over and died. How did they turn the produce he sold with contempt into dinner that were family feasts, rituals that really brought us together in our own world?
At this point in my remembering, I search for answers. My mother and other women were visible targets of racial and sexual rage and violence. Yet after each hard day in that cruel world, they returned home undiminished. They never gave in to the corrosion of hatred.
What made it possible for them to love in the face of such violence and hatred?
What inspired them to plant flowers, to sing, and to plan days, even nights, for themselves and their families? What prevented them from becoming like the women we rarely talked to; the women who were splintered, scarred, damaged, destroyed. What was their armor? Their secret potion? Their magic?
The answer shapes the way I am rearing my children. The women remained whole because they were certain of their own goodness and equally certain that goodness, in time, wins over evil. It is not by accident that black women poets call these women “sturdy oaks.” Like trees in fierce storms, they knew how deep in the soil of goodness their roots were planted and, like giant trees, they reached beyond themselves to embrace others. But the how of their knowing, the source of their certainty, remains a mystery to me.
In other rememberings, I have wrapped the women in their own colors and presented them as gifts to the children, who knew some of the women by name. But I can tell they are anxious to hear about the horse. I indulge them and myself.
“And just when the lady who lived at the top of the hill reached for the biggest bunch of greens you could ever find anywhere, guess what the horse did?”
They begin giggling, scooting a bit on their wee-little behinds, and covering their mouths with their wee-little hands.
“Everytime,” I continue. “Every single time that old horse would…” I make the remembering exciting. “Every single time that old horse would…”
They begin screaming. “Tell us, Mommie. Tell us. Tell us.”
I put my index finger to my lips, “Shh.” No one can hear what I was about to say except the four of us. I look around to make certain that we are alone. I speak barely above a whisper.
“Everytime. Every single time that old horse would…” I only mouth the word.
They scream. “What did the horse do, Mommie? What did the horse do?”
“He,” I pause, “urinated.”
The laughter rolls them over on their backs and on their stomachs. They love the laughter.
The children know about race. We have taught them about discrimination, but not so much that they will search for it as children search for goblins and monsters they have heard about. They know about race from their school, a rather unorthodox nursery with children from different economic classes (thanks to a sliding tuition scale no one was denied for want of funds) and different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The teachers, two very creative and talented women, one black and the other white, have taught the little ones to love themselves and to love others different from themselves.
How different their world is from my own. I grew up in an all-black world. My teachers were black and so, too, my classmates and my playmates. I know the stories, legion in the South, about black children and white children playing together well before Carpetbaggers, or outside agitators, interfered. In my world, that simply did not happen. White boys and girls were people we saw downtown and avoided brushing up against for fear they would whine to their parents that we hit them. They were the little white people we saw drinking from water fountains that were polished to a shine or entering toilets we knew had paper in abundance and hot water. They were the decorated queens and kings we saw on floats moving down Main Street in the white parades. They were the privileged people whose names were written in cursive in the used textbooks we received. They were the children who attended schools on the other side of the city closed to black children. Our parents taught us that white children were neither demons nor saints. They were children just like us, we were told, but they were sad children because they missed out on knowing us.
Years later, when white children got a chance to know black children in the South, we missed out in more ways than we could ever have imagined. The first order of business for those who were forced to integrate schools in the South was to transfer the most gifted black teachers and principals from our schools to schools on the other side of the city. The second order of business was to encourage parents of the brightest black students to sign their children up for the majority-minority program. The third order of business was to send to black schools the most inexperienced teachers, white and black, who had little promise of creativity. The result is evident in our nation. Black neighborhood schools of academic excellence (in spite of limitations) and high self-esteem (in spite of racism) are fast disappearing. It was never intended that they should survive.
And what about the culture which created them and which they nourished? In my remembering, I am hanging on to that culture and passing it on to my children. That is the purpose of the performance that goes on past bedtime. The children think it lets them stay awake longer. I am praying it will help them stay alive, culturally and spiritually.
They remember from my remembering. I quiz them. “What does Harriet do on Saturday night? And don’t tell me she watches television.”
They wave their little hands. “I know. I know.”
It is like school now; they are eager pupils learning form their ancestors who speak through me.
“She goes. Sometimes Harriet goes to the lady on the end and the lady gives her some cake and ice cream.”
Monica is proud that she remembers the lady who invited girls in the neighborhood into her one-bedroom apartment where, without fail, she served us pound cake and lectures on purity. We went for the dessert, not the lectures, having heard them from our mothers, and sometimes our fathers.
“And she goes to the man who tells ghost stories,” Jonathan remembers. “Tell us a ghost story, Mommie. Please. Please. Pretty please.”
Of course I don’t give in to this request. Pretty please or not. No ghost stories for my children. Not real ones anyhow. But the request makes me remember with fondness the childless couple who lived in the upstairs apartment that faced Mississippi Boulevard. They loved children! He loved to tell us ghost stories. We knew he was telling true stories; he worked as an undertaker’s assistant. He was not a rare commodity in our neighborhood. Back then, we talked to, sought advice from, and played with black men who were the fathers, uncles, brothers, or cousins of our friends. The men, too, strange as it is considered these days, lectured the boys on being “mannish” and the girls on being “fast.” They wanted all the children, regardless of gender, to be good kids, which meant achieving in school. They expected that of us. Just like the women, they expected that of us.
The children know that it doesn’t matter how old Harriet is or on what day Harriet has awakened; we will end the game with song and dance.
“What songs does Harriet hear in her neighborhood?” I ask.
They are on their feet ready to perform. How sad that they will hear these songs only in a before-bedtime game. How sad that hundreds of thousands of black children don’t know the songs ever existed. Today there are boom-blasters blasting music that leaves nothing to the imagination in more ways than one. After all, the sexually explicit songs come with music videos. What you hear is also what you see. So much for lying on a sofa in a red-brick unit creating your own scene from a sweet song.
The love songs I listened to as a young girl in Memphis are not the songs that have disappeared. Those are still around, reproduced now with full orchestras and in stereo arrangements that make even a mediocre singer sound good. Those songs are still around because they make money. The songs of my remembering that I pass on to my children never made it to the turntable. They were the music of a creative people still in possession of their imagination, and their soul.
“When it is very, very hot,” I ask the children, “what do Harriet and her friends buy to cool them off?”
The answer, of course, is snowballs. My children listen for the dull electronic ringing of bell that the ice cream man makes. He drives a van covered with pictures of ice cream cones and Popsicles and milkshakes. I listened for the snowball man who pushed a cart that had no pictures. A cake of ice, a scraper, four or five bottles of colored liquid, and he was in business.
We heard him coming because he sang for us. I will never forget the tune itself, though some of the words I know I have forgotten. The children sing those I have passed on to them. I dance the snowball man’s funny steps as they sing: “Snowball man. Snowball man. Let me talk about it, tell you ‘bout it. Tell you what it do. It cools your fever. It curls your hair. It makes you feel like a millionaire. Oh snowballlll man. Oh snowballlll man.”
“And when it is cold,” I ask them, “what does Harriet eat as a late-night snack?”
The answer of course if hot tamales. In my remembering, I see the hot tamale man, for some reason always small in stature, pushing a two-wheeled wagon hot to the touch. He sang before he reached our unit; he sang while he wrapped the tamales, hot with fire and pepper, in plastic paper he had cut unevenly. He sang as he moved on to other units. His was a slow, dragging song.
“Let me be the hot tamale man,” Jonathan begs.
He stands up in the middle of the room and pretends that he is pushing a cart.
“Hey hot tamale man. Hey. Hey hot tamale man. Hey. I got your reddddd hottttt tamaleeees. I got your reddddd hottttt tamaleeees.”
I help him out with the rest of the lyrics: “Hot tamales for one thin dime. Would give ‘em free, but they sho ain’t mine.”
We sing together: “Got your reddddd hottttt tamaleeees.”
My mother’s favorite vendor was the lye hominy man.. I never heard him. By the time I was born, black women in the South no longer bought lye, at least not from vendors. In my mother’s remembering which is vivid to me, she would demonstrate how the lye hominy man poured lye into the empty cups the women provided. His song was always sad, Mama said. Plaintive tones that echoed through the valley of the neighborhood. “Lye hominy man. Lye hominy man. It’s your po lye hominy man.”
It is the old world I remember and cherish. It was never meant to remain. Time is a magician. In its poof of smoke, worlds vanish before our eyes, and new worlds appear, to vanish in other poofs of smoke for newer worlds. It is the Old World I remember and cherish.
Now that my children are adults themselves, they could very easily challenge my remembering. They could accuse me of romanticizing my past. The older we get, the more we do precisely that.
If they wished, they could lay my stories and songs next to pages from thick volumes assigned in their college classes. They could say the truth is in those volumes, not in my remembering, because the volumes were written by reputable scholars with credentials.
“Scholars with credentials, but without rememberings,” I would say.
I do not believe they will ever do that. I do not believe they will go only to books for the Old World of our culture. They learned in the bedtime game on cool summer nights that culture comes from the soul of a people. What scholar can research the soul?
I also hope they learned to believe, as I do, that some things reappear when the poofs of smoke clear. They might appear in different forms, but they come back.
That is what I am now praying for on cool summer nights with my rememberings. I know the songs will not be sung again, the places have been changed beyond recognition, and most of the people of my remembering now live in the Village of Eternity. But I am praying that new songs, new places, and new people will be blessed with the old spirit.
Appreciation for beauty, cleanliness, and simplicity; refusal to be diminished by adversity of any kind; and an unshakeable faith in the power of goodness and love to make the world right. That is the spirit I invite into my remembering.
I do not believe the children will forget my Old World. It has shaped them as it shaped me. It has caught root in their imagination, in their souls. I know it has. I know it has.
As my children walk reluctantly, and sleepily, to their beds, they ask me to tell them tomorrow night about the stray cat Harriet keeps in her bedroom closet. I tuck them in, kiss them, and turn out the light. Before I reach the den, I hear the soft voices they think I can’t hear: “Snowballll man. Snowballlll man. Let me talk about it, tell you ‘bout it….”
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
About the Author
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Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles earned a B.A. in English from LeMoyne College, an M.A. in American Literature from Boston University (as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow), and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Meadville-Lombard Theological School of the University of Chicago and named the CASE Professor of Teaching Excellence for the State of Georgia.
A recipient of the Emory Medal for outstanding scholarship and service of an alumna of Emory University, she has been a DuBois Fellow at Harvard University and Eminent Scholar’s Chair at Dillard University. Other awards include the Spelman College President’s Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the LeMoyne-Owen DuBois Scholar’s Award, and the Malcolm X Award for Community Service in the City of Atlanta for work as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement continued work for justice.
Her publications include numerous articles in national journals and six books, among them Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home; No Crystal Stair: Race and Sex in Black Women’s Novels, and “My Soul Is a Witness”: African American Women’s Spirituality . Her most recent publications are In Praise of Teachers (Beacon Press, May 2003), and Conversations With Gwendolyn Brooks University Press of Mississippi, December 2003).
Currently, she is conducting research on a critical study of the community as savior in selected African American novels. In August 2000, she was named Eminent Scholar’s Chair in Independent Scholarship and Service Learning at Spelman College. In addition to being the faculty mentor for Spelman's Independent Scholars program, she is founding director of the SIS Oral History Project and RESONANCE, a choral performance group at Spelman College.