A black mama’s love is like a black auntie’s, a black grandmother’s. Strong, fierce, rough around the edges, in the middle too. It corners you with protection and hard lessons, the raw and real honey of life that goes down slow and haunting like cough syrup.
It’s the way she yells in the morning. Take your ass in that bathroom and clean up, you wasn’t raised in no pigsty what the hell do you think I am a goddamn maid? To teach you self-discipline because there won’t be no maids cleaning up after your ass when you on yo own.
On yo own, chile. A black mama’s love is like a black auntie’s, a black grandmother’s. Hell, her mama too. Because they restlessly run you ragged so you become immune to the holes that ghetto concrete burns into yo feet. They’ll be damned before they see they child flat on they ass like they was. It’ll be a cold day in hell, you hear me?
I hear you mama. Even when life can’t stand to listen, believe me, I feel you mama. Because the world has shut you out, know that we listen to the silence from it together. With you, from you, I’ve felt soft rain, cold storms, bad weather.
I hear your trauma seeping in the venom in your voice, I hear the soft you, sometimes, beyond the noise. I-I hear the pain of being flat on your ass, the resentment of never being taught, wonders ‘bout if you teaching me, the fear of not reaching God and all the holy promises that he has waiting for you because you’ve suffered so much. I hear you mother. I do.
Wounds, like belt lashes from gone dreams and scars from grandmother’s anguish. Like bitter castor liquid on the tongue, like too grown and so young. Like cycles. Like wheels that keep spinning, the rotation is immortalized, the tread wears thin but they keep riding.
In bowls of cake mix, cornbread batter, secrets, my mama says nothing as she screams orders in my ears. She stirs tradition in these bowls, chile. Stirs languidly out of habit, yolk and flour and sugar soon merging, merging and rising into a reality that not she, not us, have ever been able to escape.
In my life, I’ve watched woman after woman, mother, auntie, grandmother, spin in the abuse of no way out, stir it languidly in ancient bowls and feed it to the next generation of little girls. Year after year, we spin our rubber thin and stir til our wrists are weak, eat from the old survival recipes until we’re fat with empty sustenance. And you know what?
Chile, I’m tired. My belly can’t hold another piece of breaded torture, falsely sweetened and constantly excused as sufficient for my soul because we ain’t got no other recipes. My mama aches, hunched over at night, pain clawing at her abdomen we can’t live like this. Wind gusts into the holes from concrete on grandmama’s feet and auntie may never walk again. Mama there’s no solace here, no sustenance, no peace. There’s no remedy in the survival recipes no more, there’s no life without agony in that damned scream, but underneath that scream mama I still hear what you mean.
I know you want freedom. I know you want freedom, too. You can’t see it inside your voice but you can smell it in your dreams when the stomach-ache stops. You can feel the holes in your heels dissipate. I know you know that something, that makes you think of risking it all but survival tactics bring you back. I know that the feeling of free fall seems too damn good to ever be true so you keep spinning and keep stirring, whipping, spiraling. Imagining the release that has to be too good for us, wanting it more and more as you shun yourself for allowing such a pleasure. I know all of this because I want it too.
And the daughters and daughters after me, after this present scent of blood who shares your nose, your smile, and your fire, need that freedom. They don’t deserve to continue to bear chains and pain and the choke of stove smoke baking the same damn sad reality and dammit you don’t either.
You deserve a world that wraps you up into its earthy folds and cleans your cuts with aloe and kisses from tree leaves, a world that lets you bound fearlessly in your feminine, a world that wants nothing from you, a world where you can just be.
And in the tradition of making a way outta no way, mama, we gone get there. You hear me?
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At this point, the message is clear but I fear sometimes that poetry is a natural sweetener. Sugar from fruit, making the pain a little lighter.
So in my prose, I have to acknowledge a truth that I got the guts to say. My trauma came from my mama. And her side of the family too.
I was talking to my cousin the other day, a cousin that I grew up with. We were talking therapy, home-- the next steps of our lives and the game plans that we absolutely didn’t have. We laughed in all the unsurety.
With talks of home came talks of moving out, a chance to be released from a looming suffocation that we suffered together.
Talk of such a guilty pleasure led us into trenches that were exhilarating and full, still, of sorrow. In a moment only to be shared by two best-cousins, we started venting fully about the things we endured as young girls. It was from a perspective far-removed, from a distant place of growth and understanding. Not engulfed in anger or blinded youth for once, we turned pages of our existences together and from this refreshing hunt for truth, we unlocked a whole lotta real shit.
We realized how much pain we absorbed from our mothers, how much pain they absent-mindedly handed to us. We saw, line-for-line, the trauma that was laced in our mother’s voices, the trauma they couldn’t speak of. And the more we discussed, the more of our own trauma we felt.
Dare I say this? The conceptions of self, about regular-degular Zyria, about black women and what we were, about our roles, the plethora of faux boundaries, I learned from my mother and my mother figures. My sexuality, my self-expression, my emotional and mental vitality were all screened by them first, and I must admit that the burning of my self-esteem for so many years resulted from matches they struck. They’d continue in their projection all while covering up the harm done with a list of all they’ve done for me. A list that was long and sang readily from memory, there was no space for understanding between us most times, no space for reconciliation or redemption. The strongest of criticisms, the coldest of shoulders, the most lethal of silencings came from my mothers.
The reality of it seems so counter to all of the beautiful images centered around these women that still live strongly inside of me. There’s no denying their love. There’s no denying their sacrifice, their strength, their whole and warm intentions. I would never do them such a dishonor.
But often time I’ve equated my analysis and my questioning of the harm done to disrespecting their efforts as mothers, downplaying the walls of safety and the fortresses of knowledge that they tried to build for me. And I know that my dearest cousin and so many others make the same pseudo-comparison.
Nothing could ever amount to the work of mothers, but their work is not enough to sit on piles and piles of unspoken pain that they may have brought. There’s a cycle here, and silence, passivity, perpetuates it. I won’t sit here and front like it’s easy to lay out how you really feel to your mama, hell, to anybody that you love dearly. It could go a million ways, more of them more south than anything, but there is always rebirth after destruction.
I say this because no one wants to. Because for one reason or another it seems taboo to ever speak so ruthlessly on black women, black mothers. On some occasion I see this act described as protecting and defending black women; as if calling out their toxicity could ever undermine or overshadow the burdens that they’ve bore for us or the demons they’ve faced. But y’all, gratitude and respect does not have to hush dialogue. As my black girlness grows into black womanhood, I’ve realized that my mothers taught me the best way that they knew how, and for that there will always be an infinite amount of gratitude. There will never be enough words, enough tears, enough hugs to explain how much I truly love and care for my mother, my mother figures. My own wellness sometimes depends on just knowing that they’re doing even a little bit better than just making it. I love my mother. I love my aunties. And I damn sure love my grandmother.
But I’ve found that the greatest love is found in the words that everyone feels but no one has the courage to speak, the words that everyone has the courage to ignore in exchange for a pass from vulnerability and self-reflection. It’s ugly, and it requires re-experiencing a lot of trauma, but when there’s no support elsewhere, we need that transparency and that level of intimacy with each other. We need to be able to acknowledge the pain that we cause one another as mother and daughter, sisters, best-cousins, aunties and all. We need-- no, we deserve the fruits of such a labor. Chile, there’s healing to be had.
And that’s that on that.
By Zyria Rodgers