My mother was a “radical”. So much so, that after her death, we would discover that she had been on an FBI Watchlist due to her membership in the Black Panther Party. Despite its frustration of my sister’s plans of getting Top Secret clearance during her Naval stint, it gave us all a chuckle. Turns out that skinny woman was as crazy as she had always espoused to be.
She had conviction. She stood and stood up for something.
While having a soft-heart for most of her family and many friends, she did not show any kindness towards injustice. Often preached against it, to the boredom and bemusement of her children. Surely, the world, America especially, was not as cruel as this unusually-loud-to-be-so-waifish woman was sermonizing it to be. How was she confusing “The Land of Opportunity” with this racially-divided, sexist, oppressive country of which she spoke? Why would she seem to love and care for some white people as individuals, but distrust them so empirically as a group? Where was her disconnect?
She was confusing. And sometimes… embarrassing. Where does she keep getting that damn soapbox? Can someone please get her off of it?
I didn’t know how much more of that I could listen to. Frankly, none of us did.
Letha was just kinda of a radical. To love her was to tolerate many a diatribe of the systemic nature of racism in this country that started with, “Man…” said in some hippie tone. It was quintessentially her. Her nature. And if you stopped and spoke her long enough, you would always know two things. She was brilliantly intelligent. And she didn’t trust America.
As she saw it, who could trust an America that fought equal rights for black citizens as hard as she had, herself, seen it fight? Who could, would, or should believe in a country that invested in the destruction of black families by saying you could not receive aid and have a husband that did not abandon you? Who would pledge to a flag that never sought justice for all the black bodies swinging from trees? That would put a gun to the head of a woman trying to feed a warm, free lunch to poor, inner-city kids. That harangued and harassed swaths of its population based on the color of its skin. That more than never paying its debt, never even owned it had one.
For her this was a country built by wealthy, slave-owning men for wealthy, slave-owning men. Men who were often lauded for their ideals but having no real principles. Men who believed that women and black people were just property. “Read their Constitution,” she said, “it’s all in there.”
She was right. It is.
For years, I fought against my mother’s “crack-pot” nature. I would feel it swelling in me from time to time. Generally, peeking through after some microaggression. Why is that young, white guy calling that older black lady “Ethel” while she is calling him “Mr. Stephen”? What is that about? Why did everyone in this fast food joint just stop eating when my brother and I walked in? Can black people not eat in burger places in Mississippi? What the hell is a “whigger”, and why do I feel ready to fight? Stop it, Destini. You are being… your mother.
For years I fought it.
One day, I awoke to find my mother’s words flowing easily from my mouth. What should have been alien or bitter, seemed natural and delicious. They felt liberating. They were liberating.
I had been lying to myself about the “fairness” of America. I’d been sick with tumor of injustice metastasizing all through my body like an unrecognized cancer. It had been weighing me down and making me weary. And these words, her words, this acceptance of truth, was my remission.
I was imbued. Each particle of my being felt my mother’s spirit. I tingled. I glowed. I was incandescent.
My mother saw things as they were and tried to change them for the betterment of her people. She refused to only eat the knowledge that she was fed. She rebuked the lie of what should have been and accepted only the truth of what was. She had the surety to speak her mind with a booming voice that belied her small frame. She was a powerful presence, and a great woman to know.
While I am a bit sad that her fight must continue; America creeps much too slowly towards equality, if it ever really moves at all; I am proud to take up her arms and call them my own.
Each step I take, she made before me.