Colonize This! Our Mothers
They were women then
My mama’s generation
Husky of voice—stout of
With fists as well as
How they battered down
How they led
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what we
Without knowing a page
-“Women” by Alice Walker
What mother would not want a better life for her children than the one she had? Any mother would struggle to ensure that her offspring have an easier life filled with choice instead of being forced into difficult situations due to gender, race, and class. Thus, three of the mothers of the authors (Austin, Prophete, and Ballí) in Colonize This! immigrate to the United States, a land of more opportunity than their homelands, and a fourth author’s mother (Brooks) does all that she can to ensure survival for her daughter despite suffering from mental illness. In this paper I will show that the mothers of the writers in the “Our Mothers, Refugees from a World on Fire” section of Colonize This! use their experiences to ensure a life of more choice and less classism for their daughters.
Growing up, Siohban Brooks did not see herself in a gendered way despite sexual harassment (104). She did, however, know that she was Black due to media images that inaccurately portrayed Blacks as maids, mammies, or apes (104). Brooks’ mother read to her every night, bought her department store clothes, struggled to put food on the table, and instilled self-esteem in her daughter (116). Brooks learned how to navigate different and often hostile worlds because of her upbringing in the projects and her mother’s mental illness (113-114). While Brooks’ mother may not have contributed directly and consciously to how Brooks’ turned out, Brooks did have othermothers (James 44) in her neighborhood who helped raise her, such as the woman who helped get Brooks enrolled in school at the age of eight (Brooks 105) and the women who gave her food to take home because they feared she wasn’t getting enough (107) to eat.
Unlike Brooks, Paula Austin views herself as a femme with the “powers of flirt and distract,” but she has a “butch” girlfriend (164). Her mother was raised poor in the colonized country of British Guiana (158); Austin’s mother raised Austin in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn (162) because America “offered a different kind of access to higher education and the ability to change one’s economic class, if you could play the game” (157). Austin’s mom was willing to play the game and taught Austin how to use “feminine armor,” “an overstated and distorted display of weakness that was comforting and safe to men (159). Austin used this armor when she (Black) and her girlfriend (white) were stranded in the South, fearing that their gender, race, and sexual identity would result in rape or lynching (165). Austin’s fear for her safety dictated that she rely on a created sexual identity to keep attention away from her girlfriend’s true gender and that she display stupidity so that the tow truck driver felt comfort instead of fear, which may have resulted in Austin and her girlfriend getting hurt. She looked “the part, like my Mama taught me” (166)
The femme is not the only identity for women of color, though. Lourdes-marie Prophete’s image of herself is of an aggressive female who is not afraid to fix items in the house, such as the TV or VCR or putting a fan together, instead of waiting for a man to fix them (175), even though her “family raised [her] to wait” (171). Mom and the women in her family, according to Prophete, were “feminists in action” who worked, immigrated to America to give Prophete a better life, and insisted on Prophete doing well in school, even teaching her to read before the first grade (172). But Prophete had to deal with contradictory messages from the women in her family, the women who talked about a “savior man…[as]…social security and economic survival” (175). Her aunt criticized her for dressing too manly, and a female merchant in a Gambian market criticized her for being too aggressive (179). Prophete railed against these ideas of the submissive, ultra-femme who had to catch a man and be submissive so as not to “get mowed down” (179). Since Prohete’s mom raised Prophete in America where speaking up is not cause for violence as it is in Haiti, Prophete has had the ability to understand her mother’s position but to more fully act on her desires to be herself, “to find happiness in this world” (181). Prophete won’t be waiting, though. She will “find the courage to make something happen” (181)
Cecilia Ballí identifies as an independent female, one of three daughters (188). Ballí’s mom was “a working-class woman whose dreams had been proved frivolous by the reality of being a caretaker and a wife, [so] she determined early on that things would not be the same for” her daughters (189). Ballí’s sole chore was to do her homework, and her mom purchased encyclopedias from the local grocery on the installment plan to aid her and her sisters in learning since Ballí’s mom herself was unable to help them with their schoolwork (189). Even though Ballí’s mom had been “socialized differently,” she determined that Ballí would have a different life from hers. It meant having an aunt sew Brownie dresses with fabric that was darker than the actual uniform, but it also meant that Ballí and her sisters could participate in American activities such as slumber parties and volunteering as after-school crossing guards (190). With the death of her husband, Ballí’s mom eventually felt like “an independent adult,” (193) and when her daughters left home for school, her mom experienced “a new kind of life, one that she had longed to know as a child” (199).
Each author in this section of Colonize This! has experienced the triple oppression of discrimination due to gender, race, and class (Brewer 13). Austin, Brooks and Prophete encountered racism at their white colleges (Austin 161; Brooks 110, Prophete 177), and all four women experienced class discrimination for living in the projects or for living in working class neighborhoods (Austin 162; Brooks 102; Prophete 177; Ballí 192). Each woman, though, had a mother who knew what they had to know in order to survive (Walker), to reference a favorite poem of mine. The mothers’ desire for a better life for their daughters allowed them to forge ahead, purchasing books and ensuring that their daughters gained the key to changing their class status, the only element that can be changed. The mothers encouraged and aided their daughters in getting good educations.
Though I fully agree with education as a gateway to an improved class situation (I am a high school English teacher, after all), why, though, am I offended? Brooks refers to her lesbianism as “queer” (116), and Austin refers to her girlfriend as having a “butch appearance” (164). Queer means strange or odd and is also a derogatory term for a gay man. It’s origination as a German word for perverse indicates that this is not a polite term (Oxford Dictionaries). Is Brooks railing against polite society by invoking such a word to describe herself? Why use such a loaded and connotatively negative term? Is she trying to turn it into a positive term by using it herself? Butch may have originated as a shortened form of butcher (Oxford Dictionaries). Why would one refer to her girlfriend as one who destroys? Perhaps Austin does not wish to recognize the male with a term like masculine, but is butcher much better?
But I am quibbling about semantics here. What is more offensive to me is when an intelligent person intentionally acts dumb. I write as a white middle class woman, a member of the dominant culture who has never had to truly fear for her safety. My mother raised me to tell her if I did not agree with something, though I did have to be careful with my tone and use tact. That is one of the biggest lessons I learned from my mother: to be who I am. I distinctly recall an incident from when we lived in Iowa, that bastion of white middle class-edness. I was four years of age, and the elderly farmer who was my parents’ neighbor drove his brand new, air-conditioned tractor to our house to let my two-year-old brother drive it down the road. I asked Mom why I couldn’t drive it, and her response was that that was just how it was. My brother, at thirty-four, does not remember this event, but I do. I was not allowed to do something because I was a girl, and my mom could only shrug her shoulders. There was no way that old farmer, no matter how much he liked me, was going to let me touch his tractor. I am quite sure that I would have done a better job than a toddler.
I spoke up to Mom, though, searching for an explanation. Maybe my speaking up is why I only dated two men and married my second boyfriend. I am loud, I talk a lot, and I don’t try to complete female to female for male attention (Austin 159), an act which divides women. The two times I recall competing for a boy, I lost significant months of friendship with two very close friends, and I vowed not to repeat the experience. I refuse to “display weakness that [is] comforting and safe to men”(159) and am my loud, talkative, hyper, and sometimes moody self. This did lead to a three hour monologue on my first date fifteen years ago with the man who became my husband, and I felt ridiculous when I got home. But it wasn’t because I had been coy, which I hadn’t. It was because I had been rude and had monopolized the conversation. What a relief that he, as a shy man, was himself relieved that I carried the evening’s conversation since it kept the pressure off him. Perhaps men don’t like strong, outspoken women, though my husband chose me perhaps as a complement to his shyness.
One element that I have never quite been able to be comfortable with is viewing myself as a sexual being. I don’t have the “powers of flirt and distract,” as Austin does (164). I do have talkativeness, inquisitiveness, and a bit of fearlessness when it comes to embarrassing myself if it means that it will relax others and help us communicate. But being coy? Not eating around men? Giggling? Pink? No, none of those are me. I had to ask Mom, Dad, and my brother if my clothes matched when I was growing up, and I have to ask my husband if my clothes match now. I don’t like pink, but I look good in pink tones thanks to fairer skin tone (yet another mark of my privilege). Pink is much too girly. Barbies are fine, but I’d rather play with Legos or blocks or cars. My parents had to get me those and had to get my brother a Barbie because we each wanted the other’s toys. No, Mom did not stick to strict gender roles for my brother and me. Then there’s the fact that I’m not going to go along with what a guy (or girl) thinks just to make him (or her) happy. If I don’t like something, I’ll tell them, hopefully with some tact. If you don’t like me for me, fine. I’ll find others who do. There’s honesty, there’s coyness (which, to me, looks like manipulation), and there’s being real (which lacks tact). I tend towards honesty.I
n this way, I think I identify most with Prophete and her can-do spirit. If it’s broken, fix it. My mom does both “feminine” and “masculine” activities, from the hard work of helping Dad take down trees in the yard to sewing and beadwork. Dad wasn’t around much when I was growing up because he typically worked sixty to eighty hour weeks or had to travel every few months to work on monorail systems in Jacksonville and D.C, so Mom fixed what broke. Who was thrilled when Mom and Dad bought my new husband a tool kit for Christmas? Not my husband! I was because it would be something I could use instead of the pink, lightweight tools my grandmother bought me when I was in high school. But I also identify with Brooks because I have struggled with clinical depression for most of my life. I was diagnosed thirteen years ago, and it is a constant struggle to remain sane. It’s a hell that only my husband and my parents are aware of because they have witnessed the depression up close, in the home where I can no longer hide how I am feeling after being in public all day long. If I have had access to medical care and treatment as a white middle class woman and still I struggle with my depression, I can only imagine how extremely difficult it is for someone who is poor, Black, and female to deal with mental illness (Brewer 27). No matter how different my upbringing was from these authors’, we do share the fact that our mothers sought to teach us so that we would not face the same situations they had to go through.
Austin, Paula. “Femme-Inism: Lessons of My Mother.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 157-169. Print.
Ballí, Cecilia. “Thiry-Eight.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 182-200. Print.
Brewer, Rose M. “Theorizing Race, Class and Gender: The New Scholarship of Black Feminist Intellectuals and Black Women’s Labor.” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. Eds. Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia. London: Routledge, 1993. 13-30. Print.
Brooks, Siobhan. “Black Feminism In Everyday Life: Race, Mental Illness, Poverty and Motherhood.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 99-118. Print.
James, Stanlie. “Mothering: A Possible Black Feminist Link to Social Transformation?” Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. Eds. Stanlie M. James and Abena P. A. Busia. London: Routledge, 1993. 44-54. Print.
Oxford Dictionaries. Ed. Judy Pearsall. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 28 Jan 2012. Oxforddictionaries.com.
Prophete, Lourdes-marie. “Feminist Musings on the No. 3 Train.” Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. Eds. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002. 170-181. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Women.” Elements of Literature, 3rd Course, Collection 10 – The Ways We Are. Online. http://www.nexuslearning.net/books/holt_elementsoflit-3/Collection%2010/women.htm.
Originally blogged: January 28, 2012