Back in 1975 when my mother was pregnant with me, she caught the bus to visit a white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. Integration had finally trickled down to the South, and my mother was ready. She was Baptist, but she had heard that this school was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My mother was 40 years old, poor and determined. She was determined to give her baby every opportunity she did not have.
My father did not want me to go to this white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. My father didn’t have much faith in integration, and he sure didn’t have faith in white folks. He had heard that there was a black Catholic school in a black Catholic neighborhood, and it was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My father was 53 years old, poor and proud. He was proud of his people and too proud to let white folks play games with his baby’s head.
The argument between my mother and father was legendary in my family. My mother told it and retold every time I made the honor roll and every time one of my many white teachers told her how exceptional I was. My father, who had not finished sixth grade (or was it ninth grade), reluctantly accepted this white school, but he warned me. “White people say one thing and mean another,” he said. “They think they’re God,” and “No matter what, don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”
I often think about that argument and how it helped determine the trajectory of my life. I attended comfortably middle-class colleges where I attained comfortably middle-class degrees, I work a comfortably middle-class job, I am married to a comfortably middle-class white man and I am painfully aware that my parents’ lives were so much harder than mine.
I remember when I was 10 years old, my mother spread white mayonnaise over white bread with the slow, sacramental precision of a priest wiping the inside of a chalice that once held the blood of Christ. We thanked God for our meal and ate mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner. We ate silently. We ate in reverence because we had nothing else. We had to eat mayonnaise sandwiches at the end of the month every month for 18 months because how else would my mother pay my father’s hospital and in-home care bills? How else would she cover the cost of hospice and a proper funeral? There was no way in hell my mother was going to ask my white principal for a scholarship to cover part of my tuition because she wasn’t gone have white folks treating her little girl like some welfare case. I remember when I was in high school, my mother cried behind the closed door of her office because she had been passed over for yet another promotion. Her boss had told her she wasn’t qualified; she had scarcely finished the tenth grade. She was, however, qualified to train all the white people who were hired in her stead. That day in her office, my mother stood by the cork board on her wall and fingered the ribbons and newspaper articles that displayed my name. With tears in her eyes, she told me for the um-teenth time how she started out washing dirty commodes in that hospital and how she had worked her way up to be a supervisor with her own office, with her own computer and her own staff.
My mother said, “The only difference between then and now is that white folks smile and call me Mrs. D where before that just called me a nigger to my face. But you gone get that piece of paper no matter what. They ain’t gone treat you like shit. They ain’t gone be able to ignore you. You gone make ’em know who you are. You gone make ’em know you somebody. You gone make ’em know where you come from. You gone make ’em know we ain’t stupid. You understand me?”
This was not a rhetorical question. It was a military command, and I answered in accordance to military protocol, “Yes, Ma’am.”
I almost always did what I was told. I almost always did what was expected until my father’s first, second, third, fourth stroke. I lost count. My A’s dropped to B’s then to C’s. My mother begged me to try harder. My many white teachers did what they had always done; they told me what a smart student I was and what a bright future I had ahead of me. My C’s dropped to D’s then to F’s. I was still doing all my homework. I was still studying every night. My brain simply stopped working. I pushed myself through those years of grief for my mother. I forced myself to do better in school because that is what she wanted. She had been through enough. She had endured 18 grueling months of working full-time, going to parent-teacher conferences, spending time with me, doing laundry, ironing, going grocery shopping, cooking, feeding my half-paralyzed father one spoonful at a time, and washing away his feces while his emaciated body slumped over hers, and she never uttered as much as a, “Damn, life sure is hard.”
I forced myself to get back on the honor roll and to play sports and to join clubs and to ignore the white girls who said they were blacker than me, or I wasn’t really black. I forced myself to smile and contain my rage. I forced myself to pummel those white girls with my words instead of pummeling them with my fists. I forced myself to be a charming, well-behaved daughter because my mother needed to believe I was okay. I forced myself to go to college because that is what my mother wanted. And if she could endure Jim-Crow racism and watching the love of her life waste away to nothing, I could endure taking 15-credit hours each semester at the whitest white school known to man while being depressed.
My mother was the reason I graduated from college. This comfortably middle class life in this comfortably middle-class whiter-than-white state is the life my mother wanted. If I had it all to do again, I would go back to my senior year in high school and choose to go to an HBCU then move to a city with a half-way decent sized black population instead of going to a PWI and being brainwashed into thinking that white environments were superior environments. I would go back 15 years to when I met my husband and stop my heart from beating, and if that didn’t work, I would extract my heart and stump it to a pulp because the agony of not having my loving, beautiful husband in my life is equal only to not having my loving, beautiful people in my life. I would go back to my 30’s and marry a loving, beautiful black man, and we’d live in our black city where I could buy hair products in an actual store instead of having to order them online. I would attend black festivals and go to black dinner parties and have more than one black Catholic church to choose from, and I wouldn’t feel so excruciatingly isolated in this white homogeneous environment. I would go back to when I was eight and somehow stop my father from having a stroke. I would go back to when I was 10 and somehow stop my father from dying. I would tell my mother and my many white teachers to stop treating me like I’m an academic automaton—stop telling me how smart I am, stop saying how exceptional I am. Just let me mourn my father’s death. I would go back to being a fetus and bend the universe, so my father would win that argument. I would go to that black Catholic school in that black Catholic neighborhood and live an entirely different life, a thoroughly black life.