About this Title
My first attempt to write about my relationship with my birth mother came in 1993, about 6 months before she died. There is a version of it published on the DailyKos blog under that title (posted in the menu to this blog under the title “Motherhood is Overrated”). That story became the springboard for a larger project discussing the rest of my life, which I titled “This is for Kinda-Colored Girls Who have Committed Suicide ‘Cause the Wundabread Was Never Enough” and published as a Kindle book in 2011, or thereabouts.
In a recent discussion on FB, I cited from that book, which caused a reader to look for it, in this way to be drawn to the work to which the title alludes: Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. To take such liberties with a title—alluding to Shange’s soul-searing, iconic work–is a bold move. I understand that. And I suppose it’ll piss some people off, no matter what I say or do to contextualize it.
For a long time, Shange’s work assumed a prominent place in my classes at a community college with a majority student population of women of color, most of them young. I cannot claim to know the power this work has for women of darker skin color than mine—not in the sense of bone-deep knowing what it means to be browner than beige in a society that breeds the kind of hate we know from Morrison’s telling of Pecola Breedlove’s tale in The Bluest Eye. What I do know is what I saw in my students as we examined Shange’s original set of choreopoems as literary text, then viewed a 1982 American Playhouse broadcast of the stage play (featuring a young Alfre Woodard and Lynn Whitfield), and finally, considered Tyler Perry’s film version, For Colored Girls, against this backdrop. Their papers, class discussions, and above all their faces and body language told me all I needed to know: Shange’s work does something to and for them that tunnels to the marrow. I cannot seek to define or identify what that is: my job is to present the work, not to monitor its effect as an artistic work or humanistic project.
Now, at a time when Black history and Black people are under the kind of assault that is unparalleled in the twenty-first century and almost every title that was on my syllabi while I was actively teaching literature is being whitewashed from the record in a process adeptly portrayed by artist Jonathan Harris in his painting “Critical Race Theory,” it feels more important than ever to draw attention to these works, these authors, this history.
In this climate, titles like these are at risk of fading into obscurity even more than they were at the time they were written. If my work can draw attention to them when they are as at risk as they have ever been, I take that as a win and it’s part of my motivation in pulling this piece of my history and my story out of the drawer again now.
Students in my classes often mis-quoted Shange’s title. The most common error was “when the rainbow is NOT enuf.” Occasionally, I’d get “for colored girls who have COMMITTED suicide”. The changed inflection in the notion of “having committed” suicide because the rainbow was “not” enough versus having CONSIDERED suicide because the rainbow WAS enough caused me to reflect on and better frame my own story and my own sense of self, first in my own mind, then in the title of my book and the eponymous short story.
In referring to “kinda colored girls who have committed suicide,” I am thinking about my birth mother, her mother before her, and several generations beyond—to my American Indian (Ojibwa) great grandmother, even to my great-great and great-great-great grandmother who—as original inhabitants of this land–were issued land patents (treaties between the Odawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan), in exchange for land. The price they would pay was the loss of lives, lifeways and identities to the manners and mannerisms of the “Great White Father”—what I have termed “the wundabread”, the sticky white world of an unsettler population that seemed to know nothing of nourishment, and even less of love—not on this continent anyway.
My great-grandmother lived to be 107. She was born in 1886, barely 15 years after her own grandmother had been “given and granted”, to her heirs and assigns, forever, eighty acres of land, pursuant to the 1855 Treaty between the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the United States government, as signed by Ulysses S. Grant—an infamous drunk.
Even though she was the first to “pass”, both in terms of actual skin color and in terms of assimilation, I cannot help but attribute my great grandmother’s longevity to this proximity to Indian culture. My great grandmother was at once the first to pass, and—at 107—also the last: my mother passed to the other side two weeks before her own grandmother. It is against this backdrop that I understand the term “kinda colored girl.”
As a “kinda colored girl,” my mother was raised by a single mother, who was herself raised by a single mother. So, while I hail from two consecutive generations of “single mothers,” I belong to the first generation in my family to have been raised by NO mother at all—to have been raised instead by a series of foster parents, by the “system”, by the state. Like her mother before her, my mother had an eighth-grade education. She was a single mom with five kids whom she could not feed working alternately as waitress, stripper, cleaning lady and third-shift factory worker—not even back in the day, when steady work at minimum wage had the potential to suffice. Four of my siblings and I were the first in six generations of our family to graduate high school; the fifth—my little brother–died in an automobile accident his senior year of high school, so he didn’t graduate either. Most of my students today are “first generation college”, and, as faculty, most of us know how momentous an event that is. However, in a country where people are still more easily pigeon-holed based on the color of their skin than the content of their cultural baggage, I sometimes need to remind my students that I am myself not first generation college, but first generation high school—that I was already “on my own”, working “on welfare” and as a waitress to put myself through my senior year of high school. Later, I would work five part-time jobs to put myself through four years of college as an undergraduate before I received an academic exchange scholarship that paid for my final year of school at a (West) German university.
My birth mother was a self-medicated, “bi-polar”, suicidal mess. Her suicide attempts were an annual Christmas ritual. She was described in adoption papers for my little sister (who would have been number five of six) as “dark-complected”—that was the early sixties euphemism for “mixed race”: ethnically ambiguous. So when I speak in terms of “kinda colored girls”—that’s what I’m talking about: light enough to “pass”, but dark—and damaged–enough to fall through the cracks. And when I speak in terms of kinda colored girls who have committed suicide, I am referring to her repeated attempts to commit suicide which my siblings and I had to endure for the first nine years of my life. She survived. Again and again. And so did the memory of her suicide attempts in my mind.
I spent the better part of thirty years watching her—from a distance–commit slow, methodical suicide. In the end, it was cancer that killed her. The cause of her death was carcinoma, but the death certificate is wrong about the manner: it was suicide. I didn’t attend the funeral.
The original title for the story “This is for Kinda Colored Girls who have Committed Suicide ‘Cause the Wundabread was Never Enough” was “Death Wish (A Partial Listing of Parenthetical Truths)”, and I first wrote it shortly before my mother’s death in 1993—after she called to tell me she had terminal cancer. She passed about 6 months later, two weeks before the death of her own grandmother: my great grandmother outlived my mother, and that is partly why I have such a hard time accepting the “whiteness” of my skin as a “privilege”—it was this wundabread/whiteness that killed my mother, and its absence that gave my great-grandmother what she needed to survive it.
This story is a more or less accurate account of our last conversation—the “parenthetical truths” (printed in italics) remained unspoken: I have learned to swallow them whole. I’m glad I never made her take them to the grave, but I won’t take them to mine, and that’s partly what this book is about: it contains the rest of what I would have liked to be able to communicate to someone I knew as “mom.”
This is for Kinda-Colored Girls who Have Committed Suicide ‘Cause the Wundabread was Never Enough.
somebody almost hauled off all of my shit.—Salia Malaikum
She is never more than eleven touch-tone digits away—a voice at the receiving end of the line I still seek out like some dream not yet dead. Called by the faint hum of possibility dormant in the blackness of a blank slate beside one bone-dry chip of chalk that might not screech, I pick up the phone, punch in the number and let it ring.
Maybe this time I’ll get an answer. This one last time. I might be able to pick up the phone and call home to mom.
The ringing stops.
“Hi. Mom?” (I have to ask.)
She always seems surprised, sorts through a sea of voices, then, slowly, she remembers, “Oh. Hi, honey, how you doin’?”
“I’m okay.” (I have come to speak in half-truths.)
“How are you?” (And to pose rhetorical questions.)
I have called to tell her about my first published work. I’m excited as a typewriter that’s lost its stops. My tabs, pulled and tallied—I am beyond words. Because through it all, it was only this that I had ever dreamed—and dared not dream what may have been had it not come to pass. The nightmare of what might have been if it hadn’t been this: a lifetime stuffed in the pluperfect hell of some editor’s drawer, “You are a passionate writer, with much to say, and if only you had written this way instead of that….”.
“I’ve gone into print, Mother. Someone has published my work.” The letter of acceptance, already stained with coffee from a night of rat-te-tatat-revisions and tears, quivers crisp in my hand. An anodyne applied to the sting of 200-plus rejection slips stuffed in a file on the floor beneath the desk. “Can you believe it, Mom? Really, can you believe it —”.
But the line is dead. She knows nothing of my life. There are worlds—continents, libraries, languages, oceans, rivers—between us. But no shores, and no bridges, just baggage enough to fill a Samsonite factory outlet store.
“I’m dying,” she says. My lips tighten. I clench between fleshy red palates the questions. (Still? Are you still dying? Haven’t you always been lying there on that same deathbed?)
“It’s more than I can take,” she says, “your brother Dan and your sister Jenny drop off their kids. Day in, day out—I sit here with them thirteen hours a day. I am too old. The doctor says I’m too old for this. These cuts and scrapes, bandaids and Bactene. They scream and cry, beg for attention. They pull at your legs and tug at your purse strings. Never have I known anything but this nagging, ‘I want. I want.’ Now it’s ‘Gimme some gum, gramma.’ These are supposed to be ‘golden years.’ You’d think that now, at my age—I am 62—why this? Why now? All day, I got ‘em at my feet, in my hair. My nerves are shot. I’m up to two packs a day. I’m down to 88 pounds. The doctor says I should quit. Too much stress, he says, the kids and all this fucking shit.” (Yes, mother please quit. Please would you just stop?)
“I’m working on a book, Mom.”
“Oh yeah, honey? What’s it about?” For a moment, she is there.
“About my life—and yours. I thought maybe you could tell me more about the times when—”
“Now you ask. When I’m dying you ask. Why didn’t you ask years ago, when it might have mattered? When you were sixteen, fifteen, fourteen? All those years you never gave a damn about my life, you never asked me a goddamn thing…”
I think to myself, but don’t remind. She already knows. (Mother, you were locked away in alcohol treatment centers—when you weren’t stumbling down drunk. At 16, I was in jail, don’t you remember? The time you came home from the third shift at the die-casting factory and caught me partying with friends? Have you forgotten the way we crawled through the basement window, escaping into the snow-drenched dawn before you could knock out what remained in the whiskey bottle we left on the table in our rush to get out? I returned a few hours later. You’d piled my belongings in one corner of the room. Drawers empty as the bottle and the spot on the wall where a picture had hung—a self-portrait sketched in shades of black and gray on white pasteboard. I was proud of that drawing. My seventh-grade art teacher had included it in his presentations of exceptional student artworks. They told me I had talent—in the seventh grade, at the school where the foster parents sent me—they tried to teach me to draw, to paint, to hatch and to burnish. They said I was an artist. That I was born that way. I was gifted, Mother, that’s what they said.)
(Mine is a ruthless memory, it retains every detail; every line on every face. I could not forget. The whiskey that cleared your conscience could never erase from my mind the memory of all that had been. And all that had not. It distilled everything down to one sharp line: the line you crossed when ripped that drawing from the wall, when you tore that face in two and threw it on the heap along with the rest of my “shit.” That memory, more than any, has cut out my tongue.)
(Today, even as I stand here dying, I still don’t get it: Why? Did you forget how quickly the cops answered your call? How they handcuffed me and threw me in the back seat—as though I’d had the will to put up a fight. Because you were my mom, and in a fit of drunken rage, called them to get me the hell out of your house—but only after you tore that drawing to shreds!)
(There, on the steel cot in a jail cell under cover of one threadbare blanket, you were more than eleven digits away. How could I have asked you then, when there was no black telephone—no receiver, no dial tone? Just one line gone dead, and the unsteady hand of a child who would never pick up a sketchpad again, never dare to outline, to knead an eraser, to smooth shades in circles, or to scribe in parallel lines.)
“You don’t know how much trouble you kids were. Twelve hours a day I ran—between the tables in cocktail bars, the factory shifts, the smell of oil and grease.” (It’s the smell of whiskey I remember, Mother, whiskey and gin.) I tried. God, how I tried. I was a good Christian woman. Episcolpalian. Do you know how I searched the bars up and down looking for my mom? Do you know how I watched him beat the shit out of her? Do you know what it is like to see your own mother beaten?” (Yes, Mother, I do. God, how I know.) “And what did she ever do for us? She left us there with him. Took off for Boston. Or somewhere. At thirteen, I ran away trying to find her, and landed in reform school. For trying to find my mother they put me away. What kind of bullshit is that?”
“I know, Mom, I know. I know how rough your life has been.” (Because you’ve told me this goddamned story so many times, in the very same words, you have painted it over and over and over again on my mind. I know your story by heart. I can still recite the names of the taverns I called looking for you. Did you know there are more bars per capita in our home town than anywhere else in the United States? I have dialed those numbers, punched them out in the dee-doo-doo-dee-dee-doo-doo rhythm of touch-tone totality more times than I care to remember. It’s a line I know by rote: ‘Have you seen my mom?’).
“I never wanted you kids in the first place, you know.” (It’s about the only thing I do know). “We didn’t have birth control back then, or abortions, not like you kids have now. The welfare. They took you kids away. They got no right. Then they had to tell you about the adoption. They told you. Ain’t adoptions supposed to be secret? What’s the word? Co’fidential? Where was my right to that? What made them think they could tell you?”
“No, mother, it wasn’t right for them to tell.” (But they wouldn’t have had to. I remember the way you got sick and how they took us to live with the preacher in the basement of that little white church when you went away. I remember the empty crib. The rhythm of your empty mother’s heart. Beaten, barely beating heart. I can still hear the cry of the child that never came home). It is the earliest in the long line of memories cluttering the hard drive of my mind.
“How did you find out about that?”
(I’ve told you a hundred times, Mother, but I’ll tell you again). “It was in the squad car on the way from the county jail to the reform school in the city where they took me when you said you didn’t want me back. They were just trying to explain, Mom. Trying to tell me it wasn’t my fault. It was just that there was no place else for them to take me. The social worker handed me my file. Maybe she thought it would help me understand. I remember the thrill of opening the brown manila, forbidden documents, an insider’s take on my life—and yours. Stunned, I blurted out to them, ‘I didn’t know I had another sister.’ Years later, I made the connection between the church basement, the empty crib and the adoption. So really, even if they hadn’t told me, I’d have figured it out sooner or later. I saw it. I was there.” (Which is why I believed what the file said about my father, and how you said you really didn’t know. You couldn’t remember. You weren’t quite sure. Who he was. Where he was. Which one he was.)
“You never believed me, goddammit. Never. I told you you have the same father as the rest. He’d remarried by then. How could I have said I was shacking up with my ex-husband? In 1961? He is your father, I swear it, he is.”
“Mom, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t fucking matter.” (And it wouldn’t, if you would only trust this scathing memory of mine. It does not lie. Your ex-husband was 500 miles away when I was conceived. I am six years younger than the youngest of his sons. The who of it is irrelevant, and the why, but this constant battery of lies is more than I can stand. I saw them pass through your life—men who never stayed more than a day. I remember the drunken fiascoes with my brothers’ buddies and the night the police came in through the bedroom window to break it up because the neighbors couldn’t sleep).
“You never asked me for the truth. You always believed what those fucking social workers told you. Now, when it’s too late, you ask—”
I am without words. (And the others, Mother? Do they bother to ask even now? Do they know your life like I do? You showered what love you had on them. They drank like you do. They couldn’t help what their lives had become any more than you could. They stayed with you to the bitter end. They are there now. Together you drown out the sorrow and the sound, driving each other to drink. You drink to remember, then drink to forget. And finally, drink a toast to regret).
“You, with your foster homes, you had it so good. All the time you were gone—traipsing around Europe, Africa, who the hell knows where—all those years, they kept calling, asking me where you were. They never stopped calling, ‘Do you know where I can reach your daughter?’” (What bothered you more, their questions, or the answer you couldn’t give?)
“You think those phone calls have made my life easier? They couldn’t take your place. Hard as they tried, they could not. I will spend a lifetime cleaning up the mess the foster parents could never sop up.”
She is quiet. Ruminating. “I never had that kind of money.”
“It wasn’t the money, Mom. Not then, not now, not ever.”
“You kids were all I had.” (And why couldn’t you accept the gift that we were?) “Then the welfare came and took you away. I fought for you kids, believe me, I did. It was you who didn’t want to come back.” (I tried, Mother. I am still trying.)
“I know it hasn’t been easy, Mom, I know.” (And yet, I have somehow found a way. In my back pocket, I carry a passport bearing your name and mine. In spite of it all, I have been happy to share your name. This name has sufficed in a way no line of poetry can. Somehow, it has been enough. Isn’t that what stands between us now? The fact that you hate this name as much as I have come to love it? Yours has been the constant struggle to shake the memory of a man who left you with nothing but eight letters of an alphabet and the whiff of whiskey on your breath. Mine has been the unrelenting search for a woman who left me with the same eight letters and a mind that could never forget. You have hated your past as much as I have loved the prospect of a future that was better than this. You can’t sculpt your history into a past perfect event: The memory of what might have been, if it hadn’t been this.)
I can almost hear tears trickling down her face and in my mind’s eye, I watch her rise in search of a bottle, a beer, a brandy—anything but the damp regret falling from her eyes. I’m not sure what’s driving her to drink today: fear of love or fear of hate. Maybe just a knee-jerk response to a phone ringing ten thousand miles away.
“Listen, Mom, I have to go. You take care of yourself, y’ hear?” My wish is sincere. But I’m no longer afraid of losing something I’ll never find.
“You, too, honey. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
I mean it, but in truth I am wishing she’d just hurry up and be gone, so I can get on with both of our lives.