Mama Was a Radical — Deeply Embedded
My mother had a well-oiled mechanism that delivered most of her thoughts directly from her mind to her mouth, without so much as a hairpin turn to slow them down. Kinder folk would say she was “outspoken.” As a much-aggrieved adolescent, I had a less generous interpretation.
“KATHRYN,” she said as we stood in the bra aisle of the big department store in Oklahoma City, “YOU HAVE TO GET ONE WITH PADDING. YOU HAVE NOTHING UP THERE AND YOU’LL LEAVE GROOVES IN YOUR SHOULDERS TRYING TO SQUEEZE YOUR WAY TO A BOSOM.” In my memory, Mama always talked in ALL CAPS in public, and I always wanted to hide in a galaxy far, far away.
“KATHRYN, THAT COLOR MAKES YOU LOOK ILL…” This message could have been delivered at some time other than when I was getting ready to go out the door with a boy I’d had my eyes on for a while, but then, that wouldn’t have been my mother. “KATHRYN, DON’T STRAIN YOUR THROAT THAT WAY. YOU LOOK LIKE A CHICKEN. YOU’LL GET NODULES ON YOUR VOCAL CHORDS.” This in front of my high school chorale friends having an extra rehearsal at my house. Mama was a vocal music teacher. Concern over nodules was a constant theme in my home.
The worst was any statement prefaced by “YOUR BEST FRIENDS WON’T TELL YOU THIS, BUT I’M YOUR MOTHER AND IT’S MY JOB …” followed by an observation that, objectively, was usually true, but rarely welcome.
Mama was, as I mentioned in a previous article, a pistol. Without a silencer. She also had enough integrity and spirit in her small frame to provide ten people with sufficient spine to make it through their lives with some left over. It wasn’t until later in life, when I was a mother, when I was a working woman trying to create a new path for my life, when I was faced with crushing circumstances, that I began to appreciate the grit and mettle that fueled that straight shooter.
And it wasn’t until her funeral that I appreciated how much other people saw her in ways I didn’t at the time — and the difference she had made in lives I barely knew.
Mama and Daddy (my somewhat-Southern roots mean they will always be this to me) were thrilled in the early 1970s to be able to leave the tiny oilfield towns that they had spent decades in and buy a nice house in Oklahoma City. It was a not-too-old brick three-bedroom rancher in a neighborhood with wide streets and not-enough trees, but it was precisely to my mother’s liking and she and Daddy got busy creating a home there.
And then, a black family moved in. Which, in the racial equation of Oklahoma City in that time, meant that a white family moved out. Another black family moved in and another white family packed it in. We were just hearing the term “white flight,” and it quickly became apparent that my parents had found themselves smack in the middle of it. And this is when my mother did what my mother was born to do: She planted her flag on the side of what she knew was right and she refused to budge. “I will not be moved” was engraved somewhere on that woman’s heart, and when she saw a situation she knew to be unfair, she knew precisely where to plant that flag.
“Prejudice is just stupid,” she said, and Mama didn’t pack up and move for stupid. Besides, she said, she liked all her neighbors “except that crabby old white man on the corner.” Daddy had much less racially generous attitudes than my mother at the time, but part of their bargain — which I didn’t know about until after his death — was that he could hold whatever opinions he did, but he’d better not voice them in our home, in front of us girls. So he didn’t, and he did such a good job of it that I had no idea that he had ever been prejudiced. He had his doubts about how white flight would affect the value of their home if the neighborhood turned entirely black, but he planted his flag right beside Mama’s because that’s what he did, and they stuck it out.
Soon he would be the first to tell you that the African-American families all around them were the best neighbors he’d ever had. They were real neighbors, he would say. And when he died at the age of 78, they closed ranks around Mama as one of their own, lending a hand where she needed it and providing a welcome part of our family safety net. I thought it was just because they were good people and that’s how good people do. But at Mama’s funeral I found out a deeper motivation.
The people attending her funeral were the kind of diverse crowd that always made her happy. “Nature is a riot of color,” she would say, “why would people be any different?” And among the attendees were Mama and Daddy’s next-door neighbor Louis Marsh. When the time came for remembrances, he slowly approached the mic and began to speak.
“When we first moved into our home, it wasn’t really an integrated neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of the white people were resentful and a lot of them moved. But after we had been in the house a few days, this white lady from next door came over to introduce herself and bring us a casserole.
“We were touched that she had come over, but very embarrassed because we hadn’t had any water at the house yet and things were pretty rough. We were pretty rough. She said she didn’t mind, but asked what was wrong. So we explained that we had called and called but couldn’t get anyone at the utility companies to turn our electricity and water on. We needed to clean the house — and ourselves — but we were basically just camping out in our own home.”
Well … I can just imagine the look that came across my mother’s face. She knew exactly what was happening, having had some previous experience with how badly some white people want to hold on to whatever advantage they thought they had. Stonewalling the new black residents of this white-flight neighborhood was just one way of messing with the colored folk and, so far, it was pretty effective. Though her neighbors couldn’t see it, that was the moment Mama planted her flag. She left their house in a hurry.
“Pretty soon, there’s a knock at the back door, and there’s Mrs. Compton, holding out her garden hose. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘Run it through your kitchen window. It isn’t much, but use as much as you want for as long as you need.’”
She did the same thing with the long electric cord from Daddy’s lawnmower, apparently, and got the Marshes set up at least temporarily with electricity and water.
And then … she got on the phone and started calling the utility companies.
“She said she was going to call them every hour on the hour until they got out there and took care of us,” Mr. Marsh said with a smile. “It took another day or two, but they got everything turned on.
“I’ll never forget that. That’s just how she was.”
It was just how she was. Outspoken. Out speaking. Over and over again. And the thing is — she would want me to be sure to include this — she was not a saint. She wasn’t even very nice — she’d also want you to know that. Later in life she used to rail against people who saw her gray hair and acted like she was “such a sweet little lady…” and she said it with such a sneer, it could have melted that garden hose. She had seen so many sweet, nice people visit such hatefulness on her fellow humans that those adjectives didn’t hold any allure for her. “Just” and “fair,” she would be proud to carry: “sweet” and “nice” not at all.
She wasn’t a saint and she wasn’t sweet, but she saw something she knew was wrong and she did what she could, where she could, to address it. Years later, when I was an arts and entertainment reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the legendary African American a capella performance group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
“Everywhere I turn,” I told her, “I see some issue that needs addressing. I’m just one person, how do I choose where to put my energies?”
“Whatever you stub your toe on,” Dr. Reagon said, “that’s what you take on. You do as much as you can right there with what’s in front of you. Then when you’ve made sufficient headway on that one, you look out and up and see where else you can make a difference. If every one of us did that, we’d live in a very different world.”
Mama never met her, but she practiced what Dr. Reagon preached. It wasn’t something she weighed consciously, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” I’m sure what she did in that moment was pure instinct, action born of contempt for the stupidity of racial prejudice. It wasn’t much, in the scheme of things. No marching, no public statements , no tooting her own horn — which is why I hadn’t even heard this story until after she passed away. (She also took seriously the Biblical injunction to do the good things that you do privately and was appalled by people who were “showy” about their faith.)
Hers was an everyday kindness, the sort many of us find easy and automatic. But what set Mama apart — and she’d be the first to tell you it shouldn’t have — was that she didn’t stop being human, didn’t stop manifesting her faith, at the color line. Those actions? Choosing to go against the hot wind of public opinion, choosing to be neighborly in the face of a society that was pushing her to do the opposite, being willing to make herself uncomfortable on behalf of another ? That was not only righteous, it was radical, getting right down to the roots of what it means to be decent, what it means (in our family’s view) to be Christian, what it means to be a good citizen. And, as Dr. Reagon said, if every one of us did just that, we’d live in a different world.
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