Netflix has a 2021 documentary, In Our Mothers’ Garden, where black women share stories about their mothers’ lives. The daughters admire their mothers’ strength, and sometimes they break down under the awe and burden of not knowing their mothers’ secrets.
Daughters want to understand how their mothers learned to carry their disappointments and sorrows. They acknowledge that some of the distance in the relationship was created because the mothers did not want their daughters to ever know the same disappointments and sorrows. But these daughters have lived some life now and have encountered their own joys and heartaches. This seems to only have served to deepen the well of empathy in that mother-daughter connection.
Accomplished in their own right, these daughters have a pride in, respect for, and appreciation of their mothers. But then there is a hint of regret in not knowing their mothers in their fullness. There is a distance between them that seems to be unbridgeable. There are missing pieces longing to be filled with “the rest of the story”.
Some of our understanding of who our mothers are comes from the bonds of friendship that we saw them make or break and the organizations they worked in or fled from. It is in the communal experience, sometimes generations in the making, that shaped who our mothers were and are and consequently who we are and how we navigate the world.
My mother, Betty Harden, died in 2016. She lived 90 years - and no matter how long one’s mother lives – it is never long enough. She has life stories she shared with me that I wasn’t able to understand; she made decisions that baffled me. Just as mothers want the best for their daughters – daughters want the best for their mothers.
When she died, like the women in the documentary, I had unanswered questions. Coming from a closed adoption and small family – there was no one to help fill in the gaps. I began writing about that desire to know her and began piecing together my youth in San Bernardino and realized that my hometown helped shape and inform my mother and my life.
In Bridges that Carried Us Over - with each interview that I have either watched or participated in - I learn more about my mother. Sometimes it is the mention of a familiar name I hear spoken - Lois Carson, Francis Grice, Jean Peacock - or words of wisdom that I hear echoed or new visions of understanding of what to value and how to value it.
I have begun to feel more and more rooted as I learn about the history of the Black residents of San Bernardino, It has been an unusual and unexpected awakening and source of pride: in learning about The Saville family, one of the first families on The Valley Truck Farm in 1927 to learning how neighbors who went to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, deliver a speech inspired marches in San Bernardino. NCNW is a thriving organization and learning about the roots of NCNW and Mary McLeod Bethune in San Bernardino is centering. The grit, determination and strategies used to overcome what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles to create Operation Second Chance is a bridge of knowledge to cross and connect us.
On a few occasions, I visited St. Paul A.M.E. with my mother; Dorothy Ingram was faithfully there, independent, strong, kind, approachable. I had always admired Dorothy Ingram and I wanted to know more about the story behind her becoming the first black superintendent of schools in California. One of the interviews in The Bridges that Carried Us Over archive filled in some of my questions.
I learned that it is the education system that drove many of the civil rights struggles followed by or in conjunction with housing discrimination. This fact also helped illuminate my understanding of a lot of the wild school board meetings and the current political and cultural war being fought in schools today across our country. We fight for the education we believe is best for our children and the future of our nation. There is power in numbers and consistent effort moves money and legislation, for better or worse.
These Bridges, these archives, these oral histories, and the maps – are building bridges of understanding across generations. Just the other day, a young high school teacher told me that she wants to change careers, but she wants to do something that would benefit the community where she would make sure that people were being treated fairly. From The Bridges archive I was able to tell her about Jennifer Vaughn-Blakely and her work as a community advocate and suggested that might be something she should look into.
One hundred years after the Black Wall Street Massacre, mainstream news began to tell the story that until the "anniversary" had been covered up and denied. Many, maybe even most, public high school teachers knew nothing about the wealth and success of Black people in Tulsa Oklahoma and the vicious atrocity. It crushed a thriving community and worse, generations of black people did not have that wealth of self-perception to draw on. An NPR story On Fire in Little Africa – FILA talks about “taking the mentality of Black Wall Street and pushing it to the future”.
This is my hope for San Bernardino. In 1977 we earned the title All-American City and Black people were instrumental in creating that greatness. I am so grateful to Wilmer Amina Carter and her late husband Ratibu Jacocks for having the foresight to start the oral history video archives. It is an endeavor that will hopefully breathe new life into our self-perception and push the All-American City mentality and what we do into our future.
It begins with the Santa Anas beating on my windows. The rumble of trash cans being tackled and kicked by 72 mile per hour wind gushes. And I am grateful to be warm, in bed, and thinking about cooking. I rehearse ingredients and tastes: nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, butter, lemon, sweet potatoes… the anticipation spurs me to get up. I am not a great cook unless it is something I truly love. Sweet potatoes – too sweet! I know my mother’s recipe by heart and with the click of the oven I can feel her sitting at the table watching – even though it has been five years since she died.
Since her death, I have incorporated an additional ritual of hearing the voices of indigenous people throughout the day. Stopping to read a poem or two, a movie, or podcast. This year I start with a 10-minute episode from Consider This on NPR The Indigenous Stories Glossed Over In The Typical 'First Thanksgiving' Story. The person being interviewed on this podcast is Paula Peters of SmokeSygnals Agency. She declares it to be “a day to acknowledge the sacrifices our [indigenous] ancestors made and be activists for the tribal injustices”. The brutal, stark, details of what Squanto, an enslaved man turned emissary endured, compared to the sanitized Plymouth lie is mind altering. Truth brings awareness and the hunger to learn and do more. I think that is what these holidays are for – to have us stop and reflect on the past and its narrative and what we will do in the future. For now, it is time to get cooking.
Pepper jack and sharp cheddar cheeses, milk, egg, onion, pepper, macaroni – boiling water. The trick is not to overcook or under cook the macaroni, stir the roux to a just-right-consistency before pouring it on. Mom would have had on a Macy’s day parade just about now. I try it out for fifteen minutes – great Broadway productions and home spun smiles from commentators – I need to let this simmer. I put on Joy Harjo, Shelter in Place Session from 2020. This isn’t activism, but a re-centering. Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous U.S. Poet Laureate who also happens to play the saxophone. I love when she shares that she didn’t learn to start playing until she was in her 40’s. The best time to start something is now, not according to an age but a desire and means. I am inspired.
My younger son drove six hours to visit with me today and he is keeping me company as I cook. I need something from upstairs and he tells me he will get it.
“Just tell me where it is.”
I am not sure.
He says, “Just tell me where you think it might be – this is a skill you need to start developing.” He reminds me that Nana was good at sending people to do things and sending them again until they got what she wanted. He says firmly, “She was a Boss Lady!” He is smiling proud and continues by explaining, “Some people do this naturally. You need to practice. You might need this skill one day.”
Our condo feels like warm sweet Hawaiian rolls. My grandmother is waiting for me to come with the polished silver, to set the table. She died when I was 12 but she visits occasionally, always at Thanksgiving. Chicken is ready, green beans almost. Obligatory dishes and unfortunately, I cooked them as such. These won’t make good leftovers. I am not a good cook unless it is something I enjoy – but next year, I need to do something different here. My mom would always mix okra with the green beans and ham hocks in a slow cooker. I know how to do better – next year.
Today it is a full table; my son and I and the memories of those we love. After dinner, I ask him did you ever get around to watching High on the Hog on Netflix.
He says, “No –I don’t like cooking shows.”
I don’t either, but this is different; I put it on, and he is completely engrossed. He is smiling and I am smiling at his joy. This was my fourth time watching it. We are in Africa, Benin with the host, Stephen Satterfield talking with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of the book for which the series is titled. We are learning the history of okra and gumbo and the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. In this open-air market we see huge yams. One is the size of at least ten sweet potatoes, and it is in the shape of a baby elephant’s foot. My son has a natural analytical mind, and he stops the show several times to comment on the beauty of a shot or a concept that is presented.
We see our host, walk the road that the enslaved walked. We are told about forced feedings and a mass grave. Satterfield says he carries our ancestors with him.
My son cleans the kitchen and asks if he can have the sweet potatoes and we both laugh as he says not yams – sweet potatoes. He asks me if I have the book High on the Hog. I know he is making a mental list for possible Christmas gifts. Yes, today is a day to honor our ancestors.
*High on the hog - best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper leg and that the wealthy ate cuts from 'high on the hog'.
to co-workers sneaking feels of curls I sported, to random strangers offering hair care product advise, I have stories to tell and I am not the only one.
I remember when Chris Rock went on the Oprah Show to promote his documentary, "Good Hair". In the process, an audience member asked to touch Oprah's hair. an African-American woman it doesn't take long to become aware of the different ways people compliment and discriminate based on hair. So, changing one's hairstyle from Eurocentric to Afrocentric or visa versa is to invite a variety of comments, biased judgments and reactions.
Just the other day I was listening to a podcast on racism and protest (I don't remember which NPR podcast) and somehow the way an African-American woman wore her hair became part of the debate. The person on the defensive said the woman's complaints had no credence because she wore her hair straight, "white" as though her hairstyle was relevant to the topic and would somehow render comments moot. The young man's mother told him to apologize, but after the ad hominem the protestor wasn't open to the apology nor any sort of discussion.
It was Bill O'Reilly's disparaging comments on Congresswoman Maxine Waters' hair that brought great media attention and moved her presence into mainstream America. Most recently, there are Roseanne Barr's disparaging comments on former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett ... is equal to the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes”. In several variations of apologies she has declared, "I never would have wittingly called any black person a monkey.... I thought the B---- was white.... I'm sorry that you feel harm and hurt... but she does need a haircut." To be a woman of color is to risk the most denigrating comments on beauty and appearance despite or because of achievements (which is also a topic for a different post).
Some women, enjoy playing with hairstyles for hours. I am not one of those people; I am not a "hair person" except that to be black in our society, makes you a hair person by default. I used to wear my hair almost completely shaved off, but I got tired of the gender questions. To be a black woman, deciding to wear one's hair in almost any style, is to risk a myriad of reactions from being judged as unprofessional in appearance, to gender identity questions, to being compared to an animal.
So, the Marvel's Black Panther movie was a fresh break and commentary on the beauty of natural black hair. Camille Friend, lead hairstylists made the decisions on the many beautiful hairstyles of the characters in the film. She has been interviewed numerous times by mainstream media on her choices. The tone of the interviews has been one of curiosity and the commentary, whether spoken or unspoken, has been that women of color wearing natural hair is still an exotic novelty. For many women of color seeing an entire cast with natural hair is refreshing and affirming.
In the last few years my younger son has been growing dreadlocks and quite a few friends have ventured into wearing Sisterlocs. This month I have decided to embrace this style and am loving it. Dr. JoAnne Cornwall (San Diego, CA) is a brilliant woman of color who has woven a fortune in celebrating natural African-American hair with Sisterlocs. This speaks to changing times from the early 1900's where Madam C.J. Walker sold the idea of assimilation via straight hair, to the late 1900's of Dr. Cornwall's Sisterlocs. In our society, being a person of color is oftentimes to be judged or mocked by a foreign standard of beauty, whether it's facial features or hair. Despite disparaging remarks, the most beautiful women are those who embrace their own sense of style and beauty. My Sisterlocs is one more step on the road of self-discovery and celebration.