Just in time for Mother’s Day, University of Baltimore MFA student Roxanne V. Young remembers her mom’s sage advice on black pride, self-confidence, and still more.
- I’m Black and I’m Proud (James Brown)
My mother was the consummate teacher in the classroom and in life.
It was a frigid January afternoon, but I was enjoying the warmth of rare one-on-one time with my mother. We both had skipped school that day to celebrate my 10th birthday. On January 18, 1965 we sat down at the lunch counter at a Baltimore Woolworth’s. It was my first time dining out with my mother. While we waited for the waitress, she took a few minutes to discreetly give me a quick lesson on proper table etiquette.
I thought my mother was beautiful. She was an average size woman with beautiful deep-set brown eyes. I remember how the men would whistle and make comments about her gorgeous legs. Her skin was flawless and as white as porcelain. She once confided in me that she hated her complexion, and that she wished her skin was as brown as mine. Because the sixties marked a time when young black people were still “color struck,” I wished that I had inherited her light complexion. My mother walked with her head high—Shirley Pollock was known for commanding the room, both professionally and within her social circle.
I don’t recall what we ate for lunch that day. I do, however, remember that after the dishes were cleared away, the waitress brought over the biggest ice cream sundae I had ever seen. She wished me happy birthday and set the sundae down before me. I joyfully spooned the red cherry off the top to save it for last. As I set out to devour my birthday treat, my mother began to tell me a story.
The story began with a date. It was February 1, 1960, a few weeks after my fifth birthday, when four boys sat down at a lunch counter in a North Carolina Woolworth’s and ordered a meal. The waitress refused to serve them and they were asked to leave. Refusing to leave, they stood their ground. I asked my mom why was it that the waitress refused to serve them. She told me that until that moment, a black person had never sat at the lunch counter in that store. She made it clear to me that the boys were refused service simply because of the color of their skin. She stressed that regardless of how they were treated, those boys, and any other black person, had the right to be served there.
At the time, I had yet to knowingly encounter any personal acts of racism. My mother’s answer confused and disturbed me. Those boys were black like me.
It shocked me to hear that, as a result of the boys’ protest, many people were injured, as blacks staged similar protests at segregated lunch counters around the country, prompting bigots to violently retaliate. Largely because of the protests, on July 2, President Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting restaurants from refusing patrons on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. My mother mentioned to me that she was proud of those boys. By the end her story, I felt proud of them as well. I could not have realized that the story that filled my young heart with such pride that day would become a defining moment in the struggle against racism and discrimination.
When it was time to go, I jumped down from the stool, and as my mother helped me with my coat, she asked me what I thought about the four young boys. I said that I thought they were brave and that I was proud of them. Years later I would appreciate that the greatest gifts I received that day were her lessons on standing up for myself and the power of black pride.
- A Mother’s Loyalty
When my 17-year-old sister announced that she was pregnant, all hell broke loose. My mother knew well the hardships awaiting a teenaged mother. On more than one occasion, she had threatened to kill any one of her three daughters who “came home with a baby.” Thankfully, she did not carry out her murderous threat.
Once word got out among the women in our extended family, the phone calls started pouring in. Aunts, cousins and grandmothers called, offering their support and what, strangely enough, sounded like condolences. However, a call from one of our aunts sent my mother into a rage. I could only hear my mother’s side of the conversation, but it was apparent that our aunt was calling my sister names when my mother began to scream into the phone.
“If anyone is a slut it’s you! Don’t you ever call my daughter out of her name again! As a matter of fact, you are no longer welcome in my home! ” With that my mother slammed the phone down and stormed out of the kitchen.
In spite of my mother’s anger and disappointment at my sister’s news, she stood up for her daughter. I learned that day that regardless of the choices I made, my mother would never allow others to tear me down. I’m sure that her example is the reason I have always fiercely defended my own child.
- You Are Stronger than You Think
It had been barely two months since my 18-year-old brother was killed. It seemed that time had stopped in our home. It seemed none of us could move on from July 20, 1969, the day a 15-year-old girl shot my brother in his back. Heidi tried to make it home but died in my mom’s arms on the corner of the street where we lived. We would never know her motive.
September came and I could not believe we were expected to attend the first day of school with the pain of our loss crushing down on everything that was normal. Those first months of my high school freshman year I moved from class to class in a fog. Everyday we would return to the strangeness of the haunting quietness that was now our home. Heidi’s boisterous mirth now silenced, it seemed no one dared to laugh without him.
One evening our mother summoned us all into the living room. In the few months since we’d buried Heidi, our mother had become a wisp of a woman. Her face was gaunt, her eyes empty. She sat in the middle of the sofa, the youngest children scrambling to sit as close to her as possible. That evening, our mother encouraged us to move on with our lives. She told us that it seemed that we had all, including herself, died along with Heidi. She told us that it was okay to play and to laugh. As she ran off a litany of my brother’s infamous antics, laughter returned to our hearts and our home.
As my mother talked and encouraged us to talk that evening, I could see a hint of life returning to her eyes. Just before we left her to get ready for bed, she smiled and said to us, “You are all much stronger than you think.”
- God Is Real
It was my mother’s habit to kneel beside her bed at night, hands folded under her chin, eyes closed, while silently conversing with God. It did not matter how much noise was around her. She was able to go to a place beyond the noise and, as she would put it, experience “fellowship with a God who is real.” She would encourage us to say our prayers at night, but she never checked to see if we did. I felt that my mother had us covered with God, so I did not take her admonishments to heart.
I was 29. The day had started like any other. I was at home alone, preparing dinner and waiting for my son to race through the door from school. Over the years my mother had encouraged all of her children to keep a bible on hand. Following her example, I kept mine on the coffee table in the living room. It had served as a decorative dust collector until the day its words became life to me.
I was standing at the stove when suddenly I was arrested by a gentle but powerful presence. Only a few seconds had passed when I found myself on my knees at the threshold between my kitchen and dining room. Time seemed to stop, and for no apparent reason, I began to cry uncontrollably. There on my knees, it felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from me, both physically and somewhere deep within.
After what seemed like mere seconds, I stood and walked to the front door. I looked out to see a brilliance of color I had never seen before. The sky was bluer, the grass was greener, and the brightness of the light caused me to squint. I felt like I was completely enclosed within the tenderness of a type of warmth that, after 32 years, I have yet to find the words to describe. I picked up the bible and my eyes fell to a scripture on forgiveness. From that day on, my life began to change drastically.
Bad habits dropped away like petals from flowers in the fall. Suddenly, some of the things I used to do and places I used to go were no longer of interest to me. I developed an insatiable hunger for reading the bible every chance I got. I was beyond elated and thankful to find, within its pages, an understanding of what I was experiencing. It was months before I went to church. My experience felt so deeply personal that I did not want anyone to influence it one way or another.
Knowing my skepticism, God met me while I was alone, right there in my home. Before that day, I had not known anything about the born again experience. In fact, I had never heard the term. It was the way God had chosen to save me, that finally moved my mother’s words past my mental assent to a faith that filled my heart. God is undeniably real.
- Stand up for Yourself
I started high school during the time when James Brown sang and danced the mantra of black pride into the hearts and minds of a generation of blacks who would eventually be tagged baby boomers. I entered high school sad and defensive, but filled with black pride. My daily encounters with prejudice from classmates as well as a few teachers fueled my defensiveness. Bigotry made me feel that I had something to prove. Each look of indifference and each act of injustice reminded me of those four boys at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was determined to stand up for my right to be a student at the newly integrated Catholic high school.
My freshman year at the Catholic High School of Baltimore was an experience of unsettling culture shock. The ratio of whites to blacks was 70:1. Between the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, tensions ran high in our school as well as the country at large.
Sister Francesca taught biology and had earned a reputation as a bully and a bigot. I have long since forgotten the nature of her alleged offense, but she raised her hand to slap my face. Knowing that I had done nothing wrong, I stood up for my right to defend myself, blocked her hand and slapped her face. I was ushered to the principal’s office. My mother was called to pick me up.
Once my mother arrived, I was given the choice to either apologize or be expelled. My mother took me into the hallway and told me that I could either give up an exceptional education that would benefit me in the future, and let Sister Francesca win, or that I could simply say that I was “sorry for what happened in the cafeteria.” Carefully using my mother’s exact words, I chose the latter. My mother winked at me as she waved goodbye and I returned to class. It was our secret that I was not sorry for hitting Sister Francesca or for standing up for myself, only that the altercation had occurred.
After graduating high school, my plan was to continue my education, but the money was not there. My mother had promised I could start at Morgan State University the following spring semester. I foolishly allowed the disappointment to consume me, and spent my days hanging out smoking marijuana. By the time spring semester started I had lost the desire to continue my education. My mother gave me the choice to go to school or to find a job.
A few of the people I was hanging around had jobs at a local Burger King. Smoking marijuana had become a habit by then and had divested me of focus and drive. Flipping burgers require neither.
Two days after I started work, I looked up from the grill and was surprised to see my mother speaking with the manager. I couldn’t believe it when she stretched out her arm beckoning me, curling and uncurling her index finger. She took me to a corner near the restrooms. I saw sadness in her eyes as she said, “You have too much potential to be working in this place.” At that, she turned and walked out the door. The next week we sat down together to look into financial aid. I started college the next semester.
- People Can Only Give You What They Have
Clara’s Heart was the last movie we watched together. On an unseasonably warm December afternoon I sat gingerly on the side of my mother’s bed and watched her chest rise and fall, each breath assisted by the long plastic tube secured to her nasal passages and attached to the green steel tank on the floor beside her bed. My mother had been worried that she would have to give up her beautiful cherry wood headboard for the comfort of the motorized hospice bed, but the bed had fit perfectly into the frame of the headboard, and the crucifix hanging between the bedposts remained undisturbed. I watched as her eyes fluttered open.
“Hi Mom,” I whispered. I’m sorry for waking you.”
“Oh, I wasn’t sleep, just resting my eyes.” She pointed to the collection of videos piled high on the shelf beneath the television.
“Sit me up, let’s watch a movie, the one with Whoopi Goldberg,” she said between wheezing breaths.
She patted the space beside her and I climbed into bed next to her to watch her favorite movie. The oxygen tank hissed, pumping whizzing sounds into her chest. We watched as Whoopi Goldberg and a very young Neil Patrick Harris tried to make sense of the tragedy that had befallen his family. I felt sorry for the little boy suffering the loss of his infant sister, as well as the loss of his parents’ attention due to their preoccupation with the unraveling of their marriage.
As David (Neil) laid his head on Clara’s (Whoopi) chest and cried, I whispered to my mother that it wasn’t fair that his parents were too self-absorbed to realize how much he needed them. She reached over, patted my hand, and whispered back, “You need to remember this, daughter. People can only give you what they have.”
Over the years, when faced with disappointments and broken relationships, I have fallen upon those words, and they have comforted me and given me perspective and hope.
Roxanne V. Young is presently an MFA student in the University of Baltimore’s Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program. Although her primary writing genre is memoir, she enjoys writing poetry and inspirational articles for Christian women’s magazines.