by Kevin Powell
Illustrated by J. Michael Walker

Mother, have I told you
That you are the first woman
I ever fell in love with, that what
I’ve always wanted in life is to hear
You say you love me, too?

That is why, ma, it has taken
Me so long to write this poem.
For how could I, a
Grown man, put words to paper
If I am that little boy
Cowering beneath the power of
That slap, the swing of that belt,
Or the slash and burn of that switch
You used to beat me into fear and submission?

I constantly cringe, ma,
When I think of that oft-repeated chorus you sung
As a fusillade of blows walloped my skeleton body:
Are you gonna be good? Are you gonna be good?
Sometimes when I call you these days, mother,
I just don’t know what to say, thus I fall silent,
Even when you ask “How are you doing?”
I want to give you real talk,
Tell you that I am still that stunted only child
Traumatized by the violence of your voice;
That I am still that shorty too terrified to fall
Asleep for fear of your pouncing on me
The moment I shut my eyes—
And you did, mother, again and again,
Until I could no longer sleep peacefully
As a child, and I have never actually had
Many tranquil nights of sleep since.
I lay awake sometimes, as an adult,
Thinking someone is going to get me,
Going to strike me, going to kill me
Because of those heart-racing hours
Of darkness far far ago.

And I remember that time I ran under
Our bed, and in your titanic rage
You tore the entire bed apart,
The frame falling on one of my legs,
And there I was, stuck, mother,
And you ripped into me anyhow.
And oh how I howled for mercy.
But there was none, mother.
Yet there was that chorus:
Are you gonna be good? Are you gonna be good?
And I really did not know, mother, what being good meant.
Nor what you wanted me to be.
Because one day I thought you loved me
And the next day I thought you hated me.

And I did not know back in the day, ma,
That you had been assaulted and abused
The same way, by my granddaddy,
Your father, a 19th century son of ex-slaves
who would break you and your
Three sisters and brother down with mule whips,
With soda bottles, with his gnarled hands—
That he was an embittered mister,
That you were the child who became
Most like your father. Do you not
Recall that past, mother?
I am saying you once chided me,
After you learned I had struck someone as an adult,
To keep my hands to myself, and I wanted to say
But, ma, why didn’t you keep your hands to yourself?
Why didn’t you command your hands, your arms,
To hug me, instead of urging them to damage me?

And that is what I previously was, ma: damaged
Goods that liked living on the other side of midnight.
That is why, mother, there was no sleep for me till Brooklyn,
Because I needed to escape the concrete box
Needed to escape the mental terrorism
Needed to escape you and that
Paranoid schizophrenic existence.
I am not crazy, ma. I know
Our destinies were frozen in those days
When we shared
That bed and room together,
Because we were too poor
To afford a full apartment.
To those days, mother, when I
Thought you were the bravest
Human being on earth as you
Fought super-sized black rats with
Your broomstick, or effortlessly
Shooed the army of roaches away
From our dinner table—

Maybe, ma, I have not been
Able to write this poem
Because I can envision you as a
Young mother, the one who suitcased
Her dreams when you left South
Carolina, when you moved, first, to Miami
To create a new life for yourself, to flee
The world that murdered your
Grandfather, a local cook, by stuffing food in his mouth,
Then baptizing him in cracker water and proclaiming
It was an accident. It was the world that knocked
On your grandmother’s door and told
Her she had to give up 397 of those 400 acres
Of land called the Powell Property—
One penny for each acre of land—
And what your grandmother was left with
Was a jar of soil called Shoe Hill,
The contaminated hill where you were born, ma:
That world never bothered to change the
Name from the Powell Property. And there you
Were, at age eight, sunrising with the moldy men
And the wash-and-wear women
As God’s yawn and morning stretch
Tickled the rooster’s neck,
Waking you good colored folks to toil on that Powell Property—
To pick cotton for White folks as if being
Cheap and exploited labor was your American birthright.

And you were angry bye and bye, mother.
You would get so angry, Aunt Birdie told me
One time, that sweat droplets would form on your nose,
Your brow would curl up, and the world and
Anyone in it would become your
Empty lard can to kick back and forth up the road a piece.
Ah, ma, but you were such a pretty little Black
Girl—I have the picture right here this minute,
Of you at 12 or 13, tender and dark ebony skin
A beautiful yet temperamental and unloved Black girl
Told that you were ugly, that you had ugly hair,
That you would never be anything other than
The help and wooden steps for someone else’s climb—

But you were persistent, ma, and mad determined
To make something of yourself.
And Jersey City
Welcomed you as it welcomed each of
The lost-found children of the Old South
Welcomed y’all country cousins to
Number runners slumlords
imps drug dealers bad credit
Huge debts and would-be
Prophets who called themselves storefront preachers
And there you were, mother, within a year,
With my father—

Was he your first love, ma, did he mop
The Carolina clay from your feet?
Did he sprinkle sweet tea and lemon on your belly?
Did he ever really make love to you, mother?
Or was he more like that plantation robot
Who was built to mate then make a quick
Dash to the next slave quarters?
What I do know, mother, is that you went to the hospital
Alone, to spread your legs for
A doctor whose plasma face you do not remember
To push forth a seed you had attempted
To destroy twice because you feared his
Birth would mean the death of you.
But there I was, ma, in your arms
Screaming lunging fleeing
And you were so tremendously ashamed
To be an unwed mother that you did
Not tell Grandma Lottie for five years,
Until that day we showed up
In your hometown of Ridgeland, South Carolina.

But what a mother you were:
You taught me to talk
Taught me to know my name
Taught me to count to read to think
To aspire to be something.
You, my grade-school educated mother,
Gave me my swagger—
Told me I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor,
Told me I was going to do big things,
That I was going to have a better life
Than this welfare this food stamp this government cheese
Had pre-ordained for us.
And we prayed, mother, yes lawd we prayed—
To that God in the sky, to the White Jesus on our wall,
To the minister with the good hair and the tailored suits,
To the minister with the gift
To chalk on busted souls and spit game in foreign tongues—
And back then, ma, I did not understand the talking in tongues
The need to pin pieces of prayer cloth on our attire
The going to church twice a week
The desperation to phone prayer hotlines when there was trouble.
But what you were doing, ma,
Was stapling our paper lives together as best you could
Making a way out of no way
Especially after my father announced,
When I was eight,
That he would not give “a near nickel” to us again.
And he never did, mother, never—

And I sometimes wonder if that is when
The attacks got worse because you were
So viciously wounded
By my father’s ignorance and brutality
That that ignorance and brutality
Was transferred to me
As you would say, in one breath,
Don’t be like your father
And in another
You just like your no-good daddy

And, yes, I am crying this second, mother,
As I write this poem
Because I see you today:
A retired Black woman with a limp, a bad leg,
Shuffling up and down three flights of stairs.
Too headstrong to allow me to move
You from that heat-less apartment,
Life reduced to trips to the grocery store
A bus ride to the mall
A sacred pilgrimage to the laundry room
And the daily ritual of judge shows, Oprah, and the local news.

And, mother, you remain without the love you forever
Crave, and you forever speak of getting married one day.
And you are so very worn out from
Fifty-four years of back breaking work—
But this I know now:
Your life was sacrificed so that I could have one, ma.

So I write this poem, son to mother, to say I love you
Even if you refuse to accept my words
Because you are too afraid to defeat the devil
And bury the past with our ancestors once and for all.
I write this poem
To say I forgive you for everything, mother—
For the poverty for the violence for the hunger
For the loneliness for the fear
For the days when I blamed you for my absent father
For the days when I wanted to run away
For those days when I really did run away—
I forgive you, ma, for those days you cursed
And belittled me, for those days when you said
I was never gonna make it.
Oh, yes, ma, I do forgive, I forgive you for
The beatings, I do, dear mother, I do—
Because if it were not for all of who you are
All of where you come from
All of what you created for me
I would not be alive today.

For below the bloody scar tissues of your fire and fury
And aggravations and self-imposed house arrest
Is a woman who defied the mythmakers
Turned her nose up at the doomsayers—
Is someone who fought landlords
And crooked police officers and
Social workers and school systems and
Deadbeat men who wanted to live off of
Her; and from the tar and feathered remains
Of lives noosed from the very beginning,
We have survived, and here we are, mother:
You have never said you love me
But I know every time I come home
And you’ve made potato salad and stringbeans,
Every year you’ve mailed me a birthday card
Or asked if you should buy me pajamas for Christmas,
I know that you are,
In your own wildly unpredictable way,
The greatest love I’ve ever had in my life—

Tuesday, January 1, 2008