My Two Mothers, America, and the Million Man March
Luke Charles Harris
MY TWO MOTHERS
The ways in which race, class, and gender intersect to confound and restrict Black women’s lives are so severe that no single political agenda is adequate to address this "intricate complex."1 On a very personal level, I was sensitized to the workings of that "intricate complex" through the life experiences of the two women who are most responsible for my existence.
Eva B. Cox was a loving great-aunt and surrogate mother. She rescued my younger brother Larry and me from life in an orphanage and then raised us on welfare in Camden, New Jersey, while working off the books as a domestic. Gertrude Hickson, my "real" mother, worked as a prostitute in Manhattan, where she abandoned me and my six siblings in various welfare hotels. Both were poor Black women whose lives were profoundly shaped and limited by their race, class, and gender.
Eva was the primary nurturer in my life and a spiritual and emotional shield against adversity. Born in 1906, she was a Black woman very much of her time and socioeconomic circumstance, someone who was not encouraged to believe in the power of her own intellect or in her capacity to achieve high professional goals. Her life revolved around family and the church. It was filled with sacrifices—not so much to help herself but to help others. Propriety, decency, good manners, hard work, and selflessness were the values that most informed her vision of the world. The converging structures of race, gender, and class, then as now, permitted only extremely limited career options for women of her background. By the age of sixteen, she had already begun to work as a domestic for white families, work she would continue to do for more than half a century.
Eva was raised to be a caretaker, to serve men and to serve families. She struggled to raise three generations of children in our family, none of whom were her own by birth. She focused her enormous energies and extraordinary resourcefulness on nurturing others—both within our family and as a domestic working outside our family. Looking back at her life, I realize now that her working off the books as a maid would make her, in the eyes of the state, just another "welfare cheat." But, to my brother and me, she was a heroine. The money she earned as a domestic made it possible for us to live just above the poverty line. We did not have much, nor did we have everything that we wanted. But, as she always said, we had "all that we needed." There was both enormous strength and astonishing ingenuity in her capacity to adapt to her situation in a context that gave her very little credit and respect for her achievements and where she gave others a great deal—literally holding their lives together.
In contrast to Eva Cox’s substantial and ongoing presence, Gertrude Hickson, my biological mother, was a shadowy figure in our lives, glimpsed only rarely. She lived a life of drives and experiences I can only imagine. She, too, was a product of her circumstances. I do not know what compelled her to leave home. She left at sixteen and went to New York City, perhaps wanting and no doubt deserving more than what Merchantville, a small town in New Jersey, could offer. Perhaps she had been subjected to abuse at home. Perhaps, in running away from a life that paralleled Eva’s restricted options and tremendous burdens, she ran straight into a life where dreams turned into nightmares. How or why she became a prostitute, I cannot say for sure. But, I do know that prostitution was not an uncommon fate for Black women who confronted poverty and the limited educational and job opportunities that she faced in the late 1930s. Moreover, I know that drugs, alcohol, and poverty eventually mangled her life, as did her mistreatment and abuse by a series of men. And I know that she had seven children over a ten-year period. While giving us all life, she lived a life that did not have the space and the resources for the rearing of her children. In giving us all away to be raised by others, she was perhaps being as good a mother as her life permitted, trying to protect our lives from the forces and tragedies that were wrecking her own.
Gertrude visited my brother and me at Eva’s home a few times. On one such occasion, when I was twelve, she placed her head on my lap, cried, and apologized to me for the life that she was leading, a life I had not yet fully grasped. Upon reaching my adolescence, I rarely saw her. But when I was twenty-three, she sent word that she was on her deathbed and that she wanted to see Larry and me. So we traveled to her bedside. She was emaciated, dying of cancer, barely able to speak. With tears in her eyes, she begged our forgiveness for having lived a life that she regretted. We forgave her so that she could rest in peace and so that we could move on with our own lives. Gertrude died soon after, at the age of fifty-one, in the place we saw her last, a hospital for paupers on Wards Island in New York City. Eva passed away in 1993 at the age of eighty-six.
In the shadows of these two extraordinary women, I live a life that, through some fortuitous events and positive interventions, escaped many of the constraints that my mothers endured. Not least among my good fortunes was the advent of affirmative action in the late 1960s, which enabled me to attend college and law school, travel and study abroad, earn a Ph. D., and ultimately become a college professor. With sadness, however, I will carry with me forever the realization that my own accomplishments in no way compensate for the lack of opportunity that stifled the dreams of my two mothers. In different ways, the lives of Gertrude Hickson and Eva B. Cox represent the struggle for meaningful existence when opportunities are few and far between.
Knowing that many women in my community today are living lives no less trammeled than the lives of my mothers, I feel on a deeply personal level the Black community’s need for political visions and public policy agendas that attend to the lives of such women. We must take their contributions to the community seriously and consider their problems central to the ongoing struggle for social justice in America. My convictions have been strengthened by recent feminist writings that urge us to pay particular attention to the ways in which factors such as race, class, and gender work together to perpetuate unwarranted disparities between and within different groups of Americans in a variety of institutional and social settings.2 These works make clear the vital importance of our developing a political vision that encompasses all members of the Black community without privileging the interests of one sector of our community over the interests of another. Such a vision would attend to the interests of Black men and Black women—including gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the Black community.
The apparently popular alternative to this vision has been a politics that instead centers our attention on the lives of Black men. This form of politics often advances the "endangered Black male narrative" while deflecting, marginalizing, and ignoring the many ways in which race, class, and gender also endanger the lives of Black women.3 Such male-centered notions of Black politics have the effect, in both the short and the long term, of undermining the well-being of the community as a whole. For they not only fail to address all of the issues that circumscribe opportunities for Black Americans; they also fail to pinpoint all of the relevant considerations that should affect how we think about and do politics.
In searching for an inclusive political vision that is sculpted to the lives of all Black Americans, including contemporary women like my two mothers, I was inspired by the writings and the political activism of progressive African Americans such as bell hooks, Deborah King, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Beth Richie, and the late Audre Lorde.4 In recent years, I have forged close working relationships with African American feminists, combining my theoretical support for a political agenda that centers on rather than marginalizes Black women with a political activism that gives life to my beliefs. In struggling for a richer, more inclusive political vision and activism in the Black community, however, I have been both surprised and alarmed to find myself at odds with the opinions that are held by the majority of Blacks on many key issues.
Many Black men were raised by, or have grown up around, women like my two mothers and around women whose lives, while substantially different from those of my mothers, are shaped by their class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. But, all too frequently, when Black men conceptualize a politics for our community, they marginalize the experiences and the problems of these women. Men, in a variety of problematic incarnations, are at the center of our political narratives, sometimes as an "endangered species," sometimes as the "rightful" heads of our households, and sometimes as the "legitimate" leaders of our community.5 Black women appear tangential to these political visions in ways that signify that patriarchal politics are not the exclusive prerogative of white communities.
Unfortunately, not only do many Black men endorse political agendas that focus principally on Black men (and only heterosexual men at that); so too do many Black women. A recent example of this phenomenon was the Black community’s support of the Million Man March.6 The public debates about that March and the extent of Black participation forcefully brought home to me the dangers of a male – centered Black political agenda. This essay exposes those dangers. I argue that, while the call for the Million Man March touched a deep emotional and spiritual chord in the Black community, it was nonetheless problematic because the politics underlying the March reflected sexism and uncritical psuedonationalism. In the end, the March undermined, rather than facilitated, Black community building.