What’s up ma? What a life you have put together. I am always in complete awe of how a Black girl from Hollandale, Mississippi has influenced the world through her words, actions, and dangerous womb knowledge. What a life. A Black woman who has endured brain aneurysms and a stint in prison can still mother, love, and live. What a life. A Black girl lives under the racist Jim Crow South moves North with her family only to understand another American racist caste system. What a plight. Bringing into this world five beautiful children who are all fully functioning adults (kinda, I know my brothers and sisters are going to kiss my ass for that remark). But, with all of this, I have always wondering what does freedom really mean to you? What did it mean to be incarcerated under the rule of the Jim Crow South? What did it mean to be incarcerated during the initial height of mass incarceration? What does it mean to be a Black mother to Black chil’ren in a racist nation such as America? Who are you outside of being a mother? What does it mean for you to be America? Afro American?
I pose all these questions to set up this letter that I have been writing you for almost two weeks. In a previous letter I wrote to my dad about how he must find his Mecca, I was quite frank about how his incarceration has contributed to my perspective on his fatherhood, his black manhood, and the carceral state. For this particular piece, I want to dive into what your incarceration has contributed to my life. I also want to place you into the context of being a Black woman in America as well. What follows is a letter, a love note, and a conversation starter between black sons and their black mothers. Hardly do we have a chance to talk with each other in the public space.
In the first paragraph, I asked you what does freedom mean to you because we always have this conversation. Never one to back down from your racial analysis of white supremacy in America, you taught me from an early age that “when you white you are right, and when you are black step back.” I often chalked this up to some type of crazy Southern backwards thinking. Similar to when my white friends would come to our apartment and you would give them the race talk and put on your favorite movie. Yes, I still remember all the times you terrorized my white friends (and black ones too) making them watch Mississippi Burning in our living room while giving them a nice diatribe about whites thinking they were better than blacks.
Some years later, I finally get what you were saying. And, I get what you were not saying as well. You were articulating the cost of freedom that black people have paid for the pseudo democracy we live in under the American legal system. All of the lynchings endured by Black men who dare look at white women, all of the ravishes black girls endured at the hands of white men, all of the psychological trauma of growing up with whites that warred against your very existence, and all of the new racism you faced in Ohio as a Black girl and Black women, became a pedagogical tool to teach about the struggle for freedom. I could not see this as a high school student.
Freedom for you Etesta has always been an historical process. Making my friends and I reenter the South’s racist caste system gave us a perspective on how far we had come as a nation. Even more, your racial realist approach to turning the living room into the classroom gave me a stinging critique of the white power structure. Still, I had my own battles to fight because the racism and
I can still remember when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. I called you on the phone and said “Ma they are killing us. Did you hear about Trayvon?” You replied a sweet “Yes.” Then, you allowed me the phone space to process what was happening to us black males in America. Not once did you stifle my anger, not once did you tell me to fight back my tears, and not once did you say it will be okay. All you told me was that we had to give it to God and we had to fight. It felt like I was swallowing some type bitter pills with razors in them. Each tear that came down my cheek you did not wipe away because I think you knew how you had to prepare me for the world. For America is a racist killing field to Black people. As once stolen property from Africa, we have endured state inflicted violence throughout America’s history. By you allowing me to go through all the stages of grieving for Trayvon, you were also reminding me that my Trayvon Martin was your Emmett Till. Put in a different way, Mamie Till (mother of Emmett Till) and Sabrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin) could have been you, a Black mother notified that their Black son had been murdered by the State.