Nonfiction by Tara Betts
When You Want to Call Your Mother
Sadly, there are moments when something happens related to race and I want to call her. I have gotten far enough to pick up the phone and look up her name in my phone. Only then, did I realize that she had been gone since May 2015. My white mother was the one who taught me to read, but she was also the one who made me acutely aware of race. I vividly remember responses from the nuns when I drew my father with a brown crayon and used a peach crayon to draw my mother. More than once I saw an adult look surprised, then attempt to recover. It was my mother who would shake her head and tell me the terrible nicknames that people gave to Brazil nuts and the process of stepping on the grass until it was only dry dirt with sparse patches of grass.
My mother was the one who worked at a mental health facility and took care of the residents who were unable to take care of themselves. She would come home and vent to her friends on the phone about who was probably abusing residents and how the residents kick, punch, scream, defecate and urinate on themselves, and sometimes, act surprisingly gentle.
Part of the reason why I am writing about a white woman for this piece is not because she is my mother and I miss her. Every story does not need to have a white character at its center. I am writing about her because she found racism to be one of the most unpalatable conditions. I hear her distaste for it in my mouth. I never wanted to deny my black father, who was in Cobb Park with us the first time that someone called me and my brothers the dreaded epithet—that name that black parents never want their children to know. His likeness lingers on my face.
My mother chose to live with my father in one of the blackest sections of Kankakee, Illinois, where railroad tracks ran through out block, and we lived above my grandparents’ tavern across the street from Morning Star Baptist Church, where the church’s white star-shaped sign burned bright in my bedroom window. Her choice to be there, instead of avoiding a simple marriage at the courthouse and staying with my white grandparents, led me here. I think my young mother knew the world would not see her children as white, and she protected us fiercely.
One day, my mother came home from work and was clearly drained. She had taken this job at the mental health facility shortly after my parents’ divorce. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She had taken off her shoes and was sitting at the kitchen table. Drooping and somehow still upright, my mother just kept saying, “Believe me when I tell you white people are racist and will start calling people the n-word as soon as there are no black people in the room.” I asked her what happened at work.
In our tiny yellow kitchen of the 3-bedroom section 8 apartment we had behind a Kmart, my mother started to tell me how she was almost invisible in a room full of white co-workers until they started talking about other black co-workers. “My kids are black. Don’t you ever start talking bad about black people around me ever again.” It was like she was reliving the conversation. For the first time, I saw how much the hurt made her slouch in her chair. Oddly enough, it was the one thing that let me know my mother understood my hurt.
When someone understands your hurt, you can call them about what you saw on the news, or when you see what race has done to call someone a criminal or devalued their life. You can talk about the book that you never got taught in school but read on your own to defend yourself. You can call your mother and cry or talk about the subtleties of how someone cannot call you a slur, but still make you miserable. When your mother is your steady stone that made you feel like you should keep fighting, you want to smash the goddamn phone and find some hope in writing better stories that reflect on forgotten, omitted, misplaced, and little known people, like your mother.
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her work has appeared in POETRY, Essence, NYLON, ESPNW and numerous anthologies. Tara is also one of the co-editors of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.