Hands down: James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation,” his 1927 poetic retelling of the Biblical Genesis story, is one of the best renditions of the Creation story ever written (& performed by Black children in somebody’s Black History program). His entire piece is imaginatively breath-taking. However, what I find to be the most beautiful stanza in Johnson’s narrative poem is his second to last, in which he writes:
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
I used to teach Johnson’s poem as part of a revision unit I was required to implement in the first year composition courses I taught at The University of South Florida, Tampa. Coupled w/the Biblical Creation story & Aaron Douglas’ 1927 gouache paper painting, The Creation, I taught my writing students how to revise historical content keeping in mind audience, genre, & speaker—in other words, keeping in mind the rhetorical triangle that
informs a content’s persuasive ability. Because rhetorical analysis requires the critic to consider an author’s word choice, I insisted my predominantly white students pay attention to Johnson’s use of the word, “mammy”—but not as the controlling image Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Trudier Harris, & other Black feminist theorists warn us about. (Alas, during the time I was teaching this particular unit, I was none the wiser re: (or consciously aware of) Black feminist theory—altho I was familiar w/Alice Walker’s “womanist theory.”) Instead, I wanted my white students to see how Johnson used simile & juxtaposition to compare God to a Black woman. & light weight, bump the literary elements—Johnson brazenly integrated the Black woman into a historically white-washed Creation story. In his Creation story, God is a Black woman—a mammy who is not denigrated into an ugly, asexual, nanny-maid, but acknowledged as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent originator of all. Now, I’m clear Black feminists will take up issue w/a man defining a Black woman—yet, again. However, I want to “count it all joy,” for when I read Johnson’s mammy stanza, I think of my father. Surely, if Johnson’s God can be a mammy, so could my daddy.
My daddy was Donald Earl Bryant, born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1948. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social work from Tennessee State University in 1969, & two years later, Mommy’s hand in marriage—after pining away for it since he was in high
school. Daddy died in 2002. I was 22 years old, & altho I didn’t know him into my adulthood & into the me who is coming into an awareness of my parents as whole human beings—I did realize the “womanly” behaviors my father practiced, which, in my middle-class Cosby like household, seemed normal. I mean, didn’t everybody’s Black daddy cook dinner & breakfast regularly, shy away from manual labor, & cry while watching Titanic?
I saw Daddy cry before that, however. His eldest brother, Uncle Sam, had suddenly died of a heart attack in 1988 (& his father two years thereafter), & the morning my mother told my sisters & me, I remember seeing Daddy seated—at the edge of his bed where my twin sister Kiley & I would sit next to him tying our shoes—w/his head folded into his cupped hands. Daddy was crying, a vulnerability I don’t remember seeing in Mommy, even when Daddy died. I reckon, especially as I juxtapose my parents, Mommy really does exhibit the matriarch image—sans the lie that strong, Black, independent women who want to work to support her family, abandon her children, for we had Daddy; she
had Daddy. & together, they partnered a household that did not conform to societal ideas re: woman’s work. (Hmmm. I think I contribute my gender non-binary conforming household to my “late in life” knowing about Black feminist theory & the intersectional concept that challenges white supremacist patriarchy.) I didn’t grow up having to concern myself w/race, class, & gender—which is probably why Daddy used to tell me—during my Black nationalist phase of “hotepping” thru dashikis, racially charged poems, & academic revolts, I was a revolutionary w/no cause.
* * *
I have a lot of fond memories of Daddy: of his cooking my favorite meal of string beans, smothered turkey wing tips, & rice when I came home from college; of our Saturday morning breakfast dates to Overtown’s The Bahamian Pot for boiled fish & grits &
Johnnie Cake; of his letting me cut back his eyebrows & fingernails, & dress him for a night out w/Robert George, his college friend. (I dressed him in a pink polo & khaki shorts.) & I remember Daddy singing to Al Green’s “Lay Your Head on My Pillow” & the Temptations’ “Silent Night,” & when Kiley & I were baptized (at our own request—we were in middle school), I remember hearing Daddy, from the baptizing pool, begin singing “Jacob’s Ladder” like an old mother of the church leading the congregation. I remember these times, & more. However, my fondest memory of Daddy is not one I actually recall, but one I imagine thru my parents’ own remembering.
Daddy told this story often—of the night Mommy was out bowling in her Monday night Women’s League, & he was responsible for taking care of my sisters & me. Kimberly, the eldest, was six years old, & Kiley & I were circa three months. My mother, a full-time schoolteacher at Miami Lakes Elementary whose favorite pastime included bowling, was away at her Monday Night Women’s League, out in Hialeah—a venture that could last way into the late night—& one particular Monday night, Mommy came home to me, wide-eyed awake, sitting on Daddy’s bumping knee; we were both wearing white tank top shirts. Kim & Kiley had long since been asleep, but I, according to him, refused the bottle & persisted to wait for Mommy, for her breastfeeding. In Mommy’s version, Daddy
& I are both exasperated as expressed in my crying & his furious knee-bumping. Altho I cried for Mommy’s nurturing, for her milk, my imagination sees Daddy, “This great God / Like a mammy bending over her baby,” desperately wishing he could give me what I needed. But Daddy wasn’t God, & he wasn’t a woman; he was a man, whose Black feminist sensibilities (which I don’t doubt Mommy nurtured, but was instilled thru Grandma Mary & Granddaddy—his married parents who reared three children, two of whom they put thru college) allowed him to be a whole partner, a whole parent, a whole person undefined by white patriarchy’s dehumanization of Black men. Daddy nurtured my sisters & me while Mommy kicked it w/her girls—& continued to take care of us three small girl children years later when Mommy decided to be a full-time Master’s student taking evening classes at Nova University. Daddy’s wholeness gave Mommy room to be her whole self, too, & that’s what a Black man doing Black feminism looks like, right?
In her 2018 Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper writes, “[O]ne can’t truly be a feminist if you don’t really love women.” Altho Cooper is
discussing other women loving women (& fails to make space for Black male Black feminist), I aver no man can call himself a feminist if he doesn’t love Black women beyond how he loves his wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, niece, aunt. He cannot be a feminist if he doesn’t love women “deeply & unapologetically,” & this kind of loving isn’t “queer,” as Cooper says in her text, nor is it sexual or romantic; it’s agape—that profoundly spiritual love that seeks & insists upon the best for others. As I remember him, my daddy was that man; he was that man doing the Black feminism that mid-20th century political activists & creative writers like Amy Jacques Garvey, Lorraine Hansberry, Claudia Jones, & others propagating for male allies knew was possible. He was that man whose humanity allowed Mommy & his girl children to define our womanhood on our own terms. Light weight, he was that man who invited me into my own Black feminist revolution.