My Daddy, My Mammy: A Black Man Doing Black Feminism

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Creation story & Aaron Douglas’ 1927 gouache paper painting, The Creation, I taught my writing students how to revise historical content keeping in mind audience, genre, & speaker—in other words, keeping in mind the rhetorical triangle that

aaron d-the-creation-for-blog
Aaron Douglas’ The Creation, 1927

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

Daddy at TSU
Daddy (in blue jean jacket) w/college classmates at Tennessee State University, circa 1960s

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

Daddy and Us on Bed
Me, Kimberly, Kiley, & Daddy, circa 1980s

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.

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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 &

Daddy & Me at FAMU
Me & Daddy, Florida A&M University, 1997

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

Daddy Looking Down at Jaida
Daddy & Jaida, his first granddaughter, 1998

& 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

A Young Mommy & Daddy
Daddy & Mommy, circa 1970s

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”: Unearthing Grandma’s Black Feminism

I was an 18-year-old fresh(wo)man at Florida A&M University when Grandma Rose died. Cancer. I don’t remember if I had yet told my family I was lesbian—altho I had been planning my comingout story since I left my parents’ home. I planned to tell them I am “pansexual”—a term I read w/which Alice Walker identified over 20 years before Janelle Monáe popularized the word. Being “pansexual” felt humanistic in a way that my parents would find my sexual interest palpable. But my comingout story is for another blog post. This piece is about Grandma Rose, who died 22 years ago, but has been most alive in this #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #blackgirlmagic space in which I have been pensively engaged.

I think of Grandma Rose often, & I think of her beyond watching Star Search, The Golden Girls, & Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) w/my sister & me every Saturday night; beyond her insisting we use both a fork & spoon to coil our spaghetti; & beyond her decorating her home w/Asian influenced furniture, juxtaposed against African-American art & figurines—all of which were situated inside a Southern luxury accented by novelty tea kettles, vintage telephones, & a round bed. (Yep, Grandma Rose had a ROUND bed.) She also had a fertile rose garden, two Cockatiels (she let me name Miles & Mia), & a pungent tongue: I was in earshot of hearing Grandma Rose telling stories of a woman being “as nervous as a hooker in church” & of Irvin (the man w/whom Grandma eloped while in Las Vegas) sitting at home “w/the white mouth,” hungrily waiting for Grandma to come home to cook dinner—two phrases I have carried & used in my own storytelling, not realizing the implications of race, class, & gender to which each phrase points. It is in that space, in the intersectionality of race, class, & gender, that I am thinking of Grandma Rose & realizing the historical significance of her unconventional behaviors—realizing that Grandma Rose was a Black Feminist, for many reasons. The first, for changing her name—a practice in self-definition, says Patricia Hill Collins, that is essential to Black women’s survival.

grandma & cookie
Grandma Rose w/her youngest of four children. Circa 1960s

Grandma Rose was born Pilate May McKenney in 1926, & 20 years later, post high school graduation, she changed her name to Rose. I thought Grandma Rose, who was originally named after her father, changed her name because she didn’t want to be associated w/the Biblical Pontius Pilate who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. I reckon such naming felt akin to one being named Hitler. However, my mother, Choling—who Grandma had two years after high school—says she remembers Grandma claiming only to not liking her name at all. I trust, therefore, that altho during my Grandmother’s era, many women were given male names—one of Grandma’s girlfriends is named Eddye—a woman given a traditionally male name is an unnecessary insult, despite his notoriety (or even his legacy). Whatever the reason, Grandma’s renaming herself is a move I always thought peculiarly non-traditional, especially since in 1946, circa the time Grandma legally changed her name, Black folks didn’t have time to be so self-serving, if you will: Richard Wright had recently published his Native Son; Margaret Walker, her For My People; & John H. Johnson, Ebony Magazine, while Tuskegee Airmen were organizing, Southerners were migrating, & Blacks were dying in Detroit Race Riots. Aaaaaand, Grandma was a single, teenage-ish parent. Oh, but so little did I know—about everything, especially about being a Black woman.

In What’s Love Got to Do with It? the 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s 1987 autobiography, I, Tina, Tina Turner, played by Angela Bassett, asked the judge presiding over her divorce from Ike for the rights to her name. She wanted nothing else. While Ike argued that Tina could not have his daddy’s name, Tina insisted on the right to that name, that, altho “belonged” to Ike’s daddy, belonged just as much to her, for it named the Tina Turner identity that centered & made visible a marginalized, if you will, Anna Mae Bullock. By taking ownership of her stage name, Tina Turner took ownership of herself. Tina wasn’t performing Tina; she was Tina. & so, once Tina could own her name, which allowed her to own herself, she was freed from a patriarchal naming that defines her as everything other than herself. Trudier Harris, in her 1982 From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature, explains it thusly:

“Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

Mammy caricatureHarris’ quote serves as the epigraph to Patricia Hill Collins’ “Mammies, Matriarchs, and other Controlling Images,” in which Collins examines controlling images (mammy, matriarch, welfare mother, welfare queen, Black lady, jezebel, & hoochie) in relationship to race, class, & gender, then explains how social institutions (schools, government, popular culture, & Black organizations (church, HBCU, family)) maintain those images. Then, in her following chapter, “The Power of Self-Definition,” Collins provides her readers a resolve: Black women can redefine themselvewelfare queen images. Collins does not suggest Black women legally change their names like Grandma Rose did (& Ntozake Shange, & Maya Angelou, & Toni Morrison, & Alice Walker, who added her grandmother’s name to her own). But she does argue, by circumventing the controlled images white folks have placed on the Black woman’s body, she can realize herself. No. Black women are not mammies nor matriarchs, & she is not the world’s mule nor its jezebel. & altho she may take her husband’s last name, she is not Mr.’s so-&-so’s wife, either. She is herself, & says, Nikki Giovanni, only she can measure herself.

Grandma Rose had a high school education, but she embodied Black feminism w/out

Grandma Rose eating
Grandma Rose, circa 1980s

having to know the theory at all. She didn’t want to be called Pilate, so she changed her name. Grandma Rose changed her name, not because she felt controlled by traditional images that have served to denigrate, humiliate, & dehumanize Black women, but because she controlled herself—& there’s nothing selfish about that. As a matter of fact, by centering herself in a white supremacist patriarchy that would have her perform day labor before she became a lab technician, Grandma Rose was claiming her humanity: “Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions,” says Collins, “the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women’s power as human subjects.” In that way, Grandma Rose was a pilot after all—navigating the world on her own terms, seeing herself a rose, & demanding others to call her by that name—to know her as such. For tho “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Grandma Rose understood the power in names & the significance of defining her Black woman self in a country “felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

I am here for it.