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Creation story & Aaron Douglas’ 1927 gouache paper painting, The Creation, I taught my writing students how to revise historical content keeping in mind audience, genre, & speaker—in other words, keeping in mind the rhetorical triangle that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

*            *            *

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 poem for Yakini (because there’s something about her aura)

& I think about how beautifully black you are // so black ur bright // beaming // glaring // glistening // shimmering like Shug Avery’s shimmy // shining brighter than the brightest light // wondering if I touch the tip of ur locs // like touching the hem of His garment // will I will shine too? // but you don’t see me // staring at ur beautiful black self // wanting & longing to be in ur mind // to engross ur thoughts // to feel ur skin // to hold ur hand // all the while hoping you’ll lead me to the mountain top.

& I think of you in church on Easter Sunday // wearing a too pink pink dress that reveals ur scrawny black legs scarred by last year’s chicken pox & wounded by limbs of the oak tree that shades grandmother’s front porch & provides a place for drinking moonshine // playing cards // watching passersby pass by // they shutter // they scuttle // & they scuffle // & ur sitting in church // staring at that white jesus // knowing that he’s not ur savior // marveling at big women wearing feathered hats // crying jesus’ name // questioning how grandmothers can be so jubilant about a god they’ve never seen // who allowed their daughters to be raped // their sons to be stripped of their manhood // & why do you have to recite a speech regarding this faith you find unfaithful?

& I see you // growing thru hopscotch & double dutch // coconut milk & vegetable patties // wearing beautiful black pigtails // eating summer’s red watermelon // not caring if they call you pickaninny // because ur beautifully black // & that’s all that matters // going to school where history’s lessons are not ur story // daydreaming of Marcus Garvey & Booker T. Washington // wanting to gather ur bootstraps & march all the way to the Mother Land // so you march in ur thoughts // & ur daydream is ur movement.

& I see ur Afro wearing // dashiki flaunting // beautiful black self // changing ur name // still knowing the pride in mother’s offer // but wanting black to resonate off the tongues of those who call ur name // & maybe the world will holy ghost when it hears how beautiful black sounds // intone ur name in hopes that you will save it from the lynchings imposed by hoover // lynch // & crow // spiriting a revolution that black folks won’t be afraid of.

& I see you // mothering daughters // braiding beautiful brazen black hair // sewing dresses // mending wounds // singing “to be young gifted & black” // playing “Mississippi Goddam” // teaching beautiful black babies how to be humane under inhumane conditions // knowing that freedom’s void in integrated schools where black teachers are rarely visible to show black students how to be freedom fighters writing in the name of heroes unsung but not forgotten.

& I see you becoming Big Mom // standing on a mountain top // overseeing w/out being an overseer // gray locs falling down the strength of ur back // they lending wisdom // feeding thousands // holding the burdens of ur people in each strand // their salvation // ur strength // humming liberations // wading thru waters // baptizing the lost // curing the ill // pouring libations // thanking the spirits of those before us—

& when I lay me down to sleep // praying that the moon does not turn blood red & the stars don’t fall to the ground making earth void of light // I think of you reading In Search of Our Mother’s Garden // drinking ur red wine // cooking ur tofu // listening to Coltrane // being in ur sentimental mood // thinking ur black thoughts // being ur beautiful black self // it is then I’m lulled to sleep // wanting to wake up to be just like you.

*      *     *

A version of this poem was awarded the College Language Association’s 2011 Margaret Walker Memorial Prize for Creative Writing.

#TBT Poem 2: we be theorizin

I wrote “We Be Theorizin” after reading Barbara Christian’s 1987 “The Race for Theory” essay. I was sitting in Shirley Toland-Dix’s 20th century African American Literature course at The University of South Florida (circa 2009) when I read this work and finally received language for a Black genius I knew, but had yet to understand. “We Be Theorizin”  was first printed in Deboarh G. Plant’s “The Inside Light”: New Criticisms of Zora Neale Hurston (2010, Praeger Press).

We Be Theorizin

They thought we was over there

shuckin & jivin

when all the while we been theorizin

How else you think black folks survivin

They try to keep us down

but we keeps on thrivin

Can’t no oppression keep us from strivin

They try to break our souls

but we keeps on smilin

& through grins & lies

we master guisin

Gotta be a trickster for humanizin

But we’ll wear the mask

cause we be theorizin

 

So right on Zora Neale

Write on

Right on W. DuBois

Write on

Right on Booker T.

Write on

Cause we been watchin God

while they been in the dark

The souls of black folks

produce the purest heart

& our plantin seeds

is just a start

See / we sowin wisdom

with literary arts

& through performances

that’s how we impart

the theory they claim, rename, and bogart

So right on Langston Hughes

Write on

Right on Richard Wright

Write on

Right on James Baldwin

Write on

Cause the Negro speaks of rivers

& the weary blues

He’s the native son, the outsider

if she choose

& if Beale Street could talk

it would share some news

cause we’ve gone a piece of the way

in our travelin shoes

& tho our cuttin the rug might seem our muse

we be theorizin & maskin the clues

So right on Nella Larsen

Write on

Right on Countee Cullen

Write on

Right on Claude McKay

Write on

Cause just as quick as sand

we can change our tune

We speak in vernaculars

they call us a coon

But once they’re out of our way

& have left the room

out comes Harlem wine

& intellectuals bloom

& when the Harlem dancer makes her body croon

that’s our theory that esoterically looms

 

So talk that talk money

& walk that walk

Black feeling & judgment compels them to gawk

It’s our colorful brilliance

that makes them balk at the notion that we be a theory

 

Cause we be theorizin

in our baptizin

In churches & clubs

we signifyin

Gospel jazz / blues got us cryin

Oral traditions keep us from dyin

We flyin on tryin

We hypnotizin

& dance floors are our silver linin’s

Creatin the arts keep us glidin

So we paintin faith & buildin horizons

Keepin hope alive & eyes on prizes

& writin poetry makes us the wisest

We are the ones that we’ve been waitin for

 

We soar . . .

Like . . . birds . . . in . . . the sky . . .

 

So high five

Gwendolyn Brooks & James Weldon Johnson

Nina Simone & Alice Walker

Give me some skin

Malcolm X & Leopold Senghor

Toni Morrison & Martin Luther King

Tell me something good

Jamaica Kincaid & Audre Lorde

Houston Baker & Frantz Fanon

Throw me a shimmy

bell hooks & Lauryn Hill

Angela Davis & Assata Shakur

Pass me the mic

Marcus Garvey & Henry Louis Gates

Aime Cesaire & Cornel West

Bet that up

Mos Def & Wole Soyinka

Huey Newton & Amiri Baraka

All givin life to Barack Obama!

 

See our theorizin

be our salvation

thru the Middle Passage & their plantations

Thru Jim Crow laws & humiliation

cointelpro & subjugation

Our theorizin so bright it’s blazin

We are the light that gives them life

blacker than the blackest night

we’re the blues on the left tryin to be the funk on the right

magical & dynOmite—

we are the world’s good time. . . .

 

Cause we be theorizin

which is our uprisin

No reparations / but we’re enterprisin

Creatin life to keep us from dyin

Singin, dancin, paintin, & writin

We are the titans

& our hue gives the world humanity.