Mission Hill leads to Mission Park, named for the 10-acre tract of land bought by a group of Williams alumni in 1855 to commemorate the Haystack Prayer Meeting. At the meeting in 1806, five Williams students sought shelter from lightning and were struck by the impulse to found the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). (Photo from Williams website)
The next morning, I woke up alone on my left side with my hand gripping a white pillow stained by my bleeding finger. My mind and stomach were so scrambled that the pain seemed to be in another world.
“How could this have happened?” I asked myself.
I pushed onto my back and lifted my arms over my head.
“How could we have let this happen?”
I curled up on my right side, hugging my hands between my legs.
“What would you say?”
I turned to my other side and curled up again.
“What would we do about it?”
I flipped onto my stomach.
“Why did this have to happen?”
I faced the pillow again, drawing it to me and holding it.
I threw the pillow back on the bed as I leaped out of it. Like mantras, the same questions began to run through my head again. My head was about to burst. I had to get out of there. I had to run to where I could think clearly. If you saw me agitated like this, you would know something was wrong. There were no Saturday classes. You would come back to the room with my favorite, a honey bun, after eating a breakfast of cereal, eggs and toast. I was desperate to escape your loving and discerning eyes.
My heart racing and my finger still throbbing, I wrote you a note explaining that I had left to study all day. I pulled on one of my two pairs of jeans and a scarlet cotton blouse made in India and studded with tiny, round mirrors on the chest. Then I dashed into the suite’s bathroom for a rushed toilet, praying that I would not bump into any of your suitemates who would see my crazed state. Luckily, I did not burst in on anyone, and no one walked in on me. When I was done, I ran out with my hands still damp and left the suite. Then I took two steps at a time up one flight to my room above yours on the fourth floor. I grabbed my books and flew down the stairs and out of Mission Park.
Up the hill I ran, then past Chapin Hall, past Thompson Memorial Chapel and up Route 7. I charged toward my destination – the river and its calm. When I got there, the mantras stopped and so did I. On the rock by the water’s edge, I dropped my books and stretched out on one side. I drew Fear and Trembling to me and lost myself in the rereading of it. I did not lift my head out of my book for an hour. Then I uncramped my arms and neck by rolling into a sitting position with my legs crossed. My eyes caught on the river’s rippling light which flowed back in time to the reflection of the sun on New York City’s East River, along which Mami and I and, later, my brother took strolls.
I remembered the apricot gauze wrapped around early evening, nostalgic for the ebbing day. I looked through black metal bars that stretched above my head. Huge mossy boulders lurked way down below on the other side. When I looked straight ahead, I saw many a ship glide by on greenish waters as it pulled into New York harbor. Often, Mami would sweep me up in her strong arms. We would wave at sailors on vessels carrying cargo from thousands of miles away as well as dreams of New York, whose reputation was both sordid and gleaming. They would wave back happily. I wonder whether any of them saw me and remembered himself as the child dreaming. Someday, I would become a voyager and see the world, I vowed. I delighted in those walks; they quieted me by crystallizing my life as a traveler.
My parents had settled down. They had lived for their children. Each decision they made, no matter how small, turned on how it would touch us. Still, I never took for granted being cared for and loved without condition. Maybe that was because of Daddy’s admonition, “No such thing as something for nothing.” I took it as advice for life anywhere, not just in New York as he meant it.
Parents are not selfless. Mine were not. Yours were not. People are not. They let you know what would please them. At nineteen, I was too young and too much of a swaggerer to admit that Mami and Daddy’s wishes weighed heavily on me. I thought I was independent and, more than that, self-made. I did not yet understand the potency of the rich, yeasty smell of Mami’s baking bread. My spirit as well as my body had been fed by her. And there I was, away from home for the first time and struggling to define myself apart from my nurturers in my search for myself. I was trying to free myself from the claws of parental love. It was a strained time.
“They’re your family,” you would say when I threatened to disappear from their lives. “They’ll always be your family.”
I did not fully understand why my parents wanted what they did for their lives. Neither did they. They were too busy living to ask why. And I only knew a sketch of their stories.
Before meeting, they had immigrated to the United States from British Honduras. This was before the tiny Central American country changed its name to Belize, its oldest city and seaport; before the nation declared its independence, and before the smashup of the British empire, which the sun never set on. It was when immigration was both feared and admired and when only a brave few left home for the unknown.
Daddy had left his father’s big white house at sixteen, trying to be a man. For ten years, he girdled the world as a merchant seaman before disembarking in New York. He served in the U.S. Army and received his citizenship.
Mami achieved her steadfast dream of salvation when her father’s brother in Harlem, with whom she had pleaded in countless letters, sponsored her. At twenty-four, she left her room in a house where she took care of the children for her keep, her job as a shop clerk and her running from men who knew she had no family to protect her.
Weeks after she arrived in New York and days before her birthday, she met my father at a Belize dance on Fifth Avenue. She was about to leave the hall with her uncle, his wife and friends when he walked in with another fellow. He was handsome, debonair and looking for a girl from home to marry. She was pretty, homesick and hungry for the respectability of marriage. She asked about him, and her uncle introduced them. He asked her for a turn on the floor.
“I fell in love as we danced,” she told me.
Until I turned twelve, my family lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Astoria housing projects in Queens. “What am I going to do with all this space,” Mommy said, when she first toured her new home on the fourth floor of a six-story brick tower block. My parents had prayed two years for their names to rise to the top of the waiting list for a place in the sun.
Family and friends celebrated our good fortune by visiting frequently. They spent Sundays cooking and eating with us. The men stayed in the living room talking world politics and passing around weekly newspapers from Belize City, while the women stirred pots in the kitchen and sought advice about their men. I floated between the two rooms. We all ate together in the kitchen for leisurely dinners of too much food but never too many stories of home. The sweet smell of plantain frying in coconut oil whetted my appetite for more. We were happy at the table: talking, laughing and eating.
The wafting aromas in the concrete halls were of foods from all over the world. Most of the tenants hailed from the Caribbean, Europe and the South. They spoke Creole, Spanish, German, Italian and Yiddish. Neighbors were also friends who sampled each other’s culture and shared the same dream of a good education for their children which they believed would grant them success in America.
“They can never take away what’s up here,” Daddy would say, while tapping his head with his forefinger.
Who were they, the they that got tossed around more and more frequently as I grew older?
Were they the woman with the double chin and permanent scowl who took our rent money from behind grilled bars in the housing authority office?
Were they the angry German shoemaker who grunted monosyllabic responses to Mami’s questions? I was convinced that he was either a Jew or a Nazi, or maybe both, victimized by the camps.
Or were they the young brusque doctor at the public heath clinic who turned up his nose at the prospect of me, another poor patient, small enough to fit my entire body on the examining table?
The private physician to whom our family eventually took its coughs and earaches charmed me. A visit to his office was like a trip to a country estate. We would skip up a dozen steps toward a magnificent fountain spouting outside a sprawling mock Tudor house. Once inside, the well-spoken man with meticulously clean fingernails would compliment me on my starched Sunday dress and long Shirley Temple curls. I would blush, unusual for me because I was not one to succumb to flattery. On leaving, he would offer me my choice from a treasure chest of brightly colored lollipops in matching cellophane that crinkled when unwrapped. I would be in heaven.
“Why do you want another child,” he would ask Mami. “You have a lovely daughter. Stay with one child.”
No physician’s words of advice could deter Mami from trying to have another baby. There were many frustrating visits to the doctor. Finally, she got pregnant. Disappointingly, she lost her first son in a miscarriage.
Years later, after Daddy got health insurance through his union bus driving job and we changed physicians, my parents read about our former doctor in the New York Daily News. He had been tried and convicted for administering drugs to poor and brown women, without their knowledge, which brought on spontaneous abortions. Yet, Mami and Daddy never stepped forward to lay blame for our grief; they never considered it. Outsiders never do,
I was four, nearly five, when my brother was born into our family.
I saw the unfairness in life when I was growing up. I felt it. Where my future work lay, I was not certain. I knew I wanted to give voice to those who, otherwise, would remain silent.
I drifted back to the Berkshires, where I had come for the knowledge to help inspire more balance in this lopsided world. I picked up the spring issue of the BSU’s newspaper, Kujichagulia, Swahili for self-determination. Looking Backward, Looking Forward, read the editorial headline:
“Twenty-four Black freshmen initiated their matriculation at Williams following the end of the sixties – a decade marked by riots, civil rights movements and political assassinations. No one can deny the influence this period had on the entire American society. The aspirations, ideologies, and ideals fostered by the Black Movement during this period was our guiding light. At that time, we, along with many Blacks throughout the nation were engulfed in the revolutionary rhetoric and cultural externals of the movement, i.e. Afro hairstyles, daishikis, handshakes, etc. Illusory as some of those ideals may have been, it was a healthy experience, nonetheless. One of the easiest things one can do is lose perspective of reality during a period of rapid social change. This is somewhat understandable, for the social change was so rapid and the demands of academic work so rigorous, it seemed as though there was little time for retrospection or reflection.
“However, by cultivating habits and logic, we have become more discerning. By periodically re-examining our aspirations, ideals, and goals in light of the new knowledge obtained at Williams, we have become better informed and prepared to formulate programs to reach our goals. In short, we have progressed. The progression is reflected by our increasing presence at Williams and other institutions of our society. But let us not be blinded by this progression.
“While Black admissions at Williams has been increasing and seems relatively stable, a recent UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) study shows that the number of Blacks in white colleges across the nation is steadily decreasing in comparison to the relatively higher figures of the early seventies due to less scholarship offers and a gradual return to the old admissions policies of excluding Blacks. At the same time, Blacks graduating from colleges and graduate schools face the realities of the job market. Andrew Brimmer, a governor of the Federal Reserve Board (who attended a segregated Black primary school in rural Louisiana), recently made public a study with figures indicating that more than 25 percent of all business concerns with 15 or more employees had no Blacks in 1973 and that Blacks are still underrepresented in high levels of employment with these businesses. From a broader perspective, twenty years after Brown, the problem of quality education for Black students is unresolved. The ills that caused the ghettoes to explode in the sixties – employment, education, adequate housing, etc. – remain to be cured. The endless list goes on.
“The challenge that awaits us, then, as we enter the fields of law, business, government, and medicine, is to make each of these fields and institutions more responsive to the needs and desires of the nation’s largest minority. As the country searches for a new moral core in the wake of Watergate, our challenge is to play a decisive role in making the improvement of the conditions of Blacks a reality, not an illusion. It is no easy task, but there really are no alternatives.
“We’ve come far, but let us not be blinded of our aspirations and ideals by this subtle retrogression. Our Williams experience has provided us with the necessary tools to pass on. With these tools, we must have purpose – the purpose of making this society more responsive to the needs of Black people. Purpose has power, and those who will go forward need this sense of conviction or else there is a strong tendency not to progress.
“And so, with a Janus-like vision, we, the largest graduating class of Blacks in Williams history, look back on our past, that we may act in the present to implement a better future. We, together with the growing element of educated Blacks throughout the nation, will soon become the vanguard for the Black Movement, indeed.”
Renewed, I folded up the newspaper and darted back to Abraham whose faith was his purpose. Could I, a wanting poet-philosopher, find faith enough in the universe, in God, to be spared having to make wrenching commitments to others? Then I would escape compromise, wouldn’t I? Kierkegaard believed it would not be possible; I did not know what to believe.
I refused to dwell on my problem and rose above my confusion. As the Isley Brothers’ song put it, I had work to do. Another hour of study glided by as I read about Abraham and Isaac, father and son. My mind lighted on mother and daughter. It tripped over Mami’s stories which she frequently told at the dinner table to us, her family. My brother and I knew her vignettes by heart and sometimes mouthed the words with her behind her back. Because they were painful, we, as children will, laughed and poked fun at them. She would begin:
“I would chase my father all over Belize, looking to get money from him for food to feed my brother and I, looking for love.
“I did it on the sly. Ma had warned me to stay away from him, to forget about him, as if I were not of his flesh. I felt I had the right to chase him. I felt he owed me something, and I was determined to get it. Ma would beat me when she found out – someone would always see me and it would get back to her – but I didn’t care.
“The last time I followed him was one afternoon. I saw him ducking into a bar. The darkness blinded me, the cigarette smoke made my eyes water, and the strong smell of rum nearly knocked me out. When my father’s baritone muffled the other men’s voices, I got my bearings and could make out his husky outline standing at a mahogany bar more than twice my height. He was with another man.
“I went to him.
“While tugging at his pants leg, I begged him for a shilling and prayed that he would tap me on the head and show me some affection. He ignored me and kept on talking with his friend until the other man couldn’t take it anymore and burst out – ‘Why are you treating your daughter like this? And such a pretty little girl?’
“Daughter?” Pa said. “Who said she’s my daughter?”
“She’s calling you ‘Pa’ and looks like you with the same East Indian features.”
“Maybe she’s some other coolie man’s child,” he said, as if I were not there. “Her mother’s a whore.”
Numbness would suck the life out of Mami’s onyx eyes before she continued: “I was ashamed and angry. I knew he had said something bad about Ma and wanted to defend her but didn’t know how. I understood the feeling, not the meaning, behind the word. I did understand, though, that my own father had denied me.
“My ears pricked up when a guilty coin dropped to the floor. I tracked the plinking sound of metal meeting wood. I considered finding it and then throwing it in my father’s face, but the growling in my stomach and thoughts of my sickly baby brother pushed me down on my knees until I clenched it in my tiny hand. I left the bar without saying a word; I left without looking back. I swore I would never ask my father for another cent, and I never did.”
Mami’s eyes would glisten with tears. Daddy would try to comfort her by saying softly, “That’s an old-time story.”
Let it go, he was saying. It’s over. You survived the cruelty of your parents. It’s all right now. You have your own family for which to care, and we will not shun you.
My father’s attempt at consolation would not chip away the hardened hate on her face for her father’s abandonment. She never found a way to fill the hole he had made in her life; she never stopped missing him. He was her father, after all, and she loved him.
Often, she would shift into another monologue:
“You kids don’t know how lucky you are. I raised myself – I had to. From when I was little, I sold pieces of fudge and coconut candy on the street for two cents each. I made the candy myself.
“That’s how I got these burns,” she would say as she held out her upper arms to show splotches of honey skin shinier and darker than the rest.
“But I held my head up high . . . always,” she said, her voice nearing a fanatical pitch. “Lots of men wanted me. They offered me money, houses. I could have had lots of men. But I didn’t want a life like my mother’s. I wasn’t going to bring a child into this world without a father.”
There would be a pause as the room gasped . . . again.
“What’s for dessert?” Daddy would try to end it.
“Cake,” would be a common answer, iced with bitterness.
She would rise from her chair to get it.
“You better eat,” she would say to me, sometimes sharply, other times tiredly, before she turned from the table. I would push my dinner around the plate one more time before sticking a small forkful into my mouth as she returned with more food. Either I would pull down a scowl or try on the zombie look she had affected minutes before. I was angry at her for hurling her suffering on me. Why did I have to endure listening to her pain which she insisted she had conquered? When Daddy or I tried to tell her otherwise, she would strike out like a trapped cat, mean and determined.
“You people just don’t want to deal with reality,” she would rail. “You’re too sensitive. You can’t deal with life. I talk about my feelings. I don’t try to hide from them.”
Sometimes she would go on to the attempted rapes, which turned out not to be attempts at all. She did nothing wrong. Silence sanctions the wrongdoing and vilifies the victim. After she was molested as a child, there were three assaults, none by strangers, two by her blood. Our blood.
I knew that Mami was trying to prove to the world that she was a good woman. Sometimes, we were just another family for whom she cooked and cleaned in exchange for a bed and meals. The orphan in her kept waiting for us to ask her to stay . . . permanently.
“Eat,” she would order or coax.
I could not. I would not.
I refused to pass on Mami’s pain; neither did I want my mother’s life.
So where did that leave me?
I was young and naïve then. I thought I was left with a free hand with which to create my life. Our hands are never left free. The past guides them . . . always.