"Black Mama Advice"
A poem by Terrence Foushee
SATURDAY’S James Cates Community Remembrance Walk on the 50th anniversary of his death was a moving event. It began with the campus bell ringing 22 times in honor of his 22 years of life in Chapel Hill, and concluded with University United Methodist Church on Franklin Street ringing its bell 22 times. The community heard from family and friends of James Cates. And with announcements from the town and UNC, they know James Cates will be remembered and the work to examine the circumstances of his death will continue.
Chapelboro covered the walk, and Dakota Moyer took some lovely photographs. If you missed it, here is the Stone Walls piece about James Cates’s life. You can read more on his murder and its aftermath here or listen to this “Re/Collecting Chapel Hill” podcast episode.
Today’s “One Good Thing” is that I am grateful to publish here, with permission, the poem Terrence Foushee read at Peace and Justice Plaza during Saturday’s event. His mother is a James Cates cousin.
Black Mama Advice
By TERRENCE M. FOUSHEE
With a Black Mama, you can’t never leave the house without being bombarded with a grocery list of questions:
“Where you going?”
“Who all gon be over there?”
“Do I know they parents?”
“They white? That name sound white.”
A rundown or checklist before permission to explore the world is granted.
It’s almost always followed by a 20-point inspection that your best mechanic couldn’t match.
A skin check to see if you ashy.
Scan your hair to see if it was thoroughly brushed, and a scour of your scalp for naps.
Pants better be fastened with a belt even if you saggin,
And your shirt bet’not be wrinkled.
And before you plant a toe on the other side of that door, the advice comes:
“Don’t you go out there acting like you aint got no sense!”
“You make sure you have your butt in this house on time, boy!”
“Watch who you spend your time with ‘cause everybody ain’t your friend.”
Black Mamas speak in a frequency only black children can pick up.
It registers just a little above background noise as adolescents;
Pierces the eardrums as nagging to us when we become teens.
We can’t tune in to Mama’s pitch when we hear it.
Teens ears slick, you might slather all the concern with a kiss on a cheek,
but it ain’t gon stick.
Somehow, it flips once you enter the jungle of the street.
My Mama could’ve blasted a megaphone from arms reach to warn me;
Broadcasted her wisdom on every primetime television sitcom, and I wouldn’t hear it.
It only took a white tall tee and a squad car to drive up the curb on Franklin Street for
her wisdom to vibrate through the concrete:
“You can’t trust all these cops in this town. They not gon see you differently just because you my son.”
Big Mama, Ma, Ma Dukes, and even Auntie been passing down protective wisdom like heirlooms to save black sons from generation to generation.
Cupped brown faces in 2 hands and filled that empty space when they leave home with palms pressed to plea to God;
Tears running from cheeks like brothers from cops.
Sound-barrier breaking whispers to heaven meant to shield skin from bullet,
Body from baton,
Wrist from cuff,
Knife from abdomen.
Yo Black Mama’s guidance was sung as a roadmap to freedom during slavery.
Hummed hymns to heaven to hem your spirit together.
She concocted recipes for liberation.
And her cries ripped open the heavens and soften the heart of Yahweh.
It’s been her history.
The story from Big Mama in this nation.
Even in Chapel Hill it ain’t much different.
Back 50 years ago when the storm troopers used to come here from Durham.
In the movies, storm troopers never hit a target,
But they had pinpoint accuracy with Black skin.
Their plastic white armor served as shield from punishment.
They tried to bleach his blood from the pavement
To whitewash his memory from Mama,
But an elephant would envy her recollection.
That stain is still uncleansed.
So Black Mamas train their vocal cords to chant a chorus to save souls.
To you, their pitch may pick up as racket.
Make you cover your ears. Make white people maliciously deem her “angry Black Woman”.
Claim her not worth the time to listen to. Belittle her tone.
But her black children. We’ve deciphered her language.
Sought the sweet sound of love in her linguistics.
Unwrapped her disapproval to uncover her gentle discernment.
Her voice was hand blessed by the Holy trinity.
And to my Mama and all Black Mamas. I’m sorry for plugging my ears with fingers
To avoid ingestion of harsh wisdom.
Your advice has served as nourishment from emptiness.
A meal to satiate me when I was starved from understanding my worth.
Your concern is the most precious gift you’ve given to your children.
I wasn’t ready to hear you.
But I am here now to give you my undivided attention.
And it’s time for the rest of the world to do the same.