The Pain We Carry
“If you want to leave a legacy, you have to write it.”-a brilliant uncredited voice in a Clubhouse Chat
Grandma Vera holding dad and aunt M. (circa 1955)
Daily I bear the tension between a) bubble wrapping my children in the false fairy tale of continual rated-G comforts AND b) preparing them for the overwhelming dangers American life presents to little black children. This is black motherhood. -Jantré Christian
Since I first saw the footage of a violent, state backed mob, my Grandmother Vera Harrison has been on my mind. Born in 1920, she grew up in a large, improverished family in the midwest. Vera was the oldest child and well loved. She was a strong student and the Harrison family celebrated and encouraged scholarship. It was common for the third eldest, 15 year old sister Paulina, to be found reading Homer’s Odyssey aloud while doting on her 1-year old brother, Baby Raymond. Although she lived near the home of the KKK (Seymour, IN), her schools had always been integrated. To be fair–there were no other options in a small rural midwest town. The midwestern whites at that point had not historically been so savagely opposed to proximity of blacks and natives in the community. Perhaps not in their homes, but a classroom was fine.
The 12 Harrison siblings helped care for each other, labored to maintain the home, laughed and poked fun, and grieved together. And that is thing about my folks-and maybe black folks in general–we walk through life learning very early on to anticipate pain and loss. Through the hardships they withstand– there is always joy in the retelling. In fact, incredibly painful and traumatic details are told with a brevity and matter of factness. The stories shared by my Aunt Pat, the youngest and last remaining of the 12, weave a tapestry akin to a small-town LITTLE WOMEN, featuring witty banter, loss, and romantic dreaming about an uncertain future. There are many parlor scenes and even Aunt Doty playing with more rhythmic surety on the piano than Beth could ever hope for. Remember this is an all-black cast. There were boy siblings but they were outnumbered. Vera led the pack, refining her leadership skills at home- determined to attend Wilberforce University in the mid 1930s.
With all of the light and joy that billows from Aunt Pat’s yarns– overwhelming grief and sadness seep through the patchwork, too.
Vera’s closest sibling, Sally Mae died at 15. Pauline, mentioned earlier, caught pneumonia at 15. She loved learning and begged to go to school, so when she felt good enough to get out of bed, she convinced Great-grandma Anna May to let her return to school. The day she returned there was a fire drill. It began to rain and she was without a coat-her school staff was clearly without sense– and they required all the students to complete that drill outside in the rain. She got sick again and died weeks later. Sweet Baby Raymond who was so close to Paulina, she held and read to him constantly. He would look for her after she died and called for the book in vain. His mother, Anna May, could not get him to eat. She told Aunt Pat that Raymond grieved himself to death at age 2, dying of a broken heart.
Even in my sheltered and comfortable childhood, stories of loss and pain were poured into me. I held my mom’s grief and abandonment from losing her only parent, her mother, at 5 years old. I carried Uncle Lou’s white-noise-slow-motion sprint for his life from rabid New Orleans police dogs and the violent blows of officer batons. I shouldered my father’s experiences of isolation and tokenism as a black kid in a PWI San Francisco Catholic School in the 60s. I knew the stories of my pre-deceased aunts who suffered domestic violence, and were preyed upon and abused. I was wrapped in stories of the discomfort and dangers of the white gaze. I knew at the earliest age that there were individuals who saw me as less than human and who would do me harm rather than see me freely enjoying the rights afforded to all (truth:some) of us in this country.
Daily I bear the tension between a) bubble wrapping my children in the false fairy tale of continual rated-G comforts AND b) preparing them for the overwhelming dangers American life presents to little black children. This is black motherhood.
In my African / African American History courses I loved to hear about the Africanisms that are present in Black American culture. One such Africanism is repurposing something that exists into a completely new thing. We see evidence of this in the creation of Hip Hop music. You have old things like disco songs and poetry turned into break beats and rap. When we share pain we are repurposing it. Sharing stories of pain and trauma fortify the listener. Stories of pain allow the listener to try on roles, explore deeper shades of emotion, and foreshadow the traumatic possibilities one might face. The stories of familial pain I carry are what keep me from shattering at the sight of a noose hanging across from the Capitol Building.
I was in my mid- twenties when I last sat with my Grandmother in her living room. If I had asked her then to imagine what we saw happen at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, I imagine she would have said it could never happen. In fact I would not have believed it was possible either.