I spent most of my early years in Little Rock, Arkansas where racism sat right beneath the surface of our lives. Raised by a black mama in the Jim-Crow south, as many southern children were, I loved her the same as other children loved their white mothers. Ours was a bond between a white child and black mama that cannot be denied, even as the years passed. Everything a little girl needed to know growing up, I learned from her. I called her “Mama.”
An excerpt from Tharon Ann – Early Childhood:
“All folks is welcome in Mama’s church. We have fun dancin’ in the aisle when they sing, What a Friend I Gots in Jesus. Mama say I’m the only white ever come here. She teachin’ me how to sing gospel songs, keepin time while we clap’n sing in the aisle with the colored folks. Mama laughs til tears roll down her face’n her Sunday hat falls off. Mama jus’ laughs’ n says, “Chile, best you stop singin’n hopin round like dat in dem white folk’s church cuz iffn you does, dey be callin you lil’ nappy head girl. I’m givin Tessie’a wupin for teachin you to talk like a colored girl!” I’m feelin right at home with Tessie, her bein one of Mama’s grandkids’n all, and both us five years old. We best friends’n always play together. Right from the start we was lovey-dovey on accounta Mama say me and Tessie made outta piss’n vinegar. One Sunday, her’n me gets into it over which ones turn to be swingin inside the sixteen-wheeler tire hangin on the oak tree behind Mama’s church by a long rope. Tessie start shoutin at me like I don gots ears, “You cheatin little Nigger, it’s my turn!” I’m not gonna let that girl get away with this when she know in her cheater’s heart it my turn.”
“I flip right back at her screamin at the top of my lungs, “No you cheatin little Nigger! My turn!”
“Ever one within ten miles hears us scream “Nigger!” “Nigger!” “Nigger” back’n forth til Mama’n the church women come runnin out from choir practise to give us both a lickin. Me’n her still mad’n don’t look at each other. They sit us down, then altogether like the Hallelujah Chorus with an “amen” throwd in, they say how “Nigger” a very bad word. Mama say if she catches us sayin it again, she gonna stand us in the corner for ten years. She say one more time, how me and Tessie made outta piss’n vinegar. She say folks who says that word don’t deserve a best friend. Mama make us face a tree for an hour with both hands behind our backs, cuz we both so bad sayin “Nigger.” I swear. After five minutes or so, she start to feel sorry for us. Mama say time to get up.”
“Me’n Tessie already forgot why we argued in the first place. We laugh’n hug each other as Mama lifts us up in her big arms’n carries us back to the oak tree, where she crams our tail ends back into the sixteen-wheeler tire. We take each others hand’n swing back’n forth holdin onto the tire’n each other for the longest time. I take my Cherokee Indian arrowhead outta my coveralls, the one my grandpa gave me for good luck’n I give it to Tessie so she always be rememberin me – forever like. She takes a wad of gum outta her mouth’n gives it to me to finish chewin so I can still taste the juicy fruit. All the while, Mama just standin there laughin with her hands on her big hips. I notice for the first time how white her teeth is. I say, “Mama how come you got pearly whites?”
“Mama say, “If you black as me, you teeth be pearly white too. But de main reason dey like dis, is cuz you Mama don’t picks round her food like you does. I thank the Lord’n eats’n dat’s why I got pearly whites’n you don’t!” Praise Jesus!”
“Bout then, Tessie whispers in my ear, “You still a little Nigger’n Jesus knows I’m right!”
“I laugh’n whisper back in her ear, “You a little Nigger too – Jesus told me so last night. Another thing bout Mama is she uses ever occasion, ever question, ever answer, ever birth’n someone’s funeral to drive home the smallest point. With these final words outta her mouth, she turn round’n heads back to church, her big tail end swingin from one side to the other like someone beatin on a tub fulla fat back.”
In 1988 Susan Tucker published in her book, Telling Memories Among Southern Women – Domestic Workers and their Employers in the Segregated South. https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/BLACK-MAIDS-and-WHITE-CHILDREN-The-Help stories of African-American women who served as “the help” in white southern homes. “In the Jim-Crow South, whites required blacks to have separate facilities such as restrooms, yet they asked African-American women to wet-nurse white babies. This dichotomy begs the question: if white people really believed black people were disease carriers, why have a black woman feed a baby in such a personal way?” This book makes the case for the bond between a white child and black mama.
“I whisper, “If Mama hear us say “Nigger” again, we in big trouble. Let’s talk pig latin.” But Tessie don’t like nothin with pig in it; she won’t talk it with me cuz she don’t like the way pigs oink. She say we gotta go with her idea’n say “Nigger” backwards – then no one gonna know. So “Little Nigger” becomes “Elttil Reggin.” That what we start callin each other – “Reggin” for short. I reckon this why Mama say me and Tessie made outta piss’n vinegar.”
For sure, when it came to discipline, the bond between my black Mama and white child Tharon Ann knew no limits, nor the love.