This is my mother around 1948-1950
Stamped by Voices
Artists of all kinds have used self-examination for a long time to express how they became who they are and to challenge those who participate in their art. James Baldwin used his self-examination to better understand why America could not come to terms with the race problem. Eddie Glaude, Jr., summarized Baldwin’s effort to “plunge beneath the surface of the race problem and examine our interior agreement with ways of thinking that trapped us….”. We are not born with ways of thinking but these interior agreements start with the voices of our parents and their parents and their parents. That process is replicated many times over throughout the families of our communities and our country. Therefore, the voices of the community hold substantial power over the individual voice.
Jefferson Davis stood to make a speech in the US Senate in April, 1860. He was the senator from Mississippi and would become the president of the Confederacy. Davis was speaking against a bill to fund Black education. Ibram Kendi described it in his first book. The senator maintained that “the bill was based on the false notion of racial equality. The United States was built by white men for white men, he said. The inequality of the black and white races “was stamped from the beginning.” When my ancestor, Stephen D. Johnston signed the Mississippi Secession Decrees the next January, Davis’ voice was likely echoing in the convention hall. That phrase became the title of Kendi’s first book on the history of racism in America. Eddie Glaude, Jr. would call that notion of inherent inequality “the big lie” that continues to trap our country. To read Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning, is to hear all the voices of the past reverberate down the centuries. Aren’t we all, then, stamped from the beginning? What voices stamped me?
Agnes Margaruite Johnston, Stephen D. Johnston’s great-granddaughter, was a force of unmatched magnitude in our family of four. Her voice still penetrates my thoughts long after her death. Even the word “voice” implies power. The vibration of our vocal cords produces our speaking voices. Writers strive to find their voices. People protest to have their voices heard. Voices are powerful. Our parent’s voices are particularly powerful.
She was called Peggy by her family and friends. She pronounced my name with a lilt at the end as if asking a question. She stood five feet. Her skin was flawless, and her hair was red from the time I could remember.Petite with expressive eyes, she loved clothes, parties, and having fun.
Animated and busy unless she was asleep, my mother cleaned the house to such high standards that my sister and I felt like we were visitors in a hotel. “Never, never, never sit on your bed. You will ruin the mattress”. No posters were hung in our rooms, we never chose a piece of furniture. If you messed up the room, she would mysteriously appear to clean it. I think it was more like living on a cruise ship.
Her voice ruled us all and painted a vivid picture of how women should lead their lives. She never left her bedroom without her make up ready for the day. It was not unusual to find her vacuuming replete in her peignoir. Mother had an outfit for even the most mundane activity like grocery shopping, exercising, or playing bridge. She maintained that she did not perspire! In the south my mother would be described as a steel magnolia. Woe to anyone who went “lacking” in manners, dress, use of the “English language”, and, without a doubt, discretion! If anyone in her sight failed to adhere, regret would surely follow. Her voice, often behind a mask of Southern gentility, would reveal itself and , “she could make a grown man cry.”.
“Mama, look, there is a lady that looks like Fanny!” “She is not a lady, honey. She is a woman.” With those ten words about our African American maid, my mother introduced me to racism. In second and third grade Mrs. Elyea was my teacher and she taught Georgia history with a flair. There were no Black children in my school. In the 1950s. In the third grade, I narrated our class play which had two parts. Part one consisted of the Uncle Remus stories and Part Two was the Civil War battle of Atlanta. We took a field trip to Joel Chandler Harris’s home to see where Uncle Remus lived in the back yard. Supposedly he told his stories in that shack. At some point Mrs. Elyea told us that there was nothing civil about the Civil War and we were to call it the War Between the States. Clearly white people had been treated wrongly in the War Between the States and Black people told wonderful stories and lived in shacks and were happy about it. By the end of elementary school, I had a thorough understanding of a white woman’s place in the South. If I were to exhibit behaviors counter to what I had learned, I would have to find my own voice.
Cora Givhan heard voices, too. I was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1950 and Cora was born in Pontotoc, MS in 1947. That was a distance of 100 miles, but two different worlds. Cora Givhan (Ingram) grew up in Pontotoc, MS and her father was a sharecropper. She went to a segregated school system and would until she entered University of Mississippi. In her memoir, Sharecroppers Daughter: Wit Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy, Buttered Sugar Biscuits, Cheese and Eggs, Cow Milk, Homemade Ice Cream and Sweet Tea, she shares memories, too. While my mama was telling me that black women were “not ladies” a white man called Cora’s mama, “auntie”. Later an angry Mrs. Givhan told her daughters she wanted to ask the man, “Now which one of your momma’s sisters am I?”
Many years later, Cora’s brother Sam would describe their mother to me as an “intellectual without books.” In a speech he gave at Cora’s retirement from Grenada School District, he held up their mother, Katie Mae Mallory Givhan, as a force in their lives. “an 8th grade scholar, mother of twelve, farm-wife, who came to Grenada awed, humbled, and amazed, the trip-of-a lifetime in 1958 or 59, the delegate from her rural church congregation attending ‘the conference’. She made her scrapped up wardrobe, stayed in the home of host-family, took notes, and held her own, speaking about it at home before reporting on it to her home congregation.” Cora would become a fighter on many fronts, as a Methodist minister, a special education teacher, a divorced, single parent, and non-profit director. Sam would integrate Pontotoc High school and earn a PHD. The “8th grade scholar” stamped them as much as my mother stamped me. But all three of us would have to find our voices to manage the real world.
Thirty years later Ibram Kendi ‘s parents had left behind their roots in the urban projects of the North and the rural poverty of the South. They had embraced the idea that Black culture was the real enemy not racist policies. Kendi grew up hearing voices, too. “Education and hard work will lift you up and the rest of the Black people with you.” They adopted a philosophy of Black self-reliance. His parents wanted to enroll him in a Black parochial school that would separate him from the very Black kids the white parents tried to avoid. He visited a third-grade classroom with his parents. The teacher they visited was Black, but the pictures on the doors of the classroom revealed that most of the teachers were white and all the children were black. He had been reading a long list of biographies of Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, and Frederick Douglass. In that moment in that classroom it all came together, and he recognized racism. Kendi blurts out “Why are you the only Black teacher?”
The voices of our parents shape us. Their voices continue to provide a backdrop, a context, a depository of attitudes, values, and prescriptions that weave their way into all facets of our lives. Even when we desire to listen to other voices, find our own voice, and live a different kind of life, the force of those first voices are difficult to ignore. Unless your voice mirrors the culture at large, success will come at a great price. I will discuss the price we pay on Thursday.
Books referenced ( these are not in scholarly format!)
Sharecroppers Daughter: Wit Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy, Buttered Sugar Biscuits, Cheese and Eggs, Cow Milk, Homemade Ice Cream and Sweet Tea Cora Givhan Ford (Ingram)
Stamped from the Beginning Ibram Kendi
How to Be an Anti-Racist Ibram Kendi
Begin Again Eddie Glaude, Jr.
2 thoughts on “Stamped by Voices”
I felt like you were describing much of my upbringing regarding racism. Wonderful Ruth.
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Wonderful! I could feel those times. My experience was different; shaped by WWII and a mother who marched to her own drum, but I recognize your experience. Thinking about the always wearing makeup era makes going without it during the pandemic even more delicious.
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