Mighty Black Mothers

By Patricia Williams Lessane
Mother’s Day is bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I relish in the fact that I am counted in that number of millions of women around the world who have biological, adoptive, foster or “spiritual” children; yet I am also deeply sad that my own mother is no longer with me.

She died in 2003 after a short four-month battle with Stage 4 non-small lung cancer, when I was 9 months pregnant with my second child. I was a grad student, trying to write my dissertation, teach two classes, work a full-time job, parent a rambunctious toddler while my artsy husband decided he wanted to be a “healer” and started massage therapy school. It felt like the worst time of my life.

In hindsight, it was one of the best and most important times of my life. Sounds strange, right? But though I was wracked with so much pain watching my mother—my rock—the consummate mother, cook, comedienne storyteller, faith walker and miracle worker—wither away in front of me, it was some of the most precious time I spent with her.

And I was not alone. Girlfriends, neighbors, childhood friends and classmates who knew and loved my mother, my co-workers and hers, relatives, doctors, nurses and strangers I met during those very devastating months rallied around my siblings and me. A lot of men came through and called to support us, but it was the women who stood, sat, cried with us and rocked me and my older sister, whom we call Bubba, late in the evening and well into the wee hours of the morning. They fortified us, and they calmed my mother’s spirit as she dwelled between this world and the spirit realm.

That was not by happenstance. My mother was the quintessential girlfriend. She had older girlfriends, younger ones, and contemporaries, American ones, Cuban ones, Puerto Rican ones, rich ones, poor ones, highly educated ones, and the drylongso like her. She was an exhorter of the Word whether it came from the Bible or the School of Hard Knocks. She was Madea before Tyler Perry took his fictional “big momma” to the stage. She was many things to many people and as amazing as she sounds and was, she wasn’t an anomaly.

She was a Black mother.

My mother was just one woman in a long line of Black women who have nurtured their children and other people’s children even when they had no choice. I saw a flyer for a Charleston Symphony Orchestra concert some three years ago, for a performance entitled “Just Like Family,” and it featured an enslaved woman with two white babies on her lap. My friends and I were all deeply appalled by the flyer. Not because of the image but because of the tag line, “Just Like Family,” which insinuated that even with all of the love and care she devoted to the slave master’s children, she would never be family. Only like family. The irony is that this woman surely knew this and yet she poured love into the white children under her ward nevertheless.

I have met countless Black mothers just like her around the world, but many who I have fallen in love with reside right here in Charleston. Some of them have biological children, but some of them do not. But what connects them—us—is an unconditional love for the children and people in our lives and the willingness to see past “race” and blood to the hearts of others.

My Gullah mother, Henrietta Snype, is one prime example. I met her when I first started working at Avery Research Center. After one of our public programs had ended, she saw me rushing off to tend to my children. Seeing how scattered I was, she offered to help me whenever I needed some assistance. From then on, she became Grammy Snype, picking up my kids when I was running late, feeding them and me, giving me priceless advice as I contemplated divorce, and most recently supporting my decision to leave Charleston for a better opportunity. And she has a family of her own for whom she plays the same role! I probably wouldn’t have made it here in Charleston without her love and wisdom.

And then there’s Ms. Cinny McCottry Smith, 90-plus years and just as spry as she wants to be! From Ms. Cinny, I am reminded of my own mother’s faith and wit. Cinny always has a positive word to share, along with a piece of chocolate, Diet Coke, or a little trinket she picked up with the recipient in mind. I adore her!

But I have also been shaped by the white mothers in my life—the sisterhood of mothers at Ashley Hall and Porter-Gaud—from all socio-economic classes and walks of life who volunteer at bake sales, attend sports activities, who pray for and with one another, and who—some with ease and others, like me – struggle to pay the costs to get our kids a quality education. I have watched them, learned from them and been inspired by them to do what I need to make sure my kids have a competitive edge in this world.

I won’t be spending this Mother’s Day with my children or surrounded by my friends and adoptive mothers this year. I will be in a new city starting a new chapter. Although I am certain to be a bit lonely without my tribe of church womenfolk, my sorority sisters or brunch buddies, I know I will be all right. I was raised by a mighty Black mother who taught me to embrace the world with open arms. And I have been sustained and supported by mothers of all kinds who have embraced me with those same open arms.