It’s that time of year: April showers give way to May flowers, many of which are hastily purchased to celebrate mothers, the hardworking women who birthed the world. Still, as much as I love to feel appreciated, I believe Mother’s Day has gotten a bit out of hand.
The hoopla. The pressure. It’s like New Year’s Eve without the fun of drunken outbursts. Children trying their best not to show out (mine always do) as mothers and grandmothers struggle to smile and look googly-eyed all day long. It’s too much, I tell you.
I cope with the Mother’s Day madness by celebrating what I call “Mama’s Day”—a day of gratitude, to think back on the wisdom we got from those matriarchs who came before us.
My own mama, Essie Mae, taught me EVERYTHING I ever needed to know about how to navigate the world as a proud Black woman, and her words may be of value to us all. Here are but a few of her lessons, the ones I keep closest to my heart:
“I can show you better than I can tell you.”
This favorite line of Mama’s reminds me of James Brown’s “Super Bad,” when the Godfather of Soul screams “Watch me!” Mama was only going to tell you once, maybe twice. She always said a woman is not what she says but what she does. Everyone could stand to embrace that attitude.
“Act like you got some sense.”
Back in the day, Mama (and mothers like her) weren’t so concerned about how you were feeling or whether your self-esteem was intact. All you needed to do was ACT right, especially in public. Lord Jesus, please don’t let Miss Johnson from down the street catch you cutting up and call your mama … it would go down. Our values may have changed, but I still try to instill in my children a sense of that old-school decorum—and I certainly call on it myself, every day.
“Black folks have to work twice as hard and be twice as good.”
The world is still tougher for our children than it is on their non-Black peers. For that reason, they need to hear about racism in America early and often, in age-appropriate ways. We do them no favors by allowing them to skate through school or to give less than 100 percent at all times, and we must push them to excel while still giving them the space to be children.
“I know you’re not talking to me.”
Mama could cuss up a storm behind closed doors, but she was all class in public. If one of us kids got mouthy or the numbers runner tried to pull one over on her, she would simply wave her hand, say the seven words above and walk away. Kids are usually itching for a back-and-forth. Shut it down before it gets started.
“You got to have a J-O-B.”
Few things make me happier than coming home after work to see my kids have done their chores. I know a lot of parents think that’s old-fashioned, but Mama took the value of hard work quite seriously and that started with giving us responsibilities within our home.
“Fix your face.”
I can’t front. I haven’t mastered this lesson yet and I’ve got some years on me, so it’s not looking too good. You can look in my eyes and tell when I’m lying. If I don’t like or respect you, my face will begin to screw up of its own volition. Mama has wise words; she is not a miracle worker. But for those of you who can keep your emotions hidden on the inside where they belong? Do it. Trust me (and my mother), you will save yourself a lot of problems or unpleasantness in the long run.
“Keep your ’do right and your waist tight.”
Image meant a lot to Mama. Nothing made her angrier than seeing me looking like a ragamuffin. The older I became, the more unyielding she became. In her mind, if you looked like shit, you would be treated the same, and worse, you might internalize it. Now that I’m of a certain age, I think she’s somewhat right. Not that I slay all day. But I do work out, and I rock a good pair of shades and some red lipstick like nobody’s business.
Ylonda Gault is the author of Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself (Tarcher-Penguin). Follow her on Twitter: @TheRealYlonda.