THE WOMAN UNDER THE BED
As if a baby needing physical protection, she swaddled herself in the mauve quilt her grandmother gave her decades earlier. She had always kept it nearby, a comforting reminder of the warm relationship they had; even now, there were times she could feel the old woman’s presence; see in her mind’s eye the long braids Nanan wore on each side of her head; catch a whiff of the Bird of Paradise perfume she sprayed just behind each ear before leaving for Thursday service at the Rose of Sharon Spiritual Church.
That quilt and the memories of her grandmother had faithfully carried her through serial challenges life had generously thrown her way. Now, she was giving it a new assignment—one of which only she would know for years.
With the quilt firmly around her, she grabbed her sleeping pillow and in one seamless, choreographed, movement slid under the bed. She wasn’t playing a game of hide and seek. While two of her four children were only a few feet away, they were already in bed. Besides, as teens, they would never permit themselves to become involved in such a childish amusement.
She had begun the nightly ritual of sleeping under her bed months earlier--after a man, who towered her petite four-feet, eleven-inch-frame, found his way through an open kitchen window into her first-floor public housing apartment. She saw him as he passed her room.
Quietly easing out of bed, she stepped up behind him, asking “Who are you?” hoping, perhaps, that a rational conversation might redirect the moment. He violently pulled her toward him. She forcefully pushed him back, understanding the possible outcome of failing to offer her own aggressive response. They tussled; she found an unfinished bottle of Coca Cola and smashed his head, the brown liquid slid along the side of his face. She frantically considered a path she might use to flee. He stumbled toward the kitchen door, trying to regain his balance. Only then, did she scream for help.
My brother and I, startled from our sleep, bolted out of our rooms, and ran toward the sound of our mother’s terrified voice.
A wisp of a woman, whose strength and resolve often surprised me, she stood at the threshold to the public hallway. Clearly distraught, she was nearly crying and physically shaking. My brother, hearing the story of what happened, dashed out the door, bare-foot and in his pajamas, thinking he might catch the intruder. I brought my mother back inside the apartment and called the police.
The report may have been filed but the criminal was never found. I was certain, however, that the police had not invested even one hour pursuing the man who came into our home that night and assaulted my mother. We were not among that class of people who typically engendered shielding from law enforcement or the larger mainstream community.
We lived in a public housing complex that had been systematically abandoned by its original white occupants after the first black family relocated there. Railroad tracks and a smelly, open sewer canal boxed us inside, preventing us from breathing clean air, sometimes preventing us from breathing at all. Trees were few and far between. In summer months, when the heat could reach above 90 degrees, the place felt and looked like a desert. There was no father in our home. My mother worked multiple jobs to provide us the basic necessities.
Our lives mirrored those of our neighbors and countless other Blacks, callously swept to the margins of American society. We were perceived as rejects: people whose circumstance predicted their failed futures. Each time someone intentionally--or unintentionally--pushed that narrative, my mother tried to counter-punch. Use your own dictionary, she would admonish. Truth be told, such action was too radical in the segregated deep south. Who were we to create words and worlds without first securing permission from whites? Even now, in the 21st Century, a self-evaluation beyond sociological induced pathologies, repeated like a national mantra, remains an almost impossible task, particularly for low-income people of color. Only the daring, the risk-takers are able to break free from current and historical chains.
In his book “The Souls of Black Folk,” WEB Dubois described African Americans as a collective “seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”
“It is a peculiar sensation,” he continued, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
“One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder,” DuBois added.
That double-consciousness has plagued most blacks in America throughout their entire life. Consideration often is given to the adverse psychological and emotional effects on African American men. Contemporary evidence can be found in magazine articles, movies and books like “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was based on a memoir by Solomon Northrup and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” drills deep into the ravages of the black male project.
What about black women? Have not we fought to find and claim space?
African American women, honestly all women of color, have not only had to incorporate the perspective of white mainstream American; they have had to manage expectations of their African American male counterparts and non-black women.
Speaking during the Ohio Women Rights Convention in 1851, former slave an abolitionist Sojourner Truth raised the quintessential question about the assessment and value of black women: “The man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” Truth said, according to one published version of the speech.
“I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Although born decades later, during the Great Depression in segregated Louisiana, I am certain that Truth’s words and thoughts reverberated throughout my mother’s life. Surely her experiences inside racist and patriarchal America were similar even in the absence of slavery.
Feeling the pangs of poverty, my mother at 13 years old, slipped a coat over her nightgown one morning and walked the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, searching for employment. A woman restaurant owner hired her to wash dishes. It was only a part-time job; she eventually climbed her way to the position of short order cook. Trying to piecemeal a decent salary, she presented herself at the railyard, flashing a fake identification, indicating she was 18 years old. In the middle of all of that, she hoped for love with a man from her race, as Truth had done when she and Robert, a slave from a nearby plantation, with whom she had a child, Diana.
It is hard, I think, for two people, weighed by discrimination and possessing a harmful myopic view of themselves, as described by Dubois, to achieve the goal of sustained, healthy intimacy. Some have succeeded despite the obstacles. My mother was not one of them. She was no outlier, however; that dream has eluded many black women.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018 there were 21.7 million black women in America; 48 % of them were never married; 13 percent were divorced. Interestingly, African American women comprise 52 % of the total population; black men are only 48 percent.
Still, during various national protests in 2020 over the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans during arrests by police or while in custody, the principal focus was on men. A report by the Washington Post, underscored dual perceptions and inequities. “Since 2015, nearly 250 women have been fatally shot by police,” the paper asserted.
Who are those women?
Protesters were heard chanting “Say her name,” referring to Breonna Taylor. It seemed an afterthought. Who will say the names of black women who, in more than a few cases bore and succored two races, cleaned multiple houses and office buildings, entertained people from various nations, advised national leaders and sparked civil rights movements? Their names, stories, the tragedy of their lives have been swept under some rug or left to lie under a bed, long ago forgotten by the world.
I did not learn my mother had been one of those black women under the bed until she confessed a few years before her death. By then, she had begun unpacking her life in our bi-monthly conversations that were never scripted. Often those talks were steeped in the emotional tone and texture of two women from different generations sharing secrets--secrets never revealed for fear of being considered weak or vulnerable.
Initially, she talked of her father and mother, entertainers who refused to allow her to enter the business, although her older sister was permitted to sing and dance in flimsy glittery costumes inside black nightclubs throughout the south. Instead, my mother spent her days and nights with her grandmother in the confines of a Catholic Creole home, where girls were trained to manage houses, especially kitchens where the path to a man’s heart supposedly began—although that frequently was more myth than reality.
That abandonment left her bruised and doubtful about her worth and beauty. Still, she worshipped her family. When any member became sick, she cared for them, preparing them for their next journey. While she said she held no animosity toward anyone, there was a palpable inescapable sadness, serving as another unacknowledged weight carried by far too many black women.
The assault at our home remained omnipresent in her life. When she finally decided to speak with me about it, she recalled every agonizing, painful detail, including the color of the gown she wore that night. I recalled small details, prompting her to declare me a carrier of ghosts, a person abused by a past that took pleasure in how easily it stole joy from black women.
Still, I never imagined that for an entire six months my mother literally slept under her bed, her body pressed in by a box-spring. She went there each night partially out of fear, but equally determined not to be victimized again. She wanted to be certain that if he returned or if anyone else arrived uninvited, she would see them before they saw her. She wanted to see their shoes, as they dirtied her clean, polished hardwood floors. She promised herself that this time she would leap out with a bat in hand, ready to smash the person’s head, to leave them devastated or dead and either would be fine with her. She wanted to be certain he did not get away.
Days after she told me that story of spending night after night under her bed, I chastised myself. How could I not have felt the depths of her pain? How could I not have seen the fear in her eyes as we sat together at the dining table in the early morning drinking hot chocolate and eating donuts from Bynum Bakery?
I realized there were whole swaths of her life with no trespassing signs—place I had not gone because I was forbidden. There were traumatic scenes I had never glimpsed. I doubted then that I had even seen the real joy in her life; I had seen smiles on her face and heard the music of her laughter. Mostly, though, my mother had suffered in silence. There were other black women who had experienced similar devastation—women who had also been the victims of brutal attacks by strangers and men who claimed to love them; women who had known near starvation because they struggled alone without husbands or men to help them carry the load.
Those women, not unlike my mother, refused to provide a window for us to peep inside. They worried they might be stereotyped as either weak, or angry or strong and invincible. They may have been all of those at one time or another, but why should any one characterization have boxed them in a corner or smothered their dreams?
At times, I hear my mother’s voice inside my own; I see her eyes reflected in mine. I know her anger; I know her struggle. Like her, I am divorced. There were times when I desperately searched for work, knowing a child at home depended on the results of that hunt. I was forced to face the reality of wage inequality that exacerbated other inequalities.
How do African American women celebrate the person we see in the mirror, instead of the individual mainstream society and others often assault and denigrate with their words and their actions? How do we sing our own song without feeling an obligation to change our rhythm to satisfy the dictates of those standing in the corner making demographic and cultural notes or those at news desks reading those ramblings as it they were the gospel truth?
Sheer will and determination, I suspect.
My mother died in 2019. Before then, however, she made clear her confession about sleeping under the bed wasn’t to engender sympathy—though for weeks that was my inner response. Rather, she wanted me to understand the full weight of the burdens we black women are made to carry. She wanted me to know that if I remained under a bed—even metaphorically—captive to a self-constructed prison, I could never take my place in the victory circle. And we, more than most, she asserted, have earned that right to be there.
Copyright © 2021jonettarosebarras