November 2001
Blackpopgo : A Weekly Discussion Of Art, Politics, & Pop Culture And How It Affects The Black Diaspora...Or At Least One Member Of It

Written by Vincent Williams

Blackpopgo : A Weekly Discussion Of Art, Politics, & Pop Culture And How It Affects The Black Diaspora...Or At Least One Member Of It

My mother is from a little town named Aliceville, AL. When you think "little Southern town", it's exactly what you think-dusty roads, inky black nights, flying bugs that seem too big to defy gravity, etc. Hot, oh, hoooooooot in the summer, that relentless, aggressive, angry type of heat that makes you sweat even when you're sitting still. And it's that eerie quiet that makes you long for some kind of noise just to let you know you can still hear. It's frightening. It's calm. It's scary. It's beautiful. It's The South.

Perhaps the most defining moment in her life was the passing of my grandmother when my mom was six. Losing your mother is a savage, life-altering event at any age but six is especially traumatic because, well, you're just old enough to get it. My siblings and I have often said, our mother became an old woman at age six. So, like a great deal of my affections, the root of my intense love of old Southern women starts with my mother.

The love was nurtured by the other phenomenal old sisters that have been in my life. I was blessed to know my mother's grandmother: my GREAT-grandmother for sixteen years. My father is from Mobile, AL, a place that would ordinarily be called a little town unless, of course, you've been to Aliceville. My paternal grandmother, who I spent many weeks of childhood summers with, was also in my life well into my upper teens. And, praise God, my paternal great-grandmother is still kicking. So between my mom, grandmother, great-grandmothers, my aunts, great aunts, etc., I've always been surrounded with old Southern women. One of the treats of being with my wife is getting to know her family. Now, my people wouldn't badge them as Southerners since they're from the Eastern shore of MD but then my people think South Carolina is Up North. But I've been around them long enough to figure out that the South and, especially the Black South, is a philosophy not a location and the joy I've gotten getting to know my wife's grandmother is boundless. So my cup overfloweth.

And I love, love, LOVE me some old Southern sisters. For nourishment and strength and support and humor and peace and intelligence and everything, give me an 80-year-old sister from Mississippi. I could go on for days just praising them. But today I want to focus on their command of language.

Old country women have a command of the English language that is nothing short of amazing. They are subtle, elegant and poetic. Old sisters engage in a ballet of gesture and phrase that is masterful. A tongue click here. One word stressed there. A head turn. A raised eyebrow. Hands folded. Arms crossed. Old Southern women swim effortlessly in oceans of meaning without making nary a wave.

Because, you know, they had to. The great Zora Neale Hurston nailed it-Black women were (and still are to a certain degree) the mules of the world. Brothers catch it all day every day but when the day is done we have always passed the crap on to the only people with less power than us: our women.

They were powerless. They could be murdered, raped and abused by anyone because they had no worth. In the face of such a precarious tightrope, Southern women learned to navigate through language. They spoke without saying anything but saying everything. They spoke around people and through people. They talked their way out of situations and through doors they needed to go through. And they survived. If an old woman has lived to be an old woman then she's a warrior. And her only sword has been language. Can you imagine? Decades of honing your language skills to a razor's edge to survive?

Lemme put a point on it-I tell stories because of my father and because I come from a long line of Southern MEN-the greatest storytellers and shit talkers in the history of the world. But when I sit down to construct my fiction and shape my worlds, I aim for the subtlety, clarity, poetry, efficiency and grace of my mother and her elders. And though I have written professionally for almost a decade, I am a disciplined and formal student of the craft of writing and storytelling and I honestly believe I have some modicum of talent, I seriously doubt if I will ever in my life create one sentence as evocative and elegant as the quieting admonishment my mother would often use on the ever chattering Williams brood: "Every shut eye ain't sleep and every goodbye ain't gone." I stand in awe of the beauty that soars everytime they open their mouths.

So I'm a little sensitive about the way old Southern women are depicted.

I blame Margaret Mitchell. No one wants to admit it but our automatic images of old Southern Black women comes from Gone With The Wind. It's such a defining part of the American cultural landscape that being affected by it is unavoidable. The loud, bombastic, sassy Mammy and the ditzy (Ditzy! A friggin' DITZY enslaved woman!

Je-sus, her stupid butt would have been dead before she was ten!) Prissy who, yes, "don't know nuffin' 'bout birthin' no babies" are the archetypes that can be traced all the way to the current old women in Gospel stage plays. But, in her defense, Margaret Mitchell was a white woman and white women very often don't know what the hell they're talking about when it comes to their darker hued sisters.

J. California Cooper has no such excuse. By no means is she the only culprit; there's a whole cadre of "Alice Walker Lite" writers who utilize the bombastic, over-the-top, awkwardly didactic, loud wisdom spouting Black woman character. Frankly, they talk too damn much. Example-on politics and dealing with the powers that be meaning, uh, white folks:

Cooper character-"It does not take a genius to know [the Constitution] was written for everyone in the United States, but white folks still try to think they have to decide who it's for. They don't even want some their own kind to be free. They send them out to die too! But, I'm not just talking about the United States, I'm talking about all over the world. Governments! Not one of them is any good for poor people and there's more poor people, of all colors, than any other kind in the world!"

My great-grandmother-"Hmmph. I just smile then wink my eye at the world."

Quick. Imaginative. Evocative. Saying nothing but saying everything. These women possess an economy of movement and sound. Those women aren't present in our art forms. Oh, Toni Morrison gets them. The aforementioned Zora Neale Hurston nailed them. Quietly, Gloria Naylor has an ear for them. But that's about it. And God knows they aren't in our movies.

Which is my long winded preamble to my "Why I like Soul Food the show even though I despised Soul Food the movie-well, except for the Vivica Fox 'You ma sista, gurl' scene" rant. In the movie Big Mama is large and in charge with her family coming together like "A MIGHTY FIST" but she's dead on the show which, frankly, is where I wish most of the depictions of my elder sisters would be.


Vincent Williams is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly, Orlando Weekly and the Texas Black & White. His novel, temples was published in 1999 by La Caille Nous Books. He anxiously awaits seeing what type of old Black woman his wife is going to be.