In Praise of Our Poor Black Mothers

The first time I saw a superhero lose her cape was when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Ahora no papi, me duele el pecho,” she said to me softly.

Not right now papi, my chest hurts.

I understood.

My heartland was always my mother’s chest, and now it was tender.

I was ten years old. I had not known depression, but it was there with me, perpetually attacking me before I slept, reminding me that I might be orphaned, and blitzing the memories of the only person whose love and affection had fastened me. If there was a God, I supposed she might have been there sitting with my mom through chemotherapy, the fits of vomiting, and the struggle to prepare her four kids a meal as she tamed the beast we called “El Cancer.”

“El Cancer” was a God’s-eye view on something that poor Black kids have already owned: that illness is how poverty snares itself on poor Black and Brown mothers – diabetes, obesity, stroke, hypertension, and a grid of other diseases that gnaws itself on already brittle bodies. And that’s how my mom got cancer: poverty festered into lymph nodes, and cancerous cells soured onto her breasts.

It doesn’t take much for kids being raised by poor immigrant mothers to recognize their poverty. I became an interpreter at six, learning how to read Spanish through Saturday home bible study classes. We were bad Jehovah Witnesses in those days; perhaps, evenly convinced, that growing up in the projects was its own City of Jericho. When there were English words that needed to be translated or systems that required navigating, my mother leaned on me. We shuffled through welfare centers, and traded food stamps for cash. There were food pantries, and payday loans, check-cashing stores, and groceries put on credit.

There are avenues poor Black mothers take to sequester their children from poverty. Throughout my childhood, I would observe mothers piecing together nickels and dimes to buy their child a fresh pair of kicks. It doesn’t make sense to privileged folks, but it made sense to our mothers. We were already inundated into a hard knock life, there’s nothing left to earn but a fresh pair of Jordan’s. Every pair articulated a passive apology for the scarcity we were born into; it was the evidence of things unhoped for.

In the absence of hope, as she was going through chemotherapy, my mother tried to keep home as normal as possible. To remind us of the superhuman charge of motherhood – that she can both raise us as a single mother, and survive the spurt of a radical surgery – she made the Dominican dishes that occupied the knobs of her childhood: Platanos con salami y queso, arepa, habichuela con dulce, and sometimes she made Mac and Cheese, topped it off with sweet plantains, and doused it in her custom made garlic sauce. The ingredients were cheap: six plantains for a $1.50, pre-cooked corn flour for a few bucks, and slices of salami and white cheese for the cheap.  It was food that was never quite exceptional to the regular eater, but it was a luxury for the poor children who consumed them. Poverty and food, I understood, worked in concert to each other, like forks and knives, sticks and stones, mortality and cancer.

My mom cooked those dishes with a distressed left arm and hand; a symptom of her surgery, and a connection to our past. For me, her arm, which remains swollen all these years later, is both a gift and a time capsule. The only way I could find love in the tragedy of cancer is in the gift of time its side effects left behind. Her swollen arm reminds me of the hours we spent conversing together, as I rubbed ointment and homemade gels to control the swelling. And the days we spent watching telenovelas, as I trained my hands to control the way her arm would spasm. My mom would express her gratitude, most times it came in the form of words and kisses, often in the form of my favorite dishes. She expressed her gratitude, but it was I who always felt that he should be thankful.

I have met ungrateful sons and daughters raised by mothers whose arms are swollen from the backbreaking work of raising other people’s children, cleaning other people’s toilets, and picking up the strung out and elderly. Black and Brown children grow up sometimes to understand their mothers’ hard work with gratitude and to acknowledge the gifts we’ve gained because of their struggles; but it is easy to remain elusive in this knowledge, because we know what they think we don’t: that the hut of hurts that they live through created miracles. Sometimes those miracles allow us to break the chains of intergenerational poverty, and other times it helps us avoid the physical and emotional stressors that arrested them in the first place. And that’s all our moms really ever want.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, your mother would give you more than you could ever want. It may look like you asking her what she’d like for Mother’s Day. And, the poor woman who you think you can never give enough to, or could ever have enough, responds with a request that reminds you that she in fact may already have everything:  “A ti, mi amor.”

You, my love.

And you think about her chest – the one that was once tender, but has since healed. You smirk, and you remind yourself: Ah yes, asi es como las madres Negras y pobres crían a sus hijos.

This is how poor Black mothers raise their sons.

 Me and my mom at my undergradate commencement ceremony. Circa 2012.

Me and my mom at my undergradate commencement ceremony. Circa 2012.