Home Culture Nakupenda Yeyo: I Love You, Mama

Nakupenda Yeyo: I Love You, Mama


“Read this.”

The instructions, scrawled across a loose slip of paper, stare back at me from the sprawling thin lines of my mother’s handwriting. Underneath, Dr. Cornel West gazes at me intently from the cover of his book, Democracy Matters, nestled in a narrow box next to an Amazon gift card, and another note instructing me to use the card to purchase Alice Walker’s latest novel, The Chicken Chronicles.

Alice Walker

The literary care package, scratched and battered from its 3000-mile journey from the coffee table of my mother’s living room in New Jersey, is part of a tradition she started when I was a child. Every month, she would purchase one or two books by notable African-American authors; and two or three others from some other literary heavyweight. I remember watching her hands, slim and brown, slide over the dusty cracked spines of second-hand paperbacks. Her long fingers stretching like brown snakes, and darting out to snatch a dog-eared copy of a Langston Hughes’ anthology from the crowded shelf.

The antics of the GOP regarding a woman’s right to have a say in her own reproductive choices and health, especially when she is the victim of incest or rape, casts a dark shadow over the fast-approaching Mother’s Day on May 13th. Usually I forget, but this year I’ve made it a point to remember, given the ongoing War on Women by the GOP. Last week, Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Arizona) signed into law an anti-abortion measure, which stipulates that women are now legally pregnant two weeks prior to the date of conception. I’m not surprised. After the mess in July of 2010, when Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, the openly opposed legal abortion, even in the case of incest or rape, and advised underage incest victims to make “a lemon situation into lemonade.” Her insensitive vitriol was on par with that of Rush Limbaugh who more recently spent three days calling Georgetown student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her testimony regarding new legislation that would require insurance companies to provide contraceptive coverage to eligible women – free of charge – if their university or employer declined based on religious grounds.

Mother’s Day is supposed to be a national celebration honoring mothers; celebrating motherhood, maternal bonds, and the important roles mother’s play in American society. However, the word “celebration” rings hollow after a Congressional attempt to redefine rape and defund Planned Parenthood based on a misleadingly edited exposé tapes. And then there’s the late Rep. Bobby Franklin. Remember, he’s the guy who wanted the State of Georgia to create a special police task force to investigate miscarriages, and outlaw abortions even in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

At this point, it’s obvious to me that if a woman votes Republican, she’s voting against her own self-interests. The rising struggle for the basic human rights of women, takes me back to the image of Dr. Cornel West cautiously peeking from behind the smooth beige cover of Alice Walker’s, Anything We Love Can Be Saved on my bookshelf. It belonged to my mother. I remember her voice, low, as she read aloud the struggles of Winnie Mandela falsely accused of kidnapping and assaulting four young men. Walker struck a chord with my mother, reminding her of her own struggles as a woman of color.

Born in 1953 during the height of Segregation and Jim Crow, my mother, Lesia Waithe (nee’ Easter), grew up in the suburbs of Bremerton, Washington. My mother’s family relocated to the Pacific Northwest, from their native Missouri, as part of the Great Migration, an event lasting from 1910 until 1970 when over six million African-Americans moved out of the South. Their reasons were the same as other migratory Blacks; they wished to escape the racially-motivated violence, segregation, and economic depression visited on them by White society. My mother recalls the penultimate reason her parents moved; her Uncle Leroy had broken the worst of the South’s taboos. Not only had he looked at, but had courted, and married a White woman. Two days after the couple returned to St. Louis to settle some affairs, he was found floating in a river, naked, and missing his genitals. His wife Marie, fearing for her own life, fled to California, and her terrified in-laws followed suit.

While Washington was far better than Missouri, my mother would tell me how firemen would turn hoses on the children, especially the little girls, when local Blacks would get involved in Civil Rights. On her calves are patches of dark brown skin, permanent scars from being blown across a parking lot with water. Attacking the children was a favorite tactic of Whites who wanted to scare Blacks into submission. My grandmother Lillian Easter, on the other hand, refused to be intimidated. The next day after my mother and her sisters came home soaked, bleeding, and bruised; she went out and bought a .38 special which she carried in her purse. Lillian, along with her sister Octavia, organized demonstrations, boycotts, and carried out acts of civil disobedience against businesses and restaurants refusing service to Blacks. Apparently, strong activist women run in my family, and the same was true of my mother. She was twelve-years-old when Talmadge Hayer shot Malcolm X. She was almost-fifteen when she turned on the television, and Walter Cronkite told her Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

Witnessing the public execution of two of the most influential men in her life was the deciding factor behind her eventual involvement in the original Black Panthers. By then, she was in her twenties, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and tells stories about how other Panther members would meet at night outside the barracks. Open membership or support of the Black Panthers, was career suicide in the armed services. So, they would sneak out, and strategize under the cover of darkness. Supposedly, she met Assata Shakur (she isn’t sure). But despite a promising start, my mother spent the majority of her adult life in an abusive marriage to my father. The strong, proud, beautiful Black woman that once stared defiantly at me from an old photograph taken at a Black Panthers rally, disappeared. At age fifty-nine, my mother is a shadow of the woman she once was, no thanks to 20 years of physical and psychological abuse. With that in mind, I’ve come to realize that when it comes down to giving a woman a choice over her own body, equal pay, or the ability to prosecute her rapist – GOP talking heads burn up the airwaves. Yet, when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, everyone falls silent, save a sound-bite or two around campaign season.

In a 2010 survey, Alaska had highest rates of sexual assault, and the highest rates of physical violence and stalking at 44.2%. Driving through the streets of Anchorage on April 3, 2012, I watched throngs of people stand on the street corner, and wave signs advocating a “no” vote on Prop 5. Now that the election’s over, I’m left wondering: where’s the righteous outrage for the women being battered throughout Anchorage? Why aren’t there hordes of people standing on the street corner, like they do outside the offices of Planned Parenthood, protesting the high rates of sexual assault? Are we to believe that being a homosexual, or having an abortion is worse than being a wife-beater, or a serial rapist?

Even better, are we really supposed to believe that we’re unraveling the moral fabric of America by asking companies to provide contraceptive coverage to women, free of charge, if their employer refuses to do so on religious grounds? Last I checked, the current wording of the law is a win-win situation all around, religious organizations and institutions have their freedom to exempt birth control from their coverage plans, and women belonging to said organizations can have access to contraceptives if they choose – for free. Unfortunately, that’s giving a woman more control over her body. Specifically, control over her uterus. And the GOP doesn’t seem to like that idea, even when it’s medically necessary. A good example of this comes from earlier this month, when my partner Evan and I had to address the issue of medically-necessary contraception, after an emergency room physician found a large mass on my right ovary.

My first thought was ovarian cancer, but the doctor assured me it was a benign cyst. I was sent for a follow-up where the gynecologist confirmed the initial diagnosis, and then informed me that I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS. On the upside, the condition is easily managed by taking birth control. Personally, I don’t believe in taking artificial hormones, and I told this to the gynecologist. Unfortunately, since PCOS can affect a woman’s fertility, I might have to reconsider if Evan and I decide to have children. I discussed it with him that night, and naturally he opted for the hormones since they would prevent the recurrence of another painful cyst. I told him my reasons for declining, he said ultimately whatever my choice he would respect it. Evan then shared an epiphany he had in the emergency room. For two hours, he watched me writhe in pain, feeling helpless. In that moment realized the very real consequence of outlawing abortion regardless of circumstance, forced to sit and watch me die, knowing that the physicians could save my life, but couldn’t because some bureaucrat said so. It angered him. Finally, he understood what I and millions of other women have been fighting for – the freedom to control our own bodies, and make decisions about our own reproductive health.

Evan’s realization gives me hope. So does Alice Walker with her fine beige cover, and Dr. Cornel West with his intense gaze. When I look at that cover, the smooth, unblemished surface of Democracy Matters, I feel as if Dr. West is silently invoking the legacies of my mother and grandmother, challenging me to do one better. I’m an activist writer, following in the tradition of Terry Tempest Williams, and honing my voice as an essayist and political commentator. May 13 is Mother’s Day. I will remember it this year, especially after penning this essay, because without my mother, I never would have become a writer. It was from her I developed my love of classic literature. It was from her I developed my love of the English language. And it was from her I learned to type. I will call my mother on her special day, and I am certain we will discuss our ongoing pet project to research our family history. Supposedly we came from East Africa, and the dialect spoken there is Swahili. When she answers I will greet her in the language of our ancestors –

“Nakupenda, Yeyo.”

“I love you, Mama.”