“She could always see me, because she had her heart in her eyes.”–John Hodiak, “Somewhere in the Night” (1947)
Black womanhood for two centuries has been the unbreakable backbone of the United States. Over the years, strong, courageous and talented Black women have suffered, persevered and triumphed in the face of often oppressive, overpowering odds. But through it all, they abide.
Nobody knows this better than the Black men who have derived from Black women a full measure of support, occasional refuge and a loving push in the right direction when we needed it–which was, and is, a lot of the time.
Such was the case with my late mother, Mrs. Juanita Carter–born on Sept. 26, 1912–who would have been 100 years old this week. Thinking of it, such feelings come rushing back as I proudly, once again, stake my claim–sending chills of pride down my spine.
This is a claim to which Black women everywhere–past, present, living and dead–are entitled. Most are unsung, to be sure, but steadfast to the end. Standing behind their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Standing up for themselves and for the race. Always there. Rock-solid Black women who have traveled from slavery to freedom, from slave ship to championship.
More years ago than I care to recall–as my mother was ready to give birth to her first child–she was taken to a Catholic hospital in a racially mixed neighborhood on the near north side of Milwaukee. But there was a problem. She was a Black woman.
“We don’t allow colored mothers here,” she and her worried husband were told. My brown-skinned mother was a Northern-born, lifelong Catholic, and my father was a tall, dark-skinned player in the Negro baseball leagues. She ended up having her baby–this writer–in a second-floor bedroom a few blocks away at her mother’s home.
Some 12 years later, as I played baseball on a cracked cement playground in a changing neighborhood–oblivious to the lateness of the hour–she showed up to bring me home for supper. A white father arrived about the same time to pick up his son.
“That boy of yours plays great,” the man told her. “One of these days he may be another Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays.” My mother, who had grown increasingly outspoken over the years, wasn’t having it.
“Mighty white of you,” she replied. “But why did you specify Jackie and Willie? Why not Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio, too? Tell me that, sir.”
These were words I clearly remember–words that made me think, for one of the first times, of my potential to be all that I could be. That my color didn’t have to be a barrier. And I never forgot them and how forcefully she’d spoken them.
Mrs. Carter was happily married to my late father, Sanford, for 58 years. I had three wives–the first of whom was the mother of my four children, including Sherry Carter, formerly of Black Entertainment Television. Yet, my mother gave each of my wives unrequited loyalty, reasoning that if I loved the women, it was good enough for her.
In all the years since, this proud Black American woman turned out to be the best mother any woman could be. In the long, hot summer of 1967, she survived the bombing of the Milwaukee NAACP office, where she worked as its first paid secretary. She also spent countless election days and nights working at polling places and helped her night-working husband succeed in business as he tried, but failed, in politics.
She also prodded me–her sometimes reluctant son–to fully exercise the innate abilities she was always convinced I had. This included making me do my homework instead of running in the streets and urging me to stand up to occasional childhood bullies.
This great lady and model mother went on to make her mark in the Order of the Eastern Star. And she glowed with pride when her daughter–my sister–was accepted into the police department and her grandson–my son–served in the nuclear navy.
My mother also tirelessly worked overtime in her grassroots support for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as he forged ahead in politics. Years earlier, she had done likewise for my father when he lost a close race for alderman in the city’s predominantly Black 6th Ward.
Without this wonderful woman, the late Juanita Carter, my written words never would have been. And believe you me, there is no way I ever could adequately repay her, although I tried mightily over the years–including taking my parents to Hawaii to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary.
Without her caring, love and uncompromising support, I might well have spent my life in the post office. I was stuck there for four years after earning a journalism degree in college back in the days I couldn’t get in the door of the white-controlled news media.
On April 4, 1992, Mrs. Carter died at 79 of natural causes in Milwaukee, the city of her birth. When it happened, I was overwhelmed by an uncanny coincidence. My mother and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–my greatest hero–had passed away on the same date. How proud I am that she shares April 4 with this remarkable human being.
Yes, Sept. 26 is very special to me–my late, great mother’s birthday. And I celebrate it regardless where life takes me. So I’ll never stop remembering and revering Juanita Carter. She was A-No. 1, top of the heap. How could a son ask for more?