Black Migrants, Black Migration, Bradley Arkansas, Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Education, Highs and Lows, Insecurities, Intervention, Mary Louise Gill, Mother-Son Relationship, Mount Vernon Hospital, Self-Defense, Self-Reflection, Southern Stigmas, Welfare Poverty
I would be a pretty terrible son and historian to not discuss the fact that this July and August marks fifty years since my mother moved to New York from little ol’ Bradley, Arkansas. For those who think fifty years on anything revolving around race and class is “a long time ago” or “ancient history,” consider the following. At the time Mom moved across the country to Gotham, the Civil Rights Movement had entered its northern, splintered phase, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was barely a year old, and the very first episode of Star Trek with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would air that September.
On balance, with any neutral but fair eye at all, I’d have to say that Mom’s transition has been more failure than success. Five decades of crisis after crisis, of having a handful of fleeting moments of peace and progress followed by years of abuse, misery, poverty, and sorrow. That could be the summary I’d write about Mom’s fifty years of post-migration experiences in New York and in Mount Vernon.
But, let’s start from the top, through Boy @ The Window:
After drifting a bit after her high school graduation, one of Mom’s first cousins came for a visit to Arkansas in the summer of ’66 and told her that there was good-paying work in New York City. Her cousin lived in the [170s, the Tremont section of the] Bronx, a hotbed of Black migration and West Indian immigration in those years. Without much thought, Mom took a four-day bus trip from Texarkana to New York to what she hoped would be a new life. Given the alternative of tenant farming and generational poverty, New York must’ve seemed like going to heaven.
Mom had it rough long before my father and my older brother Darren and I had come along to be a burden. She lived with her cousin for nearly a year in the Bronx, paying $15 a week for a one-bedroom flat, before good luck turned to bad and then back to wonderful. They had both lost jobs at some factory, but had heard through the other late Black arrivals in the Bronx and Mount Vernon about good paying jobs at Mount Vernon Hospital. When Mount Vernon Hospital hired Mom to be a cook in their dietary department, she and her first cousin went their separate ways living-together-wise. They’d stay in touch until ’78, when Mom’s first cousin moved to Virginia, presumably for work with the Navy.
In the interim, Mom met my father at a juke joint on Mount Vernon’s South Side. It was a place where only Southern Black migrants would be comfortable. They didn’t have to pretend to like the grime, the hustle, the noise, and the taunts that New York and New Yawkers threw at them every day. They could be themselves. They could be shy, apprehensive, even, about their time in a place where everyone joked about their Southern accents and their slow ways. I think that’s what made my father attractive to Mom. Here was someone who made Mom sound much less Southern by comparison. At the same time, my father worked in the city, had a job as a janitor with the Federal Reserve Bank, and knew the Subway better than she knew the route from her one-room flat on Adams Street to Mount Vernon Hospital.
Within a year of meeting, Mom gave birth to my older brother Darren. Mom often said that she “wasn’t a teenager” when Darren was born in December ’67, as she had turned twenty six weeks earlier. Yet as I finally pointed out during the intervention fourteen years ago, “But you got pregnant when you were nineteen,” all to let Mom know that the stigma of teenage pregnancy was more about her and her insecurities than it was about what White folks thought, especially back then.
I came along two years later, Mom married my father in ’70, and things started falling apart soon after. Mom never gave herself a chance to live the city, and not just work in it. Mom never gave herself time to grow beyond her insecurities and her vanity about her looks. She never really tried to make her aspirations for joining the Navy or going to college happen. The latter, at least until after I went off to the University of Pittsburgh in ’87.
As I wrote about Mom’s/our family’s fall into welfare poverty by ’83 in Boy @ The Window,
Sixteen years, a dead-end job and two abusive husbands later, Mom must’ve been thinking that Mount Vernon was a hellish pit that got hotter every time she tried to make her and our lives better. With a fourteen-year-old kid in a school for the retarded, a twelve-year-old getting beat up by the second husband, a three-year-old who all but refused to speak because of his abuse, a one-year-old and another one on its way, it was little wonder that she showed about as much affection as an NYPD police officer. The ‘I love you, Donald’ faucet, which was an occasional drip prior to the summer of ’82, was pretty much turned off after that.
Yes, this is all truly sad. There was way too much too soon for Mom. Family, marriage, abuse, poverty, and internalized issues around race, sexism, misogyny, Black masculinity, evangelical Christianity (and the whole Hebrew-Israelite debacle), and all in New York. It would’ve been overwhelming for anyone whose income never saw $20,000 in any year prior to temp work in ’99, and $30,000 until working for Westchester County Medical Center in 2003.
There are so many mistakes Mom made, with me, my siblings older and younger, in choosing mates, and with work. I’ve written about roughly half of them. But, awful or awesome, without Mom’s momentary hope and courage — often the very definition of Black migration, especially to New York — I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.