The Crusader Newspaper Group

A mama’s boy’s praise for all Black mothers

Photo caption: JOHN FOUNTAIN AND Mom Gwendolyn Marie Hagler Clincy dance at his wedding reception in 1992 She died in August 2014 after a long illness.

I’m a mama’s boy. This hasn’t always been easy to admit. But on those late nights when I saw Mama sitting, staring out the bedroom window, trying to hide her salted tears that fell like midnight rain for years, stained her pillow, I could always plainly see her pain. Even though I was just a boy with no answers for the bitter pill called Life. Or for those ill men who are cancer. Or those men who failed her. I always felt her pain, her strain, her drain.

I’m a mama’s boy, though I bear my father’s name.

I was Mama’s joy. Manchild in the Promised Land. Eating from Mama’s tender brown hands as Mama sought to devise a plan to raise a Black boy to be a decent Black man.

A mother at 17, she went back to high school to graduate. I stare at her picture in cap and gown with admiration that only punctuates: I’m a mama’s boy.

Mama’s boy on those 60’s early sun-kissed mornings, when me and Mama danced. And she held my hand. And I held hers, as we twisted together and did the mash-potato as if the song would last forever. Danced the Watusi and the bird.

“Love” was the word.

A Black mother’s love—sweeter than molasses. Mama was my first love. My first kiss. She was my rock and my shield whenever trouble arose in the hood. Mama knew how to curse and fight real good.

And know this: Mama didn’t take no ish.

But Mama was all woman. A lady in her dazzle and sweet Estee Lauder. Well-versed in the scripture, a preacher’s daughter. Mama always worked miracles in the kitchen, turning nothing into something. Garlic-fired chicken was her specialty. Her fried potato patties filled our bellies in the depths of our poverty. Mama was the Queen of possibility.

Mama always believed in me.

She schooled me to walk with a woman on the street side. To dab my face slightly with a napkin, and start my fine dining with the silverware on my left side.

She quizzed me as a lad with a newspaper between her fingers. Fed me oral and written histories to remember.

Preached that even though we lived in the ghetto, the ghetto didn’t have to live in me. Built me up with love and affection for a world that would hate on me.

And ever since I was a little kid, Mama whispered the Word of God in my ears. Even when she was herself walking “through the valley of the shadow of death,” and compassed about with fears.

For “Papa” was gone. Mama turned over every stone to make a way for me. Not because of who I might someday be. But because of who I already was—even when poor and nappy headed. Long before I became America’s Most Dreaded.

Mama picked me up in her loving brown arms, and showered me with Black Mother love.

In Mama’s presence, I never had to be tough, or defend my manhood. Or worry that my good intentions might be misunderstood. Never had to buy a gift. Or try to lift the whole world upon my shoulders, in the hope that she might love me.

Never had to hide my tears. Or pain. Never had to cloak my fears. Or shame. I can still feel Mama’s soft brown fingers massaging my temples and forehead as I lay in her lap—a prepubescent boy besieged by migraines. My suffering the trigger to Mama’s heartstrings.

I never had to wonder if I could ever lose her love for me. Never had to choose her love for me. For she chose me.

Never had to hide my tears for fear that they might make me seem weak. Never had to not speak the fullness of my heart for fear that she might not agree, might cut me off, reject, or dismiss me.

Except in her presence, sometimes, there was no need to speak. Only to be a Black mother’s Black son. Fully loved and complete.

No love comparable. No love ever sweeter. No grass greener. No love nearer. And never any clearer that I am unapologetically, irrevocably, emphatically and eternally, a mama’s boy.

And I am unashamed to say, on this Mother’s Day, “I really miss my mama.”

Reflections On Bid Whist, The Blues and Mama

Originally Written in 2012

On warm summer nights, when the sound of blues music and card slapping filled our West Side apartment until nearly dawn, the game of bid whist was religion.

Even if the “saints” at church thought playing cards was the devil’s business, it didn’t matter much to Mama who loved “bid” with divine passion.

For Mama, a deck of cards could be salvation.

No matter how tight money was, no matter what new troubles, a fresh deck of playing cards, a few good friends and something cold to drink—usually Schlitz beer—plus the serenade of blues from cassettes or LPs, had a way of washing those troubles all away like a fresh hard summer rain. That much was clear to me, even as a kid.

As “Ode to Billie Joe” played for the umpteenth time, Mama and my stepfather smacked cards on a folding table with their good friends, Miss Edna and Mr. Charlie.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear their midnight laughter, the joy of friendship and good times amid hardship and uncertainty, although back then bid whist did not mean to me what it meant to the adults.

A simple book-turning card game akin to bridge, bid whist is beloved by many Black folks, and its best practitioners revered like a heavyweight boxing champ.

Mama was masterful. She had honed the card-playing lingo and she possessed the bravado requisite for being bid whist top gun. Mama was born to play bid. She was “bad”—in a good way.

By an early age, she taught each of her four children to play. But playing cards with Mama was not for the faint at heart. Sometimes I would be half afraid to put a card into play, knowing that if I wasn’t playing up to Mama’s standards, I could get a good quick cussing out.

Mama was methodical. She counted books and knew exactly which cards had been played and which had not. She could even detect what cards her partner was holding by the cards he or she put into play.

Mama didn’t cheat, although she taught my siblings and me how to detect if others were cheating and how to decode their signals.

Her weekend card games buzzed with trash-talk, with the snap, pop and hiss of another can of beer being opened, with the sound of hurried feet moving toward the bathroom whenever the beer had run its course, and with the occasional shout of “Boston!”

That meant one team had turned all 13 books in a single hand.

Sometimes my stepfather shouted, “Too late for the camel ‘cause the pig’s got his eyes closed!”

I never knew what that meant. Except he only said this whenever he was on the verge of winning.

What I remember most about those nights isn’t who won or loss, or for how long they played. What I remember is the carefree girlie nature that rang in Mama’s voice, as all of her worries got lost in the endless shuffling of the deck.

As an adult, I too have sometimes turned to a deck of cards, trading in my worries for the slapping of cards and trash-talk.

I have done so understanding now, as a full-grown man: That having money is good and necessary for living but not requisite for happiness. That life is about the collection of moments, of memories, of family and a few good friends.

That finding pleasure in even the simplest of things can make life sweet rather than bitter. And that a good hand of bid whist can still soothe like a summer rain.

Grandmother, My Best Friend

Originally Written in 2013

I would have been lost had I not found a friend, though it seemed the unlikeliest of friends—my grandmother. Florence Geneva Hagler, she was years my elder, gray, “sanctified,” and also a woman. I was young and “knew it all,” not interested in church and, of course, I was a man.

I would have preferred to have as a mentor my natural father, or some man who had endeared himself to me, who had decided to become my mentor and friend. I wished for one of my uncles. But they didn’t. And my father never showed up. Then he was dead.

As a young man, I was once angry and deeply bitter with the world, angry with my mother and father and even with God. As a teenager, I often wondered why God had allowed me to be born into my situation—poor, Black, pressured, mistreated, stressed, even as a little boy, about grown-up problems.

I didn’t want to hear anyone, didn’t want to conform to rules, sometimes didn’t want to share the hurt I was feeling inside. I decided instead too often to cry alone at night, until I finally decided I wasn’t going to cry anymore, just be bitter and act like I didn’t care about anything anymore.

That kind of bitterness can turn to rage and rage can destroy all of those around you and ultimately your own life. But Grandmother showed me a more excellent way.

Over time, in conversations, I came to trust her, to develop a relationship beyond grandson and grandmother—as friends. That was possible because I realized that of all the people in the world, Grandmother accepted me for who I was and loved me purely just because. Just because.

I later learned the term “agape”—which is the love of God, unconditional and all encompassing, pure, whole and true. That was my grandmother’s love.

As a man now, I often reflect on Grandmother’s love. And even though she went on to be with the Lord early one January morning 21 years ago, I still feel her love. It is ever with me, ever speaking, ever pulling for me, ever smiling and saying, “I believe in you, John Wesley.”

Grandmother called me a “great man” when I was just a boy. She used to get excited when I signed my name “attorney at law.” Her eyes danced whenever I had won some new award in school.

When I cried, she cried. When I testified in church, sometimes barely able to speak, she stood across the way, lifting her hands and exhorting me to “hold to God’s unchanging hand.”

She spoke life into me, and eventually her love helped begin the mending of hurts of childhood and young adulthood.

Of all the people who have ever and who will ever love me in this world, my grandmother’s love—next to my mother’s—will always be special because of the love I saw in her eyes for me, a love that made me feel whole.

One of the hard lessons I learned in life is that we have to accept who God sends us. That sometimes what we need does not come from those who ought to give it, or from those from whom we might expect it. Sometimes it comes from unsuspecting, even unlikely people. Yet, it is sufficient for a lifetime.

And as Mother’s Day approaches, I can still hear Grandmother’s wisdom above the early-morning buzz of her sewing machine, still feel the warmth of her faith and wise counsel as she pounds the dough for a peach cobbler, even after all these years.

No Greater Love

Originally Written in 2018

Lord, help me to carry my mother… Give me strength to do what I need…

The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s for his mother, the prognosis eventual death twice over: One in mind, the other in mortal being until finally consumption whole by the invisible beast—the monster— that had invaded his mother’s brain.

That’s what the research and experts told the son. He swallowed hard, tears washing over memories of better, brighter days. The prognosis frightened them both. But he had to be strong for Mama, could not allow her to see his tears, fears, pain…

Pain over the prospect of having to watch—powerless to alter the inevitable course—as the beast drug her into the suffocating prison of a fizzling mind with ever-increasing blank spots on the screen of a life spent in living color.

Lord give me strength… And time…

Time to make more memories. Time for mother and son to unravel the hurts and misunderstandings that occur even between the best of mothers and sons. Time to share words not yet spoken. Time to live. Laugh. Love.

Time and strength ebbed and flowed as he carried her to doctor’s appointments, lifted her from wheelchairs and hospital beds—as the beast locked her behind a watery haze that filled her brown eyes with a faraway stare.

He brought his mother red roses and flower bouquets—scents of sweetness and life to inhale. He played old Motown music and blues to soothe her soul. The son’s love potion sometimes broke the beast’s spell.

And son and mother then would sometimes dance and sing, like they did when he was a little ghetto boy and she was a young ghetto mother, dreaming of raising a better man than the one who had deserted them.

Sometimes, when the beast was raging, the son serenaded his mother with old church songs a capella. Or he prayed while holding his mother’s hand at night until she drifted off to sleep.

Lord, help me take care of Mama…

In her conscious hours, he reassured her. Comforted her in those times when even the most monumental things eluded the pages of her memory, like butterflies flickering in the wind. He learned not to rebut her insistence on the details on certain matters or memories–allowing her to be right when she was “wrong.”

And when she cried during moments of crystal clarity over the beast’s devouring—over it eating away at her physical abilities and dignity—the son dabbed his mother’s tears, or kissed and caressed her hand or forehead. Or he simply lifted in his arms the woman who had given him life, blood and breath, and whispered, “I love you.”

“Mama, I got you,” he said, his heart breaking with every beat.

Lord, give me strength…

The son arrived at the nursing home to find his mother wandering on another wing. Her head, by now, hung toward her chest in an almost sheepish shame (the work of the beast), her eyes foggy, fixated on the floor.

“Ma’,” the son called out.

Slowly, she began lifting her head but managed only halfway, staring up at an angle. The son lifted her head with a gentle finger beneath his mother’s chin.

“Johhhnnn,” she said, half singing, beginning to cry as their eyes met. “I thought you would forget about me.”

He hadn’t. It was the beast again. The son wrapped his arms around his mother.

“Mama, I could never forget about you,” the son said.

Not then. Not nine years since being granted the strength to lay his mother to rest. And not on Mother’s Day. Not ever.


Email: [email protected]

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website | + posts

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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