Mending the World

Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers


By Rosemarie Robotham

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The many facets of black family life have not always been fully visible in American literature. Black families have often been portrayed as chaotic, fractured, and emotionally devastated, and historians and sociologists are just beginning to acknowledge the resilience and strength of African American families through centuries of hardship. In Mending the World, a host of beloved writers celebrate the richness of black family life, revealing how deep, complicated, and joyous modern kinship can be. From James McBride’s tender recollection of the man who claimed eight stepchildren as his own to Toi Derricotte’s moving portrait of a pregnant teenager who decides to keep her child; from Debra Dickerson’s lament over the shooting that crippled her nephew to Charles Johnson’s whimsical look at a married couple’s mid-life crisis; from Shay Youngblood’s moving fictional evocation of a lost mother to poet Kendel Hippolyte’s poignant telling of a father’s unexpected legacy, this inspiring volume presents-through fiction, memoir, and poetry-a multi-layered and optimistic portrait of today’s black America. Mending the World features fiction, personal memoir, and poetry by new writers (some publishing here for the first time) and established members of the canon.


Mending The World

Mending The World

Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers

Edited by
Rosemarie Robotham

To the Robothams, Stiebels and Arrindells, from whom I received my true education.

With gratitude and love.

Great Expectations

by Maya Angelou

This important and timely book is called Mending the World, and we can all agree that our world needs mending. Anthropologists, biologists, and historians tell us that all human life began with the black family. It is likely that what we as black people have learned over the millennia could be, must be, of use in mending the world. And as the seminal people, Africans, wherever we are in the world, must be prominent in righting the wrongs of history. The knowledge of healing is in us, as surely as wonder drugs are to be found in the bark of a tree.

So it is timely to approach black people, and indeed brown, yellow, red, beige, and white people, with great expectations. We can be effective as healers only if we expect it of ourselves. If you say to a person, “Well, you can’t do anything,” that person will respond, “Okay, I’ll show you that I really can’t.” But if you lift a person up, if you expect more of that person—if we expect more of each other—then it seems to me we can uplift not just ourselves but everyone.

We appear to have lost sight of this important truth. One of the most poisonous ideas brought to our community was a statement made in the Sixties that the black woman was the root of the black family’s problem. She was too bold, too strong; she really ought to step back; she was crushing the African-American male genitalia. The statement was made by a politician, but the idea was introduced long before. It was said some four hundred years earlier by Machiavelli in his slim volume, The Prince. Separate and rule, he said. Divide and conquer. This poison is still worming its way through our families, which explains some of the monster rap, vulgarity, and violence that we live with.

The result is a widening gap in the African-American community between the dual-headed families and the single-headed families and their progeny. This is critical, because more often than not, people who come from homes where two parents are present will be supported by the family, will receive more education, will earn their degrees, will more than likely go on to become a part of the middle and upper-middle class. And more than likely, those who come from the single-parent homes will not make it as far. There will always be those who push through, but too often, the mother in the single-parent household is working too hard to give the children the discipline and attention they need, and sometimes even to give them love. It could be she doesn’t love herself very much, which makes it very hard for her to love somebody who looks like her, who came from her. Sometimes she’s just plain tired. Her children grow up with few toys, or none at all. They learn to depend on other people rather than themselves for what they need. They know best the feel of other people’s property. But we must understand that these children, too, are our own. When we speak about the black family, we must recognize that we are speaking about all of us, brothers and sisters, branches of the same tree, sharing the same sky.

Of course, our experiences are not all the same. My grandson lives in Atlanta with his wife and two children. He recently graduated from Georgia State University, Magna Cum Laude. He spent last summer as a Ron Brown Fellow in Washington, D.C. And he goes back to school in a couple of weeks to work on his MBA. Now his children will have something in common with the great-grandchildren of a black woman who raised her children alone, with very little help. What my great-grandchildren, ages four and one, will have in common with those children is that they’re black. They’ll share the culture, the music, the foods, the body behavior, all of those things. But intellectually, they will be worlds apart. And I don’t mean in intelligence. I mean in academic training. In opportunities. In the ability to care for themselves. To love themselves. To find themselves quite admirable.

What can we do to heal this yawning gap between those who have and have not in our community? Stop the separation. Volunteer. Go into the community. Give one day or some hours a month to a school, to a children’s ward, to a church. We can love each other. It’s very simple. Love liberates. Love rescues. Love reclaims. I know this from experience.

When I was three and my brother was five, we were, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. Our parents were breaking up their marriage, and they sent us from Los Angeles, California, to the little village of Stamps, Arkansas. We went to live with my father’s mother, Grandmother Henderson, whom we called Mama. She would put her hands on me—it seemed to me her hands were big as heaven itself—and she’d rub me, my arm, my back, my hair, my face, hug me to her talcumed bosom. And you know, I don’t remember her ever kissing me. Many white sociologists would make a big thing of that: “There’s no tactile love in the black community,” they’d say, but that’s not true. It’s just that old black people don’t often kiss children. But they do put their hands on you and let you know that you are loved.

Later, my brother and I were taken to St. Louis, where my mother was living. I was raped there, and after that I stopped talking. For years I did not speak. I thank the Lord now that my mother’s family sent me back to Mama in Arkansas. When I got there, Mama said, “Sister, Mama don’t care what these people say about you, that you must be an idiot, a moron, ’cause you can’t talk. Mama don’t care about that, because Mama knows when you and the Good Lord get ready, you’re gonna be a teacher.” At the time I just thought, She’s crazy. I’m never gonna talk. You can’t teach like that, you can’t teach without speaking.

But she loved me so. And I healed.

And that’s what each child needs—a safe haven of love. If you can’t do any more, if you cant feed them more than beans, give them love. Give them a reflection of themselves they can be proud of. I always tried to do that with my son, so much so that when he was twenty, a friend of mine, an English aristocrat, said that he was very intelligent and handsome. “But you know, Maya,” my friend said, “he’s terribly, terribly arrogant.” “Well,” I said, “I didn’t have a great mansion to give him, or the storied names to make people shiver in the marketplace, and I didn’t have large packets of everlasting earth, and I didn’t have bank accounts and cash. So I told him, ‘You’re the best, you’re the greatest, you’re the finest, by gosh.’ And he was. And he is. And he believed it.”

We need to give all children this message of love if we are to mend the gashes in our world. In the struggle for the soul of our families, black writers have a special role to play. I think it would be dangerous for us to ignore the rift, the tear in the fabric of the family—dangerous and foolhardy. But it is imperative that black writers stand on the good foot, speak the good truth, too. We need the love stories, the stories of courage, the humor. We need the James Baldwin stories, the Paule Marshall stories. We need all of it, because the majority of black people go to church, send their kids to school, live rather uneventful lives. And because they are uneventful, not sensational, the media does not even report them. So it is up to us to report them. It is up to us to create a reflection of ourselves that we are proud of. A vision of ourselves that we can love.

Now by love I don’t mean indulgence. I don’t mean sentimentality. By love I mean a condition that we are capable of and desperate for, which envelops and sustains and supports and encourages and doesn’t even have to touch. I mean I love you if you’re in Alabama, I love you if you’re in Afghanistan. I mean love that passes all understanding, that recognizes that if we are the source of all humanity, then we are sisters and brothers to those in Afghanistan and in Tel Aviv and in Kyoto and in Lagos.

Yes, absolutely.

I mean love that says, I free you.

Because only when we are free can we do the work of mending the world.

Reflections on Family

by Pearl Cleage

Some times family is like the air you breathe. Because it’s always around, you take for granted that it always will be. You forget the birthdays you used to take care to remember. You don’t send a card when your niece graduates from high school or call to say be careful when your nephew goes to war. You find reasons not to be a part of the boisterous holiday gatherings where your uncle always drinks too much, and your cousin can’t stop bragging about his latest professional accomplishment, and your great aunt wonders aloud why you’re still not married, just before your mother pulls you aside to tell you she thinks your father is having an affair and has he said anything to you?

The family news you get comes secondhand and once removed until it almost seems like background noise. You realize with a shock that you probably know more about the personal lives of celebrities you will never meet than the people to whom you are connected by blood and bone and memory. And then you have a grandchild and the fact of family suddenly comes charging back into your life, promising the only immortality of which we can be sure. So you take a deep breath and look into the future’s face to see what you can see.

First, there are the obvious things. Color of the hair. Shape of the mouth. Size of the ears. After the ritual counting of the fingers and marveling at the ten tiny toes, the search begins for who he looks like. Is that the beginning of his daddy’s determined chin? Is that really just gas or the faint, but unmistakable glimmer of his mama’s sweetest smile? Opinions are offered in hushed tones over the crib where the baby lies, blissfully unaware, or, with a bit more volume and perhaps a bit more confidence, over cake and coffee in the proud new grandmother’s kitchen.

To them all, I simply smile and nod, murmuring something non-committal and offering another cup of this or slice of that. Their opinions, although lovingly offered, are quite beside the point. The details of my grandson’s face and form will reveal themselves in due time, but for right now, his tiny body curled against his mother’s breast or nestled in his father’s arms is all the proof I need that he is one of us: family.

This is still new to me, this business of grandmothering, and I hope I’m going to be good at it. Unlike the almost unbearably intense mixture of emotions I felt when my own daughter was born—exhilaration, anticipation, relief, tenderness, and terror—my grandson’s appearance produced in me a profound feeling of peace and connection unlike any I have ever known. Watching my baby have a baby was somehow more miraculous and more mysterious than my own birth experience. After I had my daughter, I wanted to laugh and cry and dance around the delivery room. Watching my grandson emerge after that last big push, all I wanted to do was pray.

Which is what family will make you do when you’re finally able to understand it, finally able to see past the constant demands and the endless dramas; the hidden agendas and the secret heartaches; the external pressures and the internal fortitude. My grandson may never understand the story of how his great-great-great-grandmother Jenny often wore her high-button shoes on the wrong feet all day because she refused to change them once she discovered her mistake, but that same stubbornness is as much his birthright as his father’s love of basketball and his mother’s sense of style. He may never march in demonstrations or exhort a crowd to action, but his great-grandfather’s determination to live free will be as much a part of who he is as the tiny brown birthmark on the back of his hand. He is already marked and coded by the long line of love that produced him and by the generations of his family, seen and unseen, who now hover around his crib, clucking and cooing, surrounding him with light.

As my grandson will learn soon enough, our families are not perfect, as much as we might wish them to be. But as the years go by, and we clutch each others’ hands as we bury our elders, and call no matter what the hour to announce a new arrival, the more I realize that perfection is not required. Because a family is always greater than the details that come to define it. Always the best example of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts. It is our families that push us so energetically out into the world to make our mark and then provide us with a place to regroup when the world just as energetically pushes back. It is our families that first show us the power of love and forgiveness and, just as clearly, the destructive force of anger and bitterness and wounds that never heal.

That’s why this collection is so important. Because it allows our imperfections; it recognizes that we are works-in-progress. It understands that mending the world is not an overnight task. It is a way of living; a way of seeing; a way of being. This putting back together of what has been torn asunder is a delicate and demanding process that must take place block by block, house by house, one family at a time. This book is an important part of that movement toward the wholeness that comes only from understanding the power of love, the necessity of truth, and the possibility of rebirth.

For African-American families, born by the rivers of Babylon, the journey we have taken has often been perilous, filled with danger and defeat, separation and the silence of all those unmarked graves. And however tempting, it would be naive to suggest that we have emerged unscathed, to pretend that the desperation of the Middle Passage, the horrors of slavery, and the continuing legacy of Jim Crow, did not shake our family structure to its very core. Such pretending would only dishonor the courage of those whose struggles have allowed us to survive. Because, ultimately, our true legacy is not their triumph over a seemingly implacable foe, but their determination to assert their humanity through the nurturing of families in the face of all they were forced to endure. That is the legacy we share and the foundation of our ability to continue to grow, and grow stronger.

It is that strength that I pray will manifest in my grandson. It is that spirit that I hope will bind him, across the miles and the generations, to those who came before and those who will come after. It is that life force that I hope will guide his feet as he takes his place among us, with his daddy’s ears and his mama’s smile, and his head full of the family stories that will be his grandmother’s greatest gift, his living connection to who we were, who we are, and who we will be.


Making Up the Truth

by Rosemarie Robotham

As I sit down to write this introduction, I find that I cannot consider the experiences of Black families without first considering my own family, without first recognizing how they opened the door of possibility—in particular this possibility, this book of literature about the Black family—when I was still just a solemn girl with a secret love of stories.

It happened the year I turned fourteen. In a matter of one week my paternal grandfather would be dead of a heart attack. No one expected it. Grandpa had been so hearty just the Saturday before, his sphere-like brown head gleaming with vitality as he looked around the dinner table at his grandchildren. It was the last weekend of the Easter vacation, and my brother and I, and five of our cousins, were spending it at our grandparents’ farm in the sleepy rural town of Mandeville. The next day our parents would come to get us for the drive back to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, where we lived. School would begin the following week.

Grandma had been the one everyone worried about. She was small and stooped, her coiled hair fully white, her memory of recent occurrences less reliable than her recollection of events that had happened in her twenties. As she drifted in and out of the hazy mists of her youth, she had become increasingly difficult to connect with. She would gaze at us grandchildren as we tumbled into her kitchen, barefoot and sweaty and streaked with dirt, as if wondering idly who we were. She thought sometimes that we were her own children, but why were there seven of us instead of five, and who were those grown ones calling her “Mother?” Grandpa alone remained substantial and familiar to her. “Viv,” she would say, “call the children in for dinner.” Or “Viv, tell the children to get ready for bed.” Then, mercifully, the mists would clear, and our identities would shift back into place for a while.

Grandpa, on the other hand, was keen and discerning till the day he died. The Saturday before his heart attack—the first and only he would ever suffer—he had gone around the table, interrogating each grandchild about his or her plans for the future. Grandpa, having been a teacher and later an inspector of schools, wanted to be sure that his grandchildren were being properly instructed, and that our attitudes about education and our ambitions for the future were appropriate to his mind.

He looked first at my older brother, whom I’d always suspected was his favorite. “And what will you become, young Lascelles?” Grandpa often referred to us by our parents’ names, so that Gordon was “young Lascelles” and I was “little Gloria.”

“A scientist, Grandpa,” Gordon piped up, his cheeks bulging with mashed potatoes.

Grandpa nodded approvingly. “Yes,” he said. “You have a scientist’s inquisitive mind. You’d make a good doctor.”

Next came Christopher, David, and Paul, an architect, a lawyer, and a linguist, respectively. Then Laurie-Anne, who wanted to be a teacher—Grandpa beamed at that—then her sister Nicky, who wanted to be a chef. “You want to be a businesswoman,” Grandpa corrected. “Own the restaurant, then you can cook in its kitchen if you choose to.”

Nicky was the youngest cousin at the table, only ten years old, with a shy voice and downcast eyes. “Yes, Grandpa,” she conceded.

Then it was my turn. “I want to be an artist,” I said.

Grandpa frowned. “What kind of an artist?”

“A painter,” I clarified. “On canvas.”

“Who will buy your paintings?” Grandpa asked. This, for Grandpa, amounted to affectionate indulgence, since it was already clear from his follow-up questions that he didn’t hold with the notion of becoming anything so vague as “an artist.” A civil servant all his life, Grandpa had arrived at certain conclusions about adult conduct and responsibility.

I shrugged, a touch of defiance in my shoulders.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Nobody has to buy them.”

Grandma, who had been busy spooning second helpings of her beef stew onto our plates, glanced up briefly. She knew that I had displayed about as much impracticality as Grandpa could stand.

Grandpa was true to form. “Nonsense!” he announced. “Little Gloria, it makes no sense for you to be a burden to your parents because you can’t make any money. They’ll sacrifice whatever they have to educate you, young lady, and the way you will pay them back is to become self-sufficient. Make a living.” Grandpa thought for a moment, then he continued imperiously. “Leave painting on canvas to those who are truly born to it. You, little Gloria, are always scribbling in those notebooks of yours. You carry them everywhere. Look around this table at your family. You should aspire to tell their stories. Make it literature.”

He spoke the last word with such respect, such worship, that it made me sit up and listen. That single word, in my grandfather’s mouth, in my ear, swelled with the purest resonance and possibility.

A week later, Grandpa’s heart stopped beating. After his funeral, my father told me that Grandma had decided I should have Grandpa’s desk, the great old mahogany behemoth that stood in the corner of his study, across the room from the bookcase with the crumbling encyclopedias my brother loved. How had Grandma known that I loved Grandpa’s desk, loved its faint smell of sawdust and lemon oil? I said a silent prayer of thanks for the whisper of clarity that had allowed her to notice. Sitting at Grandpa’s desk was like steering a huge ship, its scarred surface so expansive that I felt it could take me on any journey, accommodating a lifetime of literature. This, after all, was what my grandfather had seen for me as he hovered, without our realizing it, at the margin of his life. And senile or not, Grandma had somehow managed to recognize the light of the future breaking over me.

So it is in families. So it is that most of us, if we stop to consider it, can trace who we become to some defining moment within the crucible of the family. This is certainly true for people of African descent, who centuries ago were wrested from our first families by a cruel transatlantic trade. For us, kinship relationships have been critical to our survival, helping us to create entirely new definitions of who we are—and who we might yet become in a world that does not always admit our possibilities or welcome our vision.

Ironically, for Black writers, this lack of welcome has been a kind of gift. It has forced us to set our own table, to invite wholly original muses to sit down with us, giving voice to our truths. Marginalized as we were in the societies of the New World, Black writers were faced with “making up” the truth, literally writing ourselves and our experiences into being. In doing so, we chose to reject the more negative images of ourselves reflected by others in favor of defining our own realities. As a consequence, African-American and Caribbean-born writers have managed to stake out definitive new territory on the American literary landscape, and we have done this by finding value in what is real and true for us.

Indeed, even as my grandfather exhorted me to “make it literature,” gifted Black writers were taking their place at center stage—and even on bestseller lists. In the weeks, months, and years after my grandfather issued his challenge, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde exploded into my consciousness. Here were writers who looked like me, telling stories about people whose experiences resonated with mine. Here were men and women holding up a mirror to the world I knew. With great boldness and poetry, they were filling that gaping hole at the center of our collective consciousness that had been there for centuries. Patiently and courageously, they were “mending the world.”

Through the work of these and so many other Black writers, the myriad ways in which people of African descent have managed to redefine themselves and the lives of their families are finally being understood as evidence of resourcefulness and resiliency rather than as proof of weakness and dysfunction. Yes, we lost much when we were brought, chained, to America in the holds of ships, but we have also gained much by virtue of our survival. For people of African descent in the New World, it is the family—bonded by blood and by love—that has been the supreme source of our ability to persevere and triumph in the face of unimaginable odds.


On Sale
Jul 21, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Civitas Books

Rosemarie Robotham

About the Author

Rosemarie Robotham is the senior Editor-at-Large of Essence magazine. She is the co-author of Spirits of the Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Seventeenth Century, the editor of the anthology The Bluelight Corner, and the author of a novel, Zachary’s Wings. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

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