By LATOYA FAULK
When we identify respect (coming from the root word meaning “to look at”) as one of the dimensions of love, then it becomes clear that looking at ourselves and others means seeing the depths of who we are. Looking into the depths, we often come face-to-face with emotional trauma and woundedness. Throughout our history, African Americans have pounded energy into the struggle to achieve material well-being and status, in part to deny the impact of emotional woundedness. Truthfully, it is easier to acquire material comfort than to acquire love.
—From Salvation: Black People and Love, by bell hooks
Home is not just a house; it’s this yearning for a place where you’re safe, [a place where] nobody’s going to hurt you.
—Toni Morrison, in conversation with Claudia Brodsky at Cornell University on March 7, 2013
My Grandma trained me in the ways of Black womanhood. The most important lesson being: a home meant freedom. When Grandma left Wetumpka, Alabama, in 1955, with an older brother who found work at the Chevrolet Saginaw Parts Plant, she brought with her the desire to find sanctuary in a homeplace. After the 1968 passage of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act, which provided homeownership subsidies to mostly poor and working-class Black mothers, African American families began to settle east of the Saginaw River as whites took flight to the west of the city. Grandma came into an East Side home of her own after dealings with white folks whose homes she cleaned, whose clothes she washed, and whose children she raised. In 1970, when she signed the deed for the land where the house on Walcott Street was built, she had escaped the violent reign of her second husband. As the house was being built, she went to live in a cramped, roach-infested, two-bedroom apartment with her eight children and an older sister laden with eight children of her own. As the story has it, her sister would sit on the stove to restrict usage, so when the bellies of Grandma’s children grew hungry, they ate government peanut butter from the can by the spoonful. Grandma’s own home meant autonomy—she was free, and not just from the abuse of men, but from dependence on others who decided when she could cook for her children.
By the mid-1980s, her own eight children had grown into adults, but childrearing didn’t end with them. She would soon take custody of her youngest daughter’s three children. That daughter was my mother.
The house on Walcott Street was a dull grey with white wood siding. The edges of the house were laced with rosebushes and a lilac, tulip, and lily flower bed Grandma labored at from spring to spring. In summer months, Grandma woke early each day to cook breakfast. Once we’d eaten and the kitchen had been cleaned, she sat at her own kitchen table with a cup of coffee. She would sit there and praise the Lord for “been through the storm” glories. I use “been through the storm” in that gospel-blues way only our people use it, the way the Mighty Clouds of Joy bellow it as testament or plea to a heavenly father who knows your troubles. Grandma would sometimes sing the chorus of Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “How I Got Over,” LaShun Pace Rhode’s “I Know I Been Changed” or Shirley Caesar’s “No Charge.” This was how she filled her home with religion, and with a God who healed, sustained, provided, and understood—above any man—the sufferings of poor Black women in America.
In those early mornings, Grandma’s neck often glowed in the half-lit kitchen as she stood before the sink washing dishes. The floral headscarf she wore covered long strands of freshly washed and braided hair, yet to be straightened with a hot comb under fire from the gas range stove. Beside her was the worn kitchen chair purchased from the county flea market, under which was a bucket of flour. The padding of the chair had begun to spill out of a slit in the center of the seat cushion. Our legs would dangle from opposite ends of the chair, and we pulled the grainy, grass-colored sponge stuffing from the slit as we sat. It was hard not to dig at the filling, especially if you were sent to the chair as punishment for misbehaving. The loose green sponge vomiting out from the old chair called you to it by announcing its disturbed self, and its summons we just couldn’t ignore. This chair, placed close to the windowsill of the kitchen, was where I sat for hours as a girl during my apprenticeship to honorable womanhood.
Grandma sifted flour, cupped sugar without measuring cups, and mixed eggs, butter, and vanilla extract in large bowls for her pound cakes. What was to be penned in memory she avowed with “You see, here” or “Watch this here now, carefully, gal.” I watched as her hands brushed dirt from collard greens and bathed them in the kitchen sink. She then rolled the leaky wet and dark green leaves into layers—collard green leaf atop collard green leaf atop collard green leaf—before cutting them into crinkled, symmetrical strings. A boiling piece of fatback or pork belly filled the air with a pungent, salty steam.
I always did as I was told.
I was a child who feared the fury of disobedience not just in physical harm but in reputation, for there were aunts and uncles who took obedient children to get penny candy at the Corner Store and picked them up for rides to ice cream parlors or school basketball games. They refused dealings with nefarious children whose publicized accounts of wrongdoing spread from telephone receivers like an infectious disease. Without a word of backtalk, I swept floors, wiped tables, and amassed dog scraps in large recycled ice cream buckets. I fetched vegetables from the garden for suppers, washed dishes by hand, drained leftover lard into a coffee can, and sorted silverware, but not without a look out the kitchen window at my brothers. I watched as their shirtless brown bodies sprang like grasshoppers across the yard, holding green translucent Family Dollar water guns aimed at one another. The behemoth kitchen windows were opened, and the sides of each of the curtains were folded with humungous wooden clothing pins. Despite the whirling of a large box fan encased with dust, you could hear their sharp laughs and chatter through the kitchen. Even they knew their bodies weren’t regulated by the same house rules as mine. We’d catch glimpses of each other, me behind the kitchen window with arms folded while theirs extended above their heads, reaching toward the clouds. This filled me with rage—the kind of rage that awakens you to the great unevenness of life. The kind of unevenness which spoils the idealized notions one has of the grown folks who keep you fed, cleaned, and clothed. My folded arms hardened with jealousy and a morose heat grew from my chest as I eyed my brothers running feral about the backyard. I would not dare speak these grievances aloud. I held them inside of me all while admiring the candors of Black boyhood from afar.
Sometimes, Grandma occupied the disturbed chair, and I sat on the green-tiled floor of the kitchen and shelled peas, or unhusked ears of corn harvested from the backyard garden each summer. “You learn to cook and clean a house so you can get you a husband, you hear?” Grandma would say. “Because no man wants a lazy and self-righteous woman who can’t keep a house.” These notions of the detestable woman and a woman’s place in the home, of what not to be, and of what to be if I was to receive the prize of a man, were words that kept me knowing what I wasn’t to become, and would not dare fashion a self around, lest I sanction damnation upon my own soul. And yet, at ten years old, I did not want to be trapped inside a broiling hot kitchen on a summer morning cooking and cleaning. I imagined myself boy-wild, uncontained, and ruthlessly rebellious. I wished to be governed by nothing but the apple trees in our backyard, whose trunks I occasionally climbed before domestic undertakings chained me to Grandma’s kitchen.
Once every few weeks, while the boys were away on voyages around the neighborhood, Grandma announced we would be cleaning their bedroom. In my older and younger brothers’ room, the twin beds were on opposite sides. It was a tiny space, nearly the size of a college dorm room. The walls had been painted crayon blue, but since it was a paint job the boys took part in, there were eggshell colored patches that gave the room a drab and unfinished look which became uniform over the years. We swept under their beds, washed linen, and removed the basket of odorous drawers, socks, T-shirts, and sweatpants. As I grew into a teenager, a mischievous curiosity grew out of the scandalous trinkets discovered in my brothers’ room. I flipped through the Playboy magazine found under one of the wooden twin bunkbeds, where the naked porcelain bodies of white women were gapped open and propped up like trophies. My brothers’ lost drawings of women’s breasts, and the cigarette butts and empty condom wrappers, sent me into a warped realm of engrossing masculine escapades—artifacts from an untouchable world that seemed strange, scary, and yet beguiling. I watched with sullen and esteeming eyes as my brothers courted girls and smoked weed on the side of the house, out of view of the authorial eyes of Grandma. Here’s what I’d take into my adulthood from my childhood in the house on Walcott Street: Boys were born with the right to run amok about the world. Meanwhile, the womenfolk would be there to clean up their rooms, wash their dirty laundry, fetch food, and cook their meals. We’d always be the ones waiting at home, preparing for their returns.
As time went on, drugs and gang violence took root in the area during the 1990s, and the boys would stay out until the streetlights flashed on. In the early evening of those days, the house became an empty cathedral, eerily noiseless and filled with a dry heat that smelled of rotted wood. One night, Grandma ordered me back into the crayon-blue room to finish the cleaning we’d started days before. I’d been watching taped reruns of Ally McBeal, but paused the VHS and begrudgingly followed her into the last room of the narrow hallway, where a heap of dirty jeans and shirts lay before the entrance. Grandma pulled the garments up from the floor and flung them in my direction as she pointed to the sliding closet doors. The rancid stench that slid through my nose and into my throat astonished me. I smirked. “Stop actin’ like you ain’t never smelled shit a day in your life,” said Grandma. I quickly opened the doors and threw the garments toward the light yellow triangular laundry basket. “Make sure you put ’em in the basket,” chided Grandma. She’d grown agitated by my domestic deficiencies, and when we’d finished stripping the sheets from the bed and replacing them with clean ones, she decided to check behind my work, so she pushed past me and struck open the closet when the thud of a canister box fell from the top shelf where shoes were normally stored. The box cracked open, and weed shards, along with tiny, translucent, brown-tinted papers and a small pistol, were divulged atop the dirty clothes. I watched the bulge of her eyes and the way her body hardened with grief. The boys were now husky teens who could withstand the flogging of a tree switch, wire hanger, telephone cord, or belt. Grandma decided this new generation was an odd bunch, a kind that couldn’t take a good firm ass whoopin’ and follow suit. She picked up the box, collecting the spilled goods, and left as I stood there adrift.
My oldest brother’s father was in prison for theft at the time. He was always in and out of prison for petty crimes, but my youngest brother’s father was a General Motor’s United Auto Worker who, I’m told, “paid good child support, but was often denied his full visitation rights.” Grandma called him up—which she rarely did—and asked that he speak with the boys. The very next morning, I heard my youngest brother and the tenor of a man’s voice. “Oh, huh, so now you want to play daddy,” yelled my youngest brother, who was fourteen at the time and had grown a heap of hair under his nose. I could hear the anger and sadness in my brother’s voice. He cursed repeatedly at the long-haired, Jheri-curled man, then walked out of the house after demanding that the stranger, who’d suddenly felt he had the authority to discipline him, leave. But I didn’t want the long-haired, Jheri-curled man to go anywhere. If trouble was what brought him to Grandma’s house, I wished for more of it. I wanted to find more things in my brothers’ room that pushed my Grandma to say whatever she’d said to the silky-haired man on the phone to get him to come to us and with such urgency. Every so often, the Jheri-curled man would take us to Kmart for toys when we were younger. I wished for those days again. He wouldn’t speak much, just smiled and told us to get one toy of choice. After Kmart, we’d stop at McDonald’s before he returned us home. I remember how his skin singed with the same golden-red and brown hues as a fireplace, and how, when he smiled, his cheeks ballooned out and made me chuckle at the charm of his face.
But even with numerous interventions, my brothers seemed to always find trouble, or trouble found them; either way, they rebelled against the house where they’d inherited a poverty so detestable and humiliating it turned their minds into salt and their hearts into stone. The house became consumed by the continued blunders of my brothers. Grandma occasionally called on their fathers to set them straight, but when she didn’t get an answer from them, she began to call on “the man,” the phrase she used for police officers. The quintessential man of Grandma’s lexicon would show up to the house and threaten my brothers with juvenile detention. In the end, like so many urban Black men, both my brothers did end up in juvenile detention centers, then jail, and soon enough, before they both reached the age of seventeen, prison.
We grew up in the church.
Grandma was on the usher board, and she’d won the affection of the preacher’s wife, so we spent three or four days a week at Faith Missionary Baptist, a storefront church that was once located on South Jefferson Avenue in Saginaw. The Biblical scriptures we heard, such as Proverbs 18:22 (“he who finds a wife…”) and Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”), convince young women they must wait to be chosen, hand-picked among the flocks of women measured by their degrees of unrelenting kindness, attractiveness, thinness, dignity, self-respect, submissiveness, and virginity or chasteness; you’re made to feel valuable just because, and only when, a man wants you as his wife. Wanting to be loved, wanting to be seen, wanting to be somebody’s righteous responsibility leads to a desperation for someone to gather with you to make a home—because this is what you are told you must do to become a woman, and to espouse value onto yourself—so you learn to make yourself into the ideal wife long before matrimony.
Silence was my only weapon in my rejection of subservient womanhood, and in that silence I’d hide out in my bedroom, withdrawn from the everyday ordeals of frequent family visitors, in search of a more permanent escape from the domestic drudgeries and strict religious governance of the house on Walcott Street.
That permanent escape was college.
I applied to Michigan State with the help of an aunt. On the day of my college orientation, she sat outside the house waiting in a burgundy Oldsmobile. Her car horn riddled my anxious and wobbly body as I stood in the kitchen praying Grandma would answer back. Grandma wouldn’t look at me, let alone speak to me. I called her by name, but she would not answer. I needed to be seen by her, to be assured that while I hadn’t exactly matured in her womb, I had been made her child. She braced the sink with both hands and looked out toward the kitchen curtains. A rising sun bled through those curtains with a fiery red brightness. The sunbeam marked the kitchen table and colored the walls in a silhouette of reddish orange. I called again. The word Grandma came out of me like the lyrics of a slow ballad, and the guttural, sedated tempo of my plea made the skin on my body broil. Grandma. The kitchen had always been Grandma’s first place to tend each morning. It was the place where she now stood, her back turned to me, as I waited on her words. But I didn’t just wait for them—I begged for them. “Please, Grandma,” I called. “Please. Please.” I needed Grandma to see me as someone worthy of more than just the acquired skill of cleaning or cooking a meal at home, because although these are certainly needed skills, they weren’t the only ones I aspired to have. Grandma would not speak, and I left for college without a word from her.
At twenty-seven, I fell for a man who grew up on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard, near Gratiot. He was fifteen years my senior, and the only man who has ever told me that buying a home meant preparing to die. This unfurled man joyrode from state to state at his own beck and call. He came and left as he pleased. He detested the notion of God, that is, with the exception of leasing out the words of the scripture to wield his woman into the service of the deity that was himself. He would not be contained by what he called the white man’s academia, as was I—someone who, at the time, was finishing up a master’s degree and finding a kind of revelation in the panoptic rhetoric of philosophers like Michel Foucault. This man had left many graduate studies programs in protest of having to succumb to someone else’s reading list. This man felt familiar. He felt like home. He was so much like my feral brothers, making up his own rules as he went along, strumming his guitar with crossed legs and a cigarette at the lip. He was an admirer of Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, and Charles Bukowski—white men whose concordances he absorbed like summer sun on the skin. He wanted me to be the woman Grandma had raised, the subservient and overly self-sacrificing woman who had nothing but the home to define some sense of worth for herself. In hindsight, I suppose I wanted to become this woman because she was what he wanted; I knew it was the only way he would love me, really, and I tried desperately to become her because I greatly wanted his love. This woman I became would stay put as he roamed unfamiliar plains, wrote his Chitlin’ Circuit plays, whoremongering from bar to bedroom, all while this woman I had become supported his pursuits by working four jobs: teaching full-time at Wayne State and working part-time at Wayne County Community College, Detroit Mercy, and Target to cover the suburban household bills of Harrison Township. Here I was, the woman I’d fought all my life not to become. The woman I’d left home for college so as not to be. But it seemed the crossroad had already been paved, and no matter how many detours I thought I was taking, the path led me back to where I’d started.
When I was seven months pregnant, exhausted from work responsibilities, and soon to face diagnosis of a heart disease brought on by stress, I asked that he find a full-time job. I’ll never forget it. I was in bed on my back, swollen and achy. He turned to me with hard, grieved eyes and told me a woman ought not tell a man one goddamn thing about what he should be doing. And he cursed me real good before leaving the house. What little respect I had left for the man diminished that day.
Once the child arrived—a child I delivered without him or anyone other than the doctor and nursing staff, since he was allegedly too busy with play rehearsal to answer the nurse’s repeated calls before an emergency C-section was ordered—I accused him of what were no longer grievances, but deal breakers: the nights of staying out late, the ever-elusive presence of other women, and myriad other financial and emotional liabilities. The strain of our love had to be loosened, more of him had to be offered, and provisions needed to be given. But instead of resolve to change, he offered me memories of his mama, a widow who learned upon her husband’s death that he was married and had another family. That meant she was left to raise twelve children without his life insurance money; without a driver’s license, a car, or savings; and without, as my husband emphasized, the comforts of a college degree. He went on about how his mama worked but still got up every day and cooked and cleaned. How his mama made sure his father was revered by the children and those in the community. How his mama would learn of his father’s indignities without one bad word of the man and never a complaint. This is the story he told me, again and again—an attempt to brainwash me into the fate of his mama. He wanted to know why I couldn’t be more like her—why I couldn’t excuse his indignities plus sustain a good home, free from the emotional anguish caused by his shortcomings. Like so many others, he desired a woman who bore her cross in silence, who endured without rage and without sullying the name of an unpleasant husband. In this, I would fail him, for I just could not be that man’s mama. A divorce came the year our daughter turned two.
Marriage had been part of a past life Grandma spoke of only with disdain. Several years ago, there were family jokes of romantic sparks between Grandma and an elderly deacon at the church she’d been attending. I’d asked Grandma if she’d marry again now that we grandchildren were out of the house. She replied, “I don’t want another one of them bastards.” She went on: “I can most certainly do bad all by my lonesome.” Grandma had got somewhere by herself with her babies and made a home. The peace and security Grandma found in relinquishing the desire for a partner, certainly after surviving domestic violence and homelessness, didn’t ward off loneliness or the bleakness of poverty or the desire to see her own granddaughter with a man and home, but she’d had the surplus of her family’s love.
I returned home in my early thirties during my divorce proceedings. It was then that I came to think that perhaps Grandma might have perceived my youthful silence and escape to college as me rejecting her—the woman who raised me when my own mother, enmeshed in drug addiction and enslaved by mental illness, couldn’t. When I departed for college, she had lost a surrogate child. I was leaving behind the only mother I had ever known, and I didn’t know how to be her kind of daughter without dying on the inside. The idea of homeplace can bring forth both the feeling of freedom and discontentment. I wanted what I didn’t have as a child: two parents and children under one roof. And yet, I never thought to realize that I’d had a family in Grandma, who’d given us a home. She’d given us herself—all of her.
I’ve found myself caressing the wombs of broken relationships and caring for children alone as did Grandma. And I’ve observed the ways Black men like my ex-husband return home to women when they’re old, weary, exhausted from the burdens of the white world and finally remorseful for their calamitous jiggery-pokery, and now, having come to some sense of their own clarity, they prepare to die under the care and feeding of a good woman. There is a rising seashore filled with single Black women who will welcome men who left them behind so long ago. This is when these men return home, when they can feel death around the corner. They come and feast off the establishments of these women. Women of long suffering are the delights of treacherous men. These women pay the price for Black male rage and white supremacy. It takes courage to confront this pain; more importantly, it takes audacity to eye those entities one owes such agony to. Our culture gives praise to these accepting women, though. We call them “ride-or-dies,” and yet, what of those like Grandma who refused continual abuse and letdowns? There is so little talk of Black women who age and come to find endless love in the companionship of their children. These are women like Grandma who find peace in homeplace without husbands and have few regrets for leaving abusive and heart-rending love affairs behind.
Homes and bodies carry histories, so when I went excavating my childhood on Walcott Street in search of unearthing what was hidden, I found I was still learning from Grandma and aunts and other Black women who germinated from urban cities after the Great Migration, having, as Grandma would say, “been brought from mighty long ways.” I was still learning how to find peace in the monotonous contradictions of inhabited love and place. And still, I do often ask, the questions looming over me like a dark wilderness: Where can I find home? What does it mean to buy a house without a husband? What would it mean to find a home and nurture it with just the love of my children? And how did I arrive lost in the here? The word here is not just one of locality, but a vastness for the place of my birth that is within and without. Mostly, the house on Walcott Street is a place in my mind that is fractured by deep affection and sufferable longings.
LaToya Faulk has a BA in English literature and an MA in rhetoric and writing from Michigan State University. She is a third-year MFA student at the University of Mississippi. Her work appears in Scalawag and Southwest Review.