The girls are in a production about the Civil Rights Movement. I learned what ‘passing’ was. It’s when a light-skinned African-American person used ‘white-only’ facilities. Quietly, respectfully. Not drawing attention. Hoping just to sit on a train, for example, if they could.
I heard my mother and grandmother discussing an event that happened a generation or two ago. In the process of breaking up housekeeping of one of my great-great-grandparents, a photo was found. It was a photo of a black woman. On the back, it said one word…
At the time, I said nothing. Sometime later, I referred to that event. Mother just stared. It was anger and “I-don’t-know-what-you-mean?” at the same time. Had she forgotten? Was it a secret?
Whose mother? The answer is lost. Only Mother is alive to know it and, she isn’t talking. There were the great-greats who both died, leaving the little girl who’d be my great grandmother, an orphan. There is also the great-great who smoked cigars and only changed underwear twice a year–when she put on the winter underwear and when she took them off. Her son would live 76 years, only to decide to take his own life.
Someone kept a photo labeled, ‘Mama’.
My mother was born in the 40s. My grandmother in the 20s. My great-grandmother died in 2005 at age 93. If she was still alive, she’d be 101. Even given forty years for the two previous generations, that would place her grandmother’s birth in the year 1867. Five years after the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation. If by some chance my forebears in both those generations were older than 20 when my great-great was born, ‘Mama’ could have been born a slave.
It’s possible that the woman in the photo isn’t actually a relative at all, but a nanny. Someone may have found a photo labeled ‘Mama’, and just never disposed of it.
Neither of those seem terribly likely, as this de-cluttering would have taken place before my grandmother was born. Would it have been extremely likely that a white person, living in the 1920s in America, would keep a portrait of a black woman labeled ‘Mama”, if it held no personal meaning?
The photo, if kept, wasn’t kept by my branch of the family. Of whom I am the only descendent.
May I pass?