My Main Mother
First published 1969, Walker & Co.
“A tale of death, black pride, a search for love and the quest of a young
man for respect… a novel of penetrating personal insight.”
“The scenes of Harlem, of how it feels to be a black getting a flat tire on
Times Square, of encountering a homosexual in the Village, of street gangs
and boarding houses, of the ironies of racism, are fantastically vivid and
My Main Mother is a novel about growing up. Without a father. With a mother who is beautiful, promiscuous, avidly ambitious. In a small town in Maine. In the human jungle of New York. Growing up defiant and scared, happy and torn up. Growing up black. And growing up human. It is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable novels in years.
SO IT’S ALMOST TIME.
I’ve been coming here for several days now to proofread my history I started writing almost a month ago, and tonight I should finish it off. Tonight should be my last night in this old, wooden station wagon ensconced in the Maine woodlands.
Listen, this old Ford wagon was presented to me by my late Uncle Melvin, who died before I killed my mother. Good-doing, wine-drinking, pipe-smoking Uncle Melvin knew that no one else could possibly love the old Ford more than I. Even as the rain patters on the roof above me now, I love it. She has only two wheels—both on the right—so that when I pretend to drive it, I am always cutting a sharp corner on my left. A hole in the floor through which eager weeds grow up and stretch toward the dashboard. Also: three doors that won’t open; a fat, dead worm found once in the yellow foam of the cut-up back seat; and a hood that refuses to shut. To see ahead of me, I must lean my head out the driver’s side window.
You might call my story a confession of the soul, a revealing of the mind’s construction or a proclamation of my own emancipation. I come here from my room in town, come here to this Ford leaning on its side across the road from the old, gray house. I keep my manuscript in a box near my drumsticks on the back floor and Jeff, strong boxer of mine, guards it all. He sleeps lightly under the porch of that grand, gray, monstrous-looking castle that has been the source of so much grief for me; and paradoxically, so much happiness. These —things—the house, the car, the drumsticks, the manuscript and—Jeff—they are the stuff of my life.
If you please, my credentials: black, beautiful, man of many moods, genius, hero of sorts.
Jeff now sits in the back seat on his haunches. He licks drops of rain that creep through the fogged windows’ edges. I talk a lot about Jeff, my fine boxer, tan with a large diamond of white on his chest and spots of white on his ankles. He is my only living companion. If you could see how he stands sometimes: butt of a tail wiggling, hind legs bent perfectly, head stretched forward with his large black mouth closed (for a change). I used to call from a distance and he’d pivot quickly, and like a single horse in his own stampede, bound toward me. A little old now, Jeff is still solid. Slap him on his shanks or on his side and it’s all meat you feel, solid flesh. I’ll allow him to lick my face with that dripping red tongue of his, or I’ll put my fist between his sharp whites, or, before I put him out here to guard the property, I’d let him sleep at the foot of the bed with Uncle and me, glad to have his comfortable solidness next to my feet and sleeping easier with the sounds of snorts and sneezes. And Jeff does not play. He showed me that during the first week I had him. I saw him grab a stray cat by its neck and wring the life out of it. Jeff.
They told me officially at the funeral two weeks ago in Boston that Uncle Melvin had left me this beautiful rusting auto with the rotting, wooden sides. This lovely old station wagon he left for me; lovely old conveyance that now conveys only the love that I hold for it.
At his funeral, arriving late, I threw off my coat, rushed toward the white casket without even seeing the thirty or so people sitting on folding chairs with their hands correctly in their laps, poor imitations of mourning relatives.
I started to ask who it was in that casket. Who was it in that five-foot casket with his hands folded looking like a doll trying to smile? Who was this doll who couldn’t have weighed more than twenty pounds, whose legs were as thin as my arms, whose shoulders weren’t as broad as a ballerina’s waist? Surely not Uncle, who had stood tall in his blaze-orange hunting cap, who would hold the leash to five hounds in one hand and who shook the old castle when he had trampled through it?
“Cancer,” said one of the ushers, as if I hadn’t known about the suffering. And then, “Here, step this way, sit down please.” He handed me a clean-smelling mimeographed sheet: MELVIN PIP. LIVED 70 YEARS. A GOOD MAN WHO LIVED WELL AND LEFT MANY FRIENDS AND RELATIVES BEHIND HIM. WAS A MEMBER FOR TEN YEARS OF FIRST BAPTIST’S USHER BOARD. MAY GOD REST HIS SOUL FOR HE WAS ATTENDING CHURCH REGULARLY IN HIS EARLY DAYS.
I thought it would be best to begin at the beginning, from the nascent stages of my hatred for Mother to where I am now. None of that medias res stuff for me, although this report may well be an epic. And the story begins in the summer.