My Mama and MLK, Jr.

Yesterday was MLK, Jr Day and today is my mom’s birthday and the significance of those two days are twisting around each other in my mind. They days have always been close to each other, and my mom is from Alabama, so there is some strange associations between the slain civil rights minister and my mom in my head.

This weekend I was cuddled up in bed with Kwan describing a funny moment I had the previous day with a woman on the Muni, I said, “I like to punk people with kindness.” He cracked up and shook his head at me. I know, I know, it’s a total oxymoron. It’s that huge insubordinate streak of mine. You’re expecting me to be the asshole in this situation just to replay some traumatic events in your life and reaffirm that human beings are inherently cruel? Ya, no thanks, lets hug! So I started wondering where that contradictory behavior comes from. The answer: my mom. I told him a few stories about my mom and I righting neighborhood wrongs. He said I just needed a cape, and I could have been a super hero. I laughed that off, suddenly uncomfortable with such a grand identity.

But, it’s true, I do enjoy shaming bullies, confronting ignorance and ya know sticking up for the underdog in general. Still few things make my spine tingle as much as being nice to someone who is begging to be mistreated.

Let me qualify that:  Being nice only feels good when it is a choice. Compulsory niceness is bullshit, it’s oppressive. This is a long qualification, so stay with me. Being forced to be nice and smile all the goddamned time out of fear is demeaning and dehumanizing. We all start out with the ability to wear our hearts on our sleeves, but as we grow we find that being real about how we’re feeling might not be the safest path, so we adapt.

I am thinking generationally. I am thinking about my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, me and my kids. My great grandfather was mean. His daughters were nice. My mother struggles between the two. I am comfortable with both. My great grandfather never cracked a smile unless he wanted to, which was rarely in the presence of his children. My grandmother smiled all the time in order to be seen as obedient and to not call attention to herself. My mother is a kind person who mistrusts nice people. To her, being kind does not necessitate being nice since being nice can be fake and a form of manipulation. A smile hides a person’s true intent. It’s easy to see why my mom feels this way.

The most powerful person in her world was Granddaddy and the man was mean. Her grandmother was the nice one, she did everything, loved everybody, took care of all the people my mom loved most and who was she married to? A big ole grumpy bully who’s mood dominated his household. Granddaddy set the tone. He created the standards and expectations for behavior. Everyone tiptoed around him holding their breaths. “What kind of bullshit is that?” I can see my mom thinking at about 12. Why does he get to be however he wants and the rest of us have to smile and be nice and pretend not a thing is wrong when so many things are so very wrong? This family is also from the South, so having manners is a part of it too. But this goes beyond how to treat a stranger or act in front of the neighbors, this is about the power dynamics within the household my mother grew up in.

My mom saw how having to be nice all the time inhibited her mother and aunts. They didn’t know how to argue, how to have conflict, how to express anger, how to stand up for themselves. They also believed they deserved being treated like shit if they stopped being nice even for one moment. They knew how to be bullied and bulldozed and shot down; that’s what you get for being unpleasant. The women of my grandmother’s generation all married men who were some form of abusive. Shocking right?

The beauty of being a grandchild is the layer of removal your parent provides you when interacting with your grandparent. It’s fascinating. Just one degree of separation provides a perspective shift, an ability to question and challenge.

So my mom, in all her manic glory, tried out the whole not being nice all the fucking time thing. She just didn’t want to be forced to smile when she didn’t feel like it. If she was being mistreated she wanted to be able to tell whomever to fuck off. But compulsory niceness is a hard form of conditioning to break free from. She was clumsy with the tool of unpleasantness for sure. It’s like handing a live wire to an eager child and saying, “uh, ya, don’t get zapped,” then walking away.  But my mom isn’t cruel so her heart was never really in it. Her default expression in moments of conflict or discomfort is this tight funny smile, like she’s trying to both warn you and dissuade you at the same time. As you can imagine, she looks mad as a hatter. Her real smile is beautiful, warm and contagious.

That’s been her struggle: she hates cruelty but doesn’t respect niceness. Calling my mom sweet is like, the biggest insult EVER. I call her all kinds of names and she loves it.  I think we spent most of the 90’s (aka my teens) calling each other silly bitches in fake British accents. I still say, “Get out of my car, skanky ho” and she’ll laugh.

For me, I’ve always been sweet. I’m an amiable person through and through, despite some very strong efforts to turn that switch of deep down cheerfulness off. Which scared the shit out of my mother. Especially when I became a teenager. She was afraid I would be like her mother. How in the hell do I make sure this sweet child doesn’t get devoured?

My mom actively sought to bring out my inner bitch. Again, she was clumsy, as we often are when we’re making shit up as we go.

She knew the best chance that I had of staying sweet and kind was if I was able to protect myself. Maybe I wouldn’t be the nicest person, she wagered, but I wouldn’t be a victim. Or a sheep. My mom hates people who follow others blindly, without questioning, without thinking for themselves. “Never be a sheep!” she told me. Never be a victim if you can help it is what she showed me. Which is probably a HUGE reason I am in a Social Justice program for my MA. Where else would I fit?

She did a great job. Really. Plus, my paternal grandmother had being a bitch down to a science so there was at least a template for her to work from.

She stopped worrying when I was around 13. We were walking down a busy street at night and some car full of men honked and hollered at us- we have great legs. I yelled “You can suck my dick, assholes!” before she got the chance to yell anything and she was so proud. Though she did warn me that some men liked that kind of talk, so it’s better to go with the standard: “Fuck you, motherfuckers!” I took a mental note and we kept walking.

I didn’t grow up within the same power dynamics as my mother so I don’t have such a polarized view of mean or nice. Both ways of being are at my disposal. I like to be honest. I spend my time with people I can be vulnerable with, which doesn’t always include my mother, so I don’t have to hide my fears or feelings. My default is to be nice, but I don’t have a problem with being mean if necessary. I choose to seek out the good in most situations fully aware that the bad is right there next to it.

I hate cruelty. And that hate motivates me to be both very nice or a very mouthy bitch.  If someone is being cruel, I’ll flex a little muscle,(brain or brawn depending on the situation) to put them in check. It sort of feels like a maternal obligation, and like one of my favorite poets, Joyce Lee, says, “it’s a good thing I come in an intimidating package…” Really, between the intellect and the physique, I don’t have to do much to make someone else uncomfortable.

As a parent, I hope I’ve passed on my mother’s disdain for cruelty to my sons. The boys are sweet. I hope I’ve shown them that they can express their anger, sadness and disappointment and that there are boundaries to that unpleasantness. I hope they feel comforted when I correct them and offer them perspective, if not a solution, to what is hurting them. To me, being nice is how we express joy and happiness and contentedness. They don’t have to be nice if they’re not feeling it, but they’re not allowed to be cruel.

So back to MLK day- I told you it was a very long qualification. He is all about punking people with kindness. You expect me to be the asshole in order to make you feel better. No. The difference is in the motivation. Fear or hope? Hate or love? If you’re being nice out of fear, you have no power. If you are acting up and causing unrest out of love and the belief that we can be better and do better, then that is a great source of power.  If you love so deeply that you hate hate you’re going to need a lot of guidance on how to work that problem out. Which is why we need leaders like King; why we need speeches and marches and books and collective action.

We need strong voices to say that passivity is not inherent in kindness.


My Mama and MLK, Jr.
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