The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
— BOB DYLAN
Well it’s like cranes in the sky
Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds
Yeah, it’s like cranes in the sky
Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds
MY SINGLE MOTHER RAISED ME TO VOTE and she raised me to think for myself. It makes sense, given where my mother and my entire family are from, the rural and impoverished Low Country of South Carolina, a mere 30 minutes across the mammoth Savannah River into Georgia. My mother was birthed by Jim Crow America — Whites-only signs here, Coloreds-only signs there, domestic terrorism against her and people who looked like her as real as the blood that knifed through their sugar-and-salt veins. And there was an understanding that White people, no matter what their class background, had power and privilege, and Black people, no matter what their class background, had nothing but themselves. It is not like my mother and I discussed the Civil Rights Movement or American history when I was growing up. We did not. We barely could afford food, there were no books save the Bible, and my mother never marched or rallied or outwardly protested anything. Indeed, there was both a fear and hatred of Whites, a fear and a hatred that intruded frequently, like the choking, I-can’t-breathe smoke from a deadly fire in our Jersey City ghetto. My mother did not quite know what to make of White Americans, and that bewilderment was transferred to me the way we teach children our cultural traditions. It was a defense pose, I know now, to protect ourselves from everlasting insult and injury. What my mother did do was share and repeat the tales about what she and her three sisters and brother and father and mother endured in their America — the brutality and violence of their poverty, and the disrespect and meanness of the Low Country White folks, including the ones who hired her and her sisters, from the time they were little girls, to be the help, in their homes, at their stores, and on their land picking cotton. She lived, she survived, and her education was interrupted before she got to high school. But what my mother did have was a resolve not to allow anything to defeat or destroy her. When I hear folks talk about the amazing strength of women, in America, on this planet, historically, the person I think of is my mother, the first leader, the first teacher, and the first feminist I ever met, regardless if she readily knows or associates with that word. We survived the policies of presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and homes dominated by rats and roaches; we survived thieves and hustlers who could’ve climbed our fire escapes and busted through our kitchen windows or robbed us on the streets outside; we survived violence and neglect, and shady public schools and corrupt landlords; we survived heroin and crack epidemics that ripped apart other lives, and we survived my mother’s minimum-wage jobs and cuts to whatever little public assistance she could secure. It is astonishing to me, as the adult I am today, to think of how I sometimes earn for one speech more money than my mother made in any given year of supporting me from birth until I graduated from high school. We did not complain, we did not care, in actuality, who the president of the United States was, my mother and I, because we did what we had to do to maintain, and win. A win for us was my mother having a job. A win for us was the government cheese and other free food given to poor people in our time of need. A win for us was my getting excellent grades in school and believing my mother, when she said so, that an education was my one chance for a life better than hers. A win for us was our next dilapidated apartment building having fewer rats and fewer roaches and more consistent heat and hot water than the previous dwelling. A win for us was my mother never allowing any man to pimp her for food and shelter and sex. A win for us was my not getting murdered or imprisoned or addicted to drugs. Was it extremely hard and complex and tragic and depressing and hopeless? Oh yes. Did we want to give up? Oh yes. I remember well those days when my mother would both pray to God and acidly curse my father’s name for being a no-good man who had abandoned us completely. I remember well the days when my mother said to me, point blank, whenever I got into trouble at school or with the police, “I don’t think you gonna make it.” And I remember well the days when my mother announced, without pause, that she wished she had given me up for adoption, because her life would have been easier alone. This is the America I know, an America that soaked and hand-washed my mother’s soul with racism and sexism and classism before she had had a chance at a whole life for herself. There was no therapy. There was no social media or online petitions with which to vent. There were no healing circles or women’s groups or yoga classes or any of that. My mother had to suck it up, go it alone with child at her hip, have blind faith in a God she could neither see nor touch, and have a vision for my life since there was none for hers. I rarely saw my mother cry or show any emotion beyond raw anger, and I was the target of that raw anger on many occasions; this was my mother’s limited emotional vocabulary, her reality, and she had to keep going, based on what she knew, because the only other option was dying a slow death. Thus, she had to save her life, and she had to save my life, with tough love, with a rage vomited from an American dream not available for people like her. Perhaps this is why my mother drilled into me to vote, why she always used her voice for better housing for us, for a better school for me, why she would write, in the best use of the English language her eighth-grade education had afforded her, letters to politicians and other local leaders seeking help, an answer, anything. Somewhere inside her troubled mind my mother knew she, we, deserved better, that there had to be a better America, and a better world out there —