Summary: Mama’s Child is story of an idealistic young white woman who travelled to the American South as a civil rights worker, fell in love with an African American man, and started a family in San Francisco, where the more liberal city embraced them—except when it didn’t. They raise a son and daughter, but the tensions surrounding them have a negative impact on their marriage, and they divorce when their children are still young. For their biracial daughter, this split further destabilizes her already challenged sense of self—“Am I black or white?” she must ask herself, “Where do I belong?” Is she her father’s daughter alone?
As the years pass, the chasm between them widens, even as the mother attempts to hold on to the emotional chord that binds them. It isn’t until the daughter, Ruby, herself becomes a wife and mother that she begins to develop compassion and understanding for the many ways that her own mother’s love transcended race and questions of identity.
“I need to see you today,” Gladys, the New Harmony School director, growled into our answering machine. “We’ve had an incident.” Her deep voice intimated this was no ordinary farewell meeting for Ruby’s final days of sixth grade. “Looking forward—” her gravelly voice murmured, as if she hadn’t just raised my anxiety.
Solomon had his own full schedule that day—like every other—so, given the urgency of “see you today” and “incident,” I called Inez to teach my Merritt College class and, sweating, navigated Ashby up to Telegraph and turned right toward Oakland. At Sixty-fifth I angled left toward the brown shingled house our group of community parents had converted to a school, building an addition nearly every year.
Pushing through the noisy halls filled with children’s voices, I slid alone into Gladys’s office. Her secretary, Laverne, waved her hand toward the small battered chair facing Gladys’s desk.
“She’s running a little late, but she’ll be back momentarily. Take a load off.”
Laverne’s soft shoulder-width Afro brushed my cheek when she patted my arm. Why, I wondered after she left the room, had she done that?
After squeezing myself into the chair—had I gained that much weight?—I scrutinized the posters filling the wall: a white woman in an orange-print skirt held hands with a black sister in slacks over the words WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE SKY. An oversized UNICEF calendar featured a blue globe ringed by multihued children. GIVE! the calendar urged. And everywhere paintings, blue, red, green tempura paint slathered across butcher paper, bright yellow suns lighting the upper corners of landscapes. Several papers bore titles. I saw a curling, faded paper labeled RUBY’S FAMILY: four stick figures hovering under the ubiquitous bright yellow sun. Three of the figures were brown, one was colored pink.
Gladys bustled in, trailing smoke, chattering before she cleared the doorway. A squat woman churning energy, she started out, “Ruby’s such a talented girl.” She swept aside a space on her desk, rummaging for an ashtray. “So vivacious. I remember our talent show when Ruby was, what, in fourth grade, when she brought down the house with ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Remember? Such a bright child. So lively.” She tapped out another Camel from her pack while scanning a pink message slip, not waiting for an answer before she rushed on. “Yes, such talent.”
I listened warily, shifting in my undersized chair. The principal hadn’t called me in to discuss Ruby’s lovely voice and bright disposition.
“And smart. But Ruby is having problems.” Gladys plunged abruptly to the reason for her call. To my thirty-five-year-old eyes, the woman was ancient. A relic from the old breed of progressive educators, fifty at least. Though I’d been part of the parents’ committee that hired Gladys Holland six years before, she hadn’t been my choice. Her confrontational style grated, and, along with Solomon and several others, I’d advocated for a slender, soft-spoken African American woman from Portland, arguing that the students needed a different role model, one they rarely saw in a position of authority. I wondered if Gladys knew. Still, I had to admit that during her tenure the school had prospered. She’d hired terrific teachers, kept parents involved, and was an ace fund-raiser.
“That girl is going to have problems when she gets older, too.” Gladys, who was under five feet, peered across her desk, bobbing her head to emphasize her words.
“I-I don’t think so,” was all I could stammer.
“I’m worried about her. Something unfortunate happened this morning in the bathroom.”