After my mother lost her job in the recession crunch a few years ago, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity). As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness. It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out. And the older I am and the more older sistahs I know (who remind you to count the blessing of your mother’s time with you), I realize that every moment counts since having lotsa time with your Mama is no longer something we can take as much for granted.
I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot. I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?” OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you? That’s always been a favorite expression of mine. No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?” I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.
These are two completely different meanings that African American Language so brilliantly captures. It is hardly coincidence that in a world that will bomb 4 little girls going to Sunday School, reference nine-year old actresses with curse words, and shoot a teenager dead for wearing a hoodie that black communities would use language to create a different world for black children. In my case, one of my female first-cousins kept me (most often, a cousin who I call Lat or Janet) or one of my seven Aunties kept me (most often an auntie who I call Aunt MamaLee.) I also kept my little cousins and so did my mother– who is still called Auntie by these ex-in-laws even though my parents divorced when I was a small child. There is a philosophy of mothering that elevates the role of childcare done by women that goes far beyond any biological definition. And there is also a philosophy for how black children need to be raised and looked after: keeping black children is simply a different kind of love. It is more than merely sitting with them, teaching them, or taking care of them; it is a kind of valuing that only black communities have been willing to provide for black children. You keep the things that are most valuable; you do not discard them even in a world that encourages you to do so. If we weren’t so self-hating by regarding Black Language and Vernacular Culture as “improper”/street/slang, we would see a worldview contained in it that could sustain us.
This notion of KEEPING also makes me think of my sister-friends today. Most of us do not live near our extended families, not like the way we grew up. I see my sister-friends go to great lengths to choose black daycare centers for their children and black caretakers who identify with black culture and black womanhood. To me, they are looking for people who will keep their children, not babysit them or even teach them to read and write. After all, as researcher/academic/professional, I would not need any school to teach any child around me to read or write. I can do that much better. What I would need is a community that will provide something much more than skills-building and childcare services: a community that will keep its children in a world that discards them at every turn.
As a grown woman now, everyone in my family still knows who kept me when I was little, which children I kept, and which children my mother kept so I thank every woman who ever kept me… my mother, my aunties, my cousins, my mentors, the older girls down the block, and all of my sister-friends now. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!