“Uncovering the Origin of Visual Language” (2013), by Derrick Adams. Courtesy of the artist
Cut Me Loose
By Joshunda Sanders
hen I first walked Charleston’s rugged cobblestone streets under a cloudless sky, I almost overlooked the black iron gates standing sentinel in place of the ancestors who made them. Part of the quaint, lovely infrastructure there, these gates severed pathways to townhomes set back from streets made more for horses than for cars. The intricate wrought iron separated tourists, like me, from the private, the important, the sovereign.
These gates called to mind a combination of industry and creativity I often take for granted, and I projected the notion that they walled off the most compelling parts of the past. I came to find pieces of my history here and in my mother’s birthplace of Orangeburg, parts of my family story placed beyond my reach, behind virtual gates of family secrecy and shame. So I also saw these iron gates as a metaphor. Protecting me from something, or something from me.
The gates, the homes—I am descended from the so-called “salt water Negroes” who built the bones of this city. Some four hundred thousand shipped in iron shackles from West Africa with the gifts they could make with their bodies: iron work, spinning, music, all extracted in the name of capitalism shaped by slavery.
Inside the eerie Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston, a dank two-floor memorial to the last open-air slave market, I wished (as I had many times that weekend) that I could know the specific details of my ancestors’ identities. I wanted to apologize to them by name for sins I did not commit as I stood where they surely had, where they were assessed and broken. On the second floor, another story: a map of slave rebellions around the world, including one in Mexico in 1522. For nearly five hundred years, we had been trying to be free. For nearly five hundred years, freedom had eluded us.
Charleston was languid in May. Men in seersucker suits towered over me; pudgy tourists in faded pastel t-shirts, khaki shorts, and Tevas clustered nearby. We all wore a sheen of sweat, carrying our personal music in our steps.
Mine was a Black girl’s song. I ate fried green tomatoes at a lunch counter, thinking of the Black children who had milkshakes emptied on their heads in an attempt to humiliate them out of their desire for liberty. I thought about the first faces I saw when I arrived three nights before: aggressive banners advertising the Marine Corps Reserve, white faces in white uniforms, an accompanying boast of the millions of dollars that come into South Carolina ports each year. I contemplated the automatic association I make between ships and ports and slavery. I thought about our dispossession, how we were supposed to be stripped of our Gods, our memories, our rituals, our songs—and yet, they remained.
But this is not meant to be a story about what is lost, so much as it is about what can be recovered. Fresh from watching Beyoncé’s documentary Homecoming three times, I hummed the lines to “Freedom,” a song about victory through self-sovereignty. It had been on my lips throughout the long weekend. The song opened in me an internal gate—memories of the few sentences my mother said to me about South Carolina, the sound of her voice, the soft, afflicted affection in her tone.
The last time I was there, with her and my sister, I was a baby. It must have been 1979. My older sister tells the story of the time, back when Mom was still well enough to drive, that I fell out of a moving car onto a backroad highway. “Thank God no cars were coming,” Rita said. “I flew out of that car to come get you. You were so peaceful, just lay there like nothing was wrong.”
I went back to South Carolina this year to free myself from that kind of unsafe past, where I could tumble into the road unprotected save by God. I said I wanted to let go, to move on, but freedom is knowing the past from which you have been liberated with the intimacy of a love that brings you so many roses you can’t fit them in your arms to carry them home.
I didn’t even know if I knew how to let go of the pain of my past. It has, after all, made me the woman I am.
For six years, I grieved through Mother’s Day. This seventh year since Mom’s death felt like a good time to work on being new. As I considered having children at forty-one, I agreed with my partner that I was already a mother in the way I attended to others and to myself. But the story I had always told about my independence is that children are expensive, they are not guaranteed to like you enough to care for you when you grow old. I knew that, too, was a projection of my deepest insecurities; the possibility of loving another being so much was not a song I was used to singing.
I wonder if Marguerite, my mom, was the same. I went to South Carolina to understand the aspects of the mysterious life she kept to herself, to look for traces of secrets she never told.
Ours was a peripatetic life of boxes, trash bags, hand-me-down clothes, and donated pantry food. I was born in Philadelphia and raised there and in New York, and when I was growing up we moved so frequently between shelters and hotels and subsidized housing for the poor that Mom’s history became a mystery. I don’t know if the story of why and when my family left South Carolina was an intentional omission or if there was just no natural way to insert it into conversation.
My mother was unknowable, complex and contradictory, broken by the death of a son she never grieved properly, animated spiritually by God and music (she loved Tina Turner; some said she favored the beautiful singer). Her bipolar and borderline personality disorders went undiagnosed and untreated for the majority of her life. This impacted the chaos I describe—our evictions and poverty—but it also made her the only person I trusted to lie beautifully to me about her origins because all she cared about, really, was creating something new for herself. When she died in January 2012 from complications associated with Stage IV cervical cancer, Marguerite took with her a world of specific details from a rich past of which I will never know the contours.
A new thing does not have to be a possession, and for us, it most often was not. Becoming new could mean writing a freedom story. It could be a recovered memory. It could be a song. Inheriting this creative inclination, if only this, is mostly an unexpected blessing.
Here is the freedom story my people drafted: My great-aunt Johnnie Ann Tobin migrated to Philadelphia in the middle of the twentieth century, swept up in the Great Migration that took 1.6 million from the rural South to the cities of the North and the Midwest. My grandmother Edna Randolph died in a mental institution in Poughkeepsie (where I would later attend college) when my mother was thirteen. Seeing opportunity for her extended family to thrive, in 1956 my great-aunt Tobin bought a house with cash she had earned working as a domestic and operating a taxi business in Florida and restaurants on the Jersey Shore, then beauty salons in Philly. Marguerite attended Overbrook High School. At eighteen, when she graduated, she converted to Catholicism, even though everybody else in our family is Baptist. This is the reason Mom gave me for keeping me separated from them, from our family, when we ended up in New York City in 1984 after she abandoned an abusive lover at the Philadelphia Greyhound bus station.
Mental illness is so common an affliction, and one that Black people so infrequently have words for, that it feels almost like a euphemism for trauma. Crazy is what we call creative people born into bondage who find ways to free themselves in spite of what chains them. There are at least three other women in my family who have bipolar disorder—treated or untreated. This is one of a few reasons I thought I might have inherited only this: the gene that sets hearts and minds aflame, a body divided against itself.
Bipolar people are given to delusions of grandeur, can sometimes be manipulative, are often incredibly creative and passionate, and sometimes abusive. For these reasons, I was afraid of my mother and often as confused by her as I was ashamed of the ways poverty made us small and needy. On our frequent trips to food pantries, she fed me promises about when money was coming in—after my brother Jose was killed by a SEPTA bus at twelve years old, she sued and settled out of court, so sometimes, when her lawyer could find us, she received chunks of money in the form of a check that left our lives almost as soon as it arrived.
Over Chinese food and fried shrimp or scallops, donning a jet-black wig that she pulled out of her sight so she could look at me with her wide blue-rimmed eyes, she would tell me that we were going to be rich! As soon as she could get the house she was owed in South Carolina. Neither I nor my sister know the origins of this promised house, but it was her North Star, her pipe dream. This is how South Carolina became a catchphrase, an idea of a place that seemed to offer my mother clarity, hope.
That I did not understand what her past or future life in Orangeburg, or Columbia, the state capital, had to do with our homelessness in the North made no difference. I could only focus on my mother’s transformations from day to day. When the money was gone, so was her patience. A little lever seemed to flip in her brain that caused her to panic, to wheel from one venomous thought to another. I was her target, and she would beat me without reason or cause, with a curtain rod, with her heavy thick fists, her words. I hate you so much. I could kill you. I will kill you.
The threat of murder turned out to be empty, but it so frightened me as a fourteen-year-old that I ran away from home for more than a week. After I returned, the next time she went to hit me, I grabbed her fist. I realized then that I towered over her. That I didn’t have to cower anymore. That I could look the evil part of her right in the eye and say, as I did, “The next time you hit me like that I will hit you back.” The abuse stopped then. And in a way, for the first time, I was free.
You cannot grow up and become anything as a Black woman who is not bound to family, even if they don’t particularly like you, wouldn’t choose to hang with you voluntarily unless there was something in it for them, and with the singular exception of my sister, this is what my family has been, or was, when Mom was alive. Marguerite, whom even her sisters and Grandma always called “Margaret” (the way they call me “LaShanda”), was the trembling, precarious thread that tied me to them. When she died, the thread popped. And I realized that if I wanted to, I could finally now be really free.
All I would need to do is find out what I was freeing myself from.
In May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, Imani Perry writes of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—for many Black people of a certain age, a patriotic song they learned in school before or in tandem with the “The Star-Spangled Banner”—as connecting the singers of the song originally composed to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday to “a patriotism that belonged to an alternative imagined community, one built of the stuff of black experience here on these shores but reaching for something or somewhere else where freedom would be truly possible.” Perry explains that James Weldon Johnson and his brother, Rosamond, wrote the anthem in 1900 at the nadir of American race relations. It was a time, like so many others, not just of a dipping to a historic low but also of a great flourishing for Black creatives, especially musicians:
Black musicians were pursuing formal training, publishing their compositions and applying notation to traditional folk tunes. Additionally, black musicians were creating new musical forms and expanding the scope of traditional ones. . . . Hence the nadir can be remembered as a time not simply of exclusion and racist violence but also of blossoming.
And couldn’t we describe the present this way, these yawning years of racist backlash feeling like a drop from a steep cliff of history in the shadow of the first Black presidency? Perry’s words animate the emotions behind Beyoncé’s performance of the first soaring verse of the Black National Anthem in a moment of restorative pageantry early on in Homecoming, an update of this long past.
Beyoncé is a permanent part of my pantheon of inspirational creatives, and she casts a specific spell on me. A Southern Black girl genius with the body of a goddess and the voice of ancestral gospel streaming from her throat, an icon always reaching into the future to show me a preview of the greatness which is possible for me. I have listened to her evolution since that first Destiny’s Child album, her growing up and becoming grown a parallel, a mirror for me in a world that doesn’t offer to break open Black girl hearts for spiritual healing.
In Homecoming, I was offered a new possibility, an imagined alternative community located in the Historically Black College and University experience. The film and performance is Beyoncé’s tribute to HBCU cultural mores, and it features the singer in gear that pays homage to fraternities and sororities that are in the tradition of the Black formalism Perry wrote about. I am a Seven Sisters graduate, situated firmly in the far-less-Black ethos of a Predominately White Institution. But perhaps my own imposter syndrome about Beyoncé’s homecoming and a yearning for my own is what propelled me toward the unchangeable past waiting for me in Orangeburg, home to two HBCUs and an abandoned African-American cemetery on the edge of town, up the street from a city hall that bears two scrolls listing the Ten Commandments. I carried the alchemy of Black music with me to my mother’s home on Mother’s Day weekend to see what I could release, and what might refuse to leave; whether there was a gate to pass through or one I need to build in my mind.
The best memories I have of my mother are of the creative ways she resisted the lie that history has told about Black women—that in order to live a great life, to have a magical existence, to be an enchantress, you have to fit in the boxes drawn by the imaginations of others. My favorite Black musicians have wrestled with defying expectations. Whitney Houston. Prince. Lauryn Hill. Beyoncé.
The weight of expectation has followed Black musicians through history and asked them to play songs, to move and dance in the world in ways that “mainstream” or white audiences would approve of. Each resisted in their own way, found their own version of liberation through art. Whitney married Bobby and continued to sing her ass off. Prince became an unpronounceable symbol. Lauryn took five Grammys and basically left the scene. Beyoncé builds musical moments and monuments at a remove, drops them into the atmosphere, and watches the internet—and the world—explode.
My mother’s only creative outlet was her life, but she is included in this group, too. The most free Black woman I’ve ever met. I was always in pursuit of a place to hide, and she was always trying to stand in the bright light of the nearest sun, so it took me a long time to understand that she simply just gave zero fucks about anything that she didn’t deem as deriving from the Holy Spirit. Black women who give no fucks collapse timelines; our world does not make space for them.
Fuck it, said Mom’s wig and tight-fitting clothes in the era before body positivity arrived. I’ll make space for myself. Talking loud, stutter and all, that’s exactly what she did. I was inspired only after she died. When she was alive, my witness hid inside my shame, my embarrassment. Why, I wondered, didn’t she just shrink?
She couldn’t give me a tour of her Orangeburg, obviously, but I could still talk to her spirit, and I did that from the moment I touched down in Charleston. All of Mother’s Day weekend, I whispered to her internally. I wanted her and the saints she loved to know I came to show up for her the way she always tried to show up for me.
Whatever happened in South Carolina, I hoped the discovery of some truth, mixed with the inevitable encounter with some fiction, would cut me loose from feeling haunted. Some things I would just never know, which is the deepest wound of an enslaved past. No Black person has a family tree that has not been pruned by slavery. But just because some of my history is unknowable didn’t keep me from trying to do the spiritual work of reclamation.
What I first noticed in the Lowcountry is that there, Black people still serve white people. Still. At the Waffle House up the road in Orangeburg and at the Bojangles’ across the street from the hotel, mostly Black women—older, young, in between—are on the other side of the counter. The belief that we can only serve has become the natural order of things. And I was aware in every moment of how out of place I was in the South when I dined alone. I had forgotten, even after living in Texas, that a woman without a husband or a family surrounding her is viewed with something just shy of suspicion, as if her independence is a threat. An intrusion. I understand, I said to my mother’s spirit, why you left this place as soon as you could.
After Marguerite died, my sister discovered that she had kept a secret apartment for herself in Columbia. We don’t know how long she had it, but we remembered that her claims that she owned property picked up starting around 2008 or 2009. “I’ve got a house down there, when I finally get to it,” she would repeat. “When I get to fix it up, Joshunda, it’s going to be beautiful. We’re going to be rich!” We didn’t believe her. I imagine that she used the money from her disability check and stretched it to pay for her broke-down shotgun house in Philadelphia and the tiny apartment in Columbia. After she was struck by a taxicab, a lawyer she claimed was enamored of her helped her settle that case right as the cab company went bankrupt. I smile at this memory of my mother finding paths for herself.
You want to be free, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down, Toni Morrison wrote. The weight that remained in my life was the loneliness and isolation of missing a woman I had barely known but who was the shadow, the ghost, the angel who influenced most everything about my internal map. Delving into my feelings, as someone in love with facts and research and analysis, was challenging. But all true artists—from Toni to Beyoncé—know that birthing a new narrative means transmuting everything that happens to you into a story of victory, of power.
Mom never quite fit anywhere, emotionally or geographically, and she was content to wander beyond boundaries. The biggest difference between us is that I thought somehow I could mature into a comfortable or comforting conformity. You are your best thing, Morrison said.
It was time for me to believe it.
So on Mother’s Day, I wandered around Orangeburg to make peace with the parts of Marguerite I didn’t quite know but which still clung to me like smoke. Early in the morning, I parked my rental across the street from the Edisto Memorial Gardens, home to fifty-four varieties of roses. Babbling in the background was the longest blackwater river in North America, an oil-colored waterway connected to the Combahee River—the same water Harriet Tubman used to lead one hundred fifty Union soldiers to various rice plantations on June 2, 1863, to free seven hundred fifty slaves. One thing I knew for sure: my mother loved water and she loved roses.
Only two or three people were around, so I had the place to myself. Downhill, past incredible, tall trees, I went to the water, looking north and south. I walked west, toward the rows and rows of peach- and wine-colored roses, speckled, small, wide, glorious, with names like Glowing Peace and Coretta Scott King and Perfume Delight. Did you ever visit this place? Now, or then?
Fondling the delicate velvet of a full-bodied rose, I thought of everything a rose would have meant to my mother. How I took for granted a ten-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers when I wanted to attend to my heart, but how such a simple gesture would have been too much for her to even dream about. Even though no one was around me, I didn’t want to disturb the silence, and also, the unchaining. Something rusty and dark in me moved aside, a stone rolling away from a tomb. This was not the raucous, grandstanding, trumpet-blaring Free At Last freedom I’d always said I wanted, but something more profound. A healing. What sounded like my mother’s voice in my ear. I can’t believe you made it.
I looked up to stop the tears and spotted a Confederate flag flapping with nonchalance above the trees.
Only after my trip would I realize that, geographically, Orangeburg is a kind of nadir as defined by Imani Perry: “the lowest point in an orbit. It is the location directly below the gaze.” Look for it on a map: in comparison with its northern and eastern neighbors, Charleston and Columbia, Orangeburg is down and out of the way, overlooked.
Later on that Mother’s Day, I visited one more place: South Carolina State University. My mother told me that my grandfather was an educator; he would have had to have taught, in his time, at SC State or at nearby Claflin University. I snuck on campus and was struck by the art and monuments built to memorialize three young men killed on the evening of February 8, 1968, by officers with the South Carolina Highway Patrol: SC State students Samuel Hammond Jr. and Henry Smith, and seventeen-year-old Delano Middleton. They were among two hundred activists gathered to protest the segregation of a local bowling alley. Twenty-eight were injured in the melee that night.
American history beyond South Carolina, beyond Orangeburg’s city limits, overlooks Hammond, Smith, and Middleton as the pioneers of the campus-based activism most attribute to the four white students killed protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. But these men died first. They have been forgotten because they are Black, because they were hidden in plain sight on an HBCU campus. We understand, inherently, that the value of a Black life has always been low. But as long as they are remembered, they live on. It feels true for my mother, too.
After examining the granite memorial to THE ORANGEBURG MASSACRE, as the sign reads, I got back in the car, giving the stone one last long glance before I drove away. I blasted “Freedom” in the car as loud as I could stand one more time, feeling the truth of Beyoncé screaming I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell as I sang along. As the song transitioned into the solemn, proud lament of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” I passed through South Carolina State University’s iron gates and made my way home.
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