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Women from Whose Loins I Sprang

May 13, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

Two days ago, my mother, God Bless Her Soul, celebrated her ninety-second birthday. She keeps reminding us that this might be her last birthday with us, which is one reason why I brought myself from wherever I was to celebrate it with her. And it very well might be her last birthday since she seems to be losing the will to continue and her body is giving way to a force mightier than hers. As she says, "the Lord gives; and the Lord take. Whenever He is ready, there is little I can do." She is prepared to meet her maker.

In the ninety-odd years she has accumulated much wisdom. She has always argued that "plain talk is bad manners" and she has displayed a lot of bad manners in her time. This is one virtue she has bequeathed to me: the ability to say what one thinks although many persons are offended by it. Although I have been engaged in many verbal combats, I hope I have never personalized my arguments nor dishonored my opponents. If I have, this is a good time to apologize for any hurt I have caused.

My paternal grandmother was also a plain talker. Yoruba in origins, she was born in Tacarigua around 1875 and was the social worker par excellence. She delivered many babies, godmothered several others and worked to create community. Her godchildren were Africans as well as Indians. Many years ago, a distinguished son of the soil returned from Cambridge University. Having achieved a first degree, he was full of himself. As fate would have it, she was also his godmother. Perhaps it was the chill of the former climate in which he lived, but every time he saw her he offered a brusque "Ah ma." After this happened a few times, she pulled him aside and told him if he could not say "Good morning, Ma" or "Good morning, Tan Darling," then he had better say nothing to her.

My grandmother also ruled her household. My grandfather-they called him Rogie-seemed at ease with such an arrangement. In those days, children knew their place and who was in authority. One could not do any ole thing one wanted to do. My junior uncle, still alive at 76, had the audacity to go to the Races one Saturday without taking Ma (as we called her) her portion of his salary. When he reached home that evening, he never heard the end of it. He never made that mistake again.

She was also an ardent adherent of Shango. During the seven nights of the Shango celebration, no one could keep her at home. When the drums began to roll and its rhythmic cadences pierced the stillness of the night, she and her people gathered to give praises to Olodumare, the Supreme Being and creator of existence. In the palais, they were overwhelmed by the orisa, or lesser divinities, who represented different aspects of Olodumare's essence. At the end of each nightly celebration she brought home the salt less meats, usually the remains of the fowl cock or a goat that was offered in sacrifice of their Godhead. In that palais, alone with her God, she ascended into another region of faith and thanksgiving.

I also went to the Shango tents. Although I never participated in the worship, in retrospect, I might have been frightful and disdainful of such displays. Moreover, my formal education and training sought to educate me away from those roots. The Anglican Church I attended did everything in its power to cleanse me of those "satanic" and "barbarous" practices. Consciously, they sough to prepare me for the world the colonizers made. Later in life, I had to return to the palais to face up to the spiritual and philosophical truths of my origins. A different form of education made me realize that the Shango tent and all that it stood for was the cultural womb out of which I sprang. It would take a long time before I realize its power and resilience, its tangled web of violated sensibility, and its magical ebullience that sought to assert its presence in a new world that we made. As they practiced their modes of healing (some called them Shango women) and their religion (one of my aunts was a Spiritual Baptist), they remained rooted in a worldview they brought from the waters beyond even as they birthed many variants of the original in these new lands.

Some years later when I went to Ghana and saw the women at the market square, I knew that I was looking at one of my relatives. In Nigeria, in a village about fifty miles outside Ibadan, I was adopted by the villagers and taken to pray before a sacred shrine of Obatala, "the artist deity whom Olodumare commissioned to mold the first human body from divine clay." This spiritual return to the source was one way of demanding that I accept my origins, my self and my being-in-this-world although I existed in a different social space.

As my mother approaches that time when she must return to her ancestors (she will say to her maker), one reflects on whether one has been a dutiful and loving son to a devoted, hardworking and caring mother. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela placed the dilemma in the following manner: "Was one ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one's own family in order to fight for the welfare of others. Can there be anything more important than looking after one's ageing mother?" For those of us in academia who traipses around the world, the question reverberates with tremendous force.

Although one battles with such questions, it is a blessed thing to have one's mother around after four scores and twelve years. May God bless her to see more birthdays and may sons, the land over, cherish the gifts that mothers bequeath to us. More than life, they provide the terms to negotiate our being-in-this-world.

Happy birthday Carmen!!!

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