This piece was submitted by Mukoma Wa Ngugi as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s event: African Writers Panel hosted by Eddie Mandhry
“Hey. You. You know what you need? A white mother!”
I must be mistaken. I whirl around to face the voice.
“What did you just say?”
“I said what you need is a white mother.”
It’s her. For a year or so now, almost every weekend I find her here. She is British. I am from Kwatee Republic—unmistakably black, African. Bar gossip informs me that she lived in Kwatee in the 1950’s, lost her husband to the war for independence, taught African history at the University of Wisconsin and, now retired, spends most of her time in bars. I assume that bar gossip has offered her the same skeletal details about me; where I’m from, that I am in political exile, dropped out of school, work at the local UPS hub loading trucks and like her, I have a penchant for drink. In a year, we haven’t talked, not even a hello, yet I feel that we are always aware of each other.
She intrigues me…very feisty. A few months back she walked into the bar, a heavy rucksack strapped around her shoulders, nearly her size. She had been touring Latin America. She produced a bottle of tequila, small and potent, just like me she said as she passed it around the bar. I lost my interest when she passed around a Mayan mask made out of stone. She is unlike any other old person I have known—eccentric. She is full of energy—and even though I hate the word it is more apt to say that she is vivacious.
She is old, probably in her seventies, maybe even eighties. She is white, very thin though not frail. Her make up does little to hide her deep wrinkles or the brown age spots on her face. Her red hair is cropped short but even in the bar light I can tell it has been dyed. This night, she is wearing a thick red sweater and blue jeans that she has tucked into flaming red cowboy boots. I expect to find her smoking but with a thickly veined hand she is twirling a little umbrella that came with her vodka tonic. She is telling me I need a white mother in the same way I would give a stranger I think deaf directions to the nearest bus-stop or restaurant.
It is a few minutes into the New Year and a new millennium. It has been exceptionally quiet at the Eagle’s Bar. Before her interruption I was staring at the Billie Holiday photograph on the wall. It is not an original and her uneven autograph is too glossy to have been from her own hand. The other photographs that cover the wall are all copies of a photograph of the original, too. Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis—martyrs, victims and survivors of this country I have called home for the last ten years.
Billie’s photograph—side profile—make up, even in this black and white photograph, barely covering her bad skin, short hair in black curls, a map of veins along her neck stretched taut like guitar strings, glittering brown eyes half-open to close, smooth hard jaws with skin stretched to an open mouth hungry for the microphone a few inches away—she is pulling back as if taking a deep breath…and my narration ends there. I always wonder what it is she is going to sing—without the song she sings, the photograph is incomplete, it always leaves me hungry.
I take a long drink, and lugging my remaining beer, I skip the three or four barstools between us to sit next to the old white woman. Early into New Years Day, we are the only patrons in the bar—everyone else has a home to go to. This is an exceptionally dastardly time to be alone. We do not speak for a while.
The bartender and owner of Eagle’s Bar looks over to see if we need drinks and then turns his attention to the muted TV tuned to some millennium celebration in New York. A former college football quarterback who is aging like the cliché, he’s also a jazz aficionado who delights in reciting names of musicians he met (he can’t have—he seems to be in his thirties). He doesn’t like me because when I get tired of staring at the dead imitations of the dead, I remind him the photographs are photocopies of the original and that the live recordings he pipes through his expensive Boss system have lost some of their original groove in the machinery of mass production. It is a symbiotic dysfunctional relationship—I am the asshole customer and he is the asshole bartender.
A home away from home.
You need a white mother are her first words to me so I try to choose mine carefully. The surprise of her words makes me smile. I cannot think of anything clever. “What would make you say such a thing?” I finally ask, feigning annoyance. Certainly an insult would have been better but there is something about her that reminds me of grandmothers. In addition to her British accent authenticating a relationship that neither she nor I have any control over, I have revealed my hand by moving to sit next to her. I become aware that she knows all these things. I cannot leave until I have heard what she has to say.
“I have watched you for a long time watching our old friend Billie. What you need is a white mother.”
I know exactly what she is doing—she is offering her credentials.
“Why do you say that?”
“Only a white mother can guide you through your journeys” she says and laughs. This is not the same laughter I have come to know from afar—a heckle followed by a wheeze. She laughs, well, like she is with a friend.
“The father, your white father, was a colonizing bastard but you see, he was a husband, a son and father. I can help you understand him,” she says. “He was a real human being, flesh, blood, dick and all”.
She is drunk…or crazy but fuck it! It is New Year’s; I am alone, lonely, homesick, drunk and hungry for conversation—the touch of words. My first girlfriend used to say there is a difference between being alone and lonely—well I am both.
“Interesting” I say, trying to be sarcastic as I take a sip of my beer.
“So—mother of mine, you want us to plot against daddy?” I ask her with benign venom.
“I can’t possibly be your son,” I add and reach for my wallet, flip it open and point to an old photograph of my father and mother.
“See, these are my parents. I am as black as them.” My eyes rest on the photograph on the other side of the wallet. It’s Sukena. My own personal Billie Holiday, personal reminder of hell, savior, totem—exile has turned her into whatever I am in the mood to find. It has been ten years. I order two beers for myself. The old lady doesn’t order another drink; she sits poised, waiting for me to ready myself for what she has to say.
“I am offering only…” She searches for the words. “…intimate spaces…a family will work. No plots and counter-plots.”
She reaches out for her drink and then changes her mind. “You can be the mother and I the son if you like. It really doesn’t matter,” she adds with calculated carelessness.
I am thinking probably my father could play the role of her son better than me.
His wife, my mother, died in car accident a year after I was born. I do not remember her, though I recognize her in this vague feeling of growing up without balance, as if I had a phantom leg that worked. Years later he told me that he’d been planning to divorce her. But her death turned him into a widower and this came with duties that he could not pass on to anyone else. So he dutifully tended her grave, planting rose after rose until there was no more space left in the graveyard. What went through his mind? Did his betrayal of her weigh on his conscience more because she died before their divorce? Sometimes I feel that he brought me up in the same way he looked after her grave—doing something that was expected of him—doing his duty. How often has he reminded me that he has done his duty by me? That he created a citizen of the world?
The paradox of exile—years and years at home and I never really thought about these questions, I was too busy living and fighting. Here the downtime is like being in jail. Every wound, big or small, gets dug up eventually. It was from him that I learned of our past. With a schoolteacher’s zeal, maps, historical documents and a magnifying glass on a Ping-Pong table that he converted into a general’s desk, he would point, pontificate, drill, query, and pull my ear until I understood our history. His version of it. He has a favorite maxim—“Love is knowledge, knowledge is love.”
Yet in spite of it all I don’t think he ever quite believed that the colonizers did what they did to us—concentration camps, poisoned water holes, cut-off hands, lips and ears, the rest of us thrown into their plantations and mines. Tracing a colonial map along the Mighty River Elan he would pause over a poisoned well and ask himself, “But how could they do this to another human being?”
Yet just a few moments before, he had told me how we were not human beings to them. At other times he would tell me how we lost our land. Often he took me there. The way he held the soil that had been his father’s and let it course through his fingers, I knew he took me there to remind himself that it was all true, that it had all happened. Yes, I very well understood this trail of broken treaties. I had been walking it since I was born. In fact, I had walked it right into exile.
Unlike my father, I have never doubted what I know to be true—that the same hands that embrace one’s child will squeeze the life out of a neighbor’s child when war comes, that the same colonizer who built a church to save the native, did not hesitate to burn it down when it housed rebels and that my country’s leaders, black like me, speaking my language in tongues and praying to the same God, had sanctioned my torture by night and driven their children to school in the morning. Perhaps I am better than my father in that I know all these things to be true. Or maybe I’m worse off, more jaded and more tragic. If in my realism I lose faith in my neighbor, how could I have faith in myself?
I did learn a lot from my father. I can see him now, telling me how right from the beginning of colonization, there had been skirmishes between whites and blacks. “It is not true that we did not fight back” he was quick to remind me. Movements were formed and banned, leaders jailed, killed or exiled, and whole villages of people put in concentration camps.
Pretty much the same as it is now for your generation, only your leaders are black he would say. The ebb and flow of resistance and repression continued until…
“Happy New Year!!” the bartender yells to a passing friend through the large glass windows. She waves back with a gloved hand. My thoughts interrupted, I turn my attention back to the old white woman.
“Listen, I don’t think even my father qualifies to be your son,” I say to her.
“Oh! But he does. He didn’t believe what he saw with his own eyes and even though you think you’re different, neither do you.”
Damn it! Had I been speaking out aloud? She reaches into her red handbag, which I notice, for first time dangling down the barstool. She pulls out a red lipstick, pouts her lips and I catch a flash of her as a young woman, sexy, confident and self-assured, years before history caught up with her.
“Look, I know more than you think I do… I know after your husband finished raping his slave, he rested for a bit and then turned on you. In town he was cheap and a drunk, and in the fields he was a murderer. At home he was much worse because he could not kill, so he learnt to torture his wife and children without leaving scars. Whatever little game you are playing here, know that I see you,” I say.
“Yes. I am also judging you,” I add, more for effect, because it sounds good.
I notice I am clutching my glass tightly and I take a deep breath. Or maybe she is the one losing it because she turns her back and beckons the bartender for another drink. He returns with a vodka gin and tonic too soon. We both could have used a break from the conversation. She beckons me to continue talking. Instead I walk over to Juke Box and play Kool and the Gang’s Celebration: What the hell, it’s New Year’s after all and the song reminds me of home. The bartender, annoyed by the sudden intrusion of sound, turns the music down. I knew he would do that, in his book, music other than jazz is only OK for young college kids. I ask for another drink. Perhaps she can tell I’m stalling because she is watching my transactions with a look of amusement. Finally I sit down and continue where I left off.
“My grandmother had my father when she returned from your homes where she worked as a maid, nurse, cook, gardener or whatever it was you made her do for you. But you, whom did you have? You had no place to return, no sanctuary. Everyone you would have known would have…” For the first time, she interrupts me.
I am doing well; I have hit something so I yield. But oddly enough she does not jump right into the conversation. She hesitates, reaches into her bag once again and removes some Wrigley’s gum. She offers me a stick and carefully unwraps one for herself. I can tell she used to smoke by the way her little movements fill nervous space.
“Perhaps it was worse for me. But if my husband raped your grandmother – did your grandfather let her into his bed? Into his home? He is a man after all. Men speak the same language,” she says emphasizing each word in the last two sentences. I lack a quick word and I want to tap her cheek, but I would be jailed for life. No judge will ever accept the opening of wounds, even those as deep as history, as a reason for attacking a drunk old white woman in a bar on new year’s.
“Had it been my grandfather, I think he would have understood. We are talking about metaphorical grandfathers and mothers, aren’t we?” I ask but do not wait for her to answer. “He would have beaten her up, and the kids too, and kicked the cat and the dog but he would have had no choice but to take it, until he was tired of it and decided to fight back—he had no choice. Nor did our mothers, nor any of us…well, some of us.”
We must look quite odd. The whole world is celebrating and here we are, a young black man sitting next to an old white woman in a bar called Eagle’s, in Madison, Wisconsin. I wonder if the bartender can distinguish our accents, mine weighed down my Kyukato yet trained to sound like hers; and hers, a proper British English infected with a mid-western drawl.
“You are right but also wrong. Yes, I passed your grandmother on my stairs as she climbed into my bedroom…She saw my life on the lily-white sheets. She might have thought that I did not see her, that I left the bloodied sheets and underwear there because I did not see her. Maybe that is what she would have told you. I don’t know. I don’t think so. Right there was my SOS in my blood. There is no way she could have mistaken it…as a woman.”
I don’t know why we are talking like this. Granted, we have had a few drinks. But perhaps we are not strangers—two people, one a product of her country’s misadventures, and I a victim of the myths that come with those misadventures cannot be complete strangers. Maybe for the one year we have been seeing each without talking, we have been communicating—or maybe we just have needed to talk so badly, so urgently that we had to dispense with the protocol—the small talk—who cares about the weather? This is Wisconsin winter—It’s always fucking snowing here.
Celebration has come to an end. The bartender walks over to the Jukebox, puts in some coins and starts flipping through the albums. “Why are we speaking in metaphors? Let’s catch up—we do have a lot to talk about,” she says in irritation. She has a good point there I concede to myself. I brace myself for what I am about reveal to and receive from my familiar stranger.
Mrs. Shaw was excerpted from the novel by the same title forthcoming from Ohio University Press.