They Will Build No Monuments to My Mother’s Memory

Willa Mae Williams will not have her name engraved anywhere in the National Museum of Black History and Culture. There will be no statue of her. In fact, she will receive no individual recognition for her grand achievements over the ninety-six years she was here in this world. But for me, she is the real heroine as was her husband, Bill Williams who passed in 1996, twenty years before she left on September 28, 2016.

You see, Willa Mae sought no glory in this world. She led no causes, didn’t march in any of the civil rights protests in the 1960’s. Instead, Willa Mae dedicated her life to raising her children, being a great mother and a dedicated wife. Despite her absence from the marches and the fact that there will be no monuments built in commemoration of her life, she was the foundation of the Black culture in the roles she so magnificently fulfilled. But she was no different than millions of other Black women, who quietly went about living their lives, raising their families and trying to make this a better place to live, despite the myriad of obstacles they confronted in some of the most turbulent years following the eradication of slavery.

weddingdressAs a young girl of thirteen, she participated in what has come to be known as the great migration of Blacks out of the South and up North. Evidently around 1933 while still living in Harrell, Arkansas, some European American woman saw my mother and told her grandmother, “Oh that is such a cute little n****r, I think I want to own her.” Sound rather incredible. But you can rest assured those kinds of things happened in a back country village like Harrell, a place that no longer exists. That’s all her grandmother had to hear, because within weeks they were out of Arkansas and arrived in Saginaw, Michigan, a small General Motors town, one hundred miles north of Detroit. It is there in 1936, she met a young, handsome man, Bill Williams, who was born and raised in Saginaw. He asked Willa Mae’s mother if he could take her to the movies on one bright Sunday afternoon and she told him yes. The next year, he asked her mother if he could take Willa Mae’s hand in marriage. The answer again was yes and on June 6, 1937, they were united as husband and wife and the rest is history.

They remained married for 59 years, raised four children, two boys and two girls. In the true meaning of the word, they became one in love. It was because of Willa Mae’s commitment to her children that we all went on to make her proud of our accomplishments. I completed all the work for a Doctorate Degree from Indiana University, worked as a Legislative Aide to Senator Birch Bayh and Congressman Parren Mitchell, helped establish the African American Studies Minor at University of Texas at San Antonio, and have written four novels, ghost written four autobiographies and edited two anthologies. My sibling’s accomplishments are similar in achievement to mine. And we owe this success to a young girl who only finished the eighth grade in formal education.

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ess14750962011801There is something very special about the Black mother in America. She has carried such a burden but has handled it with grace, love and dignity. Many of the mothers in Willa Mae’s generation didn’t have college degrees and often not high school diplomas. But they had a special sense of knowledge and understanding about the trials and tribulations of this life, and desperately tried to pass those qualities onto their children.  Over the centuries, from the slave mother giving birth to a child knowing the misery they would confront, to the contemporary mother trapped in a web of poverty also knowing the struggles their child will confront, these matriarchs of the race have never failed to provide us with an everlasting love. And that is exactly what Willa Mae provided to me, my brother and two sisters. And for that love I will always appreciate, respect and love her.

My mother, Willa Mae Williams has gone on to be with her husband, but not for another 59 years like they spent together here on earth but instead for eternity.

A Father’s Day Salute

On February 13, 1996 a very special man passed away in his sleep. He was 80 years old and had lived a very productive and eventful life. Most important, he had been a dedicated husband to his wife of 58 years and was always there for his four children. Some would consider him unique because he was a Black man and many in society will argue that those kind of men don’t exist within the Black culture. We have been conditioned through literature, music and movies to view the Black man as an irresponsible, unfit husband and father. Too often when we think of the Black man, we have visions of Danny Glover’s character, Mister, in The Color Purple or the ingrate men in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. Since McMillan’s publication and movie, there has been a flood of novels about the “Dawg” brothers. Even the Black man playing the role of a policeman was cast as a villain in Training Day. One would be led to believe that good Black men do not exist as husbands, fathers or men.

billwilliamsAs we approach another Father’s Day celebration I want to take issue with the perceptions that have plagued Black men over the years. I want to take issue because the man I described in my opening was my father, Bill Williams.

50thAnniverdary_parentsHe married my mother when he was 22 and she only 17 and they spent their entire life together, and one can surmise at the time of his death they shared a love just as special and beautiful as could be expected.  After my father had passed on, I once asked my mother who she would like to have meet her on the other side. Without hesitation she gave me this look as if to say, “who do you think” and then said, “My husband.” Now that is a love that will transcend time and they will always be united as one. He made my mother feel very special and she did the same for him. He was an excellent husband.

Bill Williams took a very special interest in his children. His advice, at least to me, was always precise and correct. When considering the wisdom that my father shared with me while growing up, I often think of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” My father was not a rich man but he was a wise man. When I reached the age when girls became very important in my life, he told me that, “your lover should also be your best friend.” After many disappointing relationships I finally got it right when I incorporated his advice and now have married for nearly 25 years. He also told me, “Always pay the IRS a little money and never get a large refund.” I learned that lesson the hard way, and now make sure I don’t get a large refund.

He provided his two boys and two girls with a foundation that led to our successes in life. We all learned the importance of a strong work ethic through his example. He would get up early in the morning and often walk to his job at the United States Post Office in Saginaw, Michigan so that my mother would have the car at her convenience during the day. After peddling mail in freezing weather (and anyone who has visited Saginaw in the winter knows just how cold it can get) all day, he came home, took a nap and then went to his second job as a waiter at the Saginaw Country Club. And he never complained in front of his children, because to complain would leave the impression that something might be wrong with work. He was an excellent father.

Bill Williams loved his family, was loyal to his friends and never complained about his life. He was a Black man who grew up when it was very difficult to be black in this country. But he never succumbed to the temptation to use discrimination and bigotry as an excuse for him not to achieve. He was the first Black man to work in the United States Post Office in Saginaw, Michigan. He became a union leader for the letter carriers when he transferred to Pasadena, California in 1957. He never told his children that they had to be twice as good in order to succeed. He simply told us to be the very best I could, and that worked well for me because to believe you have to be twice as good was to give credence to bigotry and prejudice. As his child, I never thought I had to be twice as good because it would admit that we begin from a position of inferiority.  That word did not exist in our household. No one can define your worth as a human being was his message to us. It is the same message that Black fathers over the century have shared with their children and continue to do so today.

Contrary to what many commentators proclaim, the Black father is not a replica of the past. He still exists and for that reason I extend a very heartfelt Happy Father’s Day greeting to all my fellow dad’s, who have been and are still the pillars that hold up our culture. And to my wonderful and fantastic Dad I say on behalf of my siblings and me.

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