Gratitude to Legendary Mother, Mrs. Bessie L. James (1918-2011)
Story of the Ultraviolet Beacon, Mother Bessie L. James by Semaj Brown© 2019 From the book,
“Bleeding Fire! Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light”
Story of the Ultraviolet Beacon
Gratitude to Legendary Mother, Mrs. Bessie L. James (1918-2011)
Three consecutive years of Raspberry Interrogations provided me with a life lesson to pass into perpetuity. “Come here, come out here I want to show you something about these raspberries.” I moved hesitantly, lifting one leg then plotting down the other. Mother was out the door and in the patch in the backyard by the time I approached the porch. I wasn’t really resistant; my mind moved in slow automation, one laborious step after the other. I was in a state of intense ponder. There was something about these raspberries that I should know, but could not determine specifically. This was the second year of berry questions, visiting the bushes with my mother’s firm instruction.
“Now, which is the raspberry stem and which is the sucker? Look closely. Which one of these is the sucker?” My memory was tripped by her intensity. Here I was again, trying to decipher between two gangly stems that looked identical. I stared into the swaying green mother’s hand had just brushed. “Look, can’t you see the difference?”
Mom sounded more sympathetic. Maybe she thought I needed an appointment with Dr. Butler, our family ophthalmologist. “Which is the stem and which is the sucker? Why do they call the sucker the sucker? Do you remember?” She was leaning toward me peering up from under her bifocals.
I rolled the question around and around in my head until it became a ball, a tight knot of nothing. “I don’t know,” I replied shifting from one leg to the other. “Stand up, stand straight, it’s good to be tall. You’re not built down to the ground like me. Lift your head, focus, look closely and determine the difference.” But how could I lift my head and look down at the raspberries at the same time? Though that smart-alecky thought was steeped in logic, it was only for my internal amusement. By now the sun was bright, but not hot. There was a glare and I was squinting. “Where are your glasses? Go get your glasses so you can see! Let’s move it.”
I skipped up the back porch steps into the house, took a flight to my room, gleeful to escape the raspberry inquisition, snatched my spectacles from the top of my dresser, and returned to the outdoor classroom. Mother had been pulling weeds. There was a pile of surrendered foliage just to the side of the raspberries. “Now, which is the sucker and which is the raspberry stem?” I selected, pinching a stem between my index and thumb, a stem that to me looked identical to the others. “This is a sucker.” “No.” It was finite. I am sure the answer was followed by explanation.
Years prior, while driving down the street with mom at the wheel, we had stopped at a red light. Mother instructed me to look over and down to my right. Propped up against the wall of the food market were three homeless men, who might have been mistaken for a heap of grey sacks, or bags of trash. I would never have seen them there, still as old debris, their heads appeared disembodied, melting into the slate- colored snow of March. “Do you see those men?” “Yes,” I replied. I was six years old and wondering about the how and why of this ghastly sadness. I knew something was very wrong. I felt a foreboding in my soul. Mother said, “Those men are fallen stars, fallen stars.” Her voice was soft, yet shrill: “Never laugh at them. They are fallen stars. Something got into them that made them that way; it could be alcohol or drugs or the war, we don’t know, sometimes the mind goes bad. We pray for them and do what we can to help. Do you understand?” “Yes Ma’am,” I whispered through the contracting hole in my throat. “We are no better than they are. You must pay attention to your surroundings, be aware of where you are; this is your life.” The light turned green.
Mom was acutely aware, her social sensibilities were heightened, and she made me antenna-like as well. Together we deconstructed all the television programs of the era: Tarzan, Little Rascals, Shirley Temple. No programming was exempt from our parsing and scrutinizing, even cartoons — especially Disney — were examined for negative cultural messages, symbolism that informed the identity and ideas of my generation. I loved to play our three-step game: 1-Why this isn’t true 2- What it says about you, and 3- What is true? We traveled back in time contextualizing minstrel shows, stopping to listen to the proud alternative, the original Paul Robeson recordings that played on vinyl speed 78. It was through that exploration that I began to grasp the concept of cultural humiliation.
The word humiliation became one of the countless vocabulary words I received every Monday from the age of five to 13 before mom ventured out to what was sometimes two jobs.
Mother gave me the gift of loving myself through calculated lessons. At four years old, I sat on the floor poised to play. She displayed images of the blackest people I have seen to date. She explained they were my ancestors, first humans, with grand civilizations in Africa. These beautiful people were from the Sudan and they were black because of the sun and climate and their closeness to the equator, their rich pigment. She brought out a large block-colored map; we found Sudan and the equator. She almost cooed as her hands lightly passed over the treasured images. Mother was not the cooing type so I knew these people were really special, and by association so was I —Black and Beautiful. The words ancestor and equator were placed on next week’s word list.
Mother James was defined by precision and exactness. She was a meticulous, disciplined creature, from the High Order of Meticulanians. As adults, my sister Lynn and I would tease her: “Oh, Queen Meticulous, we are your dusty subjects. May we enter beyond the Threshold of Cleanliness; we have not been sanitized, My Lady.” We would bow to the Queen of Cleanliness at the door of her bedroom. Mother would wave us along telling us to get out of here with such nonsense. I believe she was secretly proud that everything was immaculate and in order.
Teachers, mother’s friends, Girl Scout Leaders, my friends’ parents, and adults in general made it a point to remark about my height. They would say: “You sure are tall for your age.” If mother was present she would defend with a retort: “She’s going to be tall like her father.” Several went as far as to tell me over and over again that I was going to be as tall as the trees, which to me suggested that I might never stop growing. As you might imagine, I was regularly
teased as the tallest girl in my elementary and middle school class — before tall and lanky was a fashion statement. Maybe that’s how I acquired my affinity with trees. After all, the trees stood alone and so did I.
My backyard library was above it all, up in the tree, where I read books and hung out with branches. Among the leaves, I consumed: Things Fall Apart, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Wretched of the Earth, and more from mother’s extensive literary collection. Every night Mother dutifully read with me or my sister Lynn. One day after my decent from an exceptionally tall climb, Mother asked, “Did you see the holes in the bark? Did you notice the leaves curling?” I was about nine years old. I hadn’t noticed those tiny specs on the tree’s skin that looked like newly inverted pimples. She informed, “That tree is dying. We will work to save it.” The tree was in full blossom, with clusters of beautiful pink and red flowers forming a canopy of glory. How could it be dying? I was beginning to learn things are not always as they appear. “We will work to save it,” she said with conviction. We were always working to save someone
It was post 1967 Detroit Rebellion, before the election of Coleman A, Young for Mayor of Detroit. It was a complex time for a young Black girl to comprehend.
This year was the year of the final raspberry lesson. I was twelve, junior high school bound. Mom and I were in the garden. I dug a hole for the new rose bush that bore the name, “The Doctor.” That would be my special rose bush, a gift from Mother. Everything Mother did was aspirational, purposeful.
“Which is the raspberry vine and which is the sucker?” “This is the sucker;” I palmed the stem assuredly. I continued as if I were teaching a class, “It is slightly thicker than the actual raspberry stem, and the cluster of leaves are not budding leaves. These sucker leaf clusters will not blossom into flowers, and then raspberries. Also the buds on the suckers are spaced a wider distance apart.”
“Yes!” Mother was ebullient. Her fist pumped the air. She added: “In life, there will be suckers and there will be vines; one is real and the other pretends to be real. It is your job to distinguish between them. You must be able to identify real people from false people. Situations that may look like they are in your best interest with further examination, may not be. You must to be able to tell the raspberry vine from the sucker, for the sucker looks real but steals all the strength from the vine that actually bears the fruit. Always remember, the sucker bears no fruit; its sole purpose is to take away nutrients from that which is real, weakening the vine. Never let anyone or anything weaken you or misuse you. You will encounter people who will be suckers, users. Know who they are and pull them out of your life just as we are going to uproot these suckers this afternoon. After we get rid of these imposters, we will have a good yield of raspberries: raspberry jam on toast or toppings on vanilla ice cream.” Mom was twisting and pretending to lick her lips, and pat her tummy, acting silly.
I laughed a proud smile, and exclaimed, “I like to eat them plain, fresh picked.” Mother’s eyes smiled back as she handed me a sharp tool, and we began the process of uprooting those suckers.
Mother James was a complex woman of her time. Born in 1918, she was the granddaughter of the Woodson family, who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, and settled in Saskatchewan and later in Amherstburg, Canada. Her father, Horace, one of 22 children, left the farm in Essex County, Canada to relocate in Detroit for employment at Ford Motor Co., which offered $5 per day wages, a great deal of money for the time. Bessie L. James grew up as a Detroit West-sider, raised by her mother, Elmira, a Garveyite, and her father Horace, a union organizer. She developed into a Soldier for International Human Rights, and was the recipient of a Lifetime Appreciation Award from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mother James was on a mission for restoration of African culture and history. She traveled to West Africa to “go home.” She was an active lifetime member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She assisted Dr. Charles H. Wright during the formative years of establishing the
Museum of African American History when it was located in a house on West Grand Boulevard. My mother, also known as Mama Esi, was a vital member of the Pan- African Congress. As mother to two daughters, Jacqueline James and Semaj Brown, Mother James taught her girls programmatically. Weekends were filled with trips to theater, concerts, museums and lectures. She cultivated with fervor a passion and appreciation for world culture, class and racial struggle, socio-political literature, art, drama, dance, Black Creative Classical Music (Jazz), and opera.
A classically accomplished pianist, Mother James studied and performed European composition, and taught at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. Despite her exceptional talents, she experienced bigotry. Through much agitation and protest, along with her dear friends, Arthur Coar, Marguerite Massey and others, Bessie L. James was one of the establishing members of Friends of African Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. For decades, Mother James extensively researched lynching in the United States. She made trips to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and the Library of Congress. For years, her notes and papers were sprawled across the dining room table. Now they provide support material for continued research and remain a family treasure. A master gardener, lover of teatime and everything beautiful, including antiques, Mother James insisted she felt closest to God while working in her garden.