Dedria Humphries Barker
Issues in Mother of Orphans
WITHOUT HER CHILDREN
The worst thing a mother can do is leave her children. They are her brood, her sidekicks, her crew. They put the buzz in her hive; they make her the Queen bee. Children don’t go anywhere without mother’s permission or they catch it. She doesn’t go anywhere without them.
In the Humphries house Mama couldn’t take a bath without one of us asking, “where you going, Mama?” Imagine a mother leaving her children in an entirely different world.
Sounds like a crime. An infant’s only nourishment, only food was mother’s milk. When there was no breast to give suck, the baby died. Historically, a gone-girl mother meant a starved child. That is the era of Mother of Orphans. Fortunately, Alice’s youngest child, Elizabeth, was two and one-half years old.
My book, Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow, is tied up in the woman's role of mother.
Still, in 1912, "without her children" tells a story too horrible to think about, but stars my great-grandmother. I wonder, if I had not researched this myself, but found out when Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his genealogical wizards discovered it when they got around to me, because his show, Finding Your Roots, is going to go on for a long, long time.
Imagine me sitting there across the table from HLG, Jr. He tells me, "Please turn the page," of the Book of Life they prepared of my family. Then, what a shock! I learn on PBS.org that I descended from a woman Loch Ness monster.
And he says, “how does that make you feel?”
Many of his guests say, wow. But I might be so stunned all I can summon is the word, witch and other sound-alikes because she's a monster and Irish too? (Don’t tell anyone that, my English-American friend said). I would not even talk about her much less write a book about her. "Without her children" is nothing to be proud of.
Fortunately, my mother told me about the orphanage when I was ten years old.
Orphanage. That word grips the heart. No one feels more abandoned than a motherless child, the orphan. There is saying from the blues music world, “Nobody loves me but my mama, and she could be jiving too.” Journalists say, “If your mama says she loves you, check it out.” Meaning, make sure it’s true. Another saying, this one about beauty: “He’s got a face only a mother could love.”
Mama is the height of love and if your momma can’t love you, nobody can.
Mama Bear will do the impossible. Go hungry so her children can eat. Keep working to pay for college, save to take them and their children on a cruise, let her single daughter bring her child home and take care of him. The primal instinct is to protect her cub to the death.
Not all mothers parent alike. Obviously. But one thing they are all supposed to do is keep their children with them. Children expect this too. When “without her children” happens, it is because they have no other options, something went terribly wrong. Something that struck at her heart. Death. Of the body. Of the heart. Of the future. That’s what happened to Alice.
She crossed the color line in the Jim Crow era to get her children. She crossed back to give them the best life she could. It just wasn’t possible for an Irish-American widow of a colored man to raise her black children without her black husband, their father. It just wasn’t.