by Asali Devan Ecclesiastes
Sometimes I can’t stand my mama friends. They call too early on Saturday mornings and too late on Sunday nights. They always tryna get somebody in trouble wit’ what they seen. Always tryna tell my mama how to raise us, cause they kids is older, like that mean sumthin’. And always talkin’ bout somebody, half the time somebody they don’t even know! Especially Mrs. Janice, who pronounces her name “Juh-niece” and always startin’ her sentences with “Girl yeah.” I hate that. She came home with my mama after work yesterday. I hate that too. I wanna tell Mama the same thing she be tellin’ me when I talk to my friends on the phone. “You been with her all day. What y’all got to talk about?”
So they come sit at the kitchen table where I’m doin’ my homework and ask me to get up to make them some plates of leftover gravysteaks. “I’m doin’ my homework,” I say, tryin’ not to roll my neck. My mama say, “Don’t forget the spinach n potatoes. Boil an egg for my spinach and gimme two horses first…wit’out poppin’ ya neck Ms. Thang. Next time Imma have to smack you.” I didn’t even have the luxury of grumbling under my breath with them sitting right there, so I stuck my face into the icebox and took a long time looking for the Miller High Lifes.
I was glad when Mrs. Janice started up, it took my mother’s attention off of me. “Girl yeah,” she began, “you know Nita Faye is a mid-west farm girl, can’t take no joke.” My mama say, “Who?” Ms. Janice laughs, “Girl you know, Nita Faye, up there in front the Congressmen, actin’ all sadiddy, like she all that, but now, she know what it is.” I think, I know she not talkin’ bout Anita Hill! My mama say, “I know you not talkin’ bout Anita Hill.” She say, “Girl yeah, I’m sho tireda all this nonsense with her. I’m glad they voted and gon’ go ahead and give that Brotha his due.” My mama say, “He’s due a kick in the ass.” She say, “Huh! At the most. What he ain’t due is to have all his accomplishments go down the drain cause of this foolishness.”
I locate the beers behind the milk and notice they’re only two left, and one is a smaller bottle. Uncle Poochie must’ve been over while we were at school. I place the larger bottle in front of my mother and say, “One horse,” then in an effort to get sent to my room, slam the other in front of Mrs. Janice and say, “One pony!” Mama pinched me hard on the thigh and said, “Quit talking like you work in a barroom!” Mrs. Janice laughed, switched the beers and said, “Careful, you gon’ getchu a hearing like Clarence, you keep pinching that girl’s ass.” Why she always talkin’ bout people like she know them! Rubbing the sore spot on my thigh, I stomped back to the icebox to take out last night’s leftovers.
“So seriously, Janice” my mama says, “you think they made the right decision. That it’s okay for a man who treats his employees like that to be on the Supreme Court? What if Ray did that to you?” My mama and Mrs. Janice worked together at the phone company. My mama was the dispatch supervisor and Mrs. Janice was the general manager’s secretary. She made a big deal about being called his administrative assistant. “Girl, Ray know better than to play with me like that—or his wife. We would slap the taste out his mouth,” she followed with an amused laugh. “But don’t think it ain’t neva happen to me before. Shit, you know it happens to most all of us. At the university…”
I began to tune them out. I wasn’t interested in Mrs. Janice’s nine hundred and ninety ninth different rendition of how she kept the Early Childhood Education Department at Tulane with their checks early because the notoriously austere and behind schedule comptroller got weak whenever she walked into the room. Especially not the “girl!” and “chile!” filled dramatic ending, where she barely escapes a mauling in the parking lot, when he, as my grampa would say, acted on his ambitions. I think, I don’t want it to happen to me and I don’t wanna be used to it, I don’t want men being able to make me uncomfortable because they’re my boss, talkin’ bout porn and dicks and pubic hairs. And on-time checks, for kisses on the cheek and smacks on the ass that make everybody think I’m a hoe. And fighting off attacks, and can’t get raises, and can’t get respect. I’m not gon’ be like my Mama n’em. Cause I know they not like my Gramma n’em. My Gramma n’em usedta could get raped by their husbands, couldn’t have their own money or rights to their own children. Let’s not even think about Gramma n’em Gramma. She didn’t even own her own self, didn’t have a right to her thoughts or dreams or even her name.
I tune back in to hear Mama argue, “So you mean to tell me that if that man was being promoted to president of Tulane and they came asking you what it was like to work with him, that you wouldn’t mention what he did because it’s ten years later. Shit, if it wasn’t for what he did, you probably wouldn’t remember him at all.” Mrs. Janice said, “No lie, I would swallow my pride, ‘cause it’s about damn time there was a Black president at Tulane University.” Mama said, “Humph, true we’ve swallowed for less.” She and Mrs. Janice giggle, they think I don’t get it. They’re so square.
Mama continues, “but for him to call it a lynchin’ is hilarious. When has anyone ever got lynched for disrespectin’ a Black woman?” Mrs. Janice countered, “She complain’ bout words! When has anyone ever said anything to a Black woman that she couldn’t handle with the cut of her eye or the roll of her neck?” Mama came back with laughter, “You wasn’t sayin’ that when Mr. Kaufman was tryna slip his tongue between ya cleavage.” Mrs. Janice howled, “That wasn’t words chile, that was spit. Plus if I was making the kinda money she was, girl, I woulda took one for the team. Now bitches gon be comin’ out the woodwork tryna get paid for playin’ footsie at work.” My mother dissolved into laughter, “Girl, hush! You too crazy, them children is here!” I smacked my teeth loud, thinking, it ain’t us children you need to be worryin’ bout!
Mama turned to me and said, “You must be lookin for that smack!” I answer, “Food’s ready!” and place the plates in front of them with a flourish. Mama ain’t smacked me in seven years, since the last time I lied to her. Now, I just don’t tell her stuff. “Y’all are welcome,” I sass as I gather up my papers with an even greater flourish and stomp off to my brothers’ room to finish my homework. I can’t do it in my room because I always fall asleep. I can’t wait to go away to college next year, I think, and began fantasizing about my life without my Mama and her friends. Mrs. Janice was kinda crazy, but I did like the name she came up with for Ms. Anita Hill and I wondered if people close to her might actually call her that. It was a name that made me think I could ask her things. Things I wouldn’t ask anyone but her, but I wouldn’t dare ask even her, unless we were close enough for me to call her Nita Faye. I would ask her things about Clarence Thomas—like did his breath smell? He seems like his breath would smell, which would make everything all the worse! I would ask her, because I think she would tell me the truth, like she’s been doing all along though it would be so much easier for her to lie.
My homework for Civics class was to write a reaction to the outcome of the hearings. I was writing a poem for you called “Ms. Hill” when Mama and her sidekick got here and started treating me like their waitress, but I think I’m gonna change the name to Nita Faye and go around the corner, see what Ms. Julie thinks about it. I don’t read my poems to Mama no more, since she told me I use to many “ents” and “shuns” in my rhymes and my style is inconsistent. What about the content, Mother? I hear her walking Mrs. Janice to the door. I shake my head and start speaking my poem out loud for the first time, see how it feels on my tongue: How you feel Nita Faye?
Since they confirmed him anyway?
Found your truth inconvenient
his cover-up expedient
said they would be fair
but didn’t mean it.
Good ol’ Geechee boy
never meanin’ no harm
just got Geechee boy charm
sat with other Geechee babies
in crab basket bassinets
where maybe they learned to
imitate the behavior of the creatures
whose prison they occupied
while his mother and the other
Geechee women jived
as they shucked, picked, and plucked
to meet their fifteen pound a day quotas
for jobs that paid in pennies
and the benefits were costly
because after all pussy and dignity
when they’re yours, are priceless.
What did he learn from shift managers?
I know crabs weren’t
the only things pinching.
That women, are the boss’ right?
We come with the job, right?
That’s why he didn’t get it
when you told him
your ass wasn’t up for grabs
and he thought he could get it
if he just picked up a few tabs.
He wondered, who did you think you were?
Were you better than his mother and the others?
Those good Geechee women who
even with their good men gone
handled the home with never a hint
that anything was wrong
managed what to cook for dinner
with pittance in the pantry
and invading hands in
their splits with equal cool
and here you go, Nita Faye
letting yourself be a political tool
to bring a good black man down,
don’t matter that he let you down,
why wasn’t the way he treated you
more of a let down?
It was the wrong time for truth.
52 – 48, they decided our fate
in the latest round of woman v. man
the women lose.
Mama shouts from front door, “The women lose? Whatchu in there babbling bout, girl? Come on out the boys room and show me your homework, now that Janice is gone. She done wore me out…sometimes I can’t stand my friends!”