Friday, January 04, 2008

Mama's Birthday

I received a call from Talib and Mama Bobinaoux early, January 3, which completely changed what I'd planned for the day. My mother, her husband and grandson drove up for a few days and I'd planned on spending the day with them. It had been cloudy, and the forecast was rain, but I planned to be a good hostess and give my visitors what they wanted. Instead, I stayed home and called people, emailed others to halt Charles Platt's (J72525) move from California State Prison-Solano to Avenal Monday, January 7. Charles is ill and so is his mother, and the move would cause a hardship on both.

Charles can't remain in CSP-Solano. Other inmates have to almost carry him to meals and to the visitor's room. He is almost skin and bones because he often skips meals, since he can't get there without assistance. It seems as if the prison would recommend compassionate release since Charles' condition is not going to improve.

If I spent my mother's birthday crafting a strategy for his release, the least the rest of you reading this blog can do is call D.K. Sisto, the warden and tell him to release Charles immeidately. His number is (707) 451-0182, fax: (707 474-3200. Charles was found suitable for hospice care last summer and put on the waiting list for California Medical Facility at Vacaville, but the place is overcrowded. If the system can't comply with its own recommendation--release the man into his mother's care. He has served his time and poses no threat to the public.

Okay, so you get the drift. Mama tells me to take care of my Charles business, and says she and Elder will pray that he is released and in the meantime granted a longer stay at Solano. While I'm working away, Charles' mother tells me she has a hair appointment. I'm like, wow, I'm skipping my mother's birthday celebration and she drove eight hours to celebrate with me. I am postponing work I need to take care of and she is going to the beautician? Then I think about the fact that she's been carrying this burden alone for years, since Charles was misdiagnosed.

She'd already told me she was angry this morning after Charles called and told her they were moving him. Perhaps this is how she unwinds. At about 6 p.m. I leave the house. I plan to pick up some barbecue for dinner and a copy of the San Francisco Bay View where my tribute to Mama is published.

When I get to the hotel everyone is happy to see me. Elder and Mama sing after Elder tells me these great stories about how he continued his education by going to the library and reading everything he could when he got off work in the evening. He wows us with math questions only he can answer. He also recites the alphabet forward and backward. The lesson there he tells his college educated children is, if you know something you should know it in all aspects--mastery is what he demonstrated with this simple task.

Dropped out of school in the 4th grade, Elder said although he went to work to help his father take care of his siblings when his mother died, he didn't plan to neglect his education. He went to the library and read. Elder was a professional musician, until he decided he wanted to use his gifts for God. He named big names who wanted to record and/or play with him.

As Elder speaks, Mama smiles and occasionally reminds him of a salient point or interjects a concept to steer the conversation in a certain direction. At her prompting Elder talked about his first guitar which he made from a cigar box. Now they make professional guitar's from cigar boxes. The little boxes gove the instrument a unique sound.

What a love story my mother and Elder make. I remember his voice praising the merits of Snow Banks, who'd just died. I wasn't surprised that he and Mama married. He was the coolest preacher on the stage that afternoon four years ago. I've heard of people meeting their next spouse at the funeral of another. Up to Snow's funeral, I thought it was some screen writer's wicked humor gone fishing. When Mama told Elder she wanted to visit San Francisco, they were here the next day--talk about making someone's dreams come true....Edwin met me at the door with origami petunias and a lovely picture of a horse. He was writing a story about it when I arrived.

I visited for over three hours. While there we called Cousin Mary in Bay St. Louis and Christian, another grandson, called. Cousin Mary told me about cousins I never met who are now all dead. She told me about my great-grandmother's daughter, my greatmother, Rosetta. Mama told me about when I was a vegetarian. She said I came home one day and said I wasn't eating anymore meat. She described a bean patty she'd make for burgers. This was before all the vege burders one can order in almost all resturants.

I hope next time the Leassear's come visit Christian can come too. Mama proudly showed me her Medicare card. Now she can see a doctor when she is ill. Elder showed me a really cute photo the couple--Elder looked like Melvin Van Peeples and Mama looked cute in her dashiki. They took the picture on his birthday in November. He had it in his wallet. He showed me his present on his wrist. A handsome man, he called mama "baby" and "sweetheart" a lot.

Mama certainly wasn't unhappy to hear such endearments. Four years after their eyes met accross the room, romance is still in the air.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Mother: Helen Leassear

My mother’s birthday is tomorrow, January 3, and I wanted to thank her for consenting to being my mother when my angel tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to consider the proposition. Without hesitating she said , “Yes.” And, she was a great parent, still is. I remember trips to art stores to buy clay which I’d use to sculpt busts of my daddy’s head. He was my African king. I remember going to concerts with Mama to see James Brown, and movie nights at the drive-in at the Cow Palace where she and my brother would watch Bruce Lee films. They also liked vampire movies which I couldn’t handle. So I’d ask to stay home. I remember her paydays whenever I smell hot cashews and the smell of Almond Roca candy. We’d go to Woolworth’s and get fruit slices and sometimes we’d have milkshakes or banana splits. On Saturdays I’d get my allowance and go shopping for the latest Jackson 5 45-record. Doggy Diners was a spot we’d frequent too and this ice cream place that had smoothies. I think it was called Dairy Queen. This was pre-Shabazz Snackshops… the Nation of Islam.

I remember my mother taking me to work on Treasure Island where she was a keypunch operator. She was transferred there after working initially at the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. She’d bring cards home from work, which I’d use to make flashcards and also for paper dolls. I recall being impressed when she talked about taking the industrial size computer apart, fixing it and putting it back together. I’d have to get up early and wake my brother and we’d walk up the hill from 19 Brookdale to John MacLaren Elementary School where I was in kindergarten and my brother was in preschool. My mother got off work at 3 p.m. She worked swing shift. Before she left in the morning she’d comb my hair and leave breakfast and lunch money on the table. We were latchkey kids, but our neighbor Kathy, who was blind, kept the key which I’d get in the afternoon when I came home. I was a good kid. They don’t make them like me anymore— so when I ended up divorced when my kids were 7 and 3. I hired babysitters.

My mother was in her twenties when I was 5, a single mother at the time, who always put her family ahead of herself. I don’t know if that’s always a good thing, but it’s hard to do otherwise when the patriarchal framework is the norm. When one thinks about pleasing someone, for me, I want to please my parents, my mother especially who was and still is so generous with her life. I remember baskets for teachers and mentors filled with goodies she'd baked like banana and zucchini bread, pralines, fruitcake, and other yummy surprises. She and my stepfather, the late Snow Banks would drive up to Oakland for the weekend with bunk beds strapped to the car. When they arrived Snow assembled the beds. I recall checks she’d send to help me when funds ran low, especially when I was on disability. I remember when my father was dying and my parents made their peace with one another before he departed. Daddy apologized for mistakes he’d made I was told. She even baked dinner for my sister’s now deceased father after he had a heart attack, though they were divorced. Snow was cool, had to be, I guess, Mama loved like that. When I think of unconditional love I see her face.

Yes, if she sounds like a paragon, she is. Angels take lessons from her—orphaned before she was 12 and a mother at 15, my mother got her GED at John Adams, while cleaning white women’s homes as a domestic. On welfare in New Orleans, Mama said social services sent her a ticket for San Francisco, my daddy sent them. She wasn’t asked did she want to leave her home—the choice was economic and in 1962, my mother, baby brother and I were in route on Greyhound to San Francisco, where a man she called, “Oliver,” my dad, met her. My mother was a scholar, who was destined for great things. There is a newsclipping with her picture for winning an essay contest. She had dreams but deferred them for others. I guess after so long, this can be habit forming. She told me about nuns who hit her left hand until she picked up the pencil in her right. Her writing was so tiny, it was as if she wanted to disappear, but as long as I am here in the world, so is she.

She was just a kid, 21 at the time of our arrival in San Francisco. She didn’t know anyone, but she loved my daddy, so they worked it out, as she went from domestic work to clerical work. When they separated and then divorced when I was 15, she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles where she remarried and had my little sister, Lavina, now 29, mother of two. Lavina purchased a condominium in Los Angles last month. My brother, husband and father of three, bought into a family coop on Fulton in 2007 also . TaSin and I have had a house since 2006. Now all my mother’s children are property owners and college graduates, my sister in African American Studies from California State University, Dominquez Hills, and my brother in General Education from City College of San Francisco. Fred wants to be a teacher, and he will once his youngest goes to school. My sister is studying speech and language pathology. As you know, my masters is in writing from the University of San Francisco, where my dad was employed. I want to celebrate my mother publicly this year because I appreciate her presence in my life. I have never second guessed my choice 49 years ago. Helen Isaac Leassear is the only mother I have ever wanted, the only mother I will ever need.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


The first day of the year has been quiet. The gunfire has subsided. I found myself on my knees in prayer as the new year dawned, not out of piety necessarily, rather it was because gunshots filled the air and I didn't want to be the first casualty of the new year. I spent New Year's Eve at Equator Faith church in East Oakland. I'd never prayed the New Year in and I thought it would be a great time to start. This was before I found out that January 1, 2008, marked the bicentennial of the end of the slave trade from Africa to North America. Last year, was Britain's 200th anniversary, a year where there was much discussion and public programs and reflection on how the transatlantic slave trade affected western society and what impact it has still on Western culture, especially the economic structure of European and America, nations, individuals and families.

I have been reading Alice Walker: A Life and in this well-documented and written biography by Evelyn C. White, Walker comments on her classmates' wealth and privilege at Sarah Lawrence College where she received her undergraduate degree. In the margins I wrote, that these young women's wealth was made by Alice Walker's ancestors in Georgia. Her family's poverty was directly connected to the 400 years of free labor white Americans banked.

Earlier today, I was thinking about the three people shot Sunday. I hadn't realized one person was shot in front of Allen Temple, but a woman was shot in the parking lot at Rev. Bob's church, Act's Full, not far away.

As I stood in line at the post office, I was reflecting on love, as the answer. Love doesn't mean you have to like me. Love doesn't mean you don't want me to stand trial, love just means that you have compassion and no ill will and don't want wish evil on me, even if I think I deserve such treatment.

I think we can love ourselves back into humanity. I don't know if it's possible without a vaccination if a person has a deadly virus like those creatures did in Will Smith's latest film. Dr. Neville loved them, but they were incapable of loving him back. Perhaps it's not a vaccination, but so many hours of therapy....Like Dr. Neville, I don't think we can afford to give up on any of us. If we do, if Neville hadn't kept trying to find a cure, then the virus would have spread beyond New York and contaminated others, especially those who did not have a natural immunity. I think the immunity is a certain purity of spirit, a moral fortitude. This immunity is not limited to people.

If the virus is analogous to a moral contaminate, like hate, then we have to love each other so that hate doesn't infect the more vulnerable among us, like some children, animals, the infirm and frail and those weak in spirit.

Today, at a time when heads of state like the form prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto, is killed--the murder seemingly supported by this country and Pakistan, Kenya is reeling from rigged election results, and Iran is still on President George W. Bush's list for invasion--one needs to have faith or Imani. This is what kept most of our ancestors alive in the transport across the Atlantic, kept us believing in freedom even after they'd forgotten what it felt like, kept them believing that the present conditions would not last forever.

Imani has no empirical presence, or so it's said, but we have examples of faith to guide us when things seem bleak. Hope is hard to find in the dark, yet, once our eyes adjust, light is visible.