They Raised Me Up: A Black Single Mother and the Women Who Inspired Her by Carolyn Marie Wilkins
In They Raised Me Up, Carolyn Marie Wilkins juxtaposes her personal story as an up-and-coming musician and single mother in the 1980s with the histories of influential women from her family’s past. This poignant and telling narrative not only offers insights on the travails of a musician and single mother but also humanizes the struggles of black and biracial women from the early twentieth century into the 1980s. The interweaving of memoir with family history creates a cohesive, entertaining, informative, and engrossing read that will appeal to anyone with an interest in African American Studies, Women’s History, Ethnomusicology, or simply looking for an intriguing story about music and family.
Carolyn and Sarah
Somerville, Massachusetts, August 1986
…For the tenth time this week, I ask myself whether it was a mistake for me to leave Tacoma. And for the tenth time this week, I remind myself that if I am ever going to realize my dream of “making it” as a jazz pianist, Boston is the place to be, at least for now. Maybe one day I’ll move to New York City, the Mecca of the jazz universe. But I am a black single mother with a four-year-old biracial baby and no money. At the moment living in Somerville, a workingclass suburb on the outskirts of Boston, is difficult enough.
|Carolyn and Sarah, 1986|
The voices have returned, and louder this time. The man, who sounds black and southern, is shouting. “Where is it? Don’t lie to me! You know where it is.” The woman, whose race I can’t identify, screams in response.
Something lighter, glass by the sound of it, crashes against the wall.
I roll out of bed and swing my feet onto the carpet. For once, I’m happy I couldn’t afford a bed frame—it’s quicker and easier to get up from my sagging old mattress without one. Should I call the police? As I sit considering my options, the voices and footsteps retreat away from the wall, and my bedroom goes quiet again.
Since my daughter and I moved in three weeks ago, I’ve heard these same neighbors fighting on several occasions, always late at night. Shady characters in sagging pants congregate on the stairwell next to their doorway, and it has crossed my mind more than once that perhaps they are selling drugs. Of course I should call the police. However, I had seen enough movies and read enough tragic front-page stories to know that turning in a drug dealer to the cops could have fatal consequences. Did I really want to put Sarah and myself in danger?
…My next-door neighbors had been quiet for several minutes. I propped myself up and checked the time. 3:45 a.m. It was very late, but there were still a few hours left before the alarm went off. I repositioned the covers so that Sarah’s feet would stay warm, fluffed my pillow, and rolled into a more comfortable position.
I had barely put my head down when I heard footsteps running next door, followed by a loud crash. Now I could hear the man’s voice clearly. “Where is it, you lying whore! You better get my money if you know what’s good for you. I’m gonna kick your sorry black ass.”
The woman was crying piteously now.
My Romare Bearden print clattered to the ground as the paper-thin wall between the two apartments absorbed another blow.
“Don’t mess with my money, woman. I swear I will kill you.”
|Carolyn and Sarah in Somerville, 1986|
“No, no!” She was screaming now, and I could feel her terror. Once again I heard running feet.
Much as I wished this dispute would wind down by itself, it was clear I was going to have to get involved. From the sound of things, he was throwing her repeatedly against the wall. I couldn’t just lie there and do nothing. Extracting myself from the bed one more time, I felt my way across the carpet to the wall phone in the kitchen and dialed 911.
From my kitchen, the fighting next-door was barely audible. Hopefully, the police would arrive before anything more serious happened. I was now free to return to bed. But between the drama taking place next door and the painful memories rolling around inside my head, I was more awake than ever.
I stepped into the bedroom to check on Sarah one more time. The poor kid had been through plenty, and if I had anything to do with it, tonight would be the last time she would ever hear the sound of grown-ups screaming at each other. My daughter is far and away the most beautiful child on the planet, at least in my eyes. Although her skin color is two shades lighter than mine, we share the same heart-shaped face, button nose, brown eyes, and unruly hair.
“Mommy will keep you safe,” I whispered, kissing the tangle of curls at the top of her head. “I promise.” Admittedly, I hadn’t always done such a good job of keeping her safe in the past, but things were going to be different now, I was sure of it.
I poured myself a glass of milk and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for the police. I tried not to think about how tired I was going to be at work the next day or how I would find the energy to be a good mother when I got home later that night. I was going to have to follow the all-purpose advice my grandmother Alberta had been famous for dispensing—to “put it in the hands of the Lord.”
Grandmother Alberta died in 1965 when I was twelve, but Mom said I looked and acted just like her. To hear my mother tell it, I had inherited my grandmother’s musical abilities, along with her spunk, her high Indian cheekbones, and her rich soprano voice. According to family legend, my great-grandfather disappeared when Alberta was just a baby, leaving my great-grandmother Lilly to raise their child alone. That would have made my great-grandmother a single mother, just like me. I wondered what my great-grandmother would have made of my situation. Back in the early 1900s, Lilly Pruett had been a black woman raising a child alone in Alabama.
Bet she would have had plenty of down home advice to offer, I thought, taking another sip of milk. Wonder if she ever had to call the cops about her next-door neighbors.
As I stared absently out of the window, the strangest feeling came over me. Yes, my marriage had failed. And yes, I was flat broke—struggling to realize my quixotic dream in an unfamiliar and dangerous place. But in spite of everything, I suddenly felt at peace, as if a voice inside was whispering: You come from a long line of survivors, Carolyn. Women who, when faced with slavery and segregation, never, ever gave up. You are stronger than you know.
Midway, Alabama, November 1896
|Lilly and Alberta, Kansas, 1908|
…On the day before Thanksgiving 1896, Lillian Pruett and Richard King walked into the Bullock County Courthouse in Union Springs, Alabama, to apply for a marriage license.1 Although she was just fourteen, my great-grandmother was already a beautiful woman with luxuriant brown hair, shapely curves, and striking oval eyes. We do not know what Richard King looked like, only that he was thirty-one years old, that his family came from Union Springs, and that he, like most of Bullock County’s African Americans, earned his living farming a patch of ground rented to him by a white landowner.
The following day, Lilly and Richard were married in Lilly’s hometown of Midway, Alabama. Although history has left us no record about the details of the ceremony, I like to imagine that all of Lilly’s Pruett kinfolk were in attendance. I picture the wedding party gathered for a soul food banquet, with ham from the family smokehouse, fresh picked greens cooked with fatback, peas, and perhaps some roasted corn. Surely they ate fresh baked cornbread and biscuits drenched in butter, and for dessert, pound cake and huckleberry pie.
In my imagination, Lilly and Richard’s friends are dancing to the tune of a local fiddler. As the celebration continues, someone struts his stuff with a buck and wing dance. Flaying the air with his arms, he leaps, twists, and turns, his feet tapping out sharp, intricate rhythms while the crowd circles round him, singing and clapping their hands. Lilly revels in her special moment and takes a turn with each of the dancers, her long hair flying, her face flushed with joy. Days of leisure such as this would have been rare for Lilly and Richard.
As a child, Lilly grew up on the very same land her grandfather had worked as a slave. In exchange for half their cotton crop, the Pruett family’s landlord provided the family with seed, housing, equipment, and farm animals. The cost of these items was then deducted from their profits at harvest time. The more money the Pruett family made, the more money the landlord made. However, if the crop failed, the Pruetts were still responsible for the supplies they had been advanced, and they earned nothing for their entire year’s labor.2 The two-room shack provided by the Pruett’s landlord was primitive—no glass in the windows, no screens, and no indoor plumbing. All the water needed for washing, cooking, and drinking had to be hauled up from the well several times a day.
Lilly’s mother would have risen before dawn to cook breakfast for her husband and their four children. One can imagine Georgia humming quietly to herself in the blue-black darkness as she stirs last night’s ashes and places another log on the fire. As she rolled out her biscuit dough and set the fatback to sizzle in the pan, perhaps Georgia sang a mournful spiritual:
Oh Lord, oh my good Lord
Keep me from sinkin’ down.
Or, as the sun peeked over the horizon, perhaps she sang something more cheerful:
I got a robe, you got a robe
All God’s chillen got robes
When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe
And walk all over God’s heaven.
By the time the sky was fully lit, the Pruett family would have finished a breakfast of fresh cornbread, biscuits, molasses, and fried salt pork and begun their day in the cotton fields.
In 1896 there was only one way to harvest cotton. It had to be picked by hand, row by row, one plant at a time. With the survival of the entire family at stake, there was no room for shirking or squeamishness. From dawn until sunset the Pruett men, women, and children stooped under the weight of the heavy cotton sacks they dragged along behind them, sweating in the broiling Alabama sun. The cotton boll sits deep in its stalk, well protected by sharp thorns. By the end of the day, Lilly’s and Georgia’s hands would have been raw and bleeding.
When Lilly’s father, Noah Pruett, was a boy, African Americans in Bullock County had hoped for a better life. For five years after the end of the Civil War, black men voted in elections. There had even been African American representatives in the state legislature. In 1871, however, white
Redeemer Democrats seized power and quickly enacted a series of repressive laws
designed to restore the state’s African American citizens as closely as
possible to their former status as slaves.3 By the time Lilly was old enough to marry, no black person in
Alabama was permitted to vote, to sit next to whites on public transportation, or
to testify against a white man in court. Any African American brave enough to
question this repressive system ran the risk of receiving a visit from the
masked “night riders” of the Ku Klux Klan. Those who persisted in challenging
the status quo faced the likelihood of being beaten, burned out of their homes,
or lynched. In Bullock County alone, seven people were lynched between 1889 and
1921, including a man who was dragged from the jail behind the courthouse in
Union Springs and hung by a mob in 1911.4
|Alberta King Sweeney, c 1905|
…As a married woman, Lilly was expected to begin having children immediately. Without children to help out with the chores and the cotton harvest, an Alabama sharecropper would have a hard time making ends meet. Within a year of her wedding, Lilly King, then fifteen years old, was pregnant. In 1898 black women in rural Alabama did not give birth in hospitals. Even if Lilly had been able to afford the costs of hospital care, no maternity ward in Alabama would have served her because she was black. Instead, Lilly gave birth at home, cooking, cleaning, and working in the fields right up until her water broke. While Richard went to fetch the midwife, Lilly labored in childbirth for several hours. While she waited, it’s possible my great-grandmother drank tea made from a wasps’ nest, an old folk remedy thought to relieve the pain of childbirth.6 And surely Lilly would have prayed—and prayed hard. Stillbirths and miscarriages were commonplace, and the mortality rate for Bullock County’s black mothers was high.7
Fortunately, Lilly King was young, strong, and lucky. On November 16, 1898, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. There’s a story in my family that Lilly named her daughter “Albirda” because she was destined to sing like a bird. Lilly herself had a rich, vibrant, contralto voice, and presumably her mother also sang well. Although my grandmother’s legal name was Alberta Beatrice King, this story speaks to the importance placed on singing by the women in my family.