Destiny O. Birdsong

In one of the most disturbing and tender scenes in Somebody’s Daughter, a middle-aged Black woman lights a match and sets a snake nest ablaze. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people,” Billie Coles explains as her granddaughter, the author Ashley C. Ford, looks on. Coles is attempting to demonstrate how families shouldn’t abandon each other, but Ford’s memoir offers an alternative survival strategy—one that sometimes depends on a person leaving.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford’s father was jailed shortly after her birth, and her mother’s quests for new love often ended in frustration, which she unleashed on her eldest child. Their relationship was so volatile that after an adult kissed Ford when she was a child, and later when her first love sexually assaulted her, it took decades for her to reveal the truth to her mother.

In the meantime, she coped with her pain through daydreaming, dissociation and wandering the halls of her local high school, a precursor to the peripatetic life that would lead her away from her family in Indiana. It’s tempting to view Ford’s mother antagonistically throughout this book, but the author’s familial bonds aren’t that simple. Ford’s contentious relationships with her parents—a mother who often withheld affection and a father who was physically unavailable to express it—loom large, and it’s fitting that the book begins with a phone call from one parent and ends with a reunion with the other.

This book’s title is deceptively simple. In African American Vernacular English, it can be a euphemism for a woman in danger; but when Ford reunites with her father, it becomes a revelation of the author’s self. Finally, it makes clear that the life one builds in the aftermath of a tragedy can, in time, coexist with the life left behind.

After returning to her hometown near the end of the book, Ford writes, “However complicated, I could exist in both [New York and Indiana], as me, fully me.” Perhaps the greatest lesson of Somebody’s Daughter is that a Black child marked by poverty and sexual violence can create multiple spaces in which to thrive—and that anybody’s child can do the same.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration.

For Anna Malaika Tubbs, finding the inspiration to write her first book was a numbers game. After watching Hidden Figures, the 2016 biographical drama about Black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the space race, Tubbs left the movie theater feeling both enraged and inspired. “I wanted to do something where I helped this issue of uncovering more ‘hidden figures,’ ” she says from her home in Stockton, California. She wanted to write about women who “were there right in front of us that we just weren’t paying more attention to, or who were intentionally being kept from us.”

With a background in sociology and gender studies, Tubbs was well positioned for the task. But she also knew that, in order to entice readers, she would need more than her sharp research skills; she would need a hook. So she turned to Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X, three of the most brilliant leaders of the 20th century. Then she looked at their mothers: Alberta King, Berdis Baldwin and Louise Little, respectively. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Three Mothers.


When Tubbs learned that these women had been born roughly six years apart (though some accounts of their birth years vary) and that their sons were born within five years of one another, she knew she had uncovered an important connective thread. She followed it, and the result is The Three Mothers, a book that maps how misogynoir (the unique intersection of racism and misogyny experienced by Black women) shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement. The Three Mothers discusses Louise’s work with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Alberta’s family history of faith-based activism and Berdis’ early years as a poet and spoken-word artist. As such, the book is part biography, part history and part running social commentary on the events of the past century. People might pick it up because they are interested in these iconic men, but what they will discover is an extensive and rewarding history of 20th-­century Black women.

Tubbs intentionally wrote The Three Mothers in language that is counterintuitive to her academic training. After countless days in special collections archives, poring over newspaper clippings, letters and interviews, Tubbs wanted to create something accessible to those outside the ivory tower, where emerging scholars are often encouraged to make their work “as elitist and complicated and boring as possible,” as she puts it. Because the activism of King, Baldwin, Malcolm X and their mothers was intended to benefit all people, Tubbs considered it unreasonable to write a text that was accessible to only a few. “I’m just not willing to play that part,” she says. 

In fact, The Three Mothers is the first step down what Tubbs calls the “public intellectual path” she has always wanted to take, sharing knowledge with people both within and outside the academy. With its conversational style and anecdotal imaginings of moments for which firsthand information is scarce, The Three Mothers tells a captivating story of women traumatized by the nation they and their sons would ultimately help transform.

In addition to shedding light on the lives of Alberta, Berdis and Louise, Tubbs also illuminates Black motherhood in general. Tubbs, who became a mother herself while writing the book, intimately understands what an undervalued vocation motherhood can be. Tubbs is the partner of Stockton’s first Black mayor, Michael Tubbs, and people often congratulate her high-­profile husband on the birth of “his” son while saying little to acknowledge the roles that she or her mother-in-law have played in the mayor’s personal and political success. Tubbs suspects this is because many people still assume that Black motherhood is neither an intellectually rigorous nor actively anti-racist endeavor, but she hopes her book can change that. “Black motherhood is about creation, liberation and thinking about the possibilities of the world that we can be a part of,” she says. “So many times our kids are painted as not human, and of course we see them as the most incredible humans in the world. Therefore, we have to change the world to see it the way we do.”

"Black women hold the truth and the key to the future."

This is illustrated time and time again in The Three Mothers as Tubbs explores how each woman worked to make her son see himself differently from the world’s harsh perceptions. For instance, Louise would reteach school lessons to Malcolm and his siblings to incorporate multiple languages and Afro-diasporic history. When a frightened young King and his father were harassed by white store clerks and policemen, Alberta would comfort her son but remind him that his father’s refusal to be treated like a second-class citizen was the right thing to do. And when a young Baldwin and his siblings were terrorized by his stepfather, Berdis stepped in, continually reminding her son that family solidarity and the fair treatment of others were important in spite of the abuse. In each of the book’s eight sections, Tubbs makes clear that, without these mothers’ instruction, none of the men born to them could have been the leaders they ultimately became.

Though Tubbs is both excited and anxious about this spring—she will defend her doctoral dissertation and launch her debut book within weeks of each other—she feels that now is the perfect time for her work to enter the world, and she has high hopes for The Three Mothers. “I want it to be that declaration that Black women hold the truth and the key to the future. People are quite open to that idea, maybe for the first time,” she says, citing the recent inauguration of the first Black woman U.S. vice president as proof that the conversation is ripe for change. 

There’s no doubt that The Three Mothers will be at the forefront of that changing conversation about Black womanhood, perhaps leaving readers as inspired and determined as Tubbs was when she walked out of the movie theater nearly five years ago.

 

Author photo credit, Anna Maliaka Tubbs

The Three Mothers maps how misogynoir shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement.

In The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, Anna Malaika Tubbs tells three stories that are often overlooked but deeply important to civil rights history. Tubbs explores the lives of “the women before the men,” as she calls them: Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin. Though each woman came from a different part of the U.S. and the Caribbean, faced diverse social and economic challenges and had divergent interests and ambitions, Tubbs knew that, because the women were so close in age (by some accounts their birthdays are only six years apart), she would find common ground among these women's lives that superseded their connections to famous men.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Anna Malaika Tubbs reveals how becoming a mother herself shaped her vision for The Three Mothers.


Tubbs intentionally chose the mothers of leaders whose lives have been well documented so she could focus on the women’s lives instead. In this way, The Three Mothers offers space for Tubbs, a debut author, to weave biography and social commentary with the complex history of Black women living in the 20th century. Tubbs also makes room for moments of discovery that help us better understand how each of these civil rights icons' social activism and artistic endeavors were shaped by their mothers’ shining examples. For instance, Alberta King’s radical maternal tenderness set the groundwork for how her son would view himself as a “mother” birthing a dream of racial equality. We also learn how Louise Little’s childhood love of dictionaries would lead her incarcerated son, Malcolm, on a quest for knowledge that would reroute his early delinquency, and how Berdis Baldwin would pass on her gift of both the written and spoken word to her oldest son, James.

As Tubbs explained in an interview for BookPage, there is a troubling binary between motherhood and intellectual labor, and her writing about three women whose sons’ lives were shaped by their mothers (and not vice versa) is an attempt to turn that binary on its head. The Three Mothers does just that, expanding conversations about King, Malcolm X and Baldwin beyond what these men gave the world to include what the world gave them through the lives of three intelligent, ambitious, trailblazing women.

The Three Mothers expands conversations about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin beyond what these men gave the world to include what the world gave them through the lives of their intelligent, ambitious, trailblazing mothers.

“Innocence doesn’t exist. Complicity is everywhere,” writes Michele Morano in Like Love, a collection of autobiographical essays about romantic relationships that are not quite amorous. There's a piece about a man with whom she slept—literally—during a summer in graduate school; one about an elderly landlord she found herself having dinner with whenever her live-in boyfriend was away; and others about strangers like Tomas, who becomes her travel companion during a stopover trip to Germany.

Many of the encounters in Like Love are brief, but one figure returns throughout the text: Morano’s mother, Rita, an unlikely subject for a book mostly about sexual affairs that never materialize. Morano’s relationship with Rita is fraught with both bitterness and infatuation. The long-legged, beautiful woman appears early in the second essay, “Breaking and Entering,” which details the disintegration of Morano’s parents’ marriage; and she returns in “Evenings at the Collegeview Diner,” an essay that explains how Morano’s first job allowed her to rebuild a relationship with both her parents. Rita is arguably the love of Morano’s life, though she died never knowing this. In “All the Power This Charm Doth Owe,” Rita visits then-grad student Morano in Iowa City and clearly wants to stay, but Morano dodges her mother’s intimations and commences falling in love with the man who will help her conceive her next complicated love interest: her son. The final essay examines Morano’s anxieties as a new mother and newly orphaned daughter who is initially unsure whether she really loves her child.

Like Love asks readers to destigmatize our most illogical iterations of love—the love we have for our parents, platonic friends, children and, sometimes, other people’s children—because even when love is inevitably flawed, it is perfectly natural. From her explanations of the brain’s activity as we fall head over heels for someone, to a breakdown of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Morano makes clear that even though we are all complicit in love and its ensuing chaos, our only obligation is to experience it. “Feel the presence,” writes Morano at the end of Like Love, “the ever-presence of romance in all its many forms, most of which are puzzles, mysteries that point us toward deep reflection on who we are and how we live.”

“Innocence doesn’t exist. Complicity is everywhere,” writes Michele Morano in Like Love, a collection of autobiographical essays about romantic relationships that are not quite amorous.

Fans of Natasha Trethewey’s poetry might think they’re already acquainted with the story of her mother’s death in 1985 at the hands of the poet’s stepfather. Most of Trethewey’s poetry collections shrewdly explore Gwendolyn Turnbough’s murder and Trethewey’s continual grappling with that grief. However, Trethewey’s seventh book and first memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is a new examination of the 35-year-old crime. It moves beyond simply recounting this loss to study the ways a mother’s death can shape a daughter’s relationship to memory.

Memorial Drive begins in Trethewey’s birthplace of Gulfport, Mississippi, where she spent her early years doted on by her mother and extended family while Trethewey’s father attended graduate school in New Orleans. After Turnbough’s first divorce, mother and daughter moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Turnbough met and married Joel Grimmette Jr., an abusive, controlling man who would wreak havoc on his wife and step-daughter. Atlanta is also the place to which the memoir eventually returns when, 20 years later, Trethewey finds herself back at the site of her greatest tragedy and face-to-face with its lingering artifacts.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Natasha Trethewey reveals the ways in which her mother’s death shaped her into the artist she is today.


Like her earlier collections, Memorial Drive is written with a poet’s keen ear for language and Trethewey’s knack for historical detail and retrospection. Using descriptions of photographs, dreamscapes, memories of historical events (such as Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974) and even transcripts of the final phone calls between Turnbough and Grimmette, Trethewey builds a narrative that asks: How does one get intimately close to violence and still survive? Memorial Drive proves that the answer is neither simple nor singular, and memory is only one of the avenues we travel in our quest to remember those we’ve lost. The lives of our departed loved ones take on different weight and meaning as we live on without them.

As Trethewey herself stated in an interview with BookPage, “The memory of my living mother grows every day; it continues to grow.” Memorial Drive is the story of that memory, and of a daughter’s deepening love, which has survived long after her mother’s death.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Love audiobooks? Check out Memorial Drive and other nonfiction audiobook picks.

Fans of Natasha Trethewey’s poetry might think they’re already acquainted with the story of her mother’s death in 1985 at the hands of the poet’s stepfather. Most of Trethewey’s poetry collections shrewdly explore Gwendolyn Turnbough’s murder and Trethewey’s continual grappling with that grief. However, Trethewey’s seventh book and first memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is a new […]

My phone interview with the 19th poet laureate of the United States happens just days after a series of national tragedies: the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade at the hands of police officers, crimes that have plunged the world—and Black communities in particular—into grief and rage. These circumstances momentarily shift the direction of our interview, and it is Natasha Trethewey who asks the first pointed question: “How are you holding up?” Her voice is rich with an accent that reminds me of home (we both grew up in states along the Gulf Coast), but it’s also tinged with something else: the bone-deep knowledge of what it means to survive violent, life-shattering loss.

Trethewey has spent much of her career studying tragedies of both national and personal scale, and her seventh book, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is no different. It chronicles the life and death of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who was murdered by her second ex-­husband, Joel Grimmette Jr., in 1985. Though several of Trethewey’s poetry collections deal with the subject of her mother’s murder (in particular Native Guard, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007), Memorial Drive is the poet’s first memoir.

The prologue begins with a description of Turnbough’s last professionally taken photograph, in which her black dress is so indistinguishable from the background that her face appears to emerge from darkness “as from the depths of memory.” What follows is a haunting exploration of memory—unpredictable, incomplete and at times obfuscating—through the metaphor of negative space, the area around a subject. Interwoven with the book’s chapters are breathtakingly short vignettes in which Trethewey recalls dreamscapes where her mother is still alive, sometimes older than she was at the time of her death. In the vignette that precedes the first chapter, a piercing light shines from a bullet wound in the center of her mother’s forehead, ringing her face in utter darkness as she asks Trethewey, “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” 

“I can tell you how remarkable my mother was, and resilient, and strong, and rational. Or I can show you.”

The chapters vary drastically in length, from single pages to much longer ones like “Evidence,” which includes transcripts of Turnbough’s final conversations with the man who would kill her only a few days later. During our call, Trethewey explains that she included these because, even when she’s recalling her own painful past, she is, at heart, a historian. “I’m someone who likes documentary evidence,” she says from her home outside Chicago. “I can tell you how remarkable my mother was, and resilient, and strong, and rational. Or I can show you.”

Memorial Drive achieves all of the above, and the reader’s knowledge of how the story will end does nothing to detract from the beauty of its narrative. Trethewey’s life began in racially segregated Gulfport, Mississippi, where she spent her early years surrounded by her mother’s large family in a town that often treated her parents’ interracial union with open hostility. Nevertheless, she lived happily, doted on by great-aunts, uncles and her young mother, with whom she spent time alone as her father pursued graduate studies in New Orleans.

Tall and graceful, Gwendolyn Turnbough was a stylish, creative woman who made her own clothes and eagerly supported her daughter’s ambitions. For instance, when they moved to Atlanta shortly after Turnbough’s first divorce, a dark space beneath the stairs in their new apartment frightened young Trethewey until her mother transformed it into a playroom planetarium, complete with a desk, books and a velvet cloth sky with stars made from cardboard and aluminum foil. Years later, when Trethewey shared with the family her dreams of being a writer and her stepfather told her it would never happen, Turnbough openly defied him with the full knowledge of the abuse she might later suffer. “She. Will do. WHATEVER. She wants,” she told him in front of their two children. In every instance, Turnbough worked to make use of the spaces available to her daughter, ensuring that they were nurturing and, when possible, safe. “In some ways,” Trethewey says, “all of my relationship with my mother, up to losing her, was shaping me. I think that the love I had from her gave me the kind of resilience that could help me survive losing her.” 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Memorial Drive.


And yet, in spite of Turnbough’s efforts, the Atlanta years mapped out in Memorial Drive are warped by violence. Trethewey describes Grimmette’s physical abuse of her mother, but also his secret torture of Trethewey herself when the two of them were alone. Grimmette would force her to pack her things, then take her for long drives along Interstate 285, threatening to abandon her at every turn. On another occasion, he broke the lock on her diary and read its contents, after which Trethewey began addressing her entries to him, sometimes with explosive language.

When asked about writing to her stepfather in that diary, which her mother purchased in an attempt to offer her a private place to process her thoughts, Trethewey laughs. “I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew that if I did this, that it would be between us, and it would be this way that I could push back. It wasn’t until much later, once I became a writer, that I began to think about it as a defining moment in terms of me having an audience, or imagining that I was writing for someone to read it. I think that it had everything to do with the writer I became.” This destruction of privacy transformed Trethewey’s personal space into a public one, and the poet began speaking truth to power.

Trethewey’s loss of her mother shortly after turning 19, however, is the point at which she believes the second half of her life began; Turnbough’s death split her daughter’s life into two parts, much like the book itself. “I became a whole other person,” Trethewey tells me. “That’s why I structured things as ‘before’ and ‘after.’ The hardest thing to acknowledge sometimes is I don’t know who I’d be without her death. If you were to say to me, ‘She could come back right now, we could undo that,’ it would mean I’d be the one gone. I don’t know who would be here.” Again, what is missing highlights what is left.

Memorial Drive makes clear that the dead are more than their absence, the blank space where there was once a body, a life.

This admission reminds Trethewey of a moment that took place shortly after Turnbough escaped her abusive marriage. During a Friday night football game, Grimmette appeared in the stands as Trethewey stood with the other cheerleaders on the field. When she saw him, she waved, and only later discovered that he’d planned to shoot her that night as punishment for her mother leaving. Near the end of this section in Memorial Drive, Trethewey writes that, theoretically, her mother’s murder would have been impossible had Grimmette killed her first, a sentiment she echoes during our call. “For a long time, it felt to me like I had traded my life for hers,” she explains. 

However, loss and self-preservation are never mutually exclusive, and Memorial Drive makes clear that the dead are more than their absence, the blank space where there was once a body, a life. The book ends with the singular image of Turnbough’s still-beating heart, a choice that was influenced by a trip Trethewey took to South Korea. Over the phone, she paraphrases what a local poet told her during her visit. “One does not bury the mother’s body in the ground, but in the chest. Or, like you,” he said, turning to her, “you carry her corpse on your back.” Trethewey admits the observation was, at first, deeply painful, but over the years it has come to represent the ways her mother’s death and life live on. “I have planted my mother like a seed in my chest, in my heart—that’s the living mother,” Trethewey tells me. “The memory of my living mother grows every day; it continues to grow. And I carry her corpse on my back at the same time. And I wouldn’t dare put it down, and don’t want to.”

 

Poet Destiny O. Birdsong is author of the forthcoming collection Negotiations (Tin House).

Author photo © Nancy Crampton

Even when she’s recalling her own painful past, Trethewey is, at heart, a historian. “I’m someone who likes documentary evidence,” she says from her home outside Chicago. “I can tell you how remarkable my mother was, and resilient, and strong, and rational. Or I can show you.”

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