Last year, I decided that each March, in recognition of Women’s History Month, I’d publish an article that captures the different kinds of love that Black women make by selecting a staple piece of literature or film belonging to the Black community. I invited a mentee of mine to join in as I’m supporting her in learning what it means to write into self-discovery. In 2022, we gave our honor to Alice Walker. In 2023, we now give it Gloria Naylor.
Mother-daughter relationships are a phenomenon to me. No two are alike, and there’s something beyond biology–something magical and special about each one. I can always recognize it when I listen to daughters talk about their mothers, and sometimes vice versa. Yes, even the estranged and fractured relationships. A daughter needs her mother. She may be the one single person she needs the most. In my years, I have never seen a longing quite like a child has for a mother–especially a female child.
I’d always seen myself as Marie’s child. For my whole life, that was exactly who I’d been to her until the day I specifically understood that I had become more than that–becoming my mother’s daughter. Even more special, her only daughter. This was the day I realized two truths: My view of her includes her identity as a grown woman, like me (not just my mom), and that my mother needs me too. It’s the moment you appreciate that you can be girly with your mother like you would a personal girlfriend, and somewhere in that, you also notice that she needed the transition to happen too, perhaps more than you.
When I scroll TikTok, enamored by video content of Black daughters talking about how their mothers are now their best friends, there are a number of mothers in the comments declaring this truth in their lives too, and how they awaited the day. While being raised, our Black mothers swore that they were not one of our lil’ friends; in adulthood, we learn that we certainly are their daughters and their friends. Of course, my mother does not need me the same way that I need her, but the sentiment is still there.
I need her to show up, to be present.
She needs me to be okay. I can expect her death; she should not have to handle mine.
I need her to open up, to share.
She needs me to be still and listen. She has secrets and stories for me.
I need her to guide me down my motherhood journey.
She needs me to allow her to (grand)mother my children.
We need each other.
A Lesson for Mothers: We Want Mothers, Not Preachers
As an avid reader, I often choose relevant themes throughout the year to study in my literature. This year, mother-daughter stories made my list. I’ve read five books on the topic thus far, but Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster of Place is my top choice for this year’s Women’s History Month. While the book chronicles the lives of seven Black women apart and all together, the stories of Mattie Michael and Melanie “Kiswana” Browne gained my attention as conversation-worthy.
Admittedly, I cannot speak to the experience of raising a daughter, but I have assuredly been gifted my flowers in serving as one. In my survey of Black mother-daughter relationships, I’ve learned that when mothers preach (or bark) at their daughters more than they teach and equip them, they often miss the opportunities and invitations to bond with them. In one reality, those daughters will navigate the world ignorantly; and in another, they will defiantly buck their mothers’ instructions just to dub them. It plays out repeatedly, so much that both realities appear in the stories of Mattie and Melanie.
Mattie’s mother loves her. Unfortunately, for Mattie, her love was only expressed in her protection–not in connection and certainly not in a relationship. Her mother raises her voice, charges around the house, and carries on like a worrisome fool. She spews religious bylaws at Mattie, banging pans and mumbling. Mattie was pregnant, and though heavy from the news, she still postured herself to protect her daughter. They conspire together to hide the pregnancy from Mattie’s father, and her mother comforts her with words like, “he’ll come around soon.”
Her father never came around.
He beat Mattie black and blue. She was so badly beaten that her mother retrieved the family shotgun and threatened to kill her husband if he laid another hand on her daughter. Mattie’s mother’s love manifested in the form of protection. I think it was all she knew. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Mattie had to leave her parent’s home and set off into the world to raise her son alone. She had no one to guide her on how to be a mother–not even her own mother. Nothing much came of her son’s life either, which was undoubtedly the greatest heartbreak of her life.
Melanie “Kiswana” Browne
We meet Mrs. Browne as her daughter, Melanie, overlooks the street from her third-floor apartment, noticing her mother approaching her building. Mrs. Browne and Melanie are caught in a traditional mother-daughter brawl. Melanie is defiant in her independence and agency, while Mrs. Browne disapproves yet desperately wants a reunion but on her terms. Melanie’s mother loves her, but it is not enough. She needs her mother to seal her identity as her daughter with her approval. The larger fight persists in what it means to be Black and what responsibility there is to assume and express cultural pride.
Just like Mrs. Michael, Mrs. Browne barks at her daughter–not with religion but with racial agenda and socio-economic achievements. The Brownes’ mother-daughter drama differs from the Michaels’; perhaps, the greatest difference is that Mrs. Browne has not chosen her husband over her child. As such, Melanie is not navigating the world alone. She’s independent but not alone. She’s not struggling with her mother’s rejection cloaked in shame, guilt, and embarrassment. She’s angry. Melanie’s angry that her mother isn’t as Black as she wants her to be–that she disapproves of how Black she chooses to be too.
As a mother, I understand their fight is not about Blackness alone for Mrs. Browne. She is heartbroken because her daughter is misplacing her identity and losing her authenticity. As a daughter, I also understand that while Melanie does have a true social justice heart for her people, she’s deliberately fulfilling her purpose in a way that ticks her mother off. Unlike Mattie, Melanie is not ignorant. She’s hurt. Mrs. Browne shows her love through financial provision, but Melanie fights against it. She wants approval, not dollars. I am not sure that Mrs. Browne sees it, but she is committed to loving her the only way she seems to know how. Despite their tense relationship, she never threatened to withdraw her support. In fact, one of the reasons for her visit was to give Melanie money for phone service.
A Lesson for Daughters: Historical Context Matters
Though Mrs. Michael and Mrs. Browne could not be any more different from each other, Black mothers and wives aside, the same cautionary adage applies: when mothers preach more than they teach and equip, they often miss the opportunities and invitations to bond. Again, though Mattie and Melanie could not be any more different from each other, Black daughters and Brewster Place tenants aside, they land on opposite sides of the same coin that is this cautionary tale.
These stories are set across the 1940s-1970s in America. Considering many Black families’ social and financial realities is not a stretch here. Even if they themselves were not disadvantaged or poor, though Mattie’s family was, they come from such legacies. Naturally, protection and provision are of the utmost to give to Black children, especially Black daughters. It does not surprise me at all that Mrs. Michael chose protection or that Mrs. Browne chose provision (and thankfully, she could).
In their living room conversation, Melanie and Mrs. Browne fire shots back and forth at each other in an expected style. We learn that Mrs. Browne has cultural pride, just of a different generation, and Melanie may be teetering a line with self-hate. Then, a magical moment happens with an opportunity for these two to bond–not just as mother and child but as women. It reminded me of when I realized I had become more than my mother’s child. Melanie comments on her mother’s toenail polish color, while Mrs. Browne admits that Melanie’s father had talked her into it realizing her mother is a full woman. This is that moment, that magic, and Naylor captures it well:
“And she looked at the blushing woman on her couch and suddenly realized that her mother had trod through the same universe that she herself was now traveling. Kiswana was breaking no new trails and would eventually end up just two feet away on that couch. She stared at the woman she had been and was to become.”
Melanie understood that that “same universe” was essentially Black womanhood. Mrs. Browne accepted her opportunity to bond, thereby building an important connection with her daughter that all started with the fact that her father’s into feet!
The Kind of Love That Black Women Make
I do not know a world where I navigate ignorantly without my mother’s hand, like Mattie, or defiantly looking to snuff my mother, like Melanie, but I do know what it means to be available for these mother-daughter connections that Melanie and her mother eventually “got right.” I do know what it means to have a mother whose bonding time with me is centered on the fact that we are both in the same universe now–two Black women. I do know how good it feels to be viewed as a full woman by my own mother and to view her also as a full woman. I further grasp that this perspective shift is necessary.
Though mothers are usually already card-carrying members of the womanhood club when their daughters are born, daughters have to come of age. Make no mistake that womanhood will arrive, and what better pleasure than for a mother to bless her daughter by initiating her into the club and acknowledging her as a woman too? I have difficulty parsing Blackness from womanhood because they go together for me, always being demonstrated and delivered unto me as a package deal. It seems the same could be true for Mattie and Melanie, even if more generationally than intentionally and affectionately. However, I also know this is not every Black woman’s story, and I want to create space for them too. So, I invited my mentee and co-author, Vanessa Yancy, to share her story about how she’s navigating being Black and being a daughter through the lens of Kiswana Browne. Her perspective differs greatly from mine, but both are important and valid.
If you are a mother, I’d like to invite you to be more attuned to those opportunities and invitations, especially when they come directly from your daughter. If you’re a daughter, I invite you to embrace the connections when they naturally arise, especially while your mother is present and engaged.
Happy Women’s History Month to all the mothers and their daughters and to the memory of Gloria Naylor, who left us with this classic.