Nyasha Junior || April/May 2021
This story was co-funded by Pipe Wrench subscribers and fellow contributor Ben Huberman.
Separate whites and darks; wear your seatbelt; sit up straight; mind your manners; chew with your mouth closed—you are not a cow; drink water for a headache; castor oil works for nearly everything; don’t make the cornbread first; better keep those grades up; honor your word; do not sass me!; stay away from those no-good boys; clean as you go; do your best; pay on time even if you can’t pay in full; get off that phone; don’t eat the last piece of chicken without asking if everyone has eaten; spare the rod and spoil the child; plan ahead; do what your first mind tells you; when you get a husband, don’t prance around with everything showing; you won’t be on a milk carton — no one wants you; stay clean and neat even if your clothes have patches; a hit dog will holler; tomorrow is not promised; don’t buy no man a pair of shoes; I am not your friend; ain’t that peculiar; nothing beats home training; where you think you goin’?!; a wheel in the middle of a wheel, a shelter in a time of storm; why are you leaving all that meat on the bone?; folk just want to believe that the white man’s ice is colder; this house better be shipshape; keep your nose clean; keep your mouth shut; keep your dress down; keep your legs closed; keep your robe tied, even around your daddy; nobody promised you flowery beds of ease; that water better be hot; do you hear me?!; love thy neighbor; put money in your bra or shoe on a date; come on, let me wash this hair; ain’t got to do nothin’ but stay Black and die; clean your plate; you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit; put your undershirt on; turn off that TV; I ironed your dress — we used to wear hats and gloves, you don’t know bout that; don’t say what you won’t never do; I’m goin’ home on the mornin’ train; don’t think I won’t whoop your ass, miss lady; keep a little money to the side — you never know; there’s some pound cake in there; start out like you gon’ hold out; got to know him for yo’self; do an honest day’s work; I’ll take you to the library this weekend; know where your keys and pocketbook are at all times; sheep and goats, wheat and tares; don’t tell your daddy; you ain’t grown; you can’t eat everybody’s potato salad; get off that phone!; your reputation is everything; I signed the form, you can go, we’ll find the money; respect your elders; Jesus paid it all; go to that school and get your lesson — I don’t care if you sit next to Satan himself — we had to walk past the white school — had to make do with old books, police, dogs, fire hoses; put your pads away in the cabinet out of sight; don’t half-do; Miss Ann won’t never change; you ain’t too big for a spankin’ — if I can’t do more than hoch and spit at you; our father who art in heaven; you have no idea — if you ever have child, you’ll know; keep yourself clean — don’t no man want a dirty woman; used to have to wash in a washtub, you don’t know ’bout that; used to have to sit in the gallery, go in the back door, yield the right of way; don’t get the big head, young lady; I had rather be a doorkeeper; stay away from these nappy-headed boys; you can’t get blood out of a turnip; life ain’t fair; go on in there and take a nap; if you do something, make it federal — don’t want to end up in county; these are the last and evil days; what are you complaining about? you ain’t never missed a meal; stay out of grown folks’ business; just keep on livin’.
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At the end of Seeing in the Dark, Mason-Campbell shares her concern for her 12-year-old son. It reminded me of “the talk” that Black parents have with their children about precautions they must take in a racist world. Of course, knowing your rights and following instructions have never prevented Black people from getting killed. Yet these parents hope that 10-and-2, hood down, hands up, and other such directives might make a difference.
Although I have a clear memory of a momentous birds-and-bees discussion, I never received “the talk.” What I recall was an unceasing torrent of words from my mother akin to “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. It was tirade, sermon, and prayer.
Nyasha Junior is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. For the 2020-21 academic year, she is a visiting associate professor of Women’s Studies and African-American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. She writes, teaches, speaks, and frequently tweets on religion, race, gender, and their intersections.