03/17/2008 12:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


Mother, have I told you

That you are the first woman

I ever fell in love with, that what

I've always wanted in life is to hear

You say you love me, too?

That is why, ma, it has taken

Me so long to write this poem.

For how could I, a

Grown man, put words to paper

If I am that little boy

Cowering beneath the power of

That slap, the swing of that belt,

Or the slash and burn of that switch

You used to beat me into fear and submission?

I constantly cringe, ma,

When I think of that oft-repeated chorus you sung

As a fusillade of blows walloped my skeleton body:

Are you gonna be good? Are you gonna be good?

Sometimes when I call you these days, mother,

I just don't know what to say, thus I fall silent,

Even when you ask "How are you doing?"

I want to give you real talk,

Tell you that I am still that stunted only child

Traumatized by the violence of your voice;

That I am still that shorty too terrified to fall

Asleep for fear of your pouncing on me

The moment I shut my eyes--

And you did, mother, again and again,

Until I could no longer sleep peacefully

As a child, and I have never actually had

Many tranquil nights of sleep since.

I lay awake sometimes, as an adult,

Thinking someone is going to get me,

Going to strike me, going to kill me

Because of those heart-racing hours

Of darkness far far ago.

And I remember that time I ran under

Our bed, and in your titanic rage

You tore the entire bed apart,

The frame falling on one of my legs,

And there I was, stuck, mother,

And you ripped into me anyhow.

And oh how I howled for mercy.

But there was none, mother.

Yet there was that chorus:

Are you gonna be good? Are you gonna be good?

And I really did not know, mother, what being good meant.

Nor what you wanted me to be.

Because one day I thought you loved me

And the next day I thought you hated me.

And I did not know back in the day, ma,

That you had been assaulted and abused

The same way, by my granddaddy,

Your father, a 19th century son of ex-slaves

who would break you and your

Three sisters and brother down with mule whips,

With soda bottles, with his gnarled hands--

That he was an embittered mister,

That you were the child who became

Most like your father. Do you not

Recall that past, mother?

I am saying you once chided me,

After you learned I had struck someone as an adult,

To keep my hands to myself, and I wanted to say

But, ma, why didn't you keep your hands to yourself?

Why didn't you command your hands, your arms,

To hug me, instead of urging them to damage me?

And that is what I previously was, ma: damaged

Goods that liked living on the other side of midnight.

That is why, mother, there was no sleep for me till Brooklyn,

Because I needed to escape the concrete box

Needed to escape the mental terrorism

Needed to escape you and that

Paranoid schizophrenic existence.

I am not crazy, ma. I know

Our destinies were frozen in those days

When we shared

That bed and room together,

Because we were too poor

To afford a full apartment.

To those days, mother, when I

Thought you were the bravest

Human being on earth as you

Fought super-sized black rats with

Your broomstick, or effortlessly

Shooed the army of roaches away

From our dinner table--

Maybe, ma, I have not been

Able to write this poem

Because I can envision you as a

Young mother, the one who suitcased

Her dreams when you left South

Carolina, when you moved, first, to Miami

To create a new life for yourself, to flee

The world that murdered your

Grandfather, a local cook, by stuffing food in his mouth,

Then baptizing him in cracker water and proclaiming

It was an accident. It was the world that knocked

On your grandmother's door and told

Her she had to give up 397 of those 400 acres

Of land called the Powell Property--

One penny for each acre of land--

And what your grandmother was left with

Was a jar of soil called Shoe Hill,

The contaminated hill where you were born, ma:

That world never bothered to change the

Name from the Powell Property. And there you

Were, at age eight, sunrising with the moldy men

And the wash-and-wear women

As God's yawn and morning stretch

Tickled the rooster's neck,

Waking you good colored folks to toil on that Powell Property--

To pick cotton for White folks as if being

Cheap and exploited labor was your American birthright.

And you were angry bye and bye, mother.

You would get so angry, Aunt Birdie told me

One time, that sweat droplets would form on your nose,

Your brow would curl up, and the world and

Anyone in it would become your

Empty lard can to kick back and forth up the road a piece.

Ah, ma, but you were such a pretty little Black

Girl--I have the picture right here this minute,

Of you at 12 or 13, tender and dark ebony skin

A beautiful yet temperamental and unloved Black girl

Told that you were ugly, that you had ugly hair,

That you would never be anything other than

The help and wooden steps for someone else's climb--

But you were persistent, ma, and mad determined

To make something of yourself.

And Jersey City

Welcomed you as it welcomed each of

The lost-found children of the Old South

Welcomed y'all country cousins to

Number runners slumlords

Pimps drug dealers bad credit

Huge debts and would-be

Prophets who called themselves storefront preachers

And there you were, mother, within a year,

With my father--

Was he your first love, ma, did he mop

The Carolina clay from your feet?

Did he sprinkle sweet tea and lemon on your belly?

Did he ever really make love to you, mother?

Or was he more like that plantation robot

Who was built to mate then make a quick

Dash to the next slave quarters?

What I do know, mother, is that you went to the hospital

Alone, to spread your legs for

A doctor whose plasma face you do not remember

To push forth a seed you had attempted

To destroy twice because you feared his

Birth would mean the death of you.

But there I was, ma, in your arms

Screaming lunging fleeing

And you were so tremendously ashamed

To be an unwed mother that you did

Not tell Grandma Lottie for five years,

Until that day we showed up

In your hometown of Ridgeland, South Carolina.

But what a mother you were:

You taught me to talk

Taught me to know my name

Taught me to count to read to think

To aspire to be something.

You, my grade-school educated mother,

Gave me my swagger--

Told me I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor,

Told me I was going to do big things,

That I was going to have a better life

Than this welfare this food stamp this government cheese

Had pre-ordained for us.

And we prayed, mother, yes lawd we prayed--

To that God in the sky, to the White Jesus on our wall,

To the minister with the good hair and the tailored suits,

To the minister with the gift

To chalk on busted souls and spit game in foreign tongues--

And back then, ma, I did not understand the talking in tongues

The need to pin pieces of prayer cloth on our attire

The going to church twice a week

The desperation to phone prayer hotlines when there was trouble.

But what you were doing, ma,

Was stapling our paper lives together as best you could

Making a way out of no way

Especially after my father announced,

When I was eight,

That he would not give "a near nickel" to us again.

And he never did, mother, never--

And I sometimes wonder if that is when

The attacks got worse because you were

So viciously wounded

By my father's ignorance and brutality

That that ignorance and brutality

Was transferred to me

As you would say, in one breath,

Don't be like your father

And in another

You just like your no-good daddy

And, yes, I am crying this second, mother,

As I write this poem

Because I see you today:

A retired Black woman with a limp, a bad leg,

Shuffling up and down three flights of stairs.

Too headstrong to allow me to move

You from that heat-less apartment,

Life reduced to trips to the grocery store

A bus ride to the mall

A sacred pilgrimage to the laundry room

And the daily ritual of judge shows, Oprah, and the local news.

And, mother, you remain without the love you forever

Crave, and you forever speak of getting married one day.

And you are so very worn out from

Fifty-four years of back breaking work--

But this I know now:

Your life was sacrificed so that I could have one, ma.

So I write this poem, son to mother, to say I love you

Even if you refuse to accept my words

Because you are too afraid to defeat the devil

And bury the past with our ancestors once and for all.

I write this poem

To say I forgive you for everything, mother--

For the poverty for the violence for the hunger

For the loneliness for the fear

For the days when I blamed you for my absent father

For the days when I wanted to run away

For those days when I really did run away--

I forgive you, ma, for those days you cursed

And belittled me, for those days when you said

I was never gonna make it.

Oh, yes, ma, I do forgive, I forgive you for

The beatings, I do, dear mother, I do--

Because if it were not for all of who you are

All of where you come from

All of what you created for me

I would not be alive today.

For below the bloody scar tissues of your fire and fury

And aggravations and self-imposed house arrest

Is a woman who defied the mythmakers

Turned her nose up at the doomsayers--

Is someone who fought landlords

And crooked police officers and

Social workers and school systems and

Deadbeat men who wanted to live off of

Her; and from the tar and feathered remains

Of lives noosed from the very beginning,

We have survived, and here we are, mother:

You have never said you love me

But I know every time I come home

And you've made potato salad and stringbeans,

Every year you've mailed me a birthday card

Or asked if you should buy me pajamas for Christmas,

I know that you are,

In your own wildly unpredictable way,

The greatest love I've ever had in my life--

Kevin Powell is a writer, activist, author of 7 books, and a 2008 Democratic candidate for the United States Congress in Brooklyn, New York. "Son2Mother" is excerpted from his new poetry collection, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, which can be ordered here.

Kevin can be emailed at