People ask what drew me to write a biography of Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter (Lillian Carter: A Compassionate Life, McFarland & Company, 2014)
Aside from the obvious—who wouldn’t want to write about the life of America’s sassiest First Mother, who lived compassion as a daily act of faith?—there is something Lillian once said to her presidential son. “I wish I had been born a black woman,” Lillian told him. She qualified this by saying felt she’d have been a more effective human being in the fight for civil rights. The statement is startling and even challenging, and certainly ironic coming from a white Southern woman of slave-owning ancestry, or indeed from any white person. How many people of African American ancestry would agree that being black had helped them in any special way in the fight for equality?
This statement stuck in my mind for another reason. My mother, also a white woman descended from enslavers, had said much the same thing to me often during my childhood. In fact, she said it to me again shortly before her death in 2012. “I wish,” she told me, echoing Miss Lillian, “that I could have been born a black woman.”
Why did my mother believe this? I don’t know the answer to that question any more than I know Lillian Carter’s deeper motivation for making the same statement. But I think it has something to do with another kind of freedom, the kind that starts not in a society of exclusion—white society—but in a black society in which a special kind of freedom welled within each person’s soul, the one reality they could control and cherish while living within the restrictions of dominant white culture. I know that for my mother, African American culture stood for glamour, pizzazz, and the inexplicable joy she took in what can only be described by the French phrase “vive la différence”— the celebration of what made black culture unique, which a white person like my mother admired all the more for blooming, and blooming fiercely, in such rocky soil. For my mother, that uniqueness was ammunition in the fight for freedom, a fight which moved her, the quintessence of a free spirit, all her life, just as seeing it quashed brought her to anger.
For my mother, the fight for civil rights was a personal one. As a girl in her 1950s Central California high school, where segregation was unknown, my mother had many friends who were girls of color. I heard that on at least one occasion, Mom, who was pretty, funny and popular, had been “fought” over by two groups of these African American girlfriends. A friend told me of seeing my mother standing in the middle, laughing her head off, as girls on one side and girls on the other, also laughing uproariously, tried to claim her physically as one of their own, an honorary sister. My mother was proud of that honor.
Had she continued to live in her diverse home city, my mother might have taken an active part on the civil rights front of the 1960s. But as a married woman, she came to live in a small, predominantly white foothills town, where she never really fitted in. There, she kept in touch with American black culture through books, articles, television, and especially music. Our record cabinet was filled with albums by black artists—Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Ink Spots, the Platters, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. The first song I remember hearing my mother sing was “Twilight Time” by her beloved Platters. When she was happy, “Twilight Time” was my mother’s go-to song, one she sang in a lovely, full soprano echoing the tenor of Tony Williams, the group’s lead singer.
There was another African American singer my mother held in such regard this artist occupied a different degree in her pantheon, whom she seemed to see as the voice not just of an era, or a period in my mother’s youth, but as the voice of an entire people and their tragic history—Mahalia Jackson.
I remember an evening when my mother had put on a Jackson record. Out of the stereo speakers flowed “Amazing Grace”, my mother’s favorite hymn. It moved her because its author, clergyman John Newton, had been a slave trader whose religious conversion had led to his abandoning of the trade, and because my mother’s grandmother, descendant of enslavers, loved the hymn so much she wanted it sung at her funeral. But my mother revered the hymn just as much because of what Mahalia Jackson did with it.
“She sings it with her soul,” Mom said.
Jackson’s performance reminded my mother of a bit of family history.
Mom had adored her tiny, witty great-grandmother, Elizabeth Mason Lewis, who was born in 1862, daughter of a Southern man who had crossed enemy lines to fight for the North.
Through her mother, Lizzie descended from three centuries of slave-owning ancestors, from the American South to New England and stretching back to sixteenth century London. Ironically, Lizzie’s father had joined the Union Army to fight for an end to the Southern slavery he believed was wrong, and Lizzie seems to have inculcated in her own son, my great-grandfather, the notion that color lines are there to be crossed and, if possible, abolished—this notion certainly permeated everything he did and said. Perhaps this mindset was a Mason family characteristic, flowing down from a father who had risked so much for the freedom of people his family had enslaved.
Lizzie had a brother, James, who served as postmaster and justice of the peace for many years in Center Ridge, Arkansas (hence his courtesy name of Squire Mason), and was held in great respect in the town.
My mother had been told by her mother that Squire Mason must have done plenty to assist folks regardless of skin color, despite Jim Crow laws, usages peculiar to whites in his community, and real dangers even to white people for abrogating these laws and usages, because when he lay dying in 1927, something extraordinary happened. His house had porches on three sides, and the night of his death, on these porches and in the yard, gathered and sat members of the black and white community of Center Ridge, singing hymns to send Squire Mason on his journey.
I’m pretty sure that when my mother listened to Mahalia Jackson winding up buckets brimful of soul from the deepest well of her being, she was thinking of the devotion shown that night in Center Ridge. Mom grew emotional at the beauty of it. She told me she wished she could have been there with these people who had loved a member of her family so much they sat for hours singing in the darkness until an old man’s spirit had passed on to its reward.
For me, I cannot hear Mahalia Jackson without thinking of that porch, or casting thoughts further back, to other porches throughout the old South, to black women singing white children to sleep, using song to strengthen faith in a free heaven to come, to leaven toil in kitchens or fields, to screen their own children from fear.
My mother was right—you can’t listen to Mahalia Jackson without hearing soul. And I can’t hear that glorious smoky-gold voice, so equally full of pain and promise, without thinking of my mother and her yearning to be a black woman, in all its honesty, its naïveté, its compassion. The trauma of slavery leaves telling marks not just on its victims and their progeny, but also to an appreciable degree on the perpetrators and the generations that follow. Something in Mahalia Jackson’s “Amazing Grace” helped my mother feel at one with the black woman she wished she could have been, and to reach beyond her own life to that of her white ancestors, breaking ranks to stretch out a hand from among them to comfort the people they had enslaved, to say, “I am with you in your pain,” just as the voice of Mahalia reached out to my mother and reaches out to me, helping our own souls begin to heal.