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[579] Mama’s Child – Joan Steinau Lester


” God, I was sick and tired of having to explain my racial background all the time. Anyway, that boy kept eyeing me. I didn’t know what that meant: Could he suddenly turn threatening or was he only curious? Mama said people stared because I was beautiful, and she acted as though I should enjoy it, or at least ignore it. She had no idea what it was like when I could see men’s eyes get so weird. ” (Part I, Ch.4, p.42)

Mama’s Child tells the story of Elizabeth O’Leary, who travels to the south as a civil rights worker and falls in love with an African American activist and musician, Solomon Jordan. The two move to Berkeley and have two children, Che and Ruby. Their difference in political perspective, and Elizabeth’s catch-up in the burgeoning women’s movement eventually cause their split. The divorce not only forces Ruby to confront her racial identity, it also leads to deeply entrenched conflicts between her and her white mother.

The same way that households of an earlier generation spied Reds under every bed, I became adept at spotting the subtle prejudice lurking in the most trivial social encounter. Traces of discrimination, I learned, could be detected in a mere stance. (Part II, Ch.12, p.166)

Mother and daughter take turn on the narrative that spans over 25 years from 1978 to 2005. Ruby’s conflict with her mother is far more than the paltry grievances in which Elizabeth forgot to pick her up after hockey practice. The issue is more rooted in identity: How black is she? How white is she? When Ruby decides she belongs more to her black father than white mother, she is determined to wash away her “whiteness” and get back to her black root. Her aunt, a social worker, also tries to file for her custody. The family struggles to understand and define who they are and what they mean to one another.

Ruby and I share a bond that can never be broken, even if I never see her face again. ” (Part II, Ch.14, p.232)

Ruby feels the black of a black role model in her life. She sees her mother’s kindness and solicitude for black rights a show. She is angry that her mother is treating her like a colored accessory, showing her off “like a safari trophy.” The ensuing tensions that build between her and Elizabeth culminate in Ruby moving east and cutting her mother out of her life. It’s not until she becomes a wife and mother herself that Ruby understands the many ways her mother’s love transcends race and questions of identity.

Mama Child is a page-turner. Lester draws on her background as a mother of two biracial children growing up in Oakland. The novel is sentimental but illuminating, and most importantly, showing how one who uses race to filter the everyday world risks becoming a distorted human being. Ruby is searching herself, yet she continues and refines the cruelty their parents and the general racist society taught her from birth. Elizabeth also is searching herself—for that freedom of spirit that is undefined by parents, lovers, spouse, or children. This book really shows how a family struggles for intimacy across the great divide of their backgrounds and the politics of their time.

309 pp. Simon and Schuster. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


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