By: Comrade Afeni
I can vividly recall my first encounter with the state, I was 4 years old, playing in the park near my grandmother’s home, with my 3-year-old brother, mother, and father. My brother and I had just been rescued from our grandmother’s house, who was angry with my father and decided to hold us hostage for revenge. My father devised a plan to take us out of her house through the window during one of her many naps. We executed the plan flawlessly, and once free, ran to the nearest park only blocks away. Sometime after our arrival to the park, 3 LAPD cars screech up, sirens going, guns out!
They tackle and arrest my father and mother on charges of child endangerment and kidnapping. My grandmother shows up and attempts to retrieve me and my brother from the pigs, but they refuse to release us. We are taken to the department of children and family services and would never be returned to the custody of our parents again.
As unique as my story is to me, I realized early on that it is not entirely that unique. I was born in South Central Los Angeles, California the winter of 1985 two days before Christmas. My father, a short, muscular, chocolate man, already a father of 3 boys, was ecstatic to welcome his first daughter and first child with my mother. My mother, a short, skinny, chocolate woman, already a mother of 2, was happy to be the object of someone’s attention.
Both my parents dealt with similar familial trauma. My father was raised by a single mother, and an absent or possibly dead father. He had a younger brother who died in a mysterious manner which I only found out about as an adult. His mother moved from the state of Washington to California in an attempt to give her children a better life but was soon swept up in the crack epidemic plaguing Los Angeles at the time.
My father escaped this trauma by becoming proficient in 3 things, mechanics, drinking, and women. My mother, on the other hand, was raised in what on the outside looked like “the ideal black family”. She had a mother and father, who worked and owned their home. They moved from rural town in Arkansas to urban city in California, worked steady jobs to provide for their 4 daughters and disabled son, my mother being the youngest of the girls. Being the baby was mother’s favorite role in life.
Complexion wise she was the darkest of her siblings. She was the wild child and she made sure to deliver the goods. She got into the party scene early, which meant the drug scene as well. When she met my father, she was already married and estranged from a man, who upon becoming pregnant, was forced to marry, and who was rumored to have slept with her sister.
So she left him and left the baby with her father. She is still married to this man, today, and I ask her why she won’t just divorce him and she says, “I’m his beneficiary! I’m waiting for him to die so I can get my check!” She then meets my middle sister’s father, and I don’t really know the story there, he remained in my mother’s life even after she met my father.
My mother likes to boast, that he still loves her and would take her back, but he lives in Alabama and she ain’t moving to no damn ALABAMA! By the time my mother met my father, it was like two tornadoes meeting and destroying everything in their path including each other. They bonded over their love of drinking, drugging, fighting, and loving. By this time my mother had also suffered the tragic loss of a sibling. The sister closest in age to her was murdered under mysterious circumstances. My mother said she instantly fell in love with my father, he was handsome and charismatic, so against the wishes of her father she left her second child with him and ran off with my father.
She didn’t return to her father until she was once again swollen with life and 2 black eyes. As tumultuous as the love affair between my parents was, I was keenly aware from a young age that it could be worse. I visited my paternal grandmother’s unit in the Pueblo Housing Projects, and as much fun as I had visiting, I knew I didn’t want to live there.
I also knew that things could be better because I visited my maternal grandparent’s home. I saw how my siblings lived and I ached to live like that too. I wanted my parents to stop fighting so much about things I didn’t understand. My father and mother had 3 children together, but it was the birth of my youngest brother when things began to spiral out of control.
My mother didn’t bring my baby brother home from the hospital. She came home and informed me and my brother that the baby would also be staying with granddad. All I knew was that my mother was sad, and my father was angry. When I finally met my baby brother, I was shocked, he was so fair-skinned. Whenever our father would drink too much he would make remarks about how he didn’t think it was his baby. To which my mother would say, “I’m not the ho’ in this relationship! My daddy light skin and yo’ uncle light skin”. I have asked my mother to this day if my baby brother was true “the milk man’s baby” because he often gets mistaken for Latino, and she gives me the same reply, she wasn’t the ho’!
From the moment my mother lost custody of my baby brother we were on the state’s radar. Once we were finally removed from our parent’s custody, my brother and I were lucky enough to be placed in a home together. My brother and I were devastated, we loved our parents, we were well taken care of, clean, fed, and had plenty of toys. Daddy whooped us, and momma cried a lot, but that was normal, right? We did not understand why all these white people were telling us we were so lucky to be out of that situation.
The first foster home when landed in, we showed up with nothing but fear. We were placed in Compton with an elderly black couple, who I thought we were placed with because we were bad kids. The woman had her own special brand of terror for little black children. She was an old southern woman with a huge garden in her backyard, an old pick up truck, and a house full of somebody else’s kids.
Her terror tactics included but were not limited too, making us sleep on the floor next to empty beds, making us wear our clothes multiple days in a row, making us hand wash our clothes, making us pick weeds in her garden for hours, and also whipping us every day with a switch we had to retrieve, for offenses ranging from opening the refrigerator without asking to get sand in our hair from the playground. She also hated the fact that my little brother didn’t speak to or really interacted with anyone except for me. She would often remark that if he didn’t toughen up she was gonna have to kick him out because she wasn’t raising no fa***s in her house.
She eventually made good on this promise and kicked my brother out and my entire world crumbled to pieces. I, who was attempting to make this whole transition make sense in my tiny world, up until then never allowed my situation to break my little spirit. I believed that we would see my mother and father again, and things would return back to what I perceived as normal. But when my brother was ripped away from me, and then I was told it was my fault because our closeness was “making him gay” I died inside. I didn’t even know what gay meant. I was in the 1st grade.
I went into a deep depression. Luckily for me, my behavior alarmed my school teacher and she reported it to DCFS. My social worker met with me in school and I informed her that if she didn’t bring my brother back that I was going to kill myself. The social worker asked how I would even do a thing like that, to which I replied, “ I will run out into traffic”. She could tell I was serious and said she would do what she could to get us back together.
My brother had been placed with a white couple, who instantly fell in love with him. On our first court date together since our separation, I remember seeing my little brother all dressed up in what looked like a cowboy outfit. I’m talking dungarees, cowboy hat, cowboy boots with spurs! I was like, what did they do to my brother! My brother speaks very fondly of this short time he spent with the very nice, country, white folk, who recognized my brother’s trauma and tried to start some kind of healing. He said as nice as they were, he wouldn’t leave his sister for no white people any day! The courts decided that our parents still were not fit to have custody of us. Our paternal grandmother was unfit and our maternal grandparents had no room for us. So we were placed in yet another foster home.
As vivid as the traumatic memories of my life are, so too are the triumphant ones. The first time I ever felt like I was home was when I met the woman who would change my life forever. Upon meeting this larger than life, country-bred, but city wise, single black mom, I understood why everyone called her Big Momma. The first words out of her mouth meeting us, was how beautiful and chocolate we were, and how she couldn’t wait to fatten us up, because we were too skinny for her liking. She informed us that she was now, our Momma and that we could call her Momma or nothing at all. She showed us to our rooms and promised us that she would not treat us any different than the children she pushed out, which I didn’t entirely understand. But she kept that promise. I was 8 and my brother was 7 and on that day we became her babies.
I am entirely indebted to this woman who gave me my first taste of revolutionary consciousness. She spent her entire adult life taking care of other people’s children. She would babysit for neighborhood women who were lost and finding their way, she became a foster parent entirely by accident. She was keeping some kids for a friend and the friend never returned, the state came to take the children away and she refused to let them go, so they told her she would have to get a license to do something she had been doing her whole life. Which she always found utterly absurd. She always took in the difficult cases, the babies who were classified as drug addicts and problematic. She rented a large house in South Central Los Angeles and took in as many children as the state would allow. She constantly talked about how crooked the state was and how white people were not to be trusted. She didn’t trust anybody who owned businesses in our neighborhood but didn’t live in it, so some corner stores were off-limits to us.
She adored our Mexican neighbors and made me learn Spanish so that I could teach her how to tell one of our Mexican neighbors, “stop hitting your wife while she’s pregnant”! She was the Hood Mom. Everyone who knew her respected and loved her. In the traditions of all Big Mommas, she was a phenomenal cook and a little bit clairvoyant. She knew what to say and when to say. She wasn’t without her contradictions though, she loved to drink, smoke cigarettes, and gamble.
Taught me things like I am a woman so I must know how to take care of myself and everybody else, and then my brother’s things like you don’t have to worry about taking care of yourself, because you can always find a woman to do it for you. I told my cousin who she took into our home, that she could like girls all she wanted but she couldn’t be no dike! I adored this woman. To me, she was a literal angel. I wasn’t ready for her brand of honesty at such a young age. She tried to prepare me early like she knew her time was limited. She didn’t sugar coat shit, as she would say.
We talked about everything. She never let us keep things inside, she said that’s how you get sick and die. She helped me understand that what happened to my parents was never my fault, and hell it wasn’t even their fault, they were sick and instead of the state helping them, the state was helping themselves by locking my parents up. She taught me that the state owed me, and that it was my job to get everything I am owed. I was to go to school because the state would pay for that, go to the doctor, (but don’t take their meds!) because the state pays. She said she was my mother and the state was my no damn good ass daddy. I didn’t understand it, but I followed her wishes. She was open and honest about sex and sexuality, and felt like honesty was the only policy. When we all reached puberty age, she gave us condoms, and told us, “Better to know what you are doing before you do it!” When I left off to college, she told me how proud of me she was that the ONLY thing I could do to disappoint her, was to come home married to a white man or be a lesbian. Many of the things my mother tried to teach me, I couldn’t even understand at the time, I just chucked it up to her being older, country, and out of touch. Boy was I wrong, I look back now and realize that she was a little ahead of her time. She was all about community, and she recognized systematic racism, and worked against it. She never tried to keep me and my brother away from our biological family. She said she knew my father had a bunch of sons and didn’t want me to grow up and accidently date one because LA is so small!
When she realized that my maternal grandfather who had 3 of my siblings, lived only 5 blocks away she insisted that we spent as much time with them as possible. She never got a chance to see that her messages finally penetrated my psyche, she passed of lung cancer during my first year of college. I later found out from my birth mother that Big momma kept tabs on her and always helped her out whenever she could. She would also make sure my mother was clean enough to visit with us at least once a year. She didn’t let the state decide when a parent should be able to see their child. She was never able to convince my father that it was okay for him to come around, which I later found out he truly regretted. Now that I am a mother and a wife I am forced to unpack all this State induced trauma because I see the same traps being set for me and my family.
I don’t have my big momma anymore and now have decided to take up the role myself. I do my best to befriend my neighbors and smile at every black person I see.
I’ve joined a black hammer and I know my big momma would be so proud. She just wanted us to take care of each other, create families where there are none, and recognize the greatness of our people and that’s just what we plan to do. I take the lessons she taught me and pass them down to my children, with much more understanding and a little more care. One of the first things you learn as a colonized person is that while the details of our stories differ, there is always a common theme; Trauma at the hands of the state. I was lucky, I was rescued by that one colonized person who just refused to let the bull-Ish fly, and thank goodness for her because that is how revolutionaries are birthed.