Part 1: The Book
Fair warning – this reflection has some smoke and a healthy serving of hot tea in it. I mean if we are going to talk little fires, the smoke and boiling tea had to be here. Anyway, here goes…Reading Little Fires Everywhere hit nerves I didn’t even realize were still exposed. There are so many themes that I can relate to in this collection of stories. I was the only child my mom raised from birth to adulthood. She moved around a lot while I was growing up to find better opportunities, better schools, sometimes just better windows. For much of that time, it was just me and her. Then I had my first child in 1998 right when Mia and Pearl were rolling into Shaker Heights. I had been from Oxford to Haiti carrying this baby and when it was time to birth her I was elated. I have snapshots of memories from the early days.
Once at a U.S. consulate office in Port-Au-Prince, a woman yelled at me for placing my daughter in her car seat on a table when I was trying to complete some forms. There were no empty chairs and the floor seemed way too far from my face. The woman shouted “get that baby off the table.” She rolled her eyes and looked sideways at me when I stepped up to the window to get my daughter’s papers in order so that I could go home to the U.S. with her. I cried that night. Undocumented has not meant the same thing to me since.
Once at our home away from home in Haiti a group of Christians didn’t want me to lead them in prayer. I didn’t even know it was because I was a sinnnnnner…I mean single mother. I led the rest of my expat and Haitian friends in prayer and we listened to Lauryn Hill in the background. Once at a train station in South Jersey a man asked me how old I was when he spotted the baby in her fancy Swiss backpack carrier. When I told him his face went from disgusted to suspicious and he said “you look like you’re twelve.” I remember that I smiled. Smiling always seemed to be what I was supposed to do when older men barked commands and questions at me. In fact, a lot of them had actually barked “smile.”
Everyone told me having a baby by myself was going to be hard. No one told me the hardest part would be the way people treated me. Motherhood had somehow rendered me subhuman. That wasn’t how it had worked for the White women I saw having babies. I knew I wasn’t White. But I didn’t really know like I know now. Like Bebe Chow knows now.
Shortly after I moved back to the U.S. with my infant, I settled in Pittsburgh which is close to Cleveland and Shaker Heights. I think I understand the cultural landscape that Shaker Heights occupies. The wealthy White woman I had been working for in Haiti had a granddaughter who lived in Shaker Heights. We would get letters from her about her husband. My boss would say “it was a great big wedding; he is a great guy.” And about their kids, a baby and then another baby “oh the little darlings.” Someone was a doctor and someone was a lawyer. Their life sounded like what I expected life would be like when I decided to move to Pittsburgh. It wasn’t. I had a handful of friends in Pittsburgh who I had made through connections in college and working in Haiti. They were mostly (probably all) White people. I thought their homes in Highland Park and Squirrel Hill were the homes everyone had.
I grew up in Newark, NJ. I had lived in places that were not like these homes. I knew everyone didn’t live like that. But I didn’t really know like I found out eventually. I got jobs and, despite not wanting to ask, child support. I was told that I qualified for a number of acronym programs and dismissed them all. I declared that I’d rather work another shift and ask my mom for help than take what I thought of as welfare. I thought I knew what welfare was. I didn’t.
I worked at a company founded by two White women. This company existed almost exclusively on “development” work. People paid these women to raise money for charities and non-profit organizations. And they paid them well. My bosses lived lavish lifestyles doing things like flying to Palm Beach for parties and getting catering for their weekend events. They had maids and nannies. They had regular expensive hair and nail appointments. They had husbands who worked at finance and energy companies that would get bailouts or government assistance for years and bankroll the steady supply of SUVs I watched roll up to work each day. They paid me a low wage that made it impossible for me to get a car that ran for longer than a few days at a time without needing a mechanic. They had me go on the state health insurance plan and paid me the money for it separately – cheaper that way. They lived in expensive homes and went to a jeweler called Henne’s for fun at lunch time. I was no good at being their secretary. They berated me when the bus dropped me off late, when I didn’t know what the suffix “pvt” meant on roads where they expected me to deliver Christmas cookies to their friends, when I didn’t want to live in places where I didn’t see houses like the ones in Highland Park, and when I didn’t know how to pay bills online. I finally moved on and got a better job. It was good for all of us. Maybe they had tried their best with me. Maybe they did all they could with who I was then.
When I left they gifted me a painting that I loved. I may be salty with them about a lot of other things but Fritzner Alphonse’s woman with a letter has seen me through a lot of rough times including that late 90s raising a baby in Pittsburgh one. One woman I knew here made me feel like I was being uppity for wanting to hang that painting in a house of my own and then turned right around and found her grown daughter a beautiful home. I did not have a clue what welfare really was. I thought for sure I needed to do the respectable thing: find a man and get married. I didn’t know I was wrong there either. But that’s a story for another post. Today I am fortunate enough to have a home where that painting hangs. I’m grateful.
As I read Little Fires Everywhere, I was fascinated by Mia. She was another woman with a letter. So many times people have looked at that painting and asked “is that you?” I say no and explain that the painting is likely older than I am. I think she is more Mia Warren than she is me. But truth be told, she is me, too. At 22, slight from nursing a baby, being incredibly stressed and probably a little depressed, I too, wanted to be free and move around enjoying all life had to offer with my precious little girl. But I craved acceptance and I thought if I just settled down, got religion, a better job, that husband, then I would be happy. I wish I would have met Mia then. I turned page after page of this book wanting so much more of Mia and realizing that my wanting was for me. Every image of frizzy hair piled on her head and trips she made to thrift stores struck me as exactly what I should have been doing in 1998, 1999, and 2000. 20 years later, I am reading about her and captivated in a way that no other character in the book commands. Well maybe Mal and Pauline but… Mia is extraordinary. She is completely antithetical to so many Black woman single mom stereotypes. She… is… Black… right? I haven’t watched the series yet but I assumed Kerry Washington agreed to portray her because somewhere along the way we decided that Mia is a Black woman. I’m sure it is spelled out for me in paragraphs that just got lost in my memory. I’m sure she mentions the firebombing the first Black family in Shaker experienced when they moved there and that is how I knew. But I didn’t really know.
So, this time I took what I didn’t know and I made a list. I call it my “More of Mia” list. Damon Young has a list of questions he wrote while he was in the midst of watching the tv series. I have read those but I have not read the answers he got by the time it was done. I figure I’ll watch the show and then read them. But, I have questions, too. Should I watch the show to get my answers? Or should I ask the incredible network of Black women in Pittsburgh and beyond who have held me up and together when I didn’t know I needed it. There are a few women of other backgrounds who did this too. I am not dismissing their contributions. But from my mom to my aunties from the day care workers who stayed the extra 10 minutes while I made the mad dash to pick up my daughter to the Haitian women who taught me to nurse her properly, and the ones shopping at Jamil’s Global Village to feel beautiful…these women all had letters of their own. I want to know Mia Warren and read the letter in her hand especially for them. Here is my list.
- How did her parents come to live in Bethel Park? Did they know any other Black families there?
- Was Mr. Wilkinson familiar with Teenie Harris? Did he show Mia any of the legendary one-shot images?
- How did she wrestle with the history of Black women being used to bear children and labor for the American dream?
- Does she love Delphine Fawundu like I do? In The Face of History definitely seems like something Mia would love
- How does she get Pearl her dolls? Are dolls a thing in their household?
- Mrs. Wright says Mia was such a “woolgatherer” as a baby. Do Black folks mean the same thing other folks do when they say this word?
- What colleges does she want to take Pearl to visit? Can I ride along for the Sarah Lawrence tour?
- Essence, Black Hair, or Jet? Which magazine does Mia buy faithfully so Pearl can see us?
- Where does she keep her copy of Viewfinders:Black Women Photographers? Not the one she shows to Black girls who come by the house to see if Pearl can step or jump double dutch with them. The copy she keeps “up” so she can pour a glass of something like Old Grand-Dad or Southern Comfort and listen to Sade while she finds something else she hadn’t noticed the last time she sat with the book. A chronicle of one hundred years of works and biographies of Black women photographers must be something special to Mia.
- Is Anita her Ed Lim? I mean the person who fights for her when she needs it most, who doesn’t care about stereotype threat, who tells her she doesn’t have to be de-sexualized, over industrious, mechanical or managerial to be worthy of love and respect…is it Anita? I need to know who I call when Mia needs someone to be strong for her. I need to know who her Ed Lim is.
I love Mia’s silhouette. Like so many of the things about my life as a Black mother, I feel like I know it well. The image of her holding Pearl in that museum is an outline; a snapshot from a specific moment in her life and it is beautiful. But, I want more and like so many things, I realize that the silhouette is not actually knowing. Though I suppose, like tales of Highland Park houses and Walnut Street welfare, I’ll learn eventually. I want to read the letter in her hand. Maybe Little Fires Everywhere actually just prompted me to open the letter I have been carrying around all these years like that woman in the Alphonse painting and finally read my own life.
Coming soon Part 2: The TV Series