‘Better to not know what hanged me.’ A preview of Cassandra Lane’s poignant, potent and exquisitely crafted forthcoming memoir, discovering her mysterious and painful family past and reflecting on the complexity of what it means to be a Black mother today, with an introduction by Cave Canem poet F. Douglas Brown.
Poet Yusef Komunyakaa asks, “When we witness something, are we responsible for what we witness?” WE ARE BRIDGES answers “yes” on every page Cassandra Lane has crafted. This memoir considers all that feeds or fails to feed motherhood. Throughout, Lane weaves personal and historical geographies, lineages, upbringings and upheavals into a complete tapestry validating her glorious existence as a Black mother. Early on she tells readers, “The more folks bury a thing, the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.” Here, the crucial undertaking makes itself known because too often both the trauma and joy of Black parenting are overlooked, misunderstood and stereotyped. “Trauma” and “joy” are not buzzwords for reflection in Lane’s hands. This is not whining, but rather “plant[ing] dynamite.” Lane’s finger, aimed at herself, digs her introspection so deep, that what becomes devastated are all the false notions that limit and confound Blackness, growth, parenting. WE ARE BRIDGES is Lane’s lifelong walk with responsibility, with risk, and most of all—with love. I can’t help but conjure the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “the mother” which concludes, “Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you/All.”
WE ARE BRIDGES reminds readers that motherhood is never merely witnessing, but a constant testimony of love. And what we beget into this world, what we truly love, is forever linked to a history of liberation.—F. Douglas Brown, author of ICON and Zero to Three, winner of the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
A memory (what feels like a memory) comes to me:
A white boy is writing his name—Lloyd—and mine on a blackboard, drawing a line between us. The chalk squeaks and strains against the board as the boy creates another long vertical line—his hangman’s pole—and a series of short blank lines beneath it. He turns to me with a sneer and the most difficult phrase he can fathom locked in his head, which is covered with silvery blond hair and filled with tricks.
We are in second grade, and every year, we stand next to each other when it’s time to line up in alphabetical order. A veil of camaraderie has emerged from this mash-up, but we are not really friends.
I sit in the middle row surrounded by vacant desks, praying that my brain will fill in all the blanks of Lloyd’s person, place, or thing.
I glance out the window where the rest of our classmates are running and squealing with delight, their faces glowing with sweat. Why have I chosen to spend my recess in a cold, quiet classroom filled with the grin stretching across Lloyd’s face and the anxiety over losing pinching at my chest?
I call out the letter first because it seems to be a staple ingredient of most words, but there is no r, and there is not even a t—none of the usual standbys apply. Letter by letter, the boy hangs my errors, drawing in the body parts of the little stick person: head first, then neck, then right arm. If this boy were just a teeny bit nice, he’d give me facial features and fingers; he’d bless me with a triangle skirt, endowing me with more time.
I am stuck. I run out of the safe consonants and vowels. I feel caged and can sense my stomach sinking. Half of my stick body dangles on the edge of the pole as my opponent greedily waits to shout out my defeat.
I sit frozen in my bone-hard seat, feeling myself diminishing, centimeter by centimeter. The line extending from the expressionless, carved-out head on the blackboard is a vein in my neck.
But how was I losing? How was I losing to this boy—a C student? I was the spelling bee champion. Our teacher, Mrs. Crain, had called me “smart,” and her praise had been like gold.
“Where’s Miss Spelling Bee now?” Lloyd teases as, time after time, he fills my stick body in on the chalked gurney.
“Hung!” he rings. I picture a little silver bell dangling at the back of his throat.
The word echoes through the room. Fear and saliva rise in my throat.
The school bell rings. The other kids begin to trickle back into the classroom, moist and happy. Lloyd does not offer the answer to his puzzle, and I do not ask.
Better to not know what hanged me.
These ghosts of memories are scattered across the landscape of my childhood recollections, much of them inseparable from my imagination and interpretations. Unbeknownst to Lloyd and me, we were players in a game much bigger than us. Unlike our parents, our only public school option was the integrated school. Our teacher was black. My mother’s high school had not
integrated until the year after she left, in 1970.
I do not know if Lloyd’s parents had taught him about segregation, but already, I knew my place. I was fighting against this unspoken yet pervasive contract. I was fighting, as stealthily and stubbornly as it was. Through the sheer power of my supposed brilliance in those early grade school years, I was attempting to break out of the mold that had been set for me. I was smart, they said, my family and Mrs. Crain, but they were all black, and Lloyd had proven them wrong. If I couldn’t hold my brain up as a prize to say, Look, I am more than you say, what good was I?
Marcus and I spoke often about our childhood moments of feeling devalued, and we swore to shower our child with love and affirmations, impenetrable shields from the mental arrows that would one day come, long before we had to fear the path of bullets.
This muscle of building up a child was already formed in Marcus. I had witnessed him pumping up his older sons and trying to infuse them with the power of who they could be, even when they were slipping and drawn to the streets that had once swallowed him. Marcus had not had a father to guide him, so he was teaching himself how to gift fatherhood to his flesh and blood.
I was rushing against time to locate and pick up all my missing parts, the fragments of which I had not felt the need to really salvage because I had not had the responsibility of young black life under my hands.
I was woefully unprepared.
“I-PP-I-SS-I-SS-I-M!” We would sing-spell the state backward as children. Backward Mississippi. I didn’t know yet that Mississippi was one of my motherlands. I didn’t know yet that someone in our bloodline had been lynched in one of its backwoods. But I believe my body knew.
However, even more than early sensations and explorations, my pregnancy boomeranged me back to my family and our past. The idea of carrying a child to full term, of trying to see with my mind’s eye each group of embryonic cells forming beneath my own, ignited awe and joy within me at the same time that it reignited an old preoccupation: Who were our people? Who were we before Grandma Mary settled in Louisiana? I needed to know—for my child. I had been in Los Angeles for five years, but for the first time, the physical distance from my family mattered. Where the two thousand miles separating us had once felt like freedom, now with new family blood forming inside me, I felt untethered and worlds away from my family and our ancestral home in Louisiana; from my now-dead grandparents, my mother’s parents, Grandmama Avis and Papa Houston; and from Houston’s mother, Grandma Mary, the relative who, in many ways, represents the origin of our family history, our oldest, most visceral connection to history, since most things—other relatives’ names, our ancestry, gravesites—were unknown.
My scant genealogical knowledge stretched back only three generations, past my own parents and grandparents, landing squarely in the grotesque history of my great-grandparents, Mary Magdalene Magee (or McGee—I have seen both spellings in family bibles), and her one true love: Burt Bridges, the father of her only child, Houston, who birthed a mini nation. Burt and Mary’s story is a tale of young love, gestation, and lynching. While Mary was likely still pregnant with Houston, Burt had been lynched in Mississippi in 1904. Many in our family did not know about this legacy. I did not want my child to be likewise blind to it—and to its lasting impacts.
WE ARE BRIDGES (Feminist Press, April 2021) excerpted with permission from the author and publisher
Cassandra Lane is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA from Antioch University LA. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times’ Conception series, the Times-Picayune, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Expressing Motherhood and elsewhere. She is managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine and formerly served on the board of the AROHO Foundation. WE ARE BRIDGES: A Memoir (Feminist Press, April 2021) is her first book title.
Author photo credit: Daniel Rarela