Miss Mary Mack and African American Cultural Survival

by Rev. Tamara E. Lewis

African American girls in America grow up singing jingles and playing hand-clap games. It’s like an unwritten rule. From the ghettoes to the suburbs, little brown girls in ponytails and bobby socks sing and chant as a way to communicate, play, and have fun. This impulse is just a manifestation of any African based culture--the urge to be oral, to shout, sing, speak feelings and emotions. When I was a little girl growing up in the suburbs, we sang songs like "Miss Mary Mack," but though we possessed some sort of privilege we had no sense we were living better than other folks. We were singing that jingle with every other black girl in America, and we took on a common identity with all our little black sisters, those in the projects, those in the hood. We all became, in a sense, Miss Mack. We were dressed in black, with silver buttons down our backs. And that unity of identity can not be over-emphasized because we truly became Miss Mary in the collectivity. She was us, and we were her--sisters, cousins, friends, individuals melding into one. Miss Mack had attitude, just like us. And she was too cute, just like us. When she walked around in that black dress with silver buttons, all of nine or ten years old, it was a definite strut. We strutted just like her. We were her, going to ask our mother for fifteen cents. We liked games, so we definitely wanted to see something like an elephant jumping over a fence. And of course, we were very good at telling stories so we would repeat with assurance that the elephant never came back until the Fourth of July. We liked to whisper secrets and tell things to our friends-we liked to pass things on. Invariably, the saying went, "Well, I heard," or "Somebody said," and so on.

But it was the oral game itself--the way we said ‘back, back, back’ and ‘black, black, black’--it was the repetition, the repeating and the rhyming that made the game so fun. So it was more than the story itself, it was the beat and meter, and the way the words sounded, that kept the song going. For while words are important, it is the HOW of a word, how it is spoken, the phrasing, tone, and flow that can determine meaning and impact. This is how we talked-we rhymed, we clapped. It’s natural how genres like rap and hip-hop could develop out of a longstanding practice of communication. Black folks have been doing that for years.

But when we went to school our teachers did not teach us jingles like "Miss Mary Mack." There were some simple songs with rhythm and melody like ‘ABC’ and others. But our primary mode of communication and learning--oral with beat, rhythm, and hand clapping, was ignored. Save that for the playground. We were taught in traditional, Euro, Western (whatever you want to call it) style of learning. Individuality was the focus-a kind of abstract, spatial sort of learning with no rhythm to set things in place. We became these separate entities floating through space trying to catch hold of something. Community was not emphasized; if you were in a group, okay, but learning happened in a separate mind, being, soul. Gone was the sense of communal identity where we shared knowledge and being. Instead, we were encouraged to compete against all those different little selves, our classmates. Mary Mack was torn apart. Those of us who were able to convert adequately to this mind-set and began to think and function in the new way wound up doing much better in school. We typically had parents or other role models who were adept at this style of communication and they helped us to make the transition. Others weren’t so fortunate, and got lost in the cross-fire, walking the fence of mis-communication, speaking another language, using all the old signs, and having no adequate translator.

It is a fact today that many children in urban settings do not prize academic progress. That seems very unsettling until we realize that the paradigm in which academic learning is conveyed runs antithetical to the modes of learning and communication these children are taught at home and in the community. Moreover, not only is the formal teaching system vastly different from familiar styles of communication, but there is also an entrenched suspicion towards anything white, Euro--or belonging to the establishment. It is as if people suspect that they will become brainwashed. They fear turning into a sell-out, an ‘uncle Tom,’ to use an old term. There is an underlying anger in our communities, an anger that is manifested in different ways and different times. This anger is directed towards a system and a society that has never really made restitution for its sins against African Americans and continues everyday to perpetuate that very same evil, in a multiplicity of systemic ways, against their descendants. So many African Americans remain angry. This anger passes down to generation after generation. Anger burrows deep within, seething and venomous, and incapable of being directed at its true source. But it gets out anyway, unleashing itself on the nearest target. What so-called experts have been calling ‘black on black crime’ is just anger at the system, history, and the NOW perpetuated on the other brother because when you’re locked up in the ghetto it’s hard to shoot up the White House.

Yet it’s this very system--the 'white system' that offers knowledge and learning. And folks who are angry don’t want anything the system has to offer. After all, it was the system that enslaved the ancestors, and kept the people in segregation, poverty, and misery. It was the system that unleashed fire hoses and brutal cops and drugs into the neighborhoods. The system, the system, everything that stands for the system---red, white, and blue, along with apple pie and hot dogs--- translates into bowing down to study the history and mathematics and algebra books produced by the system. But who wants the system? Refusing to study, refraining from learning the teachings of ‘the man’ is an implicit act of rebellion. It is subtle, and self-destructive, but those steeped in the essence of an African worldview know correctly that when anybody suffers, everybody loses. Destroying oneself is one way of destroying the whole. It is as if what is now being referred to as the ‘underclass’ is saying, "If you refuse to acknowledge me, my pain, and my reality, I will turn away from you and destroy myself. I’ll get back at you by rejecting you and hurting me. In the long run, you’ll suffer." It seems to be working, because the explosion of murder massacres, sex and violence, and drug use in white suburbia has not gone without notice. The ills of one part of society can not remain contained. They inevitably spill over. What is amazing is society’s inability to recognize a pattern Malcolm X once described as "chickens coming home to roost."

A gentleman once told me that a mutual friend of ours, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. candidate, had ‘co-opted.’ I vehemently disagreed. I was proud of our friend, a man who had come up from the ghettoes and slums of New York to attend and graduate from one of the most prestigious schools in the country only to go on and pursue doctoral work. How could this gentleman make such a degrading comment--this gentleman, who had never graduated from college? I attributed his rudeness to jealousy and envy, a brutal reminder that our friend had managed to do what he apparently could not. But then as now I knew he was really talking about the fact that African Americans have to learn to work within the system in order to succeed, to talk the talk and walk the walk. This necessity stems from the historical negation by the European and Euro-American intelligentsia of African culture and history. And what this gentleman was saying that for the most part, in order for African American professionals and intellectuals to ‘make it,’ it is necessary to destroy (or at least negate) part of yourself, take on that which is not yours, and detach from one’s ‘true’ self in order to become immersed in settings which downplay one’s primary mode of being. Many of us have tried to do just that, with the justifying rubric of becoming bi-cultural? (Is that what it should be called, ‘cultural’? If not, how does one define a mode of being, the very being of being, the stuff, that is, behind each breath and every blink, deeper than melanin or hair root or brain cell? And to detach from this mode of being may not be so challenging or threatening if to do so meant not to adapt a paradigmatic interpretation of reality that denigrates and holds in suspicion the very essence of your essence). If only we could swing the pendulum as if we really were bi-lingual, capable of speaking two languages, a different one for a different context and not cast one’s background and heritage into the abyss of ignorance or non-culture in order to do so! What does it mean to speak the very language of the people and possess the very names of the people that enslaved, raped, and destroyed your grandmother and grandfather? What if descendants of the Holocaust were expected to learn old Nazi handshakes and code words just to go to school or get a job? Over one hundred years ago Dubois talked about the African American having two selves, but how can one erase the horror of the past while still living in it? And how can one continue to speak the language of the past while trying to survive the dirty present and not destroy the future? For there is no future unless we heal from the past. As one young black inmate said, "We were dead before our fathers were born."

Those of us who do ‘succeed’ try to manage the hypocrisy of living in the enemy’s territory and smiling in the master’s face. We get goodies--nice salaries and cars and stuff. We forgive. But are we called to forgive while we are still being raped or after the fact? When do we try to get the beast off our backs, knock him down, chain him, then forgive him? For when we play the game, are we not pseudo-slaves? Are we not co-opting? Do we defeat progress when we work and strive to uplift and maintain the very foundation of a worldview and culture that destroyed our history while continuing to cheapen the legacy we have managed to maintain? What is the price for integrity? How do we coast through the valley to figure out what integrity is in this context? Something deep inside nags at us, after we finish the work day, enjoy the vacation, put down the DVD player, step out of the Jacuzzi, take off the baguettes and gold jewelry and close our eyes. Something deep inside nags and rages. How often d o we co-opt the system every time an African American man or woman is arrested and imprisoned for petty charges and trumped up offenses, when they were only trying to survive in a world that leaves them no other choices? What are we doing to support those in the trenches, those who cry out with righteous indignation over the abuse of our people from jail cells and street corners? Do we hear their cries or have we become blinded by societal acceptance, however minimal? Does their suffering not affect us? And what of those who weep, just like the prophet Jeremiah, for the slain in our midst, while our leaders say "peace, peace, when there is no peace?" Jesus was lynched because he bucked up against a system that denied the reality of his people. He continued to speak the language and talk in the rhythms of his culture because he understood historical oppression and systemic abuse. He affirmed the legacy of his culture, refusing to speak the King’s English, refusing to sell out to the enemy because he would not help the oppressors oppress him. Were those who sponsored his killing like us, willing to sacrifice communal justice and integrity for supposed security and rank and education? Are we aiding in our own oppression or are we fighting for our liberation in the way we live our lives? Will the continued destruction of our communities and the increasing numbers of our people in prisons cause us to wake up? If not, how do we face our God and our children? What price success?

Miss Mary Mack and African American Cultural Survival by Rev. Tamara E. Lewis

© Copyright 2001. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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