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Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Mother, Dorothy Brooks Primus ( Part II)

 Dorothy Primus was born in 1931 in Nashville, TN. She grew up in a middle class household where her dad ( Frederick Brooks) was a railroad worker. In the forties for a Colored Person, a railroad worker was an enviable job, because it was steady work, and it had great benefits. (Another example would be employment at the post office during that era, now-- not so much) My maternal grandmother, Ellen Brooks, I never met, but she was a housewife and quiet. Mom had two sisters, and was considered beautiful. As a young girl she was a majorette, played classical and blues piano and represented her schools via beauty titles. Beauty Pageants are really big in the American South. (Witness the Honey Boo Boo reality show phenomenon on TLC). Mom attended Pearl High School in Nashville, TN.

In school my mother was picked on because of her long hair that cascaded down her back. She said that after school my grandmother would chastise her. Mom was reprimanded because the girls did Mom's hair in a different style than Grandma sent her to school.

 However, other girls would then taunt her and call Mom "Horse Hair". So on one hand the girls were praising her hair, and on the other, her classmates would say cruel things about her. Some of my readers might have friends and  family members who have a multi-racial or "ambiguious" appearance. They ultimately have the same painful story of someone staring at them intently, taking in their features, examining their hair texture. Usually an insensitive remark or back-handed compliment follows.

The taunting and drama also reminds me of Spike Lee's 1988 film,  School Daze, where at a HBCU intra-racism was explored by the "Jiggaboos" vs the "Wannabees". This theme was one of many themes explored in this motion picture. Spike Lee intentionally separated the cast members to create tension on the movie set.  Famous actors in School Daze included  Laurence Fishbourne, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Jasmine Guy, and Tisha Campbell Martin.

Dorothy Primus was also light skinned which confounded her problems. Students would accuse her of thinking that she was better than them. The intra-racism coupled with favoritism was a source of contention for my mom. She really was focused on her education, and graduated from high school early with the intention of majoring in business education at Tennessee State University. Mom was 5"7", (5'7'' and up is considered tall for females)  had a great figure, and scores of folks urging her to run for Miss Tennessee State. Her dispostion was mild mannered and Mom was a typical southern gal.

Mom in her late teens.

My mother had broad African features, but also almond shaped eyes. She met my dad, Montford Point Marine, Clifford Primus, as a college freshman at TSU. Dad is eight years older than my mom and had just transferred from Fisk University. They would joke about their courtship, and how my mom poured her alcoholic drink in a plant when he wasn't looking. Mom was trying to impress my dad and appear cosmopolitan. My parents often talked about all the happening spots in Nashville, and my mother's various relatives that lived in nearby Thompson Station.

Source: Black

The two of them would share with me the fact that the African Students that attended schools in Nashville were not subject to segregation. Africans were treated better than American Blacks because they were foreign. The aforementioned "Pretty Willie" from the previous post decided to don a head turban and pretend that he was an African student. He was able to sit in lower level of the segregated movie theater with the white patrons instead of the upper level balcony seats where the colored folks had to sit. Dad said he and his classmates pelted "Pretty Willie", faux Africans and actual Africans with spitballs in protest. Additionally, Black college students who were "passing" occupied seats in the whites only section. They too, received spitballs from their darker skinned college classmates.

Dad explained that while at Fisk, the first dark skinned Miss Fisk, was nominated. Her name was Florence Brocheau and a segment of veterans helped her get nominated. Many of the students that attended Fisk were descendents of mixed race unions from slavery. Fisk was founded after manumission by an official from the Tennesse Freedmen's Bureau. The school's objective was to provide educational opportunities for former slaves. W.E. B. Dubois, an alumni/ faculty member at Fisk and founder of The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has a famous quote:

 "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the color line." 

  Clifford and Dorothy Primus
Source: Primus Family

I had a maternal great Aunt Bessie, a domestic, who worked for a wealthy white family. Aunt Bessie always walked around with her large purse. Aunt Bessie carried her purse like the commedienne Sheryl Underwood from CBS's "The Talk" did during her comedy sets. Aunt Bessie and her husband Clem resided waaay in the back of her employers' property. They lived in the slave, I mean, "the help" quarters.

Whenever Dad would visit Aunt Bessie's employers Dad would affect an antebellum Negro servant accent, and peppered his speech with lots of "yessums" and "ma'm"s. He would clown around and get a country ham out of his Academy Award winning performance, and then laugh at their expense. The truth of the matter is that my father is a militant person; he is the type of person that will look around a business establishment and demand, "How come you don't have any black people working here?!" He then would watch the individual turn beet red and hem and haw. Eventually a person of color would be hired.

 It turns out that in my mom's youth that she was a  "playmate" for the daughter of Aunt Bessie's employer. The little girl had to be referred to as "Miss Kitty", due to post-slavery southern conventions. Mom was rewarded with a truckload of clothing being a friend for this little girl. "Miss Kitty" and my mom were two children roughly the same age. One child was given a title in front of her name because of her race and socio-economic status.

My folks relocated to Hartford, CT and were married in June of 1949. They had a daughter and then seven years later a son. Ten years later Clifford and Dorothy had fraternal twins, one of them being me. Even though my mom lived in New England for over sixty years, she never lost her Nashville accent. She was unassuming, and was not materialistic. Degrees did not impress her. Greek Letters or the latest designer hand bags did nothing for her.  She would talk to everyone, and never looked down on people because of their income.

Dorothy Primus was a member of Jehovah's Witness for fifty one years. She knew her bible and whenever she used to talk about her spirituality she was peaceful and evolved into Fluent Scholar Mode. At age 34 she developed rheumatoid arthritis in her hands. She worked for the state of Connecticut, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and went in every day.  I never recalled her staying home sick. Mom commuted via the bus to work everyday, despite having a driveway full of late model cars.( Dad had a great relationship with a car dealership in Windsor. The owner, Bill Selig, would call periodically and advise him of a new car on the premises.)

Growing up Jehovah's Witness meant no Christmas or Birthday celebrations. But we did have "gatherings" and socials events. I recall having sleepovers and playing musical chairs, and get togethers where it seemed liked everyone played the piano and sang. I had two piano teachers: Sister Wright, who played a fierce "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and wore high heels into her late eighties, and the lovely and kind Sister Harvey, who was always made up. (Piano lessons were four dollars an hour). Sister Wright tickled me. When I was an adult she asked to help drive with me since I was relocating to Florida in 1991. She needed to go to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. I thought no way would the elderly diva be able to drive my five speed manual Mitsubishi Eclipse. Wrong. Carletta Wright was an expert driving down Interstate 95. Plus she gave me an impromptu tour of Historic Charleston.

 There were roller skating trips and a generous sister named Sister Albano who sewed halter tops for us pre-adolecent girls. (Halter tops as adolescent teens would be out of the question.) We interacted with people of all races and my mother had bible studies with various individuals. In the eighties, Hartford, CT had an influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. So my mom helped the refugees with their English and had bible studies with these groups. Also, instead of pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and African Art, our living room was adorned with a large Chinese Print. (Of course we had sacred Ebony and Jet magazines neatly stacked on the coffee table). Some of my mother's favorite garments were Asian inspired.

 My mom's long cascading hair was later cut short, but it was thick and healthy. For many years, to borrow a phrase from author Malcolm Gladwell's best selling book Outliers, my mom, "Painted her hair". It was Clariol's Nice and Easy, Light Auburn. In her sixties, she abandoned the peroxide and her hair became a flattering gray/white mixture. My mother was never caught up in the "good hair" vs "bad hair" or light skinned vs dark skin foolishness, which was really established by notorious slave plantation owner Willie Lynch to divide and conquer Black people. Lynch bragged that his methods would last for many centuries, and to this day his techniques have separated people of color, diluting their power. Infighting only makes oppressed groups weaker, so the entire Team light- skinned vs. Team dark- skinned rivalry perpetuates racism.

As a youngster, I remember sitting on my mother's lap and asking her in my innocent voice, "Mom, how come you are white?" She did not answer me because I was too young to understand. She made sure that I knew that I was loved by her and she called me "Sweetie". She would sing to me, buy me school workbooks and as an adult would beam with pride when I answered Jeopardy Questions correctly. Mom was not much of a cook, or baker, but her smile would light up the room like it was Las Vegas.

 When persistent, malicious untruths targeted towards her youngest daugher, Sweetie, effected her well being, she never received them as truth. These lies were unfounded by both of my parents. My father, an eighty-nine year old Marine and Medal of Honor Receipient, apologized and asked for my forgiveness which I freely granted. Also, after deciding to relocate to another state for better job opportunities, she understood, because this is what people did to thrive.

Mom's rheumatoid arthritis was the cause of her retiring early. She still practiced her faith, and called people on the phone to "witness" to them. My parents were in Florida in the winter of 1991.  Dad would wait in the car, and my mom witnessed to people while in her wheel chair. He hated to see my mom suffer in pain towards the end of her life. For over twenty years, Dad was mom's primary caretaker, making sure the household was run efficiently and meals were planned.  People commended him for sticking by her. Some spouses would bail out and divorce. Dorothy and Clifford Primus's marriage had its ups and downs as most marriages. I would not even attempt to paint a Camelot/Huxtable motif.

Mom discovered that she has an entire branch of her family that is Chinese. At age eighty. They have Afro-Asian family reunions. So I now have to research her genealogical side. Her affinity for Asian culture clearly was no accident. With mom being southern and eighty- two the lineage could more than likely be attributed to Chinese laboreres and railroad builders who migrated to the US, assisting in building the transcontinental railroad and our country. The Chinese too were faced with discriminatory laws that serverely curtailed their lifestyles.

I am blessed to have know my mother, who was the one of the sweetest and unassuming individuals I have ever known. We sang songs together, like jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald's, "A Tisket A Tasket" and singer activist Harry Belafonte's calypso song, "Day O".  My parents had their own way of communicating with one another. The last time she spoke to dad she said, "See you later, alligator", which was a popular song and saying back in the day. This was how they usually said goodbye when Dad would go out on an errand.

Those were the last words my mother uttered.

 Dorothy Brooks Primus is buried in a Veteran's cemetary, in Windsor, CT, since she is the spouse of a Marine. She is survived by her grieving husband, Clifford Primus, age 89, her children, grandchildren, friends, and relatives. We will miss that beautiful smile and relentless spirit knowing that she always kept it positive. Dorothy Primus: ( 1931-2013)

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