I was chatting with a friend early last week and told him that I was behind in having my thoughts organized for today’s column. He reminded me that I have been writing this column each week for many years. My response to him was that this column has appeared in this newspaper each Sunday, with no exceptions, since 2001; yes, this is many years. After some small talk, our conversation turned to the horrific conditions that our community has experienced with crime and other dysfunctional behaviors this year; conditions that most of us will agree have been horrific.
The issues I am referencing are those that you constantly hear or read about through television, radio, newspapers, participation in conferences and in casual conversations, such as the one with my friend last week. Everyone has an opinion as to the source of these problems and ways to address them.
My thoughts, however, have turned to those little old ladies; those mothers, grandmothers, stepmothers, godmothers, and all of the other “little old ladies” that were part of our neighborhoods in the past. It was these “little old ladies” who forced us to travel down the right road, that “straight and narrow road,” back in the day.
If you did not grow up back in the 1960s or earlier, you may have difficulty recognizing the impact that our elderly females had on the growth and development of Black youngsters. But, if you are from my era, you can readily identify with those experiences that touched many of us. We did not fully appreciate those experiences as children and young adults, but today, we are eternally grateful that these ladies were an integral part of our existence.
Your memories must turn to the images of ladies that sat on the front porches, front stoops or looking out from their second floor windows demanding and commanding respect during our developmental years. As I wrote in a previous column, you were told what to do; where to do it; when to do it; and with whom you should do it. The word “no” did not exist in our vocabularies when interacting with our mothers and other little old ladies in our neighborhoods, back then.
I cannot tell you why our young people behave as they do today but I believe that much of their dysfunctional behavior is tied to the disappearance or the lack of interaction with our female elders today; the “folk” that have been referred to in an Internet article some years ago as “Old School Black Mothers.” If you have not seen this article, it highlights some of the characteristics of those ladies I am referencing in today’s column. This “Old School Black Mothers” article contains some examples of the behaviors we experienced with our grandmothers and mothers. Most of us were afraid to go home when we received a bad report card. I am sure you recall those dreadful words, “I am putting you on punishment.”
Did you detest being made to participate in every church activity including the choir, Easter play, oratorical contests, and Vacation Bible School? As much as you did not want to participate in these activities, you did so because your grandmother or mother expected and insisted that you participate to help “straighten you out.”
Such things were non-negotiable, back then. These little old ladies that lived in our neighborhoods could be depended on to keep us out of trouble. Since family members could not be everywhere, these little old ladies who clearly knew our mothers and just how our mother’s expected us to behave were an acceptable substitute. They definitely kept us on our P’s and Q’s! These ladies were “just what the doctor ordered” to keep us out of harm’s way, back in the day.
During your childhood days, these “little old ladies” made observations of you that seemed to always be on target. If you had some bad thoughts on your mind, you generally looked around to make certain that these ladies were not watching. You knew that anything that you did that was not in keeping with the standards of a good boy or girl would get back to your parents.
In many instances, the “green light” was given to these ladies to take action on their own. The importance of the impact that the little old ladies of our neighborhoods had on our behavior, brings to mind an incident involving the way my older sisters treated me. This misbehavior, as I would describe it, abruptly came to an end because of the actions of a little old lady in my neighborhood; the kind of actions that most little old ladies took in the past. My mother would insist that my sisters take me, their little brother, on walks around the neighborhood. My sisters would hold my hand until they reach the end of the block and turned the corner. It was when they let go of my hand that I would start crying. This was done on many occasions but ended when a little old neighborhood lady called my sisters to the side and told them that she has been observing this for some time and if it continued, my mother would receive a telephone call or a personal visit. As you may guess, this practice stopped. Calling out the misbehavior of others was something that ladies living next door, down the street or around the corner, routinely did, back in the day.
You dared not “act up” by using profanity while in the presence of little old ladies in your neighborhood back in the day. If it was your intent to use language that was frowned upon, you made certain that you were well out of sight and the hearing of those little old ladies that lived around you. If you were engaged in an argument or preparing to participate in a fist fight, it was not unusual to hear a female voice telling you to take that behavior somewhere else. Some of you, especially young ladies, tried smoking in their teenage years. This was a “no-no” and the so-called “good girls” knew that they should not be seen by people who knew them, while out in the streets with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths.
Some of you young ladies may recall the impact that our little old neighborhood ladies had on the way you dressed as you headed off to school. You remember that parents, mothers in particular, frowned on their daughters going out dressed in a so-called “loose manner.’ Some of you remember, very well, the “mini-skirt” era and this style being rejected by your parents. So, you left the house wearing skirts that were below your knees but as soon as you turned the corner, out of sight of your home and the homes of your parent’s friends, you pulled your skirts up high above your waist, covered by a sweater, to present the new mini skirt look. Yes, those little old ladies in our neighborhoods had a tremendous impact on what we said, what we did and how we dressed, back in the day.
There were these warm fuzzy moments that some of you spent with these little old neighborhood ladies. Whether it was corrective discipline or grown up talks, I bet you can remember the names of many of these ladies. Most had those names that today we regard as “old-fashioned.” So, did you sit and talk with Miss Wilhelmina? Or, was it Miss Bertha? Or, it could have been Miss Annie, a lady that lived two doors from me in my neighborhood. We may have called them by their first names but always with the pre-fix, Miss. Perhaps you may recall instances where you were told by Miss Annie to come over and sit with her as she wanted to talk with you. Remember those times?
These little old ladies had the freedom to bring up any subject they cared to discuss and did not care how you felt about her getting into your business. Quite often, the discussion was about a boy or girl that you were seeing that was viewed as not meeting your parent’s approval. You may recall that these frank and open discussions usually ended with, “Do not make me tell your mother.”
I recognize that we now lived in different days and different times. Yet, I would implore all of us to elevate the roles of those little old ladies in our neighborhoods to the special position they held and the role they played in the growth and development of all of us, back in the day.