In the latest edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Cassandra Lane’s memoir, We Are Bridges.
The book, which won the 2020 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, explores Lane’s ancestral history in order to give her future child a family history. Weaving the story of her great-grandparent’s lives in the rural South and her life in current-day Los Angeles, Lane explores the ways the past informs the present—and how to beautifully reclaim it.
I AM LEARNING that no matter how much you want to divorce yourself from your past—or from one of your parents—both are intrinsically part and parcel of you for the rest of your life.
My father’s ways colored my sister’s ways and mine long after Mama left him and reentered the home and culture of her youth.
On my mother’s side, we were a black and sanctified people who believed in hard work and God. While secular music was forbidden in our home, its beats surrounded Dena and me every time we stepped outside our house, and those beats felt as though they had always been a part of my blood and marrow.
Our school bus driver, Mr. St. Romaine, blasted R&B over the speakers on the way to and from school. He raised the volume to drown out the students’ noise. His music eased his scowl. I got lost in the lyrics and rhythm of the Isley Brother’s “Insatiable Woman.” I didn’t exactly know what the song meant, but my body responded to its suggestiveness.
We were late bloomers, Dena and I. We were well into our teens before any sign of womanhood began to peek through our stick bodies and before what the world would deem as desirable began to flower.
In the afternoons, we would sneak on MTV and VH1 whenever we could, watching Janet Jackson move her hips and flip her hair over her eyes. On Saturdays, Mama would drop us off at the washateria before she drove off toward more errands or to return home to rest. There was a jukebox inside the laundry mat, and we relished opportunities to listen to the latest R&B and pop hits on blast. We especially loved Klymaxx’s “Meeting in the Ladies Room” and all of Jodi Whatley’s hits. Dena swore she was Jodi Whatley. She teased and sprayed her hair, donned enormous hoop earrings, and (when liberated from our family’s watchful eyes) painted her lips red.
When Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” came on, we lost it. After a few Saturdays of getting our routine down, we ran outside to the concrete walkway in front of the washateria one day, dancing away all semblance of shyness. We bent our knees and gyrated our hips. Left, right. Right, left.
Mama would have fainted. Then promptly risen and whipped our behinds.
We had never seen our mother dance, nor our grandparents, although Grandmama was prone to a sudden foot shout now and then to a gospel song at church, on the record player,
or one locked in her head.
To what were Dena and I grinding? Why did our bodies yearn to move despite what we had been taught? How had our pelvises known how to move?
We are our father’s daughters.
As we blossomed into teenagers, Mama tried to prepare us for impending romantic heartache. Her prophesies were as doomful as the ones Uncle Junior handed down in church about the end times.
“Men will use you up and throw you away,” she would say.
We had seen her attempt to date since leaving our father in the late seventies; we had seen her left high and dry and pregnant when those men threw her away. To make matters worse, she said, black men always want white women or the next best thing: a combination of big breasts, long flowing hair, and light skin. The lighter the better.
I had none of that.
My skin was the color of maple syrup, my breasts shaped like small cones, and my hair coarse and slow to grow.
Still, when I got ready for love, I was determined to prove Mama wrong. There are great black men out there, I thought, and I would find my black knight. I would not be like her, choosing the wrong man over and over. I had to believe I was as worthy, as sexy, and as beautiful as the women I looked nothing like. And I had to believe there were men who would appreciate me the way I was. More than that, I had to believe that there was one who would make me, as the group Midnight Star sang, the object of desire.
I LOVE MEN, but I had seen my mother and other women broken too many times by the men they loved. But while a part of me fought against those narratives and held out hope and belief that true love and true fidelity between a black man and a black woman were possible—yes, like in Mama’s romance novels but with our own twist—I still had something to prove. I wanted to demolish every single lie that black men had ever told themselves about me, about black women; I wanted to get inside that lie, to the belly of that lie, which means I have had to get inside the man, inside his head and heart and trust because the surefire, most effective way to uproot what has had time to nest is to dig down to the beginning of the network of roots. I wanted to get into the center of the lies and plant dynamite and then crawl back out to safety and watch the devastating lies explode and burn and turn to ash and die. The lies I want to destroy are that we, black women, are strong enough to withstand their bullshit and weak enough to take them back; that we are too much while simultaneously not enough; that we are backward and gullible, stubborn and difficult; and that we will always be there no matter what, even if they leave.
I’ve wanted loyalty, but what is loyalty to me? I am willing to love black men as hard as they love me, for as long or as short as that fuse burns; when it goes out, I have no clue how to light it back.
WITH WIDE SWATHS of years existing between the moments my father and I communicate, I have been, mostly, able to forget about him, to forget I have a father, and perhaps this ability to shut off a valve in my heart colors my relationships with men. And yet when out of the blue my father does reappear in my life—through a letter or Facebook message—I find it hard to breathe. The closed-off valve in my heart pumps again, waiting for him to redeem himself, to declare his undying love, to say, “I’m sorry.”
That has never happened, and I am left with the task of closing the valve back up again and packing it with ice. Yet as I carried my child, his grandchild, in my body, I realized I no longer hated my father. Trying to protect my child from ancestral trauma outside of my control might have been an impossible feat, but what I could control, I believed, was the effect of my father’s baggage on my parenting.
I searched for the few photos I have of my father and studied them, studied his young face. All of the images are from the early seventies. In one, he is sitting in a gold jacquard-print
armchair. He has on a black, nylon, collared shirt with small white buttons; gray slacks; sheer black socks; and a shiny silver watch with a gold-trimmed face. He had placed the fingers of his left hand on his chin for a kind of contemplative pose. His smile is slight, seeking confidence—glamour even. His short fro is immaculate. His appearance stands out against the stark and sparse background: bare walls, cheap brown carpet, and a large whirring box fan. How hot was it that day, and where was my father going or coming from?
In this photo, he is a new father. I am one year old, and my sister Dena is on the way.
As I stare at the image, it strikes me that I’ve never seen a photograph of my father as a child—vulnerable, hopeful—and that missing image feels vital. Did someone crush his spirit, and if so, at what point? Was it someone he knew and trusted? How did his country put its knee on his black neck and at what point? When he was a teen or younger?
Surely, he was not always a perpetually tormented soul who wreaks havoc on other souls.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, he got my mailing address from Dena and sent me a large brown envelope filled with homemade greeting cards he had drawn and written something he called poetry on. He was in jail.
“Your daddy loves you,” he wrote.
I wondered, Who is the me that he loves? Suddenly, my sense of self was swallowed. Perhaps he knew me in a way that I did not know myself. Perhaps there was some part of me out there being loved by him and the me I knew was completely detached from her. His poetry was candy-cane sweet—the purple-and-yellow candy canes that I once gorged on so much as a kid that the very sight of them today makes my stomach queasy.
I wrote him back, telling him how the pain of his absence had stifled me for years. I told him about my choice not to become a mother.
In his response letter, he laughed at me. He ignored the pain I revealed and laughed. At least, his words, haughty and confident, felt like laughter.
“You will have children,” he wrote. “You will have many children, my daughter.”
I read the lines again and again. Shaken. Furious. Unsure.
ON OUR WAY to Houston once, a man I was dating suggested we stop in Beaumont to see my father. John was from Houston and was taking me to meet his family. He was of the belief that families should be reconciled. He wanted to do the honorable thing and meet my father.
“Maybe he’s changed,” he said, full of empathy for my father: another man.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “I doubt it.”
I was twenty-four, carving out a life for myself, and a part of me wanted my father to see what he had missed in not raising me, not caring. I had graduated from high school and college without him, and I was working my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter. My boyfriend was a pleasant young man who was climbing the corporate ladder. I wanted my father to see all of this and be proud—and ashamed.
But I watched him look at me and see only himself. He brought out shoeboxes of poems and stories and jokes he had written.
“I’ve been writing for years,” he said after I told him that I worked as a journalist at a newspaper. “I could give you a run for your money.”
I never got around to telling him about my larger dreams. He provided no space.
“Maybe you could take some of my stories back with you, show some of your people,” he said. “Baby, your daddy gon’ be famous.”
“I’m so sorry, babe,” my boyfriend said when we were back in the car. “It was a mistake to come here.” His big hands were warm on my face. He kissed my tears and I laughed“I told you,” I said. “You wanted me to come here. Put the past in the past, right?”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated.
And I was sorry, too, in that moment, as well as a year or so later when I broke John’s heart. His soft words turned to stones that he threw.
“My mama warned me about girls like you. Girls with no daddies,” he spat at me when I told him I was in love with someone else, an older man. Ric.
What is loyalty to me? I have never seen it up close. I hold out hope that Mary and Burt were the epitome of loyalty and love and that all we as a family needed was to be witnesses of that love.
Perhaps my obsession with Burt Bridges really is just a search for a father.
I want a father who is good and great and alive.
I want a love that is good and great and alive.
From We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Lane.