Why my momma’s cotton pickin’ story is a recipe for entrepreneurship
When I was kid, my mother would wake me and my brother up with words about the fact that she had to pick cotton and why we should be glad we can go to school. On one hand, I loved leaping from the realms of my deep REM sleep into the auditory joy of my mother’s voice. But when she talked about having to pick cotton, the concept wouldn’t make much sense until I was much older.
What had happened was …
“…’member when Momma used to wake us up?” My brother’s words caught me off guard, as we sat on the porch of our childhood home. I hesitated for a moment wondering what he would say.
“..then we got busted, messing around,” We laughed and I bumped up against him teasingly.
“Yeah, pretending to be Momma,” I interrupted. We were both lost inside memories, internal meanderings now trying to intersect the present moment. At last, we were slowly slipping back into a time when our world revolved around our Momma. A time when we had no appreciation for our momma’s infamous cotton pickin’ story.
Unlike some of the other kids, we didn’t have a cartoon-shaped or Disney-character alarm clock to prod us awake each morning. No, all we had, was what I affectionately refer to as our Mother’s macaroni and cheese voice.
“Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school,” Momma announced the same exact words every single morning. Words that never felt intrusive because Momma’s enunciations were velvety, went in silky smooth almost like butter to the ear and were reliably soothing even on my worst days. Her gentle tone was as sweet as a Jackson five song.
“Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school.” With the repetition of our names wallowing in the household air, we responded by digging ourselves deeper and deeper under the covers, hoping for just enough of a pause to re-enter the world of deep sleep.
I hate to admit it but most mornings it took our mother four, five, ten maybe twelve attempts before we decided to peel back the comforter thus allowing our dark brown skin to face the fresh new morning air. But then one morning, when we were extra tired from a long night at church no doubt, and too cozy to consider anything but the warmth of our self-made cocoon, our mother chanted her wake-up call at least fifteen times and then added a new bit.
“Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school. Oughta be glad to go to school.” Her words were a stark change from her usual banter. The phrase froze me in confusion. Still laying in my bed, I considered the fact that I did indeed like going to school but why should I be glad to go to school? Oughta be glad to go to school?
Thinking more than sleeping, I wondered if there was an alternative to going to school. Vestiges of the television character Will Robinson formed inside my thoughts and I wondered if my mother might be from another planet like that in Star Trek or Lost In Space. It wasn’t a completely crazy thought because every summer we traveled down south in our yellow banana Plymouth Volare station wagon to our mother’s hometown of Brownsville, Tennessee with our aunts, uncles, and cousins all piled up in the car. And on many occasions, I wondered if the backwoods of Tennessee was really just another planet. This was the 1970s.
No matter the planet, I wanted to understand why I should be glad to go to school but ended up too enthralled in my morning routine to pry my mother for answers. And for the next several mornings, this new chant worked like a charm, and almost had a subliminal effect. Unlike most other past mornings, I started to immediately peel back the covers and allowed the crispness of the fresh new morning air to kiss my ebony skin. It would only take a couple of weeks before I returned to my normal resistance of needing a few dozen nudges to get my butt out of the bed.
Looking back I realize mornings were the only time she had any time to talk to us about what her life was like, a time before she was feeling the weight and bogged down by her solo parental duties. The start of a new day offered a stolen moment for her to share a bit of her humanity with us. We wouldn’t comprehend the enormity of this gift until we were way into our adulthood. Over time Momma shared even more.
“Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school, oughta be glad to go to school because when I was your age I couldn’t go to school every day,” Momma spoke with a newfound sense of urgency and in retrospect, my mother’s utterances easily slipped into my dream world and it made me sad. I awake abruptly, sitting straight up and with my lips moving but no sound, I question, how come momma couldn’t go to school every day? I repeated it in my head several times hoping some understanding would wash over me but nothing came to mind. Suddenly I felt anxious, and a bit panic, and I began to consider the situation where I had no choice about attending school but why not my mother? I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and became slightly worried as I wiped the wetness from my eyes. A bit solemn, I leaped from the bed flustered as my feet landed on the cold wood floor. Momma was already jetting about the house attending to all the tasks she wanted to complete before getting to work. But I was deeply curious, I couldn’t understand why any little girl wasn’t allowed to go to school.
Breaking me from my flashback, I could see out of the corner of my eye my brother had started to stare at me. What was he thinking? Could I dare lock eyes with this man I barely knew?
“We hated Momma’s cotton pickin’ story,” He said almost apologetically.
“Yup,” I said drifting swiftly back into my thoughts about our family’s normal morning routine. It resembled a circus and I was in the middle of it all. Momma moved at the speed of light and did all sorts of things from washing clothes, to putting dishes in the washer, to ironing clothes, to blow-drying her hair, to vacuuming the hallway, to packing lunches, to digging out coats and hats. I never knew what my mother was doing from one moment to the next and my primary goal was to stay out of her way. Tony, on the other hand, moved at a turtle’s pace and was yelled at least a hundred times before he went out of the door. He got in trouble for not eating his breakfast or for playing with his food or putting his clothes on wrong or tying his shoes incorrectly or playing with his toys or simply sitting around and not getting ready for school. I tried to help him but he mostly didn’t want any help and he definitely didn’t want to be bossed around by his big sister.
Eventually, each morning my brother and I would land at the kitchen table to eat the breakfast of our own choosing. Cereal was my regular go-to because I enjoyed reading the box, top to bottom, over and over again. Without really thinking about it I say to momma, who invariably would be leaning against the counter, looking out the window and deep into her own thoughts with a cup of coffee.
“Momma, why couldn’t you go to school every day?” I finally blurted out between bites.
“Yeah, momma why you couldn’t go to school,” Tony repeats in that annoying little brother way. Our mother walked toward us and sat down. I focused on her long fingers with short nails wrapped around her favorite Mother’s day mug. She then placed her cup on the table.
“When I was your age I had to pick cotton.”
“Pick Cotton?” I replied in confusion.
“Cotton balls?” My brother.
“Not that kind of cotton, dummy,” I smacked my brother on the back of his head. He pretended to be hurt and stuck his tongue out at me, as usual.
“Cotton like my socks or my t-shirt?” My brother looked down and touched his shirt as if feeling it for the first time.
“No stupid, not that kind of cotton,” I yelled.
“Well actually, it is the same cotton,” Momma said looking directly at Tony as I slumped into my chair feeling stupid. “Big Daddy was a sharecropper, his job was to pick cotton. That’s how our family made money to keep food on the table, keep a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.”
“So you had a job when you were little?” I inquired.
“Yes, sweetie but it wasn’t bad, I didn’t actually start until I was your age, I would go and help Big Daddy. We needed the extra money. Now finish up your breakfast, so you can get to school.” Momma stood and within seconds returned to her flurry of morning activities.
I remember having so many more questions and an anxious desire for more answers but I knew there wasn’t any time because momma had to go to work and we had to finish getting ready for school.
After that short talk, I had a new appreciation for getting up in the morning but it still took a few calls before I would actually let myself leave the land of sleep. A newfound compassion grew inside of me for my mother, a recognition of her life and the ways in which I had it better than she had it when she was a kid. I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of her story because she seemed like any other normal mother.
Being a kid, the newness of Momma’s cotton pickin’ story eventually began to wane. I tired of her morning chant, so much so, I knick named it ‘Momma’s cotton pickin’ story’ and I felt that I had heard it enough times. And there were mornings when either I would mumble under my breath or I would hear my brother mumbling under his breath, the familiar mantra: Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school, oughta be glad to go to school because when I was your age I couldn’t go to school every day, I had to pick cotton. Other choice mornings, there was a rumbling from all over the house because you could hear all three of us in unison, Charlotte, Tony, time to get up, time to go to school, oughta be glad to go to school because when I was your age I couldn’t go to school every day, I had to pick cotton.
I get the feeling that the day we got busted, that moment changed our relationship to our Momma’s cotton-pickin’ story in ways we couldn’t have understood then. It had to have been in the summer because we were playing outside. In fact, we were playing on the porch and Tony decided he wanted to play house. I’d been delegated to the daughter while my younger brother was appointed father which was completely opposite of our norm because typically I was the mother and he would be the brat of a son, his behavior mimicking real life.
So, in Tony’s make-believe world, I was summoned to make some tea, followed by the two of us drinking from my ceramic teacups. As we drank we held our pinkies in the air and talked in what we thought was an aristocratic voice, British and much like the people on television. I was then told to comb my baby doll's hair which I didn’t mind because nothing was more soothing than the flow of long strokes through the wavy yellow hair. It was the type of hair that always cooperated and was nothing like the nappy and hard-to-tame hair on my head. Back then I thought lots of things, one of which was this idea I would be magically granted long flowy hair, and a golden bushel of tresses that would magically blossom atop my head. After a few minutes, Tony, my dad suggested that I take a nap which seemed weird but I knew where he was going so I obeyed. It never ceased to amaze me, his need to demand a nap when we played house considering we both hated naps, we both hated going to sleep and we both hated with a passion waking up, especially if it meant hearing for the zillionth time our mother’s cotton pickin’ story. But I surrendered because he was the pretend parent, so I pushed to the side the other toys and pretended to nap. I settled my butt on the top step, tucked my legs, and laid my head down using my hands as a pillow. I conjured up a super loud snore, similar to a very old man, a sound with ripples of nasal air mixed with the sound of blowing bubbles. Before I could get to the point where I would start to sound like a locomotive factory, Tony yelled in a very demanding way but in his best fake deep tenor daddy voice,
“Time to get up, time to go to school, oughta be glad to go to school because when I was your age, I couldn’t go to school, I had to pick cotton.” I couldn’t help but laugh but it was Tony, his giggles erupted into uncontrollable laughter within a few seconds and I nearly fell off the porch. My body shook in such a way as to cause me to tumble to the bottom of the steps. Out of the corner of my eye, Tony was rolling around in the grass as if someone was actually tickling him. I somehow got onto my feet but instantly doubled over from laughter as I stomped my feet on the ground and slapped the sides of my thighs. I thought we would never stop laughing until I heard a small sound billowing from behind. Between laughing and catching my breath I tried to comprehend what I was hearing.
“Charlotte.” I could hear my name being called but I couldn’t stop the rupture of laughter. I swirled around to discover my mother peeking from the porch screen door. I recalled seeing only a shadow on the other side of the mesh before I was able to make out her head, which turned slowly. I glimpsed back at my brother who had become fully aware of our mother’s silhouette as well. We all went silent.
Up until that time I had never known a quiet moment within or outside of our house, at least not during the day. The stillness landed us all in the unknown, as a family, we were unable to move into action.
My mother moved first, she sighed and then swung the door open slowly and glided onto the porch. We stood still and looked at her speechless. Trying to predict the next chain of events, I knew that either we were in big trouble or we were in regular trouble but it was hard to tell and both meant we were going to get a spanking. But our mother did the unthinkable; she sat down on the top step of the porch. She looked out into the distance and then turned her face toward me and patted the porch area next to her, this was meant for me. Her next gesture was for my brother and just as he approached her, she tucked her hands under his arms and placed him on her lap.
Without warning our mother’s macaroni and cheese voice filled the air. I looked at her beautiful honey-brown skin and finally, it dawned on me that we weren’t in trouble. You could tell that she thought we might be thinking we were destined to get a whipping. But I understood one thing about our mother, she never sat down before dolling out a whipping. The second thing I knew is that my mother never used her soft macaroni and cheese voice before she was about to spank us. I felt relieved.
Momma wrapped her arms around us, kissed our foreheads, and vocalized her love. She took her time talking about her life as a child. I learned so much about my mother that day, the kind of information you could never learn in textbooks at school or in any encyclopedia, which was my favorite thing to read as a child.
Sitting with our mother on the porch would become one of my fondest memories from my childhood. It was the day I experienced a different side of my mother, a side of open sharing about so many of the interesting things about her life when she was a kid. I assumed she had forgotten the experiences of her childhood because why would she spend so much time telling us to sit down and be quiet?
Momma’s cotton pickin’ story was a testament to the vision she had for herself
That moment was far from the last time our mother communicated recollections of her youth. We would ultimately learn that despite the lack of daily attendance at school, our mother would ask her teacher to give her extra homework to complete on days when she had to pick cotton. I conjured up images of her picking cotton all day long and then spending her evenings reading books and doing homework with only the light from a candle or lantern. The motivation, determination, and wherewithal to place such importance on her education would make me believe that being smart was genetic, something she passed down like a family heirloom.
What amazed us most was her ability to not only graduate early, she graduated when she was 16 years old, but her greatest accomplishment was being selected as the class valedictorian. How does a woman who couldn’t go to school every day graduate and be honored at the top of her class?
I am who I am because of our mother’s cotton-pickin’ story
“I am who I am because of our mother’s cotton pickin’ story,” I confess to my brother on that day on the porch and he paused, sighed, and then threw his cigarette to the ground. His quick departure didn’t surprise me because it’s hard to face the truth sometimes.
Truth is I have always felt like a failure in comparison to my mother who against so many odds made a good life for herself. In many ways, I have come to think of myself as a spoiled ass brat, who has been given so much only to not value the amazing opportunities I have had. Or the ease with which I could live life and the privilege to choose without barriers or the need to navigate between getting an education and having to pick cotton.
Another truth is that I have one of the world’s greatest mothers, she worked hard, not only as a parent but this woman had somehow been blessed and bestowed with an inner determination to look life in the face and claim action as her sword. Looking back, I realize that my brother and I had been too self-absorbed, too willing to play the victim, and too entitled to actually do the work of living expecting everything to be given to us.
It wasn’t easy for me to be on the porch that day with my brother but it’s been significantly much harder realizing how foolish we’ve been when it comes to making something out of our lives. As much as I wanted to focus on my brother’s shortcomings, I had my own heaping mound of dirty laundry. I’ve spent multitudes of good days traversing paths headed for self-destruction laced with beautifully self-orchestrated acts of sabotage. Initially, I was mad, maybe more disappointed at my brother for leaving so abruptly that day but I get it now. I get that our Mother’s cotton pickin’ story is a reminder of how much capacity we have as human beings, her story is a constant reminder of how little of that capacity within us we’ve actually used.
Momma’s legacy are lessons for my entrepreneurship
As the founder of a new startup, there are days I want to give up, and there are days when I’d rather embrace failure but just when I’m on the verge of feeling like I can’t take another roadblock, take another exhausting moment of systemic racism, another anti-fat, anti-black, anti-queer act of micro aggression, a small voice inside of me give thanks to my momma’s cotton pickin’ story. And what used to be annoying as a kid, is now as an adult my mantra for living, my mantra for overcoming, and my mantra for entrepreneurship.
It’s true, I have to work my day job as I build my outdoor brand and I feel frustrated about it. But then I realize it’s similar but not exactly the same as my mother having to pick cotton. Yet I use her story to inspire me and help me get through the tough times. The blessing is that my momma's cotton-pickin’ story means I have no excuse and means that no matter what comes my way I can make it, I will make it and that I have my mother to thank.
At the heart of my mother’s story are a bit of agency and the capacity to see an impossible future. She could have easily given up on getting an education. She could have rightfully not spent her evenings on homework after a long day in the cotton field. She could have allowed her experience with sharecropping to be the reason why she couldn’t go north or do more with her life. She could have taken the circumstances of her situation and played the victim. When I’m introspective, I realize she could have made so many choices that would have ended up with me not even existing but it was God’s plan for her to beat the odds. It was God’s plan for me to share her amazing story with the world because its life lived that needs to be told.
I came across a quote, the author is unknown but it sums up what my brother and I must’ve felt that day about our mother’s cotton pickin’ story, if we had known what we know now, we would have picked our own cotton.