What Mama Had to Say

Reviewed by Alice Lovelace

Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 27-28

Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman's Journey Home, by Gloria Wade-Gayles (Beacon Press, 1993, 256 pages).

In these days of "Def Comedy Jam" and Snoop Doggy Dog, when the media portrays our families as dysfunctional and the single female household is blamed for every social ill from high school dropouts to the swelling welfare rolls, it is important that as a people, we African-Americans remember there was and is another way to be. Gloria Wade-Gayles reminds us of this "other way."

In Pushed Back To Strength, she recalls for us a time when we nourished within us-the family, the community, the church- the strength and the ability to raise our children and to raise the consciousness of a nation:

Surviving meant being black, and being black meant believing in our humanity, and retaining it, in a world that denied we had it in the first place. It meant...surviving and achieving in spite of the odds and in the process, changing the world in which we lived.

In a voice honest and sincere she allows us a glimpse of her "re-remembered" life growing up in a Memphis housing project under the watchful eyes of an extended family (beyond kinship); of a time before the word "project" became something shameful, to be feared.

I have seldom heard individuals in the movement speak about the struggle to desegregate Atlanta. Wade-Gayles offers us a brief and unique glimpse of those times. "We were determined to change the city which promoted itself as 'A City Too Busy to Hate.' ...Not until we picketed Leb's, a Jewish delicatessen located...in front of the Rialto Theater, did the mass arrests begin."

At times I wished for more details. For Wade-Gayles to linger for a while. How does an activist in the face of hatred and mistreatment, fear and threats, remain a humanist? How does one learn to separate the individual from the act? She describes a kind of strength this "X" generation would do well to try to learn and emulate.

Wade-Gayles is not apologetic for her times. Looking back on the events of her life she admits things could have been different (and in some ways should have been done differently).


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This is a story of my generation. Her family is our family. She reminds us of our mothers, our grandmothers, who didn't have much for themselves yet wanted (and expected) us to possess the world.

She reminds us of the role the black church has played and continues to play in teaching self-affirmation. She reminds us we were fortunate to be born before cable, before what was said on television was more important than what Mama had to say.

When speaking to a class of high school or college students, I try to explain to them why the events of the 1950s and 60s were so important in the history of our country. It is often hard for them to comprehend what life for African-Americans must have been like before the Civil Rights Movement.

They are seldom able to appreciate the strength it took for young people of high school and college age (like them) to take on an entire nation. The notion of "redemptive love" in the face of white hatred is a particularly difficult lesson for this generation to value.

In Pushed Back To Strength I found a primer I will heartily recommend to today's youth. A book inclusive in its recalling of a time in our national history and inspiring in its simple telling of a life.

Pushed Back to Strength is a valuable lesson for all Americans, a reminder that a common history brought us to this point, a history which gave rise to a generation unique in its vision and ideals.

Atlanta writer Alice Lovelace teaches as an artist-in-residence in public schools throughout the region. Her newest book is Remembering My Birth: New and Collected Poems.