by Patheresa Wells
“She stared at her father’s lifeless body, and the thoughts she could not voice dissolved into her blood, where they would stay with her for the rest of her life.”
—Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem
There was a poem I started to write about my mother’s death but I could not finish it. I have probably started and stopped as many times as I take a breath in a day. I inhale in the breath of an idea but the exhale, the writing, doesn’t come. Maybe it is because I was there, alone, when she died. It was 2010 when she died during surgery at the age of 48. I was 30, 18 years younger than her. I was the only witness to her death. And like the air that could not make its way out of her after her final exhale, my words are trapped. They are stuck in my throat, that essential highway that brings us air, food, and water. That releases something I have always relied on: my voice.
The quote that starts this essay is taken from the book The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. In it a child watches as her father dies in front of her. She is impregnated with thoughts she cannot birth. Often when you witness trauma, your feelings about the experience and the accompanying words to express them hide inside you for years — lifetimes, even. In my case (and my mother’s) what is trapped in me is not just my voice and my trauma, it is the voices and traumas of generations. This is in essence why I write. To not only give voice to my thoughts, ideas, and stories but those of the generations who came before me and were never heard.
My entire life I watched my mother’s voice be trapped inside her. I cannot for the life of me remember the times she said to the world “This is what I have to say.” She shared her opinion among family, where it was safe. But at work and in the larger world, her voice manifested as a million little daily actions directed at “Making It.” And let’s be honest, she never did “make it” in the “American Dream” sense of the idea. She was never even close. So my mother, like her mother and so many before her, quelled their voices in order to survive.
Recently, I went home to Oklahoma. It’s where my freed ancestors made homes after their emancipation from slavery in Tennessee. There they found a new land — not yet a state — that held some possibility. I went to a small graveyard near the town of Langston — home to Oklahoma’s Historically Black College/University and where I was raised. After a twenty mile trek through pot-holed dirt roads with nary a house in sight, I turned into a gated field, run-down but not in disrepair. In it lay graves of Black Oklahomans from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. I lived twenty-two miles away from here for eighteen years of my life yet I had never once stepped foot in the cemetery. Nor did my mother. We didn’t have time for things like that. We were always working. And maybe, in that way, we also didn’t have time to grieve. To look back at what we had lost.
My goal was to find the grave of my great-great-grandfather Horace Vick, his wife Lavina Sellars, and possibly his mother Malinda Gibbons. Before her death, my mother had started to search for her past. Disabled, with more time available, and with her kids grown, she started trying to find those who came before her. When she died that search was passed onto me. Horace and his wife were in their teens when they were emancipated. Malinda — a grown woman — moved with them from Tennessee, first to Kansas, then to Oklahoma. While I have been able to learn a bit about her offspring, my genealogical search ends with Malinda. There is no one before her that I can find. At some point Malinda left Virginia with her owners, the Vick family (where we got our name) who relocated to DeKalb County, Tennessee. That’s where, according to census records and slave registers (that only list her sex and age), her story starts. And I never heard about her as a child either. My family was so concerned at surviving the present they did not have time to look back. At that graveyard I found Malinda’s son Horace and his wife Lavina but I could not locate hers, though I imagine it might be there amongst the unmarked and unrecorded graves.
I often wonder about their stories, the people who made me. The people of early Oklahoma dirt roads, the people of Tennessee plantations, the people who came from somewhere and surely had stories about that place that were lost along the way. I have always loved a good story. Even as a child I was an oddity to my people, engrossed in books, writing in journals, trying to capture what was both in my mind and in this world. The women who made me — although brilliant in their own ways — were not highly educated. They grew up in segregated schools and went to work as soon as possible in order to support their families. Even now they wish me success in what my Aunt Nettie says, “whatever you’re trying to do.”
But suddenly, what I’m “trying to do” has become clearer to me. While I loved writing as a child, I also abandoned it in search of a job right out of high school. In fact it wasn’t until I came across the writing of another Black woman, a Ghanian/Scottish poet named Maud Sulter, that I considered taking the pen back up. I came across a picture of Maud in the National Portrait Gallery while on vacation in Scotland and wanted to buy her book As A Black Woman. In my search I learned she had died young too, like my mother. But I was able to get to know Maud herself through her writing. I spent a week at the Scottish Poetry Library studying her, learning her story and realizing that with its record she left behind a legacy not of riches but of words. In many ways Maud’s story was similar to my own. She came to writing at a young age, used it to navigate her experiences as a Black woman, and to connect to Ghana, a land that her father had come from but that she longed to know. She inspired me to try again to find my own words, my own voice.
After many years of searching I finally got my hands on a copy of As a Black Woman. The book was self published by Maud and the press she founded, Urban Fox Press. Maud was not only a poet, playwright, and visual artist but she was also “active in the Black feminist and lesbian movements, often inspired by African-American activists, artists and writers.” More about her life and work can be found in the book “Maud Sulter: Passion.”
Fall of last year, three years after I came across Maud Sulter’s photo in Scotland, the pandemic was raging across the world. And I left behind a career in logistics to go to college (for the first time) at forty-one. I had been dabbling in poetry but did not consider myself a writer. In fact at the beginning of this very year I did not call myself a writer to anyone — though in my heart I knew I was one. In this last year I have worked to share the stories I know and look for ones I don’t yet know. This journey has included winning poetry contests, joining the South Seattle Emerald as a reporter, and recently finishing a poetry chapbook manuscript.
While all this has been wonderful, the true purpose of this journey has been to find my voice again. To find it and to share it so that future generations will not wonder who I am.
And the poem about my mother that was trapped in me for so long has finally emerged. It will be included in my upcoming chapbook titled Lessons Learned from the Pain. I am honored that the journey I have taken, one made possible by ancestors who journeyed before me — their voices hidden by history — has led to this poem. They have led to my writing, my vocation, my passion. I am thankful to my Mother, to Maud, and to all the Black women who have shared their stories with me so that I may, in turn, share my own.
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Patheresa Wells is a poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
📸 Featured Image: Patheresa Wells at Evansville Cemetery visiting the gravesite of her great great Grandparents. (Photo: Scott Flesher).
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