A Little Perspective
Words by Tomiko Harvey
Photos by Wesley & Emma Photography
As a mother, I want to expose my daughter to different cultures and foods and teach her tolerance. As a traveler, I want to do more than post pretty photos and tell happy stories. I want to break down stereotypes, and I want the world to know you can come from the a simple neighborhood in Memphis,Tennessee, and truly become a citizen of the world. But no matter whether I am acting as a daughter, traveler, wife, or mother, it is my longing to love without judgment (something that is incredibly hard for me).
I grew up in Memphis with my wholly religious mother. We were not wealthy; in fact, we were very poor. But like many other families, my mother made sure I had food on my plate every day, clothes on my back, and new toys under the Christmas tree each year. In quiet moments, I often reflect on how easily I could have become a nameless statistic growing up in a single-parent household with an absentee father. After my mother and father divorced, she immersed herself in religion to deal with the shame of being a divorcee. But rather than this religion giving me it’s promised “freedom,” it instead insulated me from having experiences with any cultures other than my black community.
My relationship with my mother, who was and still is all about Jesus Christ, affected my jobs, career goals, political views, and even how I dated. Her perspective on religion shifted my perspective on life—it shifted who I was, who I wanted to be, how I perceived myself, and, ultimately, made me full of hate. This hatred was not for my mother, but for people who were different from me.
This religion even dictated whether or not I should attend college. My mother discouraged me from going to college after high school because she felt that college was only for “white folk.” She wanted me to get a trade or attend cosmetology school—and be thankful that the “white man” allowed me to work. Still, even when I didn’t have any other guidance, something in me said there was more to life than staying in the 38117.
I enrolled in the University of Memphis, against my mother’s wishes.
As I learned more about the slave trades of Africa during an African American studies course, I began to really question religion for the first time. Why did I believe in something that so many oppressors historically claimed to believe? Some of these enslavers even would use the Bible to keep my ancestors in not only a physical bondage, but a bondage of the spirit? These questions, and that course at UM, changed my life. It also drastically changed my relationship with my mother for the worse. But for the first time, my eyes were open to a world outside Memphis. I didn’t want to live a life trying to be the non-threatening black person, the faithful servant to white folk who tolerated you enough to do their manicures and pedicures each week. This new perspective on my life felt like finally figuring out how to balance and peddle a bicycle. There was a big ol’ world out there with other cultures, religions, and nationalities, and I wanted to go.
So I left. Against my mother’s wishes.
Since that moment, I have explored dozens of countries, had hundreds of unique experiences, and created thousands of memories. I married a wonderful man and had beautiful baby girl. Through each of these life experiences, I gained not only a different perception of the world, but a kind of humility was grown in me. It was those experiences and that cultivated humility that softened my heart toward my mother. I slowly began to realize my mom was only a product of her environment, and that the white people I had hated for so long were only a figment of my imagination. There are “bad people” in every culture, and if I didn’t want to be judged, how was it fair that was judging an entire race of people by events that happened before their time?
I still wanted my mother to experience just a glimpse of what traveling did for me, but she had no desire to see the world.
“I must have ruined your childhood, because all you think about is where you are going next,” and, “Why don’t you sit down somewhere?” she would say in the way only a Southern mother can. I would still continue to ask her what she was she afraid of. She always gave me the same answer: “I am not afraid of anything, because God is on my side. I just don’t want to see the world like you do.”
My daughter and I love looking for waterfalls. During the summers, we get up early to check off another waterfall on our list. Tennessee has approximately 545 of them. One particular Saturday, my mom was visiting from Memphis, so we packed up the car and headed to Cummins Falls. My mother is a very small, fragile woman, and hiking Cummins Falls is a challenge even for a person in great shape. During the hike, we often had to wade waist deep through water. I know this is hard to believe, but this was her first time in any form of water outside of her bathtub. She had never stepped in the ocean. She had never swam in a swimming pool. My mother is 74 years old.
As we approached the waterfall, from a distance, it looked like a silent white stream cascading through a mountain, but we could hear the pounding of all that water on the rocks. I looked over at my mother and her face was indescribable. She had a look of utter shock because she couldn’t understand how the water was coming through the mountain. And the more I tried to explain how waterfalls are created, the more confused she became.
My mother found herself a quiet place to sit and meditate. It seemed that all of her problems were lost in the beauty of water tumbling down the mountain.
She watched the marvelous creation of nature, allowing the tiny drops of water to touch her face. As she soaked in this beauty, marvelling at the miracle she was witnessing right before her eyes, she began to talk about her faith in God. She compared the waterfall to waiting on a miracle to happen: “You don’t know how the miracle is going to happen, but if you put your faith in God, He will make a way out of no way.”
While I am not a religious person, I am spiritual. I know there is a higher power working; otherwise, how do you explain the waterfall? It was the waterfall that watered that humility that had been growing in me, and a new realization sprung up and hit me like a ton of bricks: I was still judging my mother for her beliefs. Not only that, but how could I say traveling had opened my heart and made me more sensitive when I was still turning my nose up at my mother for having such unwavering faith? I realized I wasn’t as tolerant as I wanted to be perceived by others.
There have been many lessons I have learned along the way, and as the elders would say down South, “I didn’t believe fat meat was greasy.” There were lessons on truths and patterns that existed outside the bubble I operated from for most of my life. I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that I still have a long way to go, but I recognize that I am a work in progress.