My Life-Changing Perspective: What I Learned in the Tobacco Fields with “Mean Ma-Ma”

When Cedric Palmore, Chairman of AABEN, recently asked me to share my journey to “success” at a town hall style meeting, I looked at him and let out a small laugh. Success? I wasn’t sure I had gotten there yet.

But that moment did get me thinking about where I came from and where I want to go. I am a firm believer that each person is the sum total of his or her experiences. That is to say, his or her own stories.

One of the main stories that shaped my life, occurred at the age of twelve, lying face down in a mud puddle, barely conscious, with the stern face of my great-grandmother staring straight down at me. Her head was outlined by the sun, creating a halo effect. Here she was, coming to save me. I must have been delirious from dehydration to think, “She’ll help me up, bring me some water… She’ll let me sit down until it is time to go home”.  

“Boy, you better get your butt up from there!” she yelled. “Don’t you know you have to pay for those two stalks of tobacco that you knocked down!”

I was shocked. Here was my great grandmother kicking me while I was down! Dehydration must have gotten the best of me to think she was here to help – after all, she was “mean ma-ma (pronounced muh-muh),” and mean ma-ma was the meanest woman I knew. Disgruntled, callous. How could she act this way towards her great grandson?

That day, before I fainted, I tried as hard as possible to keep up with the other tobacco field workers, including mean ma-ma. It was my first day on the job. What I learned, under the hot sun, is that the process of tobacco topping is no easy feat. Tobacco topping is the process of removing the flower from the top of the tobacco stalk so that the plant ripens faster.

I joined mean ma-ma in the field that summer to help my mom out. My family wasn’t dirt poor, but we weren’t well off either. My mom was a single parent, and one of fourteen siblings. When I told her I wanted to go work with mean ma-ma in the fields, my mom gave me a sneaky smile. “Ok,” she said. She must have known what I was in for.

On that first day, I went into the field like I would go into football practice. I wore jogging pants, no hat, and no sleeves. Meanwhile, the older people around me were covered from head to toe, some wearing two or three layers. What were they thinking! “These old people don’t know a thing!” I thought to myself.

Yet, two hours into the morning, each one of those “old” people were doing fine. And me? I was on the verge of passing out! It turns out that wearing more than one layer not only protects the skin from burning, but also creates a natural air conditioning system for the body. Once you sweat through the layers, you can peel one off and it’ll feel cooler outside, despite the sun.

But I had yet to learn all of that.

And so, to my surprise that day, the older people in the field worked circles around me – including mean ma-ma, who was in her 90s at the time!

So, let’s go back to that moment when I was lying in the row of tobacco facedown. At that point, all I could do was feel sorry for myself. I couldn’t understand why mean ma-ma couldn’t empathize with her young great grandson. Looking back at this experience over time, though, certain things have become clearer.

Mean ma-ma wasn’t working in the tobacco fields her whole life for fun. This was how she made ends meet her entire life. Mean ma-ma was a black woman born in southern Virginia in 1897. Her father had twenty-five kids, and her mother passed away early. She had likely begun working in the fields around the age that I did, twelve, but not because she wanted a new pair of shoes for the upcoming school year – like I did – but because she had to.

After over 70 years in the field, my 5’0 ma-ma had little to show for her time there. However, she had built up credibility with her co-workers and the farm owner. She had a reputation to upkeep, and that reputation was on the line when I treated my first day in the field like a game. (A game I lost, by the way.) Not only did I not help her earn money, I actually made her lose money for the two stalks I knocked over. She didn’t have the money to pay for that.

Sometimes I think about the callous skin she must have had to put on as a young black girl, growing up in the rural south, working on a farm instead of playing throughout her childhood.

So, I often ask myself now, what if I had labeled my great grandmother “Survivor” rather than mean ma-ma? How much more could I have learned from that spry woman? What would our relationship have been like? It took me years to recognize the impact that Ma-Ma made on my life, but today, I am a better man for having known her. I’ve taken the values I’ve learned from mean ma-ma and injected them in my kids, allowing her to live on.

That summer, I finished my work in the tobacco field. I showed grit and perseverance, I put my best foot forward. I gained the humility to ask for help from the older workers. I guess you could say that the man I am today was born back in those fields. All of the attributes I was forced to display are in perfect alignment with the leadership training and values that Blue Cross has provided me the language to explain: Think Data (recognizing bias and leveraging intuition), People First (perspective taking), and Show Grit (perseverance).

I took the perseverance I learned among those tobacco stalks and attended the HBCU North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. (Believe me, the “agricultural” part had nothing to do with why I went there! That experience with mean ma-ma taught me I wanted to be as far away from tobacco plants as possible.) I graduated with a Computer Science degree, and then worked in the consulting and medical fields until landing at Blue Cross NC.

When I retell this story, I do so to point out that we are not merely reading and writing about black history today. We are all living black history. The values passed down to us from our family members are instilled in us and it’s our job to pass these on to our children.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “We are standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, this is something that I truly believe as I am one of the few lucky enough to meet mine.

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