Monday, April 5, 2021

Meditations on 'Mama' as a cry of need, love, and desperation

We are about to enter a second searing week of testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin. Among other revelations, the thin reed of apparent

Derek Chauvin last May in the act for which he's on trial.

strategy supporting the defense has amazed me. One instance was when the ex-officer's attorney may have thought he had scored a point when he got George Floyd's girlfriend to admit he called her "Mama."

I infer the attorney imagined that would strike the jury as a revelation.  Assuming the dying man's repeated cries of "Mama," recorded on several videos, referred to George Floyd's deceased mother is questionable, Eric Nelson might have been implying.  An arrested man under duress, like a badly wounded soldier, might well evoke his most fundamental relationship. The victim's desperate appeals to "Mama" might have been directed toward Courteney Ross as much as to Floyd's mother.

Such a usage was not peculiar to George Floyd, however. Even from my limited knowledge of black culture, a man's calling his lover "Mama" goes back a long way. The first instance that came to mind was Elvis Presley's cover of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's song "That's All Right, Mama." This song started running in my head as soon as I saw that part of the Ross-Nelson exchange. 

The song directly mingles the two ways "Mama" can be used in black popular culture: the singer says he has been warned away from the girlfriend of the song's title by his parents, referred to as his Mama and Papa. I doubt there was any confusion among the song's intended audience; you have to reach pretty far to imagine this as an Oedipus-complex trope. Two different women are called "mama" in juxtaposition.

Louis Armstrong about the time he recorded "Save It, Pretty Mama."

A song I am somewhat more familiar with is Louis Armstrong's "Save It, Pretty Mama," one of the many gems in the treasure trove of Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings made in 1927 and 1928. The lyrics make it crystal-clear that what Louis wants saved is not a piece of his mother's apple pie. "Now save it, pretty Mama, day by day / Please, honey, don't give none away." The relationship is erotic, and the warning is a lover's plea.

Those two well-rooted examples should suffice. Floyd could very well have had both loved ones in mind when he repeatedly cried "Mama!" But the sentimentality of a dying call to one's mother lifts hearts in more than one culture, and I think Chauvin's attorney was attempting to deflate that balloon. 

Ernest Hemingway in Africa in the 1930s

Reporting for "Esquire" in 1936 on Italy's invasion of Ethiopia,  Ernest Hemingway
noted that a Mussolini foot soldier, if shot in the buttocks or thigh, was capable of mouthing patriotic slogans praising Mussolini and inclined to do so. If he was more grievously wounded, however, the cry was invariably "Oh mamma mia!" and "the Duce will be far from his thoughts."

Hemingway was clearly stirred by the contrast. In "A Farewell to Arms," he famously scorned all the language of patriotism linked to martial sacrifice. So he was dependably dismissive of the ordinary warrior's response to flesh wounds. But a bone-breaking or nerve-striking or belly-bursting shot would have him reflexively cry out to his mother. 

Now, Hemingway hated his mother (maybe the new Ken Burns documentary will go into that), but he clearly appreciated the significance of the Italian soldier's heart-rending cry as heard on the  Ethiopia "field of honor" (Hemingway's ironic term). The seasoned reporter goes on to write that a soldier so wounded, if lucky, should have been advised to shift into a prone position to discourage the vultures who could be expected to gather quickly around a dying man, plucking out his eyes and otherwise going about their scavenger duties.

In the conclusion of an amply sympathetic report about the common soldiers serving the fascist cause, Hemingway writes: "...when the birds come down...I hope when they are hit someone will have told them to roll over on their faces so they can say 'Mamma mia!' with their mouths against the earth they came from."

The vulture in George Floyd's case was of the human variety, representing the force of white supremacy scavenging the often doomed vitality of black lives in America. The earth against which his face was pressed was paved over, but it was the same earth, and the cry — whether addressed to a mother or a girlfriend or Mother Earth itself  — can be taken as a universal response to the surprise of painful, unexpected, and often unjustifiable death.

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