At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White Reviewed By Gordon Osmond of
Gordon Osmond

Reviewer Gordon Osmond : Gordon is a produced and award-winning playwright and author of: So You Think You Know English--A Guide to English for Those Who Think They Don't Need One, Wet Firecrackers--The Unauthorized Autobiography of Gordon Osmond and his debut novel Slipping on Stardust.

He has reviewed books and stageplays for and for the Bertha Klausner International Literary Agency. He is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and practiced law on Wall Street for many years before concentrating on writing fiction and non-fiction. You can find out more about Gordon by clicking HERE

Gordon can also be heard on the Electic Authors Showcase.

By Gordon Osmond
Published on January 12, 2017

Author:April Ryan

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers



Author:April Ryan

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers



For those who are prepared to concede that a mother’s love will probably have a positive influence on a child’s development, that mothers frequently fill the void caused by fleeing fathers, that mistreatment of African Americans is a shameful part of American history that, regrettably persists, albeit to a lesser degree, today, and that throughout American history, African American women in general and African American mothers in particular have made, under very difficult circumstances, heroic contributions to the country’s efforts to improve itself, the principal value of April Ryan’s collection of stories will lie not in its familiar messages but rather in her access to prominent political and media figures.

Whether the author’s choice of some of those figures is ideal is open to question. For example, is the mother of a judicially determined neighborhood thug the best example of enlightened motherhood? And choosing to extol the virtues of a district attorney who is frequently cited as the very personification of prosecutorial misfeasance hardly reinforces the author’s thesis. Finally, why refer to Joy Behar, the clown of daytime TV?

Too often Ms. Ryan avoids discussion of controversial issues in favor of reiterating positions with which no reasonable person could conceivably take exception. For example, in discussing the use of the deplorable “n” word, there is no mention of the morality of scrubbing the word from the works of Mark Twain, a relatively hot topic in literary circles. And while the author repeatedly refers to the extra challenges of swollen black families, accepting with apparent equanimity the phenomenon of 35-year-old grandmothers, would it be amiss to consider ways and means of convincing mothers with limited resources that more can sometimes be less, and vice versa?

On the issue of when a woman becomes a mother, a corollary of when a fertilized egg becomes a human life, Ryan would seem to be a pro-life advocate although the question, like so many others, is not explicitly addressed. It is, however, doubtful that the author would approve Obama’s statement regarding the dire possibility of one of his daughter’s becoming pregnant.

This reviewer found the discussion of the important issue of assimilation particularly superficial. Enlightened assimilation has the potential of providing unbelievable benefits to both groups, yet Ryan focuses exclusively on the negative.

Stitching together bits and pieces produced from email questionnaire responses, telephone conversations, and personal interviews is no easy task, and at times author Ryan seems not entirely up to it. Repetition is probably inevitable although it would be good if the repeats were respectably separated.

I was an activist in fact, who became an artist.”

Less than a page later: “He said he is an activist and then an actor.

Less forgivable are inconsistent quotations.

“…it became a barren part of Baltimore, a dangerous part of Baltimore.”

Then over the next couple of decades it became a barren part of Baltimore and a very (sic) dangerous part of Baltimore.”

When the author speaks for herself, it is all rather slack and routine.

Considering that the book sports a foreword penned by the notorious Chris Matthews and was edited by a prestigious publisher, it is surprising to see that both Matthews and Ryan commit a shared elementary-school grammatical error:

Our dad told my brothers and I to say “officer” if we got stopped driving.” (Matthews)

She had to pay them forward and raise my brother and I to understand that we are blessed with abundance…” (Ryan)

A few other representative stylistic and grammatical lapses should be noted:

None of us were (sic) under any illusion that just by electing an African American president that generations of legacy of racism was (sic) going to evaporate.”

“…he in his business and me in broadcasting.”

Other passages of the book produce smiles:

When I was a young kid—just born—I was a baby.”

John Lewis, as a boy, would at times preach to the chickens on the farm.”

My mother watched my stomach grow during the first six months of my pregnancy…”

My 39th birthday. The last birthday party I celebrated with my mother. I thought I was turning 40.” Ed. Note: No conflict; one’s 39th birthday is, in fact, turning 40.

Without us [women] there will be no procreation…”

“…when you meet someone who has not had the magic, if you will, the beauty, the glory of a mother’s love, there is a piece of them that is just missing.” Some feminists might disagree.

The pages of Ms. Ryan’s collection are replete with references to faith, love, fear, hope, and the like. Conspicuously absent, despite its use with other meanings, is reason, the greatest tool humans uniquely possess in the struggle against the dark. This emphasis on the emotional entitles this book to offer an article to Chicken Soup for the Soul, but not much else.

In sum, if the stories of Stella Dallas, A Raisin in the Sun, The Defiant Ones, To Kill a Mocking Bird, the poetry of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, the plays of August Wilson, the countless exhortations of African American gospel music, and other eloquent expressions of the themes that obviously resonate with April Ryan fail to satisfy, do not expect much in the way of additional reinforcement from At Mama's Knee.