It was always a gamble going somewhere with Mamma Cheese. She was light-skinned. The white women disliked her because they thought that she thought that she was “as good” as them. But the black women disliked her because they thought that she thought that she was “better” than them.
Mamma Cheese didn’t take shit from anybody. Once, when I was a kid–maybe like 10 years old–I experienced what, at that time, felt like embarrassment to me. When I grew up, though, that episode registered in my mind as a proud moment:
She took me to Kroch & Brentano’s bookstore, downtown. That was the bookstore, and I think it was a chain. It was a known racist store. Okay, she finishes shopping, and we’re standing at the checkout counter. There’s a white woman in front of us whose merchandise is being run up by the clerk. Behind us is another customer, a white woman, waiting, like we were, to be waited on.
Okay, the white checkout lady finishes ringing the lady up, walks past my mom [TRIES to!!] to go wait on the white woman that was standing behind us.
Mamma Cheese grabbed her by the collar, pulled her back in front of us, and said, “Oh no you WON’T!! Ring it up!!!!” The white clerk was shaking. But she rang it up.
I was feeling embarrassed, and when my mother had grabbed her, I’d looked over to where a big, white, male security guard was standing, and I was certain that he was going to intervene. When the dude saw my mom holding that woman by the collar, he turned his back and looked the other way.