458) A Lesson from Mama

Kay Coles James grew up in the segregated South of the 1950’s.  She and her five brothers lived in a government housing project in one of the poorest black neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia, raised by their single mother.  This story is from her 1992 book Never Forget (pages 45-47).

     We often heard lectures on the value of hard work, the importance of education, and such.  Of course none of these sermons, though they certainly had their place, was as effective as the living example of my mother.  We watched her board a bus in the cold morning hours and return after sunset, tired but ready to cook and clean for her own family (after her job of cooking and cleaning for others all day).  Her daily routine taught us the dignity of honest work and the incomparable satisfaction of earning a living.

     When we were tempted to turn to unChristian activities to sweeten the dullness of a no-frills life, Mama always reminded us that we were better than that.  How many times did we hear that the Coles family did not beg, cheat, or steal?  If we were dying to have something that was the rage among the other kids, no amount of whining to Mama would get it.  If we wanted it, she would tell us, “Go out and get a job to pay for it.”

    These principles of living applied even when our sparse diet of chicken and biscuits was cut back to biscuits and ‘fat back.’  A standard dinner was Hungarian goulash– Mama’s name for hamburger meat with canned spaghetti and any leftovers in the refrigerator.  We ate kidneys and rice when we were lucky.  It used to kill us on Sunday afternoons to walk home for dinner across the neighborhood and smell fried chicken wafting through the air.  That smell almost got my brother killed… by Mama.

     Some of Ted’s friends figured out that the kitchen at the elementary school could be broken into fairly easily since it had only a single lock.  Now Ted was a tagalong and, true to form, he went along with them when they broke into the school’s walk-in refrigerator and stole some of the plucked chickens hanging there for school lunches.

     You can imagine our joy (and surprise) to see Ted come in the back door with his hands full of chickens.  We started jumping up and down and doing something like a square dance right there in the kitchen.  None of us had asked where he got them, knowing somewhere in the back of our minds that it’d be best not to.  But there was no sense in trying to fool Mama once she got home.  She had that sixth sense that mothers have that tells them exactly what their children have been up to no matter what story they come up with.  She knew that Ted hadn’t bought the chickens, but she wanted to hear his story.

     He just flat out told her he had taken them from the school, banking on the fact that she would see it as he did:  not really stealing, since the school seemed such an impersonal storehouse.  Stealing from the school was not like slipping into the back of Ike’s Grill and making off with some of his spiced shrimp– now that was stealing!  Taking things from the school was somehow different in our minds, but not in Mama’s.

     She took those chickens by the feet and started pummeling Ted, who was ducking left and right, trying to avoid getting poked with a wing or a bill.  She backed him into a corner and, with one hand still holding the birds and the other pointed right in his face, she spoke in a voice so low and forceful that you’d have thought that God was speaking:  “Boy!  I will starve before I let one of my children bring stolen food into this house.”

     That was all she said before she turned and opened the back door.  We all watched bug-eyed as she flung those chickens into the back yard.

     My brothers and I remembered that incident whenever anyone from another part of town called us “project niggers.”  Because of Mama’s high standards, we knew who we were.  We might have grown up in a public housing project, but Mama raised us at home.  A lot of struggling single-parents and courageous grandparents know what I mean when I say that the circumstances a child grows up in are far less important than the character of the person who raises them.  

      We tease each other a lot about the chicken story, but the part about Mama’s throwing them out the back door is always told with a certain bit of pride because the other mothers accepted the stolen chickens and cooked them that night for dinner.  Our mama didn’t.  One simple incident taught us so much about honesty and integrity.  The other boys learned that if their mother would accept stolen chickens, then she would probably take drug money as well.  The early lessons that those boys missed cost many their freedom and some their lives.

     Mama’s teaching about honesty and hard work helped define us as individuals.  We knew who we were.


Kay Coles James has had many leadership roles in government and nonprofit organizations: She was Virginia’s secretary of Health and Human Resources and President George W. Bush’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and is now president of the Gloucester Institute, a leadership training center for young African-Americans.


Matthew 4:1-4  —  Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ 

Exodus 20:15  —  Thou shalt not steal.

Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.



 Almighty God and heavenly Father, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us also grace to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace, and may hereafter be found in the number of your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.