Photo illustration of family photos, newspaper headlines and handwritten letters
Image courtesy of Scalawag Magazine

This story was originally published by Scalawag Magazine. 

There are dozens of articles online about my mother, Tamara Mitchell-Ford. Since the 1990s, she has been the object of incessant fascination in local papers and news segments in Memphis, Tennessee, my hometown. The articles document her battle with alcoholism, her frequent arrests and incarcerations, and her very public marriage and divorce from my father, a former state senator and local politician. 

Her obituary in The Commercial Appeal was written by the newspaper’s crime reporter. 

These headlines have haunted me for a very long time. I’d eat breakfast and watch sensationalized reports about my mother alongside weekly weather forecasts. The headlines followed me on weekdays to school and on weekends to Shelby County Jail East Women’s facility, where my siblings and I would often visit her. 

For years, reporters would stalk our home—knocking on our door at random hours, asking about a recent trial or arrest. They wanted my mother to comment on her own punishment. Some would even wait in their cars to snap pictures of her passing by the front door. 

Surveillance ordered our lives. It was an ugly and unbearable way to live.

I started to believe our house was haunted. I heard noises from the vents that sounded like voices. I saw shadows gliding along the walls. I found dead birds in our attic. In an unfinished room upstairs, a large framed picture of us—my father and brother holding hands, my sister and I sitting in our mother’s lap—was cracked at the center.

One of my earliest memories is hearing my mother find our dog, Pia, dead beneath a bag of charcoal in our backyard. It appeared to be a tragic accident. No one noticed for hours, until my mother called out for Pia several times into the night, to no response. Eventually we discovered the dog curled and motionless beside a bush. The bag had crushed her. 

For years, my mother was convinced that dog had been killed. How else to explain it? She’d checked all over the backyard for some clue, but it didn’t seem like anyone had hopped over the fence or broken the latch on the side door. I remember my siblings and I had been home with our mother alone—all of us younger than five. We couldn’t have done something like this. But who was to blame?

Some of these hauntings now, I think, can be reasonably explained. But as a child, I knew something lurked in the dirt, alive with the ants beneath the trees. And inside, I believed it followed us. Especially my mother. 

I would often watch her—from the top of the stairs or hiding behind half-open doors—crying into her hands. Or, on many nights, furiously typing on her computer for hours, talking to herself about the book she needed to write about her life. My mother was caught in this scandalous hold: inside of a column, inside of a cell, inside of our home. This woman I watched being watched by the city. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. But even at that age, I knew she was in tremendous pain, something I couldn’t begin to fathom. 

“In 2001, Ms. Mitchell-Ford was arrested after she rammed her car into the Collierville home where her husband’s girlfriend was living,” the obituary reports, 14 years after the initial incident. This act followed my mother for the rest of her life. Driving through the garage was a running joke I heard told in passing with family, and even between strangers when I lived in Memphis. It appears in many articles about Tamara. The scandal that outlived her.

The truth is that I lost my mother years before she died. She was dead before she died. I have been wanting to know what happened to my mother, in her own words. What terrible, unthinkable conditions lead someone to drive through a house? How unimaginable was the violence and pain that I watched envelop her but could not name as a child?

I thought grieving was a denouement to a relationship. But I can’t trace where it begins and ends. For me, as for my mother, grief is living. 

My relationship with Tamara was mostly an exchange of words, letters I would write to her in jail or notes I’d leave in her room after watching her drink until she passed out. 

I’ve been writing to her through time since I can remember, though few of her words remain.

Almost a decade after driving into the house, my mother wrote this on Facebook: “We behave as if a crisis does not exist.” 

It’s chilling to me. 

In a recent interview for the 25th anniversary of her first book, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, author Saidiya Hartman states:

"I set out to engage the catastrophe and the ways it was performed and articulated in cultural practice. The reckoning with catastrophe and performance required a deeper understanding of the material conditions of slavery and its afterlife."

Theory has helped me—in ways simply surviving suffering cannot—to clarify the crisis my mother named. Tamara writhed under the spectacle of punishment and dishonor that subtends the lives of many Black women that is not just the aftermath of slavery, but its continuation. 

I believe what my mother wrote about in the past is waiting for me in the present. 

Tamara had very little left to leave behind for us when she passed. No pictures, no books, no old coats or junk mail. Overwhelmingly available to me, however, were these press clippings: videos from WMC Action 5 News, a variety of her mugshots, and prison records. 

I became obsessed with this public archive. When I had trouble sleeping, I’d search and download a PDF of any article I could find about her. Then, it became a hunt to find them all. I wanted to save the hideousness, the dates, every miniscule detail I wouldn’t have known about her otherwise. I searched for every article about my father where she was even briefly mentioned, and also loudly absent.

“Loss gives rise to longing, and in these circumstances, it would not be far-fetched to consider stories as a form of compensation or even as reparations, perhaps the only kind we will ever receive,” Hartman writes in her 2008 essay, “Venus in Two Acts.”

I started searching for what I’d lost in this archive on Tamara. Poems became repositories for my losses and helped me attend to the violence she endured by calling it by its name. 

I was attempting to make my poetry a practice in writing palimpsests, which comes from the Greek word, palimpsēstos, meaning “scraped again.” Writing over the scraps of one story to tell a new one, or at least to interrupt it and make some intervention. This was also my life, and I longed for a way to talk back, to be in dialogue with the dead and speak to my mother again.

A Maiden Name Was Once Useful As A Strong Test of Identity

Before that day, I did not know our mother
owned a name other than mother.

Just as it had yet to occur to me any mother might flip
the magazines of paranoia and perfume in a waiting room

without her children and be summoned before
a block of cells containing everything

she had ever lost. Behind the door she remains
a woman in need of attendance or removal...

Read more.

As I poured over these newspaper headlines, I knew something was missing in all of my collecting: Tamara’s voice, her writing. I kept searching for my mother’s name in her own obituary for years, as if I’d just missed it, like it was a typo. I realize now that this was the terror. This is the condition of slave-making: To be obliterated in the text that makes you its object. To be obliterated even in death, but also reanimated. Christina Sharpe writes about this phenomenon in In The Wake: On Blackness And Being:

"Living in/the wake of slavery is living 'the afterlife of property' and living the afterlife of partus sequitur ventrem (that which is brought forth follows the womb), in which the Black child inherits the non/status, the non/being of the mother. That inheritance of the non/status is everywhere apparent now in the ongoing criminalization of Black women and children... Living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality in, and on, our bodies while even as that terror is visited on our bodies the realities of that terror are erased."

I’d believed for years the presence haunting our lives was a specter dwelling in the yard. But this isn’t a ghost story. The abjection my mother endured was organized and funded by the city—from the police officers, to the judges, to the reporters who circled our house, hungry to add to their narratives. Tamara’s humiliation and punishment were profitable and entertaining. It was made possible by structures and a paradigm of surveillance fortified by antiblackness, which claimed her life—as an ex-wife, an addict, a prisoner, a main character, my mother. None of these were even stable identities for her to claim. 

The most stabilizing force in my mother’s life was her suffering and its usefulness to the media. This crisis is much more terrifying than the spirit of a dead dog. 

In “Venus,” Hartman asks:

"If 'to read the archive is to enter a mortuary; it permits one final viewing and allows for a last glimpse of persons about to disappear into the slave hold,' then to what end does one open the casket and look into the face of death?" 

There is no honor in dying when you are Black. The evidence of this is overwhelming. My mother has been brought back from the dead with every re-publication of old interviews and articles. This is a continual degradation. 

"Why risk the contamination involved in restating the maledictions, obscenities, columns of losses and gains, and measures of value by which captive lives were inscribed and extinguished? Why subject the dead to new dangers and to a second order of violence?"

I accept that what has been recorded in this archive cannot be obliterated. But this history is my inheritance. 

When I began searching for Tamara in alternate archives—in my memory and in the memories of other people (her friends from college, high school, the women who claimed me as their niece and kin)—I started to realize I risked more with silence. I risk more by not listening to my mother and her own words. 

Hartman’s questions have moved me to ask my own: What happens when the child of a slave writes over text that has been digitally archived? Can that child offer an account that can map new possibilities onto death?

I’m interested in what interrupting and talking back to this archive can teach me. It may seem incomprehensible to drive through a house, if one believes in an appropriate response to terror. I don’t believe there is a legible response to a bottomless catastrophe. My mother’s post has become a prompt for me. If I can change my own behavior in the face of crisis. 

A few years ago, around Mother’s Day, I found a video of Tamara uploaded to YouTube. She’s about to get arrested after keying my father’s car in a Piccadilly parking lot. In one shot, the frame lingers at her car, and zooming slowly toward the window, there I am. Pigtails. As the shot begins to focus, my brother and sister are peaking their heads up from the backseat. I’m holding a small book against the window to shield my face from the camera. Attempting to hide. 

I find myself suspended in time, inside this violent archive, watching again.

I am becoming something else through this grief. A conspiracy, perhaps, with my mother and what we may write together. I’m scheming to finish the book she started. Plotting to haunt the past that haunts me. Tamara can speak for herself. And if she so chooses, may she haunt the present that refuses to let her go. It calls us both by name. This time, I will not hide.

Victoria Newton Ford is a poet from Memphis, Tennessee. She is a MacDowell and Lambda Literary Fellow, and her work has been supported by Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, the Vermont Studio Center, and The Hurston/Wright Writers Workshop. She earned her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on her first manuscript about Black mothers and their daughters, captivity, and haunting.