Book: Yellow Crocus 

Author: Laila Ibrahim


There were so many things about Yellow Crocus that grabbed me by the collar. I don’t know how not to talk about it. This book finds me at a time where I am questioning how my fertility issues are going to collide with the wishes of my family, and what I think is right for us. It comes at a time where Black women’s bodies and the children who come from them are under attack, and finally there is some attention being paid to the challenges we face as vessels of life. We are also looking deeper into the nature of some men, and their insistence that they have agency over the female body. We are examining the role of the “magical negro,” and daring to step away from that label-walking out into the sun from under that awning.

I have never been a fan of e-readers, or e-books, so I am not sure how I ended up with an Amazon fire, but I dug it out of the rubble from under my journals and desk supplies, powered it up and finished Whiskey and Ribbons (another must read) on it. Once I was full of that magic, I went looking for something else I could run my fingers across while my son and partner lay sleeping next to me at night, breathing swirls of forever into the air.

The cover art is arresting. A young black woman with eyes that are almost hollow, yet electric ring out with cries for help. The little white girl a top her lap has a round innocent face. It is clear she is a well-fed baby. From the breast of that black woman. The picture tells its own story. We all know it. Once upon a time, it was not en vogue for a white woman of status to use her own breast, her own milk-her own life blood to feed her child. That duty was reserved for a wet nurse, or “Mammy.” I will never understand how someone you consider your subordinate gets to feed your child with their milk, but I digress.

I almost went past this book, because I didn’t want to examine it and come away feeling bewildered or upset about how the tide has turned, but then the title held my hand and walked me back to my first teaching assignment where me and a friend would yell out “Crocus” at least twice a week to pick on each other for having huge purses which resembled crocus sacks. I made a connection as I read the words Yellow Crocus and dove right in.

Yellow Crocus is the story of Mattie, a slave on a large plantation on Virginia, and her charge, Lisbeth. As soon as Lisbeth is born, Mattie is made to leave her baby boy, Samuel with her father, affectionately known as Poppy,  and her close friend, Rebecca, so she can move into “the big house,” and work as a wet nurse to Lisbeth. Mattie knows that she will have to perform this task well before Lisbeth is born, and she is rife with emotion. In some ways, she is resigned to life as a slave, and understands that as such, she is beholden to the whims of the whites who are “Doing their Christian duty” and taking care of the blacks. As Lisbeth’s mother labors, Mattie savors the smell of her own baby, fully aware that these precious moments between them will soon be over.

Quite naturally, Lisbeth takes a shine to Mattie. She will not even entertain her own mother, who in a small way wants to nurse Lisbeth, but is restricted by societal norms and an overbearing mother-in-law. After one attempt to nurse Lisbeth, she gives up and allows the bond between Mattie and Lisbeth to grow. Another baby comes along, and when Mattie is commissioned to nurse the baby boy, Jack-Lisbeth is thrown into a tailspin that leaves her next to dead because in her protest, she refuses to eat or drink. The only thing that saves her is Mattie’s milk. As the years pass, Mattie watches her baby boy grow up through a window, and during her weekly visits to the slave quarters. Soon, she starts to bring Lisbeth with her. The girl becomes jealous of the bond between Mattie and Samuel. Lisbeth is green at the affectionate tickles and giggles they share, and the realization that no matter how close, Mattie is not her mother. Despite the bitterness she feels, Lisbeth uses her time with the slaves to teach Samuel to read and write. Mattie only learns the letters of her name. Years pass and Samuel is sold. His father’s plan to run becomes the right answer for her. She was against it when he was younger, almost bending her mind to her condition and seeing the silver lining in her role as a slave, even telling Emmanuel they didn’t have it that bad. When Samuel leaves for the neighboring plantation, Mattie is bereft, and ready to trust Emmanuel’s plan. It works, and Samuel and his father escape to Ohio. When the plantation owner realizes her son is missing, he orders Mattie to be brought in at once. She is beaten for three days and returns home where Lisbeth applies salve to her raw wounds.

Having experienced the uglier side of servitude, Mattie decides to run, joining Samuel and Emmanuel, leaving Lisbeth with a shell from her necklace. Lisbeth, though hurt, doesn’t betray Mattie, she keeps her secret and grows into an attractive lady. After going to several dances, she settles on a suitor. His name is Edward Cunningham, and he is heir to a sprawling estate. Right before they are set to be married, she sees Edward raping a slave, and is unraveled by his animalistic nature. After sharing concerns with her friend Mary, and her mother who both brush off her concerns about the man she is about to make a life with, she decides not to marry him, and opts to attach herself to Matthew Johnson, a kind and gentle man who wishes to move to Ohio and start a family. Though her parents go to extreme measures to keep her in Virginia, she persists and moves away with Matthew. She becomes pregnant, and Mattie serves as her midwife, helping her through a difficult labor. Talk about coming full circle!

I felt so many different emotions reading this book. Most of the time I was sad for Mattie. I am a mother. My son is my world, so I was right there with her feeling lost when another woman had to nurse Samuel so she could nurse Lisbeth. I was also sad for Ann, Lisbeth’s mother, because she wanted to do what was natural and suckle her own baby, but her mother-in- law was so adamant that she should not. Emmanuel made me proud when he went through with his plan to get himself and Samuel to freedom. Same with Mattie. There is a force within a woman which (Most of the time, there are exceptions.), will not allow anything to keep her from her children. I believe the author, Laila Ibrahim, beautifully illustrates this fact by having Mattie make the journey to Ohio with her baby, Jordan strapped to her back.

As a doula, the ending scenes where Mattie has to coach Lisbeth through a difficult labor lit a fire inside me, bringing me back to my first birth where I watched a young woman have c-section because she was deathly afraid of having her doctor turn the baby. Childbirth provides many opportunities for death or sickness. I love how in this book, the wisdom of the midwife, and strength of all members of the family make for a safe and successful delivery. It’s confirmation that we need each other.

Read this book. Maybe even twice.

Note: I have never done a book review before. If you read this whole thing, we go together now.