stevie wonder's mother -- 9/15/15

Today's selection -- from Signed, Sealed, and Delivered by Mark Ribowsky. Lula Mae Wright, the mother of the legendary Motown singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder, was born in Hurtsboro, Alabama in 1930. Her teenage mother gave her away when she was six months old, and she later lived from couch to couch before marrying a man who forced her into prostitution:

"Lula Mae could only dream of being lucky enough to ride the whistle-stop Ed Bell sang of out of Hurtsboro. Her life was a classic Deep South scramble. Her mother had been a teenager who had given her up to relatives six months after she was born. leaving her only with the surname Wright; her father, a bounder named Noble Hardaway, didn't even wait for the birth to vanish, hightailing it all the way to East Chicago, Indiana. Lula grew up believing her aunt and uncle, named Wright, were her parents. Only after they died did she learn about Noble, who in the winter of 1943 agreed to take in the daughter he never knew. Lulu was put on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe headed for East Chicago.

"She was thirteen then, suddenly with a new surname and a new father, and what she would recall of that journey through the barrier of time and reality was how cold her bones felt when she stepped off the train in Indiana, colder than she could even describe. It would get colder still. Noble Hardaway was by then married and raising two children in a suffocating tenement, surrounded by other southern black emigrants driven to East Chicago by the promise of a steady paycheck from the steel mills. The promise was never quite as bright as they expected, the pay was paltry, lodging cramped, frustration thick in the sooty air. Worse, Noble Hardaway was a snarling, uncouth man and a mean drunk who quit on his newly found daughter after two weeks, sending her to an aunt and her church deacon husband a few miles away to look after her. There, Lula felt some warmth for the first time in the North. Her aunt was a tolerant woman who allowed her to drop out of school to work in a textile factory. She was even permitted to hop the train periodically with her friends for the short ride to the 'other' Chicago, the real one, where she once saw Count Basie's orchestra perform in a nightclub. Her aunt's only requirement was, regardless of where Lula was the night before, to be in church on Sunday morning.

"Urban life was surely an education in itself. It wasn't long before her aunt caught the good deacon in a very compromising position with another woman, and when she pulled out her pistol, he bolted from bed into the street, stark naked, ducking the shots she fired at him. Fortunately, her aim was bad, but her judgment was worse; she stayed with him on his vow of probity. Lula herself was not unfamiliar with the wages of sin. An adventurous, restless girl, in 1948 she became impregnated by a man named -- of all things -- Paul Hardaway. The suddenly moral cheatin' deacon, unable to bear the stigma, threw her out of his home and she roamed from one friend's couch to another before gathering up enough money to move into a small flat of her own. A few weeks later, she delivered a son, whom she named Milton Hardaway despite the father not having stayed around for the birth. Taking pity on her, another relative, an uncle who lived in Saginaw, took Lula and Milton into his home. ...

"One of the chronically unemployed was Calvin Judkins, the first wrong number that Lula Mae Hardaway -- a surname that had come to fit her well, as she seemed to do most everything the hardest way -- fell for in town. Judkins was a squat man with glasses, pushing fifty, and an unrepentant drunk; Lula would many years later call him a street hustler and craps shooter, and bad at both. But she also admitted she couldn't resist him. Oh, he was good-looking enough, but that wasn't it. He just seemed to her not a common punk, especially when he sat down and played piano wherever he could find one. At those times, he was an artist, a man with depth and feelings who could transfer his suffering for life into what his fingers were tapping out on a keyboard. He had something to offer the world, if only he would get serious, clean up, be a man.

"The chemistry led them to his bed, early and often. In short order, she was again pregnant, and in mid-1949 came the birth of her second son, Calvin Judkins Jr. Calvin Sr., doing his manly duty, moved Lula and her two boys into his two-room flat, then had a relative stay with the infants for a weekend while he took Lula down to where it was warmer -- balmy Columbus, Ohio -- to elope. When they got back, he seemed to be fulfilling Lulas grand dream for him to straighten up and fly right, taking a job in a furniture store and earning the first steady pay in his life.

"It didn't last long. Walking the straight and narrow line wasn't what Calvin was about; the lure of the street came calling again. Quitting his job, he took up his old hustling habits -- but now with a beyond degenerate twist. Calvin, looking to turn pimping into profit, knew of only one sure shot he could put to work on the street. One day, stinking drunk, he clambered into the house with a 'friend,' informing a flabbergasted Lula that he wanted her to 'take a ride' with the guy. Before she could even react, he grabbed her arm hard, so hard she knew Calvin meant business -- literally. Not knowing which was worse -- that he was pimping, or that he was pimping his own wife, and in front of his baby son -- she feared, rightly, that she had no real option. As if in a sleepwalk, she followed the john to his car, performed oral sex, and stumbled back in a daze. Pleased, Calvin, clearly unconcerned with any moral issues, nor the depth of his cruelty, reached into his pocket and put five dollars in her palm.

"That surreal ritual would play out many more times. Lula, turning herself numb to the humiliation and pain, seemed to justify it by invoking some twisted construction of love, and the responsibility of feeding her children, given that Calvin's handouts were the only money he put into his family. At times she endured beatings, from Calvin, from johns, one of whom nearly broke her jaw with his fist when she gave him some back talk. Eventually, she began to carry a switchblade, just in case. When she found cause to use it, though, it wouldn't be a john but her own husband who would feel the blade."


Mark Ribowsky


Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder


John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Mark Ribowsky


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment