I believe the best heroes are the ones who have not been publicly recognized. They are someone’s hero simply by living their life as usual, not necessarily striving for anything particular outside of survival. They are everyday folks.
Therefore, my greatest hero definitely isn’t a celebrity or someone who lived a rags-to-riches story. As a matter of fact, this person isn’t a hero at all. She is a heroine: my mother. She is known by the simple appellation of Bessie Mae, and she has been my greatest source of inspiration.
A brief glance into this extraordinary woman’s life makes it clear. As part of the last wave of people leaving the South during the Black Diaspora, we settled in small town Bloomington, Illinois. My mother was married to a man who pledged his allegiance to vodka practically every day. As Mother explained to us later in life, she simply didn’t want us growing up exposed to an alcoholic. So, one day she packed up her seven kids in an old brown Dodge station wagon, hitched a U-haul trailer to it, and headed back down south to Montgomery, Alabama.
She had every excuse to give up or even to turn to alcohol or drugs, but she did not, though the entire deck was stacked against her. At five foot three, she was a black woman of small stature, with no college education in a southern cesspool of racism in the mid-1970s. But for her, giving up was not an option. She did whatever she had to do to survive as a single parent and to successfully raise all her children to adulthood.
By high school I had started to sense that my mother had accomplished something amazing as a single parent. Then, when I was seventeen years old, I signed up for the Marine Corps. The day I left for basic training, my mother told me, a skinny, nervous black kid, four simple words: “Just do your best.” That expression may be a cliché, but coming from her it has given me a lifetime of powerful inspiration.
I’ve had my share of ups and downs in my life, from military service to working as a border agent in southern California to a three-year jail sentence for taking bribes from smugglers. Through every obstacle I encountered, I would think to myself, “If Mother overcame her challenges, I have no excuse not to do the same.” The more I matured, the more I admired her for what she had achieved.
Things are going well for me since my release from prison. I graduated from community college with highest honors, and now I’m a student at Columbia University. Every step of the way, I have been fueled by the inspiration of my mother—my hero. I have never given up. I have tried to do my best. And I owe it all to Bessie Mae, a black woman who never gave an inch in the face of life’s unforgiving challenges.