Last year was my first time attending the Essence Festival of Culture. It was a business trip, but let me tell you, I was excited at the prospect of gathering with other Black women, seeing Janet headline and catching every member of New Edition performing together.
Music has always been a core joy in my family. Sunday morning breakfast prep? That meant singing into a spatula while making up dance steps with my siblings in the kitchen. I remember my dad offering a dollar to “whoever can name” some old-school group. This would be the first year of the festival’s return since the world shut down. I was not going to miss it!
The event would take place just weeks before my mother’s 60th birthday. Should I fly her out too? I deliberated. Would we even have a good time? How long before we worked each other's nerves?
Another reason I hesitated: Mom’s ambivalence about her birthday when I was growing up. It seemed as if she didn’t want you to mention it and remind her that she was aging. On the other hand, ignore the date and she’d also seem offended. It had been quite a task coming up with how to observe it. This moment recalled that feeling. We kids had been raised to put my mom before nearly everything. The practice was hard to escape. If I do all of this and I don’t feel like she even appreciates it, then what?
I called my mother with instructions to pack cute clothes and catch a designated flight – nothing else. I wanted to share fun, not feelings. What I envisioned was more Girls Trip as opposed to “Iyanla, fix my life.”
My mother and I haven’t had the smoothest relationship. Our personalities seemed to clash. I never really understood her. I believed that she didn’t fully get me either. I’m a bit of a free spirit – someone willing to take a chance on my passions. I don’t look to others for permission. When met with a “no,” I find another route.
As my mom described herself growing up, she colored within the lines. She did what she was told, and her focus was on making sure her mother wasn’t upset. We were, essentially, opposites. My biggest gripe: My mother was fixated on older versions of me — ones into which she didn’t have full insight. Her impressions no longer fit who I was. I’m not an impetuous teenager who makes decisions without blinking or thinking. I’m a mother myself now. I still do things my own way, mindful of the impacts on my son.
I’ve gotten older. Gone through therapy. Established boundaries and non-negotiables. As I focused on my journey forward — not fixated on my parents’ validation, but my own —communication became less frequent.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely over-the-moon while considering whether to invite my mom to Essence Fest. But regardless of our up and down relationship, she had been the queen bee in our home. I still wanted to please her. I prayed, sought advice, journaled. I thought of the time my father and I got my mother Kings of Comedy tickets. Excited to present the surprise, we created a scavenger hunt. My mother sold the tickets. I just didn’t want this latest gesture to be in vain.
A part of me was still the little girl searching for my mother’s approval. But the other part was thinking, This could really be the ultimate girl’s trip! I even gave her a homegirl nickname, “Lee Lee,” because whenever we would go places and I yelled out “Ma,” people would often stop in bewilderment because they thought we were sisters. Calling her “Lee Lee” helped with finding her easily in a crowd and gave us a more personal connection despite being told over a lifetime, “I’m not one of your little friends.”
I called my mother with instructions to pack cute clothes and catch a designated flight – nothing else. I wanted to share fun, not feelings. What I envisioned was more Girls Trip as opposed to “Iyanla, fix my life.” Like the women in the movie, each of us was in a different space in our lives. Could this trip turn the age-old, “I’m not one of your lil’ girlfriends” dynamic into an actual “girlfriend” bond? My mother seemed genuinely excited about my surprise.
Arriving before her, I decorated our hotel room with birthday swag I’d ordered on Amazon —streamers, balloons, a tiara, a sash. I stuffed a birthday card with gift cards for spending money.
Uncharacteristically, my “if you’re early, you’re on time” mother missed her flight. Arriving the next morning, she met me in the hotel lobby. Entering our room, she burst into tears, saying, “No one has ever done anything like this for me!” I was beaming.
My day, my way
Now, navigating the festival can be overwhelming. I preplanned which activities my mother and I would do together (meals, shows) and separately (networking events, panels, shopping). At the arena, you can shop, get free products, eat and hear artists perform. Outside the venue are more activities at hotels, at restaurants, on the street. I ended up meeting some girlfriends in my hotel lobby, but my mother was too tired to join us.
How incredible to see New Edition with original members Bobby, Ralph, Ronnie, Michael, Johnny and Ricky present. When they performed “If It Isn’t Love,” my mother moved smoothly out of the way knowing dang well I was making a beeline toward the aisle to do the choreography!
Since I was working, I wanted legroom to move how I wanted. I have always deemed it harder for my mom to spread her wings. With five children, perhaps she’d lost her personal passions and pursuits. I wanted her to get out there and see what she was made of. I knew she’d be inspired by the other women of all ages at the Fest. They were doing all the things. Making things happen for themselves.
We would meet back at the room and compare notes about the day. I could tell my mother may have felt a way because I wanted to do things separately. But I reasoned that once the nostalgia wore off, I’d become irritated by a comment or look. I’d worked for years to validate myself and my boundaries. I wanted my time to be mine.
Evenings together would be a great time. How incredible to see New Edition with original members Bobby, Ralph, Ronnie, Michael, Johnny and Ricky present. When they performed “If It Isn’t Love,” my mother moved smoothly out of the way knowing dang well I was making a beeline toward the aisle to do the choreography! We both laughed when security ushered me back to my seat.
Not only that, a mentor of mine upgraded our seats so that we were a stone’s throw away from Janet! When Ms. Jackson walked offstage, audience members thought the show was over. My mother and I knew she was coming back! As soon as she did, we both screamed and jumped like teenage girls.
Throughout the long weekend, we also saw The Isley Brothers, the Roots, Patti LaBelle and so many other incredible artists.
All in all? It was a blast.
I am glad that I put myself out there for this milestone in my mother’s life. I don’t always understand her thinking, condone her ways or believe in certain behavior. But what I will say is that I never had to walk a day in my mother’s shoes. For this reason alone, she deserves my unwavering respect.
Given the choice to do it again, I absolutely would – just to see her smile.