Let's start with the title: "Black Mother Woman." When I read the title, it strikes me as three separate nouns used to define a single human being. The subject of the poem is all of these things and, sometimes, just one at a time, depending on who is looking at her and what that viewer wants to see.
In the poem, a narrator speaks directly to her mother—a woman whom she describes as hard and angry and determined not to appear weak. The narrator understands now why her mother acted in the way that she did and realizes that her mother's toughness was key in forming her daughter's good, strong character.
The first stanza uses contrast:
I cannot recall you gentle
yet through your heavy love
I have become
an image of your once-delicate flesh
split with deceitful longings.
The narrator negates the image of her mother as "gentle," which contrasts with our expectation of what maternal love is like—warm and gentle. Instead, the narrator received "heavy love," a phrase which produces a sense of love that does not feel good or comfortable. The narrator's endurance of heaviness has transformed her, as one would be transformed through weightlifting. Mother's flesh is not hard, despite her heaviness, but "once-delicate," which emphasizes how life has changed this woman. She is not only changed but "split with deceitful longings," as though the things that she wants or desires are not truly beneficial to her.
The second stanza imagines her mother as a ghost and a creature of the mythological world:
When strangers come and compliment me
your aged spirit takes a bow
jingling with pride
but once you hid that secret
in the center of furies
with deep breasts and wiry hair
your own split flesh and long-suffering eyes
buried in myths of little worth.
From the phrase "aged spirit," it is unclear if her mother is still alive or dead. Either way, she remains a sensorial presence, for one can hear her "jingling with pride." "Jingling" is a sound of merriment, which contrasts with the mother's former presence "in the center of furies." Furies, in Greek myth, are spirits of punishment. In punitive fashion, the narrator's mother hung her "with deep breasts," thereby turning body parts used for nourishment into appendages that can kill. Again, the narrator describes "split flesh," which can be a metaphor for the vulva or for the mother's conflicting maternal feelings. Her eyes are "long-suffering" and "buried in myths of little worth," meaning that her mother has been consumed by images (myths) that demeaned black woman and negated black motherhood.
The third stanza reveals a wish for reconciliation and understanding:
But I have peeled away your anger
down to the core of love
and look mother
a dark temple
where your true spirit rises
and tough as chestnut
stanchion against your nightmares of weakness
and if my eyes conceal
a squadron of conflicting rebellions
I learned from you
to define myself
through your denials.
The narrator characterizes her mother's anger as having layers that can be peeled away like the layers of an onion. This suggests that her anger is complex. At its "core" is love, either a wish to love that had to be protected or a hidden desire that she hid beneath her layers of anger, out of fear of vulnerability. The narrator characterizes herself as a "temple," where she can protect her mother's spirit and allow it to take more of its natural shape—"beautiful and tough as a chestnut." By describing the "chestnut" as "tough" instead of hard, the narrator emphasizes one's inability to break within to the softer parts at the "core."
The narrator is "stanchion," or an upright bar or frame that provides support, against her mother's fears of weakness. The narrator, it seems, has perpetuated her mother's resistance to norms of behavior. She, too, embodies "conflicting rebellions," which she conceals—the feeling of being split between desire and duty, love and obligation. The narrator, too, has defined herself through her mother's denials. The reader is uncertain if this is a good or bad thing. Is the narrator characterizing herself in relation to her mother's strength and willingness to sacrifice, or in relation to her mother's unwillingness to show tenderness out of fear of appearing weak? The conclusion is ambiguous. What is clear is that the narrator has defined herself according to her mother's habits, suggesting a legacy, passed from mother to daughter, about how to survive.