Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light is a powerful memoir in many aspects. Smith not only touches on the varying topics of religion, race, sex, and parenting, but ties them all together in a recount of her extraordinarily ordinary upbringing. The memoir focuses heavily on Tracy’s relationship with her mother, Kathryn, as well as her search for who her mother was “before,” or who she was outside of being a mother of five. This is a story of the development of Tracy’s relationship with her mom, but we also see Tracy’s coming to terms with the fact that mother may not always know best. At an early age, she saw her mom as a larger-than-life figure with no faults to be found, and she felt an extraordinarily strong attachment to her. However, as she moved through life, Tracy began to question some of the beliefs her mother had instilled in the household and became less candid about things she experienced on her own. Part of those experiences had to do with her exploration of her racial identity, something her mother seemed to almost disregard while her children were growing up. Tracy’s development over the course of the memoir led to her being able to separate her own views from her mother’s and keep more to herself, which means that she individuated herself from her mother. That earliest stage is illustrated by Tracy’s reactions during Nina’s visit, followed by her newfound desire for more privacy during her first year of high school, and finally, Tracy’s demonstration of awareness of her mother’s imperfections and her own individuality when she comes home from Harvard for the first time.
When Tracy was a child, there were many instances of her loyalty to her mother. Her belief in her mother could almost be viewed as religious, but because of the intense religious climate of the household, Tracy’s mother wouldn’t be very fond of that comparison. When Nina visited California, six-year-old Tracy was baffled by her cousin’s actions and demeanor. It’s interesting that Smith found it worth mentioning that “[Nina] didn’t want the eggs [Tracy’s] mother offered her” (38). It would have been insignificant for Nina to have wanted something different for breakfast, but since Nina outright refused something from her mother, Tracy took offense to it. She had such a strong sense of tradition within her family and such love for her mother that any affront to her mother was an affront to Tracy as well. It’s not that Tracy was opposed to Nina’s cheese grits (which are delicious, by the way); she simply felt like her mother had been disrespected.
In this same section, Smith noted that “[her mother] would give [Tracy] instructions once, and [Tracy would] do what she said, never considering the alternative” (41). Sure, readers could simply view this as Tracy’s being an obedient child, but this level obedience requires a great deal of respect. For a child to look down on other children for their rowdiness and instead identify with their parents seems a bit unusual. Tracy could not make sense of one’s compulsion to disobey one’s parents; the idea was foreign to her. Her obedience also relates back to the heavy religious influence in the Smith household, namely her attachment to Little Visits with God. Smith stated that she was “fearful of disappointing [her] heavenly Father” but considered “wounding [her] mother with anything less than exemplary behavior” a more heinous offense (40). Young Tracy’s unwavering loyalty was a testament to not only the closeness between Kathryn and her youngest daughter but Tracy’s view of her mother as someone who could do no wrong. This would be the case until Tracy was exposed to more of the world in her teenage years.
As is normal for many kids, they gradually begin to grow apart from their parents as they enter high school. Even Tracy experienced this, which was a stark contrast to her earlier dedication to her mother. She expressed a desire for a sort of secrecy that she didn’t really feel when she was younger. It’s not that she was lying or going against her mother’s wishes; she was simply becoming more in tune with herself outside of the home. During her friendship with Qiana,
For a child to look down on other children for their rowdiness and instead identify with their parents seems a bit unusual. Tracy could not make sense of one’s compulsion to disobey one’s parents; the idea was foreign to her.
Smith noted that “[her] mom had no idea what kind of information Qiana was feeding [her]” (182). This suggests that Tracy doesn’t tell her mother everything anymore, instead relishing in having a few things that are solely hers. She also starts to become aware that her views are changing, such as when she acknowledges that “[she] wanted to be liked—to be wanted—the way Becca was,” referring to the girl in her Bible study that was dating an older man. Earlier in the memoir, it was stated that Tracy couldn’t imagine wanting to kiss boys and didn’t understand sex, but now as she’s exposed to such things, she acknowledges that she does or will experience these desires at some point.
Around this time, race starts to play a bigger role in Tracy’s life. Part of why Tracy could have these “secrets” was because she was making more black friends. Her mom seemed to be more lenient in her allowing Tracy go places and was “happy to see [Tracy’s] circle of friends…darkening– to include more black girls” (183). This shows development on Tracy’s mother’s part; she had previously never shown much interest in the racial aspect of her children’s social life. This could be a sign that she is aware of Tracy’s exposure to the world and recognizes that Tracy is more likely to start thinking about her own racial identity. While this is the case, not all of Tracy’s new race experiences are positive. The “Black Girl” situation with Diane took Tracy a while to come to terms with, and she never shared it with her mother. She felt that it was something she should keep to herself, and that independence continues to carry her through high school and college.
After Tracy goes away to Harvard and comes back home, she sees her parents in a new light; most notably, she mentions that they seem “smaller.” At this point, Tracy is fully conscious of the decision to hide things from her mother because she, too, is an adult. Smith writes that she learned “how to be vague about certain aspects of [her] coed life” and that “the need to put distance between [herself] and [her] mother felt urgent” (258). Tracy is aware that no matter how old she may be, her mother could still become disappointed in her for straying from the ideals she worked sohard to instill. That brings into question the current complexity of their relationship. She mentioned that other mothers may have viewed their children’s opening up about growing up as “natural or even healthy,” but that she would have felt “guilt and shame” when speaking to her own mother (259). She was aware that it would not have as much impact on her now that she was grown, but that seed of fear that kept her from disappointing her mother all her life was still present. Tracy knew then, with hindsight, that her upbringing wasn’t necessarily conventional and that the way her mother ran things was sometimes strict or strange. Their relationship at that point was not quite estranged, but both parties were much more private and independent.
Tracy and her mom’s status as African Americans had little impact on the progression of their relationship aside from her mother’s belief that her children should strive for excellence in order to overcome the stigma surrounding black children and the appearance of more black girls in Tracy’s social circle in high school. Tracy’s racial identity was more of something that she faced on her own, such as the situation with Diane and her experiences with other black people in college. It was good for Tracy to be able to explore her status as a black woman outside of the domain of her mother, seeing as Kathryn had a more “Booker T. Washington” view of their blackness. In a way, Tracy followed that thinking by becoming well-educated and successful, but she came to be more socially aware than her parents in the end.
Over the course of her upbringing, Tracy’s relationship with her mother evolved from being a close one full of unwavering trust to one of mutual independence and self-reliance. Tracy tells us the story of her mom in a way that both allows her to make sense of what her mother was to her and makes readers feel like they knew her. Ordinary Light was an invitation from Tracy into her home and mind to show us just how powerful family relationships can truly be and how events of one’s upbringing can influence one’s life. It’s the story of Tracy’s searching, and by the end, readers know that she found herself.
Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light: A Memoir. Vintage, 2016.