A Mom Straight Out of the Nitty Gritty of the '60s - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Mom Straight Out of the Nitty Gritty of the '60s

A Mom Straight Out of the Nitty Gritty of the '60s

By Eugene S. Robinson

The many faces of Irma Norman.


Because if you’re lucky enough to have a good mother, you can change the world.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Irma Norman
Harlem, New York

I’m a native New Yorker. I was born in New Rochelle but lived in the Bronx and Queens, then all over Brooklyn. First Cobble Hill, then Crown Heights and, finally, Flatbush.

You, my first-born, were born when your father, my husband at the time, and I lived in Jamaica [Queens] and rented the top floor of a multistory house my aunt owned. My second and third kids were born in Flatbush in a brownstone my second husband and I owned. Then, after living in Brooklyn for almost 35 years, I moved to Harlem with my third husband.

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The author (left) at Howard University.

I went to Howard University, where I got my degree in sociology and education. Later, years later, I received my master’s degree in counseling. I got married the beginning of my senior year and was pregnant my senior year, but there is not a professor I had that didn’t know I fully intended to pursue my chosen field. Which I did.

I went in and I left with handcuffs and a .38 on my hip. That was tremendously exciting.

I always knew my life’s calling was working with troubled kids at Spofford, the now defunct juvenile detention facility in the Bronx. I was committed to and thoroughly involved in the ’60s ideals of changing the world and helping those in need and making the world a better place.

At the same time, I was the mother of an infant, and while I saw the possibilities for my child, I also saw that everyone should have them. I was a little naive at the time — some things certainly did not change — but it was the beginning of the civil rights era. I knew Stokely Carmichael, who is now known as Kwame Ture, and what he was doing with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee].

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The author right after moving to Flatbush, circa 1974.

My family was so proud and supportive; I can’t even talk about it without crying. Everyone worked and pooled their money so that I could go to college — I was one of the first in the family to complete my education. There was no financial aid back then, but there was never a word of complaint about the money spent.

I remember one day when a few of us young mothers were outside. Your father was still at work. I needed to go to the bathroom, so I started to bundle you up to take you with me, although, you know, no wants to wake a sleeping baby. One of the other mothers said, “No one’s going to take your child,” kind of making fun of me. But I still woke you up and took you inside with me.

After I went back to work, I had the same mother watch you during the day. You were walking and talking by then, but this one day I picked you up and you were kind of pensive, so I asked you how your day was and you said that the woman had asked you, “Who was that white man in the car?”


The kids as kids and a little more grown up.

I never took you back there. I hated that mindset. And you didn’t even know what the question meant. For you, “white” was the color of the paper you drew on. But connected to people? She and her husband were not bad people. They were working people, very enterprising, but you can’t encourage cultures as deities.

Some Black people when they talk about white people, they do that. We didn’t do that in our family or encourage it.

With me being an only child, and my mother being an only child, and my father being an only child, somewhere along the way after I remarried I decided I wanted to have another child. It took three and a half years to get pregnant with Maya. My tubes were inflamed, but after a lot of medications and tests, I got pregnant, and then I got pregnant again with Pilar while I was working as a counselor at Brooklyn College.

I started at Brooklyn College after I stopped working for Mayor John Lindsay. He had started a neighborhood action program, so I was doing some version of community organizing after I left Spofford. And I left Spofford because I wanted to make a difference before the kids got in trouble.

I eventually left Brooklyn College because I was bored and I needed to get back to the nitty-gritty. The parents and the kids were lovely, but I needed to get back in it. So I left and became a probation officer.

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The author and her husband.

It was great: pre-sentencing reports, interacting with the judges. I was very energetic, and I needed more than paperwork to do. See, they put me in a cushy place and I wanted to be in the rough-and-tumble.

So I became a New York state parole officer. I went in and I left with a handcuffs and a .38 on my hip. That was tremendously exciting. But I left because I needed to do more than lock people up, and because the caregiving portion of counseling that I love fell away after 10 years in law enforcement.

Which puts me in a unique position. I mean, these people getting beaten up by the police are not invisible to me. I know them. I’ve met their mothers.

I look back knowing that things are worse now than they have ever been for that particular population. The person who is now working at Horizon — what the “new” Spofford is called — should put the same energy into it that I did.


Three generations of strong women.

Because, yes, while there are still jamokes on the street, things have been set in motion to create an underclass and to keep people dependent. Drugs are distributed and sold in certain neighborhoods, but when the Kennedy family can come to Harlem to buy illegal substances and not go to jail for it, there’s a problem.

Realistically, you either get a foothold or you don’t, and if you don’t work really hard to get it, it’s not going to happen. That’s why I became an academic adviser at Bronx Community College’s Educational Opportunity Center. I was helping people overcome obstacles to living beyond the inequalities.

When I was at Howard, in the girls’ dorm we’d talk about the things we were going to do when we had kids. All of those things on my to-do list? I’ve done them and everything turned out exactly like I wanted it to. I am super pleased with my children.

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