Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat
- By Patricia Williams with Jeannine Amber
- Dey Street Books
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Ida E. Jones
- September 9, 2017
An earnest account of urban poverty laced with hope and the power of self-determination.
Patricia Williams’ new autobiography, Rabbit, unfolds likes a PBS documentary about a black girl growing up and living on the edge of poverty. Williams — whose stage name is Ms. Pat, and whose childhood moniker was Rabbit — has penned a sincere, lurid, profanity-laced conversation between herself and her reader.
In recounting her life, Williams draws the reader into her experiences prior to becoming a comedian. She is direct about her family life: “I grew up in the 1980s in the inner city of Atlanta. My mama was an alcoholic single mother with five kids. She could barely read and only knew enough math to play the numbers and count out the exact change to buy herself a couple of bottles of Schlitz Malt Liquor and a nickel bag of weed.”
There is no mention of her father or the circumstances that rendered her mother, Mildred, a substance abuser. Unlike Mildred, Williams “dreamed of a different life.” She fantasized about being reared by a June Cleaver-like mother who doled out affection. Instead, her mother “would get drunk off her gin, whoop me with an extension cord, call me ugly, and tell me to take my ass to bed.”
In the midst of growing up in poverty and neglect, there were silver linings that she fondly recalls, one being her grandfather George Williams (aka Bear Cat). Mr. Williams was the only man in her childhood who always had money. His industry was an illegal liquor house in Decatur, Georgia. He sold moonshine and operated a bar in his home. “Most folks were scared to death of my grandfather, because he didn’t take shit from anybody.”
The home was filled with card players, drinkers, and an occasional sex worker. It was during those years that Williams lived a bittersweet life. Despite her troubled home, her grandfather was always supportive, offering praise here and there: “Baby girl, you a natural in the kitchen, musta got it from me.”
Yet at the same time, Williams, then 8, was being trained by Mildred to be a pickpocket. Woken from sleep, she would be ordered by her mother to rummage through the pockets of boozers who’d passed out. The reward was a dollar.
“The upside was with all those blackout drunks, I made good money — five dollars was a lot for a kid in 1980. But as much as I liked the money and respect, deep down I hated my job.” Her days with Bear Cat ended after a violent shooting and arrest.
Williams’ prepubescent years were filled with little to no food, used clothes, and horrible teasing from other children.
“You learn to live with a lot of bullshit when you’re poor as hell: cockroaches crawling on your toothbrush, no running hot water for a bath, having to pack up all your belongings in trash bags every few months and move because your mama fell behind on the rent. But the one thing I could never get used to was being hungry.”
In this time of severe deprivation, Williams relied on humor to survive. One day in elementary school, after a brutal ribbing by two popular girls, she hid in the classroom closet. There she encountered students’ lunchboxes and feasted on food that belonged to “Mercedes, who was fat as hell anyway.”
Enjoying her stolen meal, Williams savored the quality of brand-name products in comparison to government-issued or generic brands she had to eat on an intermittent basis.
Third grade was another poignant time in Williams’ life. Sent to a program for slow learners, she met Ms. Troup, who taught her to read. Moreover, Ms. Troup believed in her, telling Williams, “You’re a bright girl with a lot of potential. It means if you work hard, you can do anything. You can be somebody. This world is filled with possibilities. You can do anything you put your mind to. All you have to do is dream. Promise me you’ll remember that Patricia.”
Rabbit is written in an unfiltered and unapologetic manner. Williams doesn’t excuse the bad decisions that resulted in her selling drugs, being shot and jailed, and periodically failing her own children.
The book is not, however, a fix for those set on devouring black pathology or voyeurs of urban poverty. Instead, it’s a story of one life tangled in the weeds of bad circumstances that manages to find sunlight, accept the rain, and sprout anew.
Ida E. Jones is an archivist and lover of documentary films. She is the author of two books: Mary McLeod Bethune in Washington, D.C. Activism and Education in Logan Circle and William Henry Jernagin in Washington, D.C. Faith in the Fight for Civil Rights. She believes that biographies are transformative stories that provide humans a safe space to learn from others and accept themselves wholly.