Catherine Hayes Carr [Maa Kheru/The Voice Is True], 1928-2022
“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah 8: 10
“It’s been a long time now. And not many remember how it was in the old days, not really. Not even those who were there to see it and hear it as it happened.”
“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has chastened me sorely, but he has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of
righteousness, that I might enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; The righteous shall enter through it.”
–Psalm 118: 17-20
Noting the value of elders in our communities, the Fula historian Amadou Hampâté Bâ once observed that, “when an elder dies, a library burns.” In other words, when we have not listened to those who have lived and seen and loved and trained us for many years, when they become Ancestors we risk losing the value of what we have heard.
Over the arc of her ninety-three years on top of the Earth, Catherine Hayes Carr has been known by many names: Catherine. Kidney. Bay-Bay. Cat. Cathy. Mama. Mom. Ma. Mama. Aunt Cat. A’int Cathy. Big Mama. Grammy. Ms. Carr. Ms. Cathy. Sister Carr. Mother Carr. Mama Carr. Queen Mother Carr. In the early morning hours of January 19, 2022, she added the highest Earthly honorific: Venerated Ancestor. When an honored elder makes transition, she takes with her the witness and marking of generations. When a Queen Mother transcends, our rituals of completion and regeneration must ensure that the relationships and responsibilities we wove into the fabric of our existence with her now cover, protect and enable those of us left here and those yet to come. Queen Mother Catherine Carr carried us with her every day of her life, sharing her Earthly journey as a constant, loving guide.
The youngest of six, Cathy returned to this world as a baby born on a palate in a house anchoring a family farm in Russell County, Alabama. She arrived as the youngest living daughter of her parents, Thomas Sr. and Gussie (Williams) Hayes, the granddaughter of Ella and Albert Williams and Dock and Nancy Hayes, the great granddaughter of Peter and Mimy Hayes and Charles and Emma Morris, true human beings who farmed the land and raised their families in the shadow of American Apartheid and the Southern Lost Cause. Dedicated believers who helped lead as Deacon and Mother in Seale, Alabama’s Providence Missionary Baptist Church, the Hayeses raised Cathy and her siblings, Thomas Jr., Roberta, Dock, Albert [Buddy] and Corrie C, to place their faith in The Word and the Good News, hard work and sacrifice.
Learning life lessons from parents and siblings that she used with family and classmates in Russell County’s Uchee Valley School, Cathy was one of hundreds of thousands of Black children throughout the US South learning reading, writing and the value of education from Black school teachers and others during the inhuman days of American Apartheid. For far too many in the first three generations to live in Jim Crow suffered, in the words of Carter G. Woodson, a sequel to slavery. The Hayes, like millions of others, would find and teach hope and triumph though the power of their faith and their own labor. In her adolescent years, Cathy absorbed that faith, growing, playing, even racing in Tuskegee Institute’s famous Tuskegee Relays, before following her siblings into the world beyond the farm.
As her teenage years turned into her twenties, Cathy, like every other local, crisscrossed the imaginary state line that stitched sister cities Phenix City Alabama, and Columbus Georgia, working and enjoying free time with her family and friends. She sang in a family gospel group that broadcast from local radio stations such as WOKS, WGBA and WDAK. A first marriage, to an Army veteran, drew Cathy out of the South temporarily, to places as far away in the United States as Connecticut and beyond American shores, to Metz, France. The marriage did not last: One of the most enduring traits of her being was being in tune with oneself and what was right for them. Feeling the pairing was not right, the union was ended.
Soon after, Cathy was approached by a young man from Buffalo Valley, Tennessee, another military draftee recently stationed at the nearby Fort Benning, Georgia base where he had completed his service as a Sergeant in the United States Army. This man, a widower who she would often say had been sent to her, was in fact the love of her life, Haywood Haskell Carr. Having spotted her while she worked at a local dry cleaners, he asked her a simple question, befitting his iwa pele, his gentle character: “Will you give me a chance?” That question led to a brief courtship followed by an eternal union forged in 1964 and including the 31 years on earth before Haywood rejoined the Ancestors in September, 2001.
Haywood made his way to Nashville, in search of work and a permanent home where the Hayes and Carr families, now joined forever, could begin a new collective chapter. Cathy followed soon after. Two children joined their union, Greg and Jeff, and the new family cycled through temporary arrangements in South Nashville, making life-long friends as the man Cathy referred to as “Carr” found permanent employment with the Veterans’ Administration Hospital. While living on Lawrence Avenue, Cathy befriended and adopted next door neighbors Sadie Shearon and James Wilson as extended parents, known to her as “Mommie” and “Mr. James.” Sadie’s home church, Kayne Avenue Baptist Church, became the Carr church home as well, and the children had another new set of grandparents.
Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Paris Avenue, joining Cathy’s pioneering in-laws, Virgil and Mary Green and their children, who became additional sons and daughters and siblings to the five new Carrs directly across the street. Big Mama Gussie Hayes joined the Ancestors during this time, and Cathy would later cement a new dimension of her relationship with her mother for the next generation by naming her and Haywood’s third child Gussie. Big Papa Thomas followed after, as regular visits between relatives in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and beyond anchored the childrens’ awareness of their roots, surrounding them with family, strengthening eternal bonds.
For fifty years, Cathy rose through loving service, becoming a pillar among Sainted Elders in the Kayne Avenue church family. She served in ways large and small, from the Missionary and Senior Choirs, the Mothers’ Board and a range of other commitments to representing KABC at National Baptist Conventions, with the Stones River Association and, “through it all,” joining the Joneses, Gentrys, Scotts, Fitzgeralds, Ensleys, Robinsons, Kilcreases, Halls, Harrises, Petersons, Dixons, Ridleys, Kimbroughs, Cosbys, Gordons, Hammonds, Blacks, Simmonses and many other families who poured good speech, good character, deep service and wise instruction into generations untold. At home, Cathy sat in tight-knit community with the forever family that makes up the Paris Avenue neighborhood of Carr, Turner, Halsey, Beasley, Taylor, Johnson, Work, Collier, Hambrick, Hooten, Weathers and other families who raised their children and involved themselves in each other’s joys, sorrows, challenges and triumphs.
As Cathy’s biological children progressed through school, she expanded her influence as mother, counselor, confidante and inspiring and teaching presence to a widening flood of her community children. Cathy would live to see her role expand throughout Nashville and beyond: The Carr home became a waystation, sanctuary, confessional and ritual destination for students from Tennessee State University, Ohio State University, Temple University, Meharry Medical College, Howard University and many other places beyond. When travelling, she frequently found herself placed in seats of honor, recognized by officiants and even called upon to help preside at public rituals and convenings. In the early 1990s, she was named one of five Queen Mothers of Nashville, alongside Mother Burnece Walker Brunson, Melba Sewell, Dorthey Gentry Smith and Zulee Ursery. She rejoins them now, the Nashville Queen Mothers Council finally able to sit in and offer counsel at complete ancestral strength.
Over the last thirty years, Cathy joined Queen Mothers from across the US and beyond, becoming an honored elder of The Association for The Study of Classical African Civilizations. In 2009, she travelled to the Nile Valley, undertaking a two week study tour of Ancient Egyptian sites and serving as the journey’s presiding elder, lecturing nightly during classes to eager students who joined her swelling extended family of children.
She said in an interview at that time:
“I have played Harriet Tubman. And I just feel like I am her. Her spirit is in me. And I am just dedicated to that. That’s why I came to Egypt. So I could see further and learn more and get the feeling, what I feel. We should appreciate what our Ancestors said…It just impresses me to see the young people getting your education and knowing, not just thinking what other people say. You find out for yourself. And that you’ll know where you come from. And that way you’ll know where you’re going, and how you’re going. Can’t nobody give you nothing but that sweet water because you’ll know the real thing.”
Catherine rejoins her parents, Thomas Hayes Sr. and Gussie Williams Hayes, her siblings, Albert, Thomas Jr., Rosetta, Dock, and Corrie C. and her husband, Haywood Haskell Carr. She ascends to become Ancestral counsel for her children, Greg, Jeff (Kenetha) and Gussie (Randy) Fuller, her grandchildren (Jumoke, Ellington, Joshua, Eden, Daniel, Kai and Kamaria, Bonus Granddaughter Saneeah) and generations of nieces, nephews and extended family children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, family for who she made no Earthly distinction. She truly loved us all.
As Queen Mother Catherine rejoins her Ancestors and becomes one of ours, we are reminded that this earthly life is limited by our human perception when it is in fact just a brief linger in larger eternity. Our burial rituals marks the beginning of our community journey without the physical presence of our new Ancestor. Our celebrations of her ascension, remembering the life she lived here and the effect she has on us, will only grow stronger in the months and years to come. We will mark her ascension day. Then her birthdays. And, soon enough we will rejoin her, and all who came before her, who live on in the physical now in our blood and bones and in the spiritual forever all around us. It is God, though unseen, who is the source of all life, power and health. It is well with our souls. Queen Mother Cathy knew that. As she ascends, she knows it more than even before. Mothers always do.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
–Hebrews 12: 1-2
I have come from my town
I have descended from my nation…
I spoke truly, I did justice
I spoke the good, I repeated the good,
I held on to rightness so as to stand well with people;
I judged two parties so as to content them,
I rescued the weak from one stronger than he as much as I could;
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked,
I ferried the boatless;
I respected my father
I pleased my mother,
I brought up their children.
I face death today like a sick woman regaining health
Like one come out after imprisonment.
I face death today like the scent of myrrh
Like sitting before the sail on a windy day.
I face death today like the scent of the lotus,
Like sitting on the edge of drunkenness.
I face death today like a familiar road,
Like a woman returning home from the battlefield.
I face death today like the clearing of the sky
Like a woman discovering the unknown.
I face death today like a woman eager to see her home
After many years in captivity.
–Egyptian Funerary Declaration, ca 2500-2000 BCE
“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”