THE NEW NEGRO
No one sat me down and told me I was a Negro. That was something I figured out on the sly, late in my childhood career as a snoop, like discovering that babies didn’t come from an exchange of spinach during a kiss. The great thing about finding out I was a Negro was that I could look forward to going places in the by and by that I would not have been asked to as a white boy.
There was nothing to be afraid of as long as we were polite and made good grades. After all, the future, back then, assembled as we were on the glossy edge of the New Frontier, belonged to us, the Also Chosen. The future was something my parents were either earning or keeping for my two sisters and me, like the token checks that came on birthdays from grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts.
The future was put away for us, the way dark blue blazers were put away until we could grow into them, the way meatloaf was wrapped up for the next nervous quiz meal and answers to our stormy looks were stored up for that tremendous tomorrow. Every scrap of the future mattered, but I didn’t have to worry my breezy head about it because someone was seeing to things and had been ever since my great-grandfather’s grandmother stepped on the auction block.
All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow. You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they—whoever “they” were—had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even. You had nothing to fear, though every time you left the house for a Spelling Bee or a Music Memory Contest the future of the future hung in the balance. You were not an immigrant, there were no foreign accents, weird holidays, or funny foods to live down, but still you did not belong to the great beyond out there; yet though you did not belong it was your duty as the Also Chosen to get up and act as though you belonged, especially when no one wanted you to.
You had nothing to be ashamed of, though some of the Also Chosen talked in public at the top of their lungs, said “Can I get” instead of “May I have,” and didn’t say “please” ever. United we stood, which did not include everyone on the block. It wasn’t right to think you were better than your neighbor, but it also wasn’t smart to want to be like the kids who ran up and down the alley all day and were going to end up on a bad corner in front of a record shop dancing under the phonograph speaker strapped above the door.
Forgiveness was divine, but people who moved away from you at the movies, tried to short-change you at the new shopping mall, or didn’t want you to have a table at the Indianapolis Airport restaurant would get what was coming to them, though they acted that way because they didn’t know any better. All you had to do was ignore them, pretend you hadn’t heard. Those who dwelled in the great beyond out there could not stop His truth from marching on, but until His truth made it as far as restricted Broadripple Park, you did not go swimming, because even the wading pool at Douglas Park had something floating in it that put your mother off. Douglas Park was not much fun. There were no train engines to climb over, no hand-carved carousels. The YMCA that met there let its beginning swimmers splash naked. Your father could step around whatever turned up in the water as often as he liked, but if you and your sisters got sick from swallowing something other than chlorine your mother was going to go back to her mother in Atlanta and never speak to your father again.
To know where you were going, you had to know where you’d come from, though the claims that the past had on you were like cold hands in the dark. Those elderly relatives, old-timers in charcoal-gray suits and spinsters in musty fox tails, who went out of their way to come to Indianapolis to have a look at you, those wizards licking gold fillings and widows coughing on their bifocals whom you didn’t want to travel miles and miles or eat ice cream with—they were among the many pearly reasons you had to hold your Vaselined head high, though you were never to mention in company your father’s Uncle Ralph Waldo, who had lived the blues so well that he wound up in a nuthouse without the sense he was born with because of a disease. Grandfather Eustace spelled its name so fast not even your sisters were able to catch the letters.
Above all, you had to remember that no one not family was ever going to love you really. The Also Chosen were one big happy family, though the elderly relatives who hung over holidays like giant helium balloons couldn’t stand the sight of one another, which gave fuel to the blue flame of confidences and bitter fine points that burned until the stars folded up. Sometimes the old-timers seemed to be all there was. They far outnumbered their younger relatives. The family tapered off, depopulated itself from shelf to shelf, but the ranks of the old-timers promised never to thin. They enlisted the departed in their number, on their side, which added to their collective power to dominate those of you who would never know what they knew.
The old-timers boasted of their ability to bug you from the grave, saying one day you’d want to talk to them and they wouldn’t be there anymore. They’d hint that they’d be watching you closely from wherever they went when they passed on. Your dearest reminded you every morning of the problem that you would never, never get away from. However, escape I did, the burden of consciousness was lifted from my round little shoulders, and for a while there I was gorgeously out of it.
* * *
Grandfather Eustace was the emperor of out-of-it, yet he was also a distinguished man who tried, in his way, to answer all the questions. Even before I was old enough to listen he was crouched in the prompter’s box, anxious to pass on that record of alienated majesty. I spent much of my life running from him, centripetal fashion, because he was, to me, just a poor old darky. I did not return his phone calls, I cashed in his train tickets, I went to the movies when he came to visit, but he was forever rising through the waves of my denial, sustained by the knowledge that he, his father and mother before him, his brothers and sisters, his sons and daughters, were a sort of dusky peerage with their degrees, professions, and good marriages among their own kind.
“Your grandfather,” my father once said, “suffered from being black at a time when everyone was white.” Grandfather Eustace never let us forget that he had been educated in the Holy Land: at Brown and Harvard. He was a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time. He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the suspicion that no one else shared it. He took the high road, but because he made the journey in a black body he lived with the chronic dread that maybe he wasn’t good enough.
Grandfather acted out his contradictions in high-handed style. One of his brothers with whom he carried on a lifelong feud pointed out that before Grandfather became a minister he failed to hold on to the simplest clerk’s job because he could never get along with his superiors or co-workers. Even after he became a man of the cloth more than one quiet church went to extraordinary lengths to rid itself of the “dicty spade” who wore his learning on his sleeve and pitched his sermons over the heads of the supplicants.
Yet it was for their sakes that he was called to God. He loved to be among what he called the honest folk and preferred to be the only emissary from the Talented Tenth—Du Bois’s elect, whose education was to be like a beacon to the unwashed. Believing that they looked up to him, Grandfather was consumed by a passion for the poor, the forgotten. His vocation revealed itself one twilight during the Depression when he found himself wandering through Yamacraw, the red-light district that clung by its fingernails to the rib cage of railroad in Savannah, Georgia. Yamacraw was so violent that the police never crossed the tracks.
Surrounded by fired-up types, Grandfather began to bother their heads with visions of his own. The sons of Belial calmed down, and in a delirium of relief Grandfather talked on and sang and lamented. Hardly anyone followed what he said, but it sounded like the gospel truth because the theatrical, sorrowful young crackpot who stood before them with his arms stretched toward the rain clouds was touched with such a command of the language of the other side. He wasn’t drunk and he didn’t pass the hat, which proved that he was a cut above the usual jackleg Bible thumpers who cried out every Saturday night. Yamacraw carried him, the man they themselves might have been, into tin-roof shacks and fed him turnip greens. When they grew restless with his hootch-free eloquence, the messenger accepted an escort back to the fringes of decent Savannah. They left him serene in the flivver dust, in the middle of a digression on Pascal’s wager.
Grandfather never got over the admiration in those faces, the rapt attention, the melancholy shadows thrown by the dented kerosene lamps. He also never again preached like that, but the Word meanwhile had become flesh.
* * *
Grandfather couldn’t help himself. Whenever he opened the door he was on a mission to prove that the world didn’t know whom it was dealing with. He came from the Old Country. Not Lithuania, not Silesia. The Old Country, to us, meant Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, spectral mileposts of cane swamp and pine, remote tidewater counties swollen with menacing lore. He was born in 1898, in “the quarters” on a farm near Dublin, Georgia. Sherman’s march to the sea had left former slaves and masters together, ruined and forlorn. Decades later, devastation lingered over the region like a corrosive fume.
Grandfather considered it good form not to talk to us about the hardships he had witnessed, just as his grandfather had thought it wise not to speak too truthfully about his years in bondage. Instead, Grandfather told of stealing melons as a boy. He remembered, for me, the sweetness of the dropping peaches, walking behind the plowmen and their mules, fishing in the silvery creeks, the scent of scrub oak, of turpentine stills, the thrill of hearing at night the consoling songs of toil and deliverance. No more auction block for me.
Grandfather’s real story, the one he never told, began, as they say, earlier than he. Perhaps his ancestors lived on the savannahs of Benin; no one knows. They were lost to us in the aorta of history. Certainly his forebears endured the voyage known as the Middle Passage. They were dragged from Africa to Charleston, South Carolina, to the potentates of mercantilism, in coffles aboard ships with names gratifying to their captains—Swan, Hannibal, Temperance, Desire. Grandfather liked to say that his family had arrived before the Pilgrims, but after that he gave no more thought to them than he did to stuffed mammals in a children’s museum. He, too, knew the famous paradox that a slave could be punished for a crime, but an ox could not commit one.
“Is it possible that any of my slaves could go to heaven and I must meet them there?”
Grandfather’s grandfather Limus remembered Crescent Plantation and the legendary occult practices of the pagan, Old Bess, who was his grandmother—maybe. “Old Bess pretends to be mad and works not.” Limus was something of a blacksmith, more of a farmer, and every inch of the way a true believer. Limus, born a slave and buried “free,” belonged, in Grandfather’s mind, to that strange, unsalvageable land of smallpox and murder, of hot hours over slow-burning kilns, palmetto brooms, bunched guinea corn, rice fields. Grandfather had Limus saying at the age of eighty in 1905, “The family was always kind and considerate of its slaves.”
Grandfather’s father, born in a new black town, Promised Land, South Carolina, the year the freedmen were enfranchised, was called Esau or “Free,” the most common nickname of the period. Limus was against Esau’s leaving the land. “You have no need that anyone should teach you.” But a bush said his name and, spreading the Word like chicken feed, Esau set off for the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, an enthusiastic college for black men that began in a church basement. Esau took with him little but the name of the English planter family, those Carolinians—what were they to him?—who’d signed the Constitution, made speeches on the desertion of slaves, negotiated with Talleyrand, twice failed to win the Presidency, and boasted of not using nets as protection against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, because to these failed Presidents nets were effeminate.
It was said that Esau sold berries to raise money, and if not berries something for nickels and dimes. The Atlanta Baptist Seminary was embraced, he fretted over the character of his namesake in the Bible, and when he was ordained who was there? Hannah Lloyd, a student at the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary across the road, one of the little earnest pioneers cloistered and finished for the future of the race. With Esau their future of rectitude was not far from home.
They were married outdoors, on what had been a drill ground for Union troops, and then assigned to the missionary field in southern Georgia, a large territory that included part of the nasty tarheel of Florida. Grandfather’s mother, “Pass Me Not Hannah,” they called her, daughter of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, was something of an heiress, so they said, so Grandfather liked to say—a thousand acres and silver spoons to ladle the gravy even after the price of cotton fell.
* * *
Hannah’s Seminole blood made her quick-tempered, they said, and she was strict with her five boys and merciless with her three daughters. She called on the saints to strengthen her paddle, “the household persuader,” against sass and shiftlessness. Grandfather and his brothers were good swimmers, but the local hole was declared off-limits because Hannah feared that the boys who went there, black and white, would expose her sons to disease and bad grammar. They learned to keep to themselves on their paved street, or to play in abandoned “big houses” overgrown with Maréchal Niel roses.
Esau settled down as pastor of the Thankful Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, in 1912. The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar went on Hannah’s Index, as did tunes like “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and to dance was to taste the apple, though she was pleased to claim W. C. Handy as her husband’s friend. Instead of these pleasures, there were the glories of George Lofton’s Biblical Thoughts and Themes for Young Men and Women, many histories of Jesus, illustrated Scripture galleries, Tennyson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose every utterance was taken as an addition to the King James Version.
Nothing unpleasant ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, though the traditional horrors actually happened. What now seems tired was then fresh. Esau came home wet with whiskey after some provincials, the parlor word for crackers, ordered him to drink and shuffle, and backed up their threats by shooting at his feet. One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches. Grandfather hoarded these memories. Those that he handed out freely, the gentle yarns improvised during sermons and radio talks, gave him a satisfaction not unlike watching someone who has power of attorney sift through a shoebox of Confederate dollars.
One by one Esau commended his sons to the high school attached to his alma mater, renamed Morehouse College, from which rock Grandfather and his brothers were catapulted North. Hannah in her collar and the three dazed daughters in their pegged skirts watched the caboose for a sign. This was the eve of the Great War and the Great Migration, when thousands upon thousands of black people got up and quit the South. Grandfather said that the emptying of a town like Augusta was so sudden it was like the lancing of a wound.
We have enough, but not too much
To long for more.
Grandfather enrolled in Brown University in 1917 and failed his first English essay assignment, “How to Carve a Turkey.” Everyone on College Hill wanted to be an officer. Grandfather surrendered to the Army Training Corps. He sat in chilly alphabetical order with every other freshman in Sayles Hall, but army rules did not permit the six black students to eat or sleep among whites. During exercises they were set up as a separate squad at the foot of the column, with space left for imaginary soldiers. But no amount of serge could help him to pass muster at Sigma Phi Delta.
* * *
“Don’t go where you’re not wanted,” a handbook of etiquette published before the thaw advised black youth. Grandfather was enchanted with the Harvard Summer School before President Lowell swore to preserve the dormitories as God had intended them. He found it hard to stay away. Ulmus procera, Ulmus hollandica, Ulmus hollandica belgica in the Yard, the winged fruit cascading to the ground before the oval leaves opened, just as Du Bois might have seen them.
“I was desperately afraid of intruding where I was not wanted; appearing without invitation; of showing a desire for the company of those who had no desire for me,” Du Bois said. To spare the dignity of his classmates, he read with Santayana in an attic and the only teacher he could recall who asked him home was William James.
* * *
“School was joy unconfined,” Grandfather said. The shock of hearing the wireless for the first time; the falling thunder of the Army-Navy game; the stillness of the heavy Providence snowfalls; tea in Boston with the poet William Braithwaite and his wife; Roland Hayes, the great gentleman tenor, at Symphony Hall; the surprise of the college president, Dr. Faunce, offering his hand at chapel; the obscure lodgings that had the “goody” who came to sweep, the fireplace he filled with soft coals, rooms in his memory animated with cordial struggles over the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and the merits of the football genius Coach Robinson.
He rushed back, in 1921, with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree, to Harvard and Thomas Nixon Carver, his gruff professor of economics. He would have remained forever in the Indian summer of graduate school had he not, between lectures on socialism and single taxism, fetched his bride from the Lucy Lane School and Hampton College, an Augusta girl with misleading Pre-Raphaelite hair, and embarked on the first of his several calamitous meditations as a businessman. “Teach us, O Lord, to know the value of money. So many of us are spending what we do not earn,” Du Bois said.
Long before white people began to jump from windows, Grandfather was broke, beating a retreat from South Station. It was the custom, back then, for black passengers to carry food; once over the Mason-Dixon line they were not invited to the dining car. Grandfather trained his young family in knee pants to ride hungry rather than see his wife tote a basket.
* * *
When the price of bread had fallen, when the breadlines were segregated, when his children were deposited at the table of his mother-in-law, the black people of Savannah asked Grandfather why he kept a box of day-old bread by his steps and received the white hobos who hated him. He said, “Christ said feed the poor.” Blacks did not take to the boxcars and roads, for fear of being picked up and sent to the chain gangs. “If someone reported you, you were gone.” But tramps walked down Route 17, the coastal highway, all night long on their way to hunt for winter work in Florida.
Grandfather reinvented himself as a gentleman farmer purified by error. Mistake number one: in 1926 he resigned after six months as principal of Booker T. Washington, the new high school in Atlanta, to become one of the millionaire strivers fawned over in the upbeat Negro press. After speculations in steamship cargo, livestock futures, mechanical washer wringers, and asphyxiated baby chicks not a foot of top soil from what his mother and father had left him—if they had—remained to be put up as collateral. “The poor die differently from everyone else,” he said.
Grandfather resigned as superintendent of schools for a county that, in deference to his Yankee education, had paid fifteen instead of twelve dollars a week. He pushed off on a bicycle to sell life insurance for a dime. When that didn’t work, he traded in his trouser clamps for a Model T and sold policies for a quarter. They said he had just enough charm to snare quail. Then he walked out of Thunderbolt because his colleagues at Georgia State College were “teaching some ignorance.” Success didn’t like him, his brothers said.
“What is more aromatic than a pig roasting on a cold, clear morning?” Grandfather learned to farm from catalogues and almanacs. He wouldn’t say who made the down payment on the six sandy acres outside Savannah where he studied the Depression, the “siege of misery and want.” To pay for fertilizer, he taught algebra and English at Dorchester Academy, a vague Congregational church school in the sticks that was nevertheless better than the county schools.
Wanting his respect for nature to be of the transcendental variety, he suppressed the truth of how hard he worked his land. As it turned out, it took more than philosophy for a black man to dig brass out of the hills.
Figs and pomegranates, unsuitable to the climate, wilted. His brothers said that Grandfather could grow or breed everything, he just couldn’t sell anything. Vandals destroyed the plum, the pecan, the umbrella china trees, and Grandfather played, with delicate outrage, the hand he was dealt. He heard the screech owls in the persimmon and obeyed: Arise and go to the city.
The Holy Spirit, his heritage, had been waiting, like medicine on the shelf, and never mind that he pretended he had accepted a position with the family concern, much like his classmates back on Beacon or Chestnut Hill whom he could not afford to dream about. Never mind that he went into the church because, in the end, he had no place else to go.
Old Esau had been a kind of down-home Misnagid, but Grandfather signed on with the Congregational Church, the smallest denomination in the black South, in remembrance of what he thought of as the hale New England character and the abolitionists who had swarmed out of the North to plant schools in the red clay. The faithful beat their cardboard fans of lurid funeral-home advertisements like wings, waiting for the zeal of His house to eat up Grandfather even a little bit. “If you can’t whoop and holler you might as well do something else,” an experienced preacher with a hip flask told him. Perhaps in some cupboard of Grandfather’s mind the Congregational Church was an extension of Boston’s Somerset Club.
Back then, to belong to the Congregational Church, a black had to pass the “paper-bag test”—“bright and damn near white.” Grandfather was the darkest bag they’d ever let in. His constant worry was not that he was a black man but that he was a dark black man. Of his brothers and sisters the ones he liked least also happened to be the lightest. The condescension of high yellows hurt. He was easily riled around his wife’s family. Their almond complexions told the old Dixie story. His mother-in-law was the daughter of a governor’s son. She had seen her father only once, when he slapped her mother. She married a boy who also sprang from mustard and cracker seeds. They wore their fair skin lightly, as a trick on governor’s mansions. They could have crossed over, and that, combined with their shrewd business sense, provoked Grandfather.
He told his wife that because her mother was a bastard her mother was no good. “Don’t ever become an educated fool,” my grandmother’s mother once told me, her blue eyes slitted with contempt for the Big Dipper pilots she had known, chief among them Grandfather, the king of spades.
She said the smartest man she ever knew, her mother’s father, could read only a little. He was also the meanest man who ever lived. He worked for the railroads. Because of the Indian in him, she said, he had a girlfriend at every stop. The whites couldn’t take away his job until they stopped using wood to fuel the engines. He never forgot that his life was a living battle and had never tried to dress it up as anything else. Great-grandmother sucked her dental bridge and said that Grandfather’s revelation, his maiden sermon ventilated before the sinners of Yamacraw, had about it, like everything else he did in those mongrel years, a touch of the psychotic.
He once gave a sermon fifty miles south of Savannah. The church in the little clearing was so rustic you could see between the slats. He told the turned-up heads that if they wanted to believe in God, they had to walk the last mile and accept those who hated them. “Write me as one that loves his fellow man.” The black people, some in overalls, said it was the most wonderful sermon they’d ever heard. Even so, the church did not ask Grandfather to hurry back. They were used to hell-raising preaching. They wanted to be told that they couldn’t be thieves, that they couldn’t be fornicators.
The schoolteacher among them had never heard of “Abou Ben Adhem.” He didn’t doubt that Grandfather loved the poem, but he suspected that Grandfather also loved his love of it, and how much this love had impressed the whites who had come just to hear him, taking it for granted that the front pews had been reserved for them. Unsuspecting, Grandfather climbed into his used Touring Hudson with the canvas top that rode like a tractor, thinking he’d introduced them to one of the higher things in life.
Grandfather needed his history with him at all times, like an inhaler. He ran over a hunting dog in a colony of peckerwood cabins. “Come quick, this nigger done killed our dog.” In his secondhand suit from Millsby Lane & Son, Grandfather brazened an apology. A white man in yellow galoshes squinted. “You that nigger preacher? That dog wasn’t worth a damn. Let him go on.”
But Grandfather wasn’t that easy to get rid of. Drive the nail where the wood is thickest—in the hollow, motor idling, quoting Longfellow to the rednecks of Brunswick, Georgia, a pastor who would be free all his life of the moans and groans and writhings of the evangelical, appalled by the gold, by the grasping glitter of the modern usurpers of the old faith.
* * *
For all I knew as a child Grandfather Eustace came from an Oldsmobile. He rarely made the trip to see us, because we lived on the wrong side of Indianapolis, “right there with the hoi polloi.” Ours was the ugliest house on the block, Grandfather Eustace said, and for once my father didn’t hand him any backtalk. In the spring it submitted to new coats of paint, and after the wood had absorbed enough labor, the house looked even more like a wrecked boat tossed on a hill. The hawthorn bushes declined to grow, but dandelions flourished, which meant that the taciturn handyman had to come twice a week with his rotary blade mower.
The retired Baptist minister and his deaconess looked out at our patchwork yard from their apprehensive, gingerbread perfection, and who knew if the neighbor we called the Last of the Mohicans on the other side could see what we saw, that the boat’s insides were beyond hope.
When his Oldsmobile pulled up in front of our seventeen steps, the squirrels ran, unwanted presents and my mother’s interrupted doctoral dissertation were resurrected from under our beds. Time went out the window when he came and the skies seemed to gloat and sing “We are holding back the night.” I knew from the first that I had to be on my guard, had to get my face ready for the next humiliating test, to plan on my way to the basement how to skip by him without inciting too much fuss because, like the unchained boxers on the block, Grandfather bit hard.
Imposing in manner, conditioned by an order in which the shortest distance between two points was a zigzag, Grandfather sucked up the air, left behind that carbon-dioxide feeling. He had his specialties, one of which was to remind people that if they had heeded his advice they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble. For instance, Savannah’s trade in naval stores had collapsed by 1941. The federal government wanted to build a huge troop camp. Blacks who had only scraps of paper as titles of ownership from Reconstruction days were going to have their land bought or condemned or confiscated. Grandfather out with his grub hoe spotted the planes mapping boundaries. He suggested to neighbors to take options and sell: war was war. They ignored him, because he was always telling them what to do, and were displaced. Years later he was still saying they should have listened.
The most Grandfather’s second wife dared to say was that he talked like a man who was born knowing. Grandfather sometimes turned on us like a rigged trap, and of course the benevolent gaze of the sage became the glare of the patriarch. He was not an accomplished minister for nothing. If an adversary was innocent of one crime, some other transgression lay hidden in the shrinking heart. Grandfather invoked the Book, sent out the verses on guilt patrol. An avalanche of wisdom from Deuteronomy, Kings, or Wendell Willkie shook the bulbs in the ceiling.
His accusing looks were as coercive as his ability to summon Scripture. His mahogany skin may have lost its burnish, but his cider-brown eyes were still almost too expressive for his own good—in his day it was often dangerous for a black man to reveal too much intelligence. Grandfather was a consummate actor. Assured of his lines, his script, when my father got him on the ropes Grandfather would leap over him with something like “Grieve not thy father when thou art too full.” His eyes would relax and he seemed on the verge of laughter, as if to ask, How about that? Like the ring of it? We always gave up. Reason was easily stoned by Old Testament wrath.
Grandfather’s performances were seldom concluded without the handkerchief for the sorely tried brow. He had strong, elegant hands and was meticulous about his appearance, his granite-colored hair, custom-made shirts, and pliable, hand-sewn leathers. His communicants demanded their money’s worth, especially the sick and the shut-in, who swooned, he thought, at his neat creases and metaphors, and all those women who waited for the lilt of his prayers.
We endured long pauses before he accepted the flags of truce. He ignored conciliatory conversation, which was a trial for him. Grandfather concentrated on newspaper headlines upside down under plants, on my sisters’ fried braids, on the screams of our playmates in the alley, until he couldn’t bear to see us deprived of his talk. All smiles, he’d rub my stupefied head for luck, signaling that these sparrings were a form of family fun.
* * *
It was 1960 and Jesus wasn’t waiting at home plate anymore. My parents went to church only when they wanted to be seen. Grandfather had baptized my sisters and me over his very own font, down in Louisville, Kentucky, for the time being, and the New Testaments he’d given us were requisitioned by our Sunday-school staff. My parents pulled us out after they heard some of the pre-Scopes notions we were fed, including the axiom that children who placed their hands in mailboxes were snatched up by Satan.
My sisters had gone into the Sunday business of selling automobile brochures from car lots that wouldn’t give my father a loan. They also did a fast trade in civil defense pamphlets: get shielded, drop flat, bury your face, don’t rush outside after bombings, don’t drink water from open containers, do not listen to or repeat rumors. They hid the contraband in Mad magazines, in Tom Brown’s School Days, one of those out-of-place, out-of-time things Grandfather liked to read from, more for his pleasure than ours, and worked nearby out-of-bounds streets, because customers who didn’t know us could be relied on not to make troublesome phone calls. I was paid to stay behind.
The engine of Grandfather’s old shoe surprised us counting up the day’s take of quarters. “Say ‘Howdy’ to your Old Moon.” He swatted his way through the pattern of gnats that danced over our steps and nowhere else on the block. We packed quarters in our socks. He said we looked as if we were facing the dentist’s chair.
Grandfather’s beige second wife brought up the rear, limping, the mark of her childhood trial, polio. He used her, a woman, to express things he could not. He was always saying that she was dying to see us, but we knew better. She was not my grandmother, not like my mother’s mother. Grandfather’s real wife was gone, dead from cancer in 1941. She and her intriguing curls had eternal rest upstairs in the hall closet, in a department-store box of photographs. My aunts said that before they were sentenced to hard time in a shoofly boarding school in South Carolina their stepmother had worked them like chars. We got back at the second wife by not calling her by any name.
Grandfather said it was a good day to duck out on his assistant pastor, because the National Baptist Convention was meeting in Louisville. The offices of that brotherhood inspired the worst sort of contention among the members. The battles were known to upset Dr. King’s stomach. Factions came to blows in elevators and in hotel lounges. “Please, Lord, hold steady this hand while I cut this man.”
The reader of faces waited in his what-have-we-here pose: hands on his hips. Secrecy is the overprotected child’s dissent, but Grandfather already knew what was up. We didn’t have to throw our parents to the lions that day. Tornado Watch, when my sisters piled blankets and cans in the southeast crevices of the basement, had been overthrown by Freedom Watch. I didn’t know what protest was, but my sisters said that the clothes laid out for us showed that protest was up there on the charts with Easter.
The movement that had not waited for Grandfather’s consent infused everyday life with a longing that made intercessors unnecessary. A multitude discovered that it had immediate, unimpeded access to the burning truth, and maybe for that reason Grandfather didn’t think much of it. He wasn’t quoting “Abou Ben Adhem” anymore. Talk of love as the “ultimate creative weapon” made him cringe. His God was not personal, open; He was formidable and avenging.
Suffering was redemptive, but some things, after so many years, were buried too deep and might lose their spell if brandished in the streets. Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit alone, saith the Lord, which clearly did not include “running locofoco with every who-shot-john.” Parading around and eating at Woolworth’s were, to Grandfather, neither sane nor courteous. “That Bond boy ought to know better,” he once said. “He didn’t come from just any home.” Grandfather thought his sudden appearance would force my father to give up his plans.
We had to hear about the time Grandfather went to a symposium at Talledega College in Alabama. Trains didn’t run from Birmingham to the little black college. The teller at the bus station window wouldn’t let him buy a ticket and sent him to the other side. The same teller appeared at the other window. She sent him back to the first one. Eventually, she tired of his passivity and sold him a ticket. He spent the night outside rather than stand in the crowded Jim Crow waiting room. On returning home, he wrote to the officials of the bus line demanding that they correct the inequities of segregated travel.
Once, he continued, he was en route to a budget meeting of the General Synod. He and another minister stopped at a restaurant where they could buy food but not sit. “It was my personal privilege to get an appointment with the owner of the firm. In the closeness of his private office, the three of us—God, he, and I—had a quiet talk together.”
We went downtown anyway, without the mandate of heaven. My sisters were made to leave their genuine U.S. Army sergeant’s helmets behind. My father had to grip the steering wheel with paper towels, his palms were sweating so much.
* * *
A buffalo would have been less out of place than a skyscraper in the downtown Indianapolis scenery of faded brick department stores and mock Prussian monuments. The two movie houses were chaste, but Union Station had a reputation for estuaries of piss and men in the terra-cotta archways with aluminum foil wads full of stolen wristwatches.
The vast War Memorial Plaza spread out toward the state legislature. The Depression had tabled indefinitely plans for a brilliant reflecting pool. Instead, asphalt extended five blocks from the national headquarters of the American Legion to the entrance of a colossal chunk of limestone that featured a pyramid lid. Replicas of gaslights alternated with ailing trees to commemorate the natural resource that, after railroads and slaughterhouses, was responsible for the boom-town designs of the “Crossroads of America.” A stately obelisk pulled the blank pavement together, and tanks along the perimeter were a popular attraction.
I’d never seen so many black people whom my parents didn’t know. Of course I didn’t have that word yet. I’d not even heard “black” used as a term of abuse. The Dozens, as winos called insult rumbles among pre-teens under netless basketball hoops, were still on the list of things to look forward to. Grandfather, the son of a race man, said “Negro” in public, and the way he said it left no doubt that the N was capitalized. But when Grandfather said “Negro” he described an abstraction.
Synaptic delay prevented my making the connection between Grandfather’s parishioners and the offhand “we” of my parents’ front-seat talk, talk that concerned the way “we” were treated at lunch counters on the off-ramps to hell. In my heart I believed my mother’s story that she was the real Shirley Temple. My nerve endings finally passed on the news when I found myself walled in on all sides by Negroes about to define themselves.
We accumulated like pennies near the military mall, between a statue of a grim Abe and a fountain. A sculpture of a wood nymph had been stolen and everyone said that the caravans of police cars were to discourage further theft. Compared to the storms to come, some half-dozen assassinations later, our march around the huge patriotic parking lot was like the haphazard, casual milling around on the lawn after church—patent-leather huddles of busy men canceling dates, aviaries of women in pink hats and white gloves. “Give me some sugar,” they said when they bore down on children to pass out kisses. The most meddlesome among the ladies removed their gloves to straighten bowties or smooth down hair. The nastiest moment came when they licked their fingers to rub dry skin from my cheeks.
We walked through a gauntlet of spectators, sunburnt men with toothpicks and milkshake straws rotating like cranks in front of their thin lips and women who looked as if they did their hair with egg beaters. More goblins came to stare from the tops of coupes and from the carved doors of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. My sisters and I, with our acute myopia, our bottle-bottom lenses, kept a fix on my father’s jacket, on my mother’s jacket, vanished with them and bounced back behind the ear-nose-and-throat man and the pediatrician.
Even the judge who had won a grand slam and gone into cardiac arrest at the last bridge tournament rose from his sickbed to fall in step. They came, though this was before the chance of getting on television had begun to be “factored in.” It was strange to see people who would have died rather than be accused of having flowers that “showed off” call undue attention to themselves smack in the middle of town, in front of so many others who were keeping quiet, arms folded, not about to join in.
Up one side of the plaza and down the other grownups were loud in public. How long? Not long. They made noise and the songs were almost like church, only faster. In church the hymns were dragged out. On the street people sneaked through verses, and then bore down hard on the end, as if they were stomping out a fire. I saw something nervous and steely in the excitement, expressions like that on my sister’s face when she made up her mind to go without training wheels even if it meant hitting the telephone pole.
We didn’t know what to do with our hands. One section wanted to lock arms, another wanted to clap. There were no stars at the head of our procession to show us what to do. My parents said the city fathers and the quislings among us had scared them off by saying outsiders would get what was coming to them. My parents and their friends agreed that they hadn’t needed speeches after all. It didn’t matter how long an audience had been sweating, nobody ever willingly cut short a speech. Leaders, especially, were driven by the code that said, “I’ve written this out and you’re going to hear every word.”
The march had started well enough, but without speeches and banners there was no point to come to. The protest broke up, people left abruptly, rolled away like beads of mercury. My new shoes were covered with dust as fine as powdered ginger and I wanted to hurry home, to sink back into that state where good news for modern Negroes couldn’t find me.
* * *
Grandfather said he’d never met a rich white lady he didn’t like, which was more than he could say about the Negro movers and doers he’d dealt with in his time. Old Eleanor was worth more than the whole WPA. What the country needed was another aristocrat in the White House, a Puritan to scorch confusion, a man with a name as solid as Thorndike or Augustus.
He thought back to the Depression, when the Rockefellers on holiday in the Sand Hills were moved to donate copies of Collier’s to the churches. My father said we didn’t want charity anymore. Grandfather had his theories about good whites and bad whites. My father said some of us needed whites more than others. Grandfather said we would not catch the whites he needed by trying to stretch “Congo” lines from our front porch all the way to Money, Mississippi.
We could never tell what would set Grandfather off. He said my father knew precious little about discrimination in the army, since he’d spent most of the last war trying to dodge the draft. My father said Grandfather hadn’t exactly crossed the Rhine either. Grandfather said He would have mercy on whom He would have mercy. The beige stepgrandmother switched channels to National Velvet. She was annoyed that our old set didn’t pick up ABC.
Grandfather said that if my father had wanted to keep studying and not die peeling potatoes for white second lieutenants he should have gone to a good school like his. My father said that Dr. Mays had been more of a father to him than Grandfather had. Grandfather said my father would not have been at second-rate Morehouse in the first place had he not been expelled from second-rate Fisk for calling the French teacher queer. We were sent to bed.
“See you in the funny papers,” my mother said. I turned away. I had come down with something that couldn’t be cured by three cheap words and a squeeze.
* * *
The next morning Grandfather and I were alone in the kitchen. We both wore “flesh-colored” nylon stocking caps. His was knotted in back. I had on two stocking caps. The feet drooped over my ears. I was in a Cleo the Talking Dog phase. I got up with the earliest light, lapped chocolate milk from a bowl on the floor, lay down by the back door, panted, and tucked my paws up under me.
Grandfather looked at me, a severe expression I was to see again years later when I had to confess in person that I’d flunked a course, which meant my chances of getting into his alma mater were dwindling, and at a time, he said, when blacks were wanted so desperately that any park ape who could manage long division was admitted. Grandfather’s look said he knew my brain was damaged but not in any way he could pin down.
“Come here, and on two feet, if you please,” Plessy vs. Ferguson contemplated Brown vs. Board of Education. “I want to tell you something and you remember it, you hear? You might not see me again.”
“Where are you going?”
“Never you mind. I’m not coming back and that’s a fact. Your daddy has no right to make you live here. He has no right to turn you into a dog.”
Grandfather, as ever, was true to his word. He didn’t come to see us again until we invaded the white suburbs.
Copyright © 1992 by Darryl Pinckney