“You should get yourself a girl.”
I was overwhelmed with farm work, house work, tending a large garden and raising three rambunctious pre-school girls. Still, my mother’s comment left me falling through space. A girl? A ‘girl’ was a black woman hired to mind the kids, do the laundry, clean the house, someone like she’d hired back in the late fifties. I gritted my teeth, wanting to tell my mother that nearly twenty years after the Birmingham church bombing, one did not use the word ‘girl’, that it was patently offensive. I said nothing. She would not get it.
My reaction to her pejorative was rooted in my fond memories of Martha. Martha had been hired to clean house and help mind my five siblings and me, a monumental task given the older sibs penchant for making trouble. As the fourth of six children, I was left out by the older ones and too old to get babied like the younger ones. Martha became my surrogate mother. I clearly recall the day, at age four, I learned to tie my shoes under Martha’s watchful eye. How she praised me!
When she abruptly stopped working for our family, she told me she left because we were spoiled brats. I was hurt and confused. I’d never heard her use angry words before. Her sad eyes said there was another reason. My younger sister told me our mother had let Martha go because she chewed tobacco and spit in the fireplace, something little sis imitated. I can only imagine what that did to my uptight mother. I suspect mommy didn't appreciate me seeing Martha more as my mother than her, and the spitting was an excuse.
I happened to see Martha while strolling the sidewalks of my one-stoplight hometown when on a semester break from college. She stopped and said, “Do you remember me?” I embraced her and said I’d never forget her. I also told her, in so many words, I had been heartbroken when she left. I had needed the calm, measured influence she brought into a chaotic house. I'd been too young to understand the racial prejudice Martha had endured.
When I was a high school freshman, there was an ugly incident involving two older schoolmates. The brothers (I’ll call the younger one John and the older one James) were witty, talented and, as far as I knew, well-accepted by their classmates. John was a good actor and a gifted athlete. James was a kind, thoughtful guy, powerfully built. Both excelled on the football field. When a teammate, a foreign exchange student, invited the two home for dinner, they refused the offer. He kept after them until one day he practically dragged them home to his host family. Not only were they turned away at the door, the exchange student was told he was never, ever to do that again, that his family didn’t want James or John to so much as put a foot on their property.
In one shocking moment the exchange student learned that his host family, people who socialized with my parents, were flaming racists. He packed his bags and left for another host family. I didn’t learn the details of this incident until I was well into adulthood. In my appalling ignorance, I never suspected my schoolmates had been treated so badly. I thought racial hatred was something that happened in other places, not in our town. Detroit was burning, but my frame of reference was kind-hearted Martha.
Our eldest daughter lives in New Orleans. I was intrigued when she related that her acquaintances find it surprising she grew up in an all-white community in northern Michigan, not expected in someone with an accepting attitude. She reminded me that in our home, I forbid anyone from calling a Brazil nut a “n----- toe”. When she explains this to her African-American friends, they nod. She is grateful she was taught to be respectful. I have no doubt Martha's influence was speaking through me to my children.
I regret my ignorance of the racial mine fields Martha and my schoolmates had to negotiate. What a horrible, lonely battle it was. Those who knew of their difficulties and turned a blind eye bear a greater shame. I am truly sorry for what they endured, but an apology is hardly adequate. It is easy to be clueless of adversity that does not directly affect us. There’s not much I can do about the past, but I am wiser now for knowing what was going on behind the quaint white facade of small town pretensions.
Chains forged for ancestors fettered him
long before he was born, the sting of fear
nailed into his father’s flesh. He was
warned from the start, Boy, don’t you
look! Avert! Eyes, words, dreams,
avert! Beneath the witnessing sky, you
are denied. Beware! Invisible lines
to mind, greasy Mason-Dixon
What a good boy! Winning the game,
cheers for the touchdowns, cheers for
the home team, hoo rah! A frothing
sea of white faces cheering at the whistle,
cheering the win, but not him, that sea
of smiles in a nice little town, weavers
knotting threads keeping him
placed where he belonged, not in their
home for a decent meal, white sons
forbidden to bring him home.
Such a gifted ‘boy’! That lily in a field,
a singing “Aaa-MEN, A-MEN, A-MEN!”,
starring on the little stage, a standing O.
They laughed at his quips, enjoyed his wit.
An audience of church going folks singing
“Red and yellow, black and white, all are
precious…”, good folk in their happy
white pews, no red, yellow or black
flotsam amidst an ocean of hypocrites.
Can’t erase what’s done, can’t pretend
the scar has vanished, the angry ferment
churned to bitterness, he won’t let nothing
mend him, overtures and apologies cannot
mend when iron hard pain jails the man
beneath the darkly unforgiving sky.