GRACE UNDER FIRE

The old man sits silently on the steps of his front porch.

These are his thinking steps.

“Always thinking,” his wife used to mutter to herself, “Always thinking!”

Miz Mae never really understood her husband’s quiet ways, his continuous reflections on the curiosities of life.

“Always thinking!”

The old man sits on the steps and stares down the street to the corner where some young boys stand discussing whatever it is young boys discuss these days.

“Hey, old man!”

Rufus, a longtime friend, shuffles up to sit beside his old friend.

It is a daily routine for these two, old friends sitting side by side on the stoop talking and listening to one another.

The old man clears his throat, a sure sign he is about to speak on something he has been thinking about for quite some time

“You know, Rufus, we as a people personify grace under fire.”

He rubs his gray grizzled chin as he speaks.

“Whut you mean by “puhSAHnuhfie?” The old man’s friend often wonders where his friend learned all those big words.

“It’s like we look like grace under fire, like if grace under fire was human, it would look like us.”

“Uh Hmmm.”

Rufus tries to make himself sound like he really understands the old man when he “speech-a-fies” but the truth is that he almost always has a hard time following his friend whenever he uses those big words.

“Yep, grace under fire, that’s us.”

Whenever the old man speaks of “us,” he means African Americans

“Grace under fire is the real story of us, you know, Rufus?”

Rufus grunts assent and waits for the old man to expand on his thought.

“Yes sir, they ripped us from our native land. The smells, the sounds, the taste of home was our only luggage on the middle passage. They dragged us onto foreign soil, alien tongues assaulted our native ears. Our language was whipped out of us and we were forced to speak a foreign tongue they did not teach us but when we finally learned to speak what we thought we heard, they laughed and called us ignorant. They did not recognize our genius, did not see the majesty of our being!”

“They barely named us, treated us worse than that stubborn old mule that refused to pull the plow. They beat us and expected us to love them unconditionally, bowing and scraping whenever they were around, had us mammy their babies and bear children forced upon our women by the master’s rough hands.”

“The sounds and the smells and the tastes of our native land were forced out of us. We swallowed our sorrow, mingled tears with sweat and endured the angry bite of cotton bolls picked in the scorching heat of every day.”

“They force freed us then designed a new bondage named after a minstrel song that foisted violent servitude upon us, brutal acceptance of their inhumanity. They hung us from trees while they picnicked and took trophy pictures like hunters on a safari.”

“We endured it all, wept through it all, buried our dead too young, muted our anger, wrapped ourselves in our frustration and waited and waited and waited for real freedom  ”

“Well, freedom finally caught up with us, we thought, but it came with conditions attached. Stay in your place, accept what we say is right for you, be grateful for the crumbs we half-heartedly throw to you, walk through that open door then work twice as hard to prove your worth.”

“We worked hard, we assimilated, we embraced our natural roots, we expected more but each day we received less and they wonder why we are not satisfied.”

“But, dagnabit, look at us Rufus, we are still here, still climbing Mr. Hughes’ torn, worn stairs. We are still striving, still pressing, and Rufus, we ain’t rioted full scale across the country, yet, not even when they  killed Martin or when Malcolm died, not even when they killed our boys, our girls, our men, our women. Our souls have been tried. Our spirits have been bruised. Our hearts have been burdened. Our tears have been bitter. Our losses have been huge. But, even so, we held on to hope, we still hold on to hope. They still killing us but we still get up in the morning. We still laugh. We still dance. We still sing. We still love. We still marry. We still have children. Shoot, we still like sex when we have the energy!”

Rufus chuckles then looks around to see if anyone heard that last comment his friend made.

“We have not yet reached the end of our rope but I’m mighty a-feared that the rope of our hope is getting shorter, that the fuse of our anger might be about to be lit for a great explosion of retribution. I pray that peace prevails and that equality, one day, will one hundred percent win. That is my prayer. It’s my prayer for our land, Rufus. Its my prayer for us, too.”

Rufus blinks a few times as he chews on the old man’s words. He is both proud and afraid at the same time but he sits up a just a little straighter, squares his shoulders and says,

“Yessuh, we sho have puhSAHnuhfied  grace undah fiyah, yessuh, we sho have. ”

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GORDON PARKS’ SOUL IMAGES

As a Black History Month slides quietly into the end of its short month (hey, we did get an extra day), just a few thoughts:
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Though the above  picture illustrates the oxymoron that was the Jim Crow south, I still love it, for it reminds me of home. It reminds me of my mother and her friends in those times when they weren’t restricted by work clothes, times when they would dress to the nines.

I remember those hot summer Sunday mornings when my mother would wrestle herself into that obligatory long line girdle as sweat streamed down her face.

I remember the fancy suits she wore, the strappy high heeled shoes and the oh so necessary church hats. Oh, those church hats! We cannot forget those church hats, those regal crowns worn proudly with alacrity, attitude and panache.

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Before pants were de rigueur, shirtwaist dresses were always appropriate when a lady went shopping. The woman in the first photo appears to be wearing a shirtwaist dress. I loved them when I was a teen-ager; I love them now, except my waist will no longer accommodate those tightly cinched belts. . . but I digress.

A few months ago, someone posted a Facebook status about the beauty of the picture and the ugliness of the sign. I got that, but all I could see was the classic beauty of the woman as well as her best dressed child, neither of whom appear to be burdened by the weight of the times (at least not in this moment). That was the irony of those times; you could see beauty and ugliness in the same moment.

Another Gordon Parks picture popped up in another Facebook status and this time I added my own two cents to the thread.

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The women appear to be seated in a waiting room, perhaps a bus station or a train station. Their expressions do not tell us much. Each woman is somewhat stoic in her position, giving no clue to any internal musing. We can assume, I suppose, that the only reason the black woman is in that waiting room is because she is the “nanny” to the child (I thought about using “mammy,” but that would send me off on another tangent and I am really trying to stick to a point).

The status was not that of a Facebook friend but it popped up on my page, I presume, because of a mutual Facebook friend. Their comments, of course, dealt with the incongruity reflected in the picture juxtaposed against the schizophrenic background of the times.

But I did not fall in step with the their chain of thought in that particular thread. Instead, I recalled another memory of those days, days when I lived with my grandparents in rural backroads Texas.

“What can never be understood unless you witnessed it first hand are the friendships that were forged between employer and employee as the years passed by. No, social lines were never crossed in those Jim Crow days, but the so-called nanny became sounding board and confidante for the often frustrated employer. Yes, they trusted their right to superiority but they also intuitively connected with the humanity in the employed. I saw it with my grandmother and mother, both of whom worked as maids for white women, in whose presence I could observe and learn the wisdom of grace.

The movie, “Places Of The Heart” was on last night. Though set in a time long before my birth, it takes me back home without bitterness or rancor because my sense of self was fine tuned in that crucible that formed the souls of my grandmother and mother.

My soul looks back in wonder……”

I was simply stating a truth from my past. The following is one of the responses to my truth:

“Not necessarily, Donnanotdiva. As a child, I watched one grandmother treat her maid as a non human and the other, treat hers as a friend. If we hadn’t had our Elizabeth taking care of us during WW2 while my father was a POW and mother had to work, I don’t know how we would have survived.”

My response to that response:

“I have no doubt but that there were those “employers” who treated the help as the inferiors they believed them to be. I am saying that my personal experience as a child growing up in the Jim Crow South was that I  witnessed first hand the bonding as women between the two groups. I was privy to the conversations of the women in my community as they spoke of those relationships. As time moved on, I watched those work relationships turn into friendships that outlasted their pasts but were forged in those pasts. The issue is we so often point out the evil without acknowledging that there were those relationships that transcended the times or even the upbringing of both sides. I am a realist who sees things as they are but who also knows there are many back stories unspoken and unheralded, stories that go beyond the too often superficiality of liberal speak.”

Then, someone else decided to chime in (perhaps with a soupçon of sarcasm?):

“[E]veryone[,] I’d say most[,] don’t think the way you do. Most were treated less than human. You make it sound like a beautiful place.”

Sighhhhh. . .

“I would be the last person to tell you it was always beautiful place. But, what I will say is that I was allowed to see a little of the humanity possible in those relationships. I know the inequities firsthand, the brilliant grandfather who caught the truck every weekday morning to go to the cotton field, the father from Mississippi whose prior occupation listed on his enlistment papers is farm laborer, a euphemism for sharecropper, a community marginalized and stigmatized as “boy” and “girl” rather than ma’am” and “sir.” Yes, I lived through it all, the first generation to step into integration and still had to prove myself by working twice as hard as they continued to doubt. No, it was not all roses and sunshine but it refined and fine tuned me to not color every experience with a broad brush of bitterness. I still see the inequality and inequity and I am very proactive about telling my story, both sides, but I am also grateful for those glimpses into possibility.”

There you have it, my “ah ha” revelation. My Jim Crow past not only developed in me a strong sense of self-awareness as well as a heart for the village. It also imbued me with grace, mercy and compassion. If there is any residual bitterness, it reveals itself in those moments when I am once again reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING!