[Here is an excerpt from a memoir I’m working on—Strands.]
Grief does not appear solely through tears; it is also expressed through our anger and outrage. *
Maybe twenty years ago, Kevin, a friend of color, said to me, “Patricia? You know what you’re like? You’re like a cook on a slave ship.”
And I had been furious! Wasn’t I an ardent anti-racist? Weren’t my woke credentials impeccable? Wasn’t I steadfastly showing up at Boston-area trials highlighting racial profiling? Didn’t I blog, again and again, about my privilege, my cluelessness, how hard I was working on issues about race and class? Hadn’t I, just a few years before Kevin had said these devastating words, sung “We Shall Overcome?” with Jerry Falwell in a Lynchburg church built by ex-slaves? (True story.) Hadn’t I written Way Opens about all of this?
But Kevin had been right. It has taken a global pandemic and George Floyd’s murder for me to take in the horrifying truth of what my friend wanted me to understand. Embedded in this black slave and white cook narrative, despite my yearning to move past Us/Them, despite my bone-deep belief that we are all equals at the table, lies a binary I must acknowledge.
Briefly, very briefly, when working on Way Opens, I’d sensed an opening on this essential and undeniable binary which I failed to truly look at, absorb, take in. So am only telling this story now.
While doing research for my book, I’d talked with Lynchburg resident Chauncey Spencer, former Tuskegee Airman and son of Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet. Back in Jim Crow days, Anne Spencer and her husband, Edward, hosted many notable people of color when they’d traveled to segregated Lynchburg; their house guests included Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. The Spencers’ lovely Piece Street home and garden is now a museum located across the street from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson’s home—and tennis court. On that court, now gone, the Lynchburg doctor, who’d earned his nickname on collegiate football fields, instructed the young Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe—and many others.
More about history from Way Opens:
On one trip, on a steamy summer day, I visited Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer’s charming garden not far from the little house where she wrote. Although I had once lived a few miles from her home on Pierce Street, I had never heard of the Lynchburg poet, passionate gardener, and friend of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
I understood, of course, that in the years I’d lived in segregated Lynchburg, our paths would have been prohibited from crossing. And I understood that even had Lynchburg not been a segregated community at that time, the elderly Anne Spencer might not have chosen to spend time with an adolescent Yankee transplant who liked to write. Still, sitting in her lovely garden, I cried as I contemplated how racism, this “hidden wound,” diminishes my life.
When doing my homework for this leading, what I was learning often made me angry. Like Audre Lorde, furious when she discovered how limited her supposedly excellent education had been, I’d become incensed “about the history I had learned” or hadn’t been taught. Other accounts, other history lessons were simply heartbreaking: narratives related by slaves who had lived in Lynchburg and told in Negro in Virginia, or a description of the dangerous working conditions for Lynchburg’s tobacco-processing hands, to name but two. But like that moment in Anne Spencer’s garden, there were times when the depth of my ignorance made me weep. Often, like that moment, I was discovering something about Lynchburg’s history, something I’d been denied learning, something that had happened just a few miles from where I had once lived or gone to school.
Dazed to be in his presence, where Chauncey Spencer and I met remains a blur. I do remember a cool, shades-drawn, old-fashioned parlor where we’d talked. And how, as the son of a famous mother and dashing, history-making airman, he’d obviously been interviewed many times. Almost by rote this former World War II pilot told me how he’s always wanted to fly; methodically he’d schooled me on the history of segregation and told how, in part because of his military service and subsequent, impromptu conversation he’d had with Harry Truman on Capitol Hill, in 1948 Truman enacted Executive Order No. 9981, stipulating equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces.
As out interview began to wind down, something prompted me to say something I had not expected to say. Maybe he’d used the word colorblind and I’d heard that word with fresh ears. Maybe this had been a graced, inbreaking moment. Whatever it was, I heard myself say something like, “I think it’s important, though, to acknowledge your experiences as a Black man growing up and living in racist America and how that has shaped you. Aren’t you, in many ways, who you are because of Jim Crow?”
He’d grinned: “I never heard anyone say that before.”
- From The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller