Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Growing Up Southern

Growing Up Southern


Black and White


Up the red dirt road

sat a small white church

at the settlement’s edge

where the woods met the clearing.

Sunday nights were hymn nights

and the harmonies would spill

from the open summer windows

as rich and golden as Tupelo honey,

as if God had reached

down each singer’s throat

and pulled the music from their souls. . .

songs of faith so deeply felt

drew me to the clearing’s edge. . .

no. . . compelled me to come. . .

and I would go,

silently sneaking from my bedroom loft

shinnying down the limbs of the cherry tree

and creeping softly through the woods

to sit transmuted in the darkness

just beyond the edge of light

with my knees against my chin

rocking to the tunes of

There is a Balm in Gilead,

Swing Low Sweet Chariot, or

Deep River. . .

wading in the waters

of baptized hope,

and God’s promise of a land unknown

to those who sang. . .

words speaking of the milk and honey

of justice. . .

freedom. . . and liberation.

Oh God, what “amazing grace” was this

from the cries of simple folk

unlike myself, or

I would have rushed to join them there

to be lifted on their wings of hope.

God. . . how I wished it. . .

but. . .


We sang the song in Sunday School,

“Red, and yellow, black and white,

all are precious in his sight,

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Yet, we were none but white.

Red, I watched on a nine inch Admiral,

black and white TV

with a porthole screen.

They rode painted ponies,

wore feathered war bonnets,

and fought the good cowboys.

Yellow, I was reminded, at supper

 were the starving children in China, so

“eat everything on your plate.”

Black were “nigras” who lived

up the dirt road. . .

across from our house.

“Red, and yellow, black and white”. . .

none but white in sight

at Sunday School.



Two black boys lurk behind the over-grown shrubs

hiding the courthouse granite foundations.

I watch them through the plate glass window

of my uncle’s plumbing shop on the square.

The bigger boy shoves the smaller one

and keeps pointing in the direction of the

water fountain. . .a downtown shrine. . .

made of cast iron and resembling a

Corinthian column with fluted bowl 

astride the top.

The fountain is a fixture that’s been

painted dark green so many times

with lead oil paint

that nothing shows besides the

chipped places.

The treadle is worn smooth by years of use.

It’s dull, weathered brass is the same

as the drinking spout at the top.

My mind wanders and I think of all the feet

that have pressed the pedal down. . .

brown and white, open-toed, spring highs heels of

a stylish lady, or the well shined black wingtips of

a Sunday church-goer, or work-a-day businessman. . .

high top Keds. . . penny loafers. . .

and even the countless bare feet of children

like me, or some poor, shoeless adults.

The smaller boy suddenly darts from the

bushes and in a split second jams his foot

on the treadle, takes a sip of water,

and runs as fast as he can

toward his side of town.

The other boy stares in amazement. . .

horror written on his face.

He furtively walks away

watching over his shoulder

trying to not be noticed,

as though nothing had happened.

But a sacred social norm had been broken.

No black would dare drink from the fountain.

There was no need for a sign that read “Whites Only.”

It was cultural “law” and a dangerous offense

that had been committed.

No one else seemed aware of this violation.

I wonder if this was an act of angry rebellion,

or a simple dare between two black boys. . .

a rite of passage to see who was the braver.

I believe it was the latter.



First the teacher has to pray

for that is how we start our day,

and sometimes we sing Dixieland.

With hands on hearts respect demands

we pledge allegiance to the flag

and nation pure for which it stands.

The flag itself is old and gray

and shows the signs of aged decay

the stars still number forty-eight

the pledge itself is filled with weight

of what it means that we obey

and feel the pride the words convey.

“We pledge allegiance to the flag

of the United States of American. . .

and to the republic for which it stands. . .

with liberty and justice for all.”

For all?

There is no “under God,” just yet,

but with Congress there’s no bet

of when the words will soon prevail

that no true patriot dare assail

the power of God in stars and stripes

while buglers blow and fifers pipe.

The picture hangs there on the wall

the drummer’s bandages and all.

Our hearts are solemn, quiet, and still,

for we’ve been taught it is God’s will

America shall reign supreme

the envy of each nation’s dream.

But even then I wondered why

a flag should wave to testify

to some strange truth, bold and deep,

that men would pledge their lives to keep.

It troubled me both then and now

to commit to such a vow.

So as I age I ponder still

a pledge for which I bear no will.

I live my life with stern resolve

protesting wars I cannot solve.

The pledge rings empty in my head

while blood runs deep on lands we tread.


We rode the trackless trolley-

Martha and I-

to the Roxy Theater

in downtown Atlanta

for the Friday matinee showing

of South Pacific.

We skirted the protesters

lining the curb,

with our bag of M and M’s,

though one screamed at us,

“Shame on you!”

when they saw me at

the ticket booth.

We were just kids

and not supposed to watch a

movie about miscegenation

between Lieutenant Cable

and Bloody Mary’s

Polynesian daughter.

White and black. . .

black and white. . .

like many things in the South.

We were there for the music

of Rogers and Hammerstein,

the lush colors of

widescreen Cinemascope. . .

and to hold hands in the dark.

The lyrics of You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

were not lost on either of us.

Two twelve year olds

growing up at the picture show

that summer afternoon.

We held hands in the daylight

riding home.