Wednesday, August 17, 2011
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
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.”
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
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
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