Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" Rally Makes This the Moment When Race Becomes Real
(A Meditation in 3 Parts)
In the spirit of The Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment, the baby Glenn Beck birthed, these are three of my true, honest-to-God real life stories shared here for the benefit of children who belong to-but so wish they didn't-Beck and his followers including, but by no means limited to, the Tea Party's tea baggers.
Question: Have you ever asked your parents to describe exactly the America they and Glenn Beck so desperately long to go back to? I mean, really, really describe it. For instance, where were Black Americans and other not-white-Americans back in the America of Faith and Founders? What was the accepted role of women in those halcyon days? What did school rooms look like-i.e., who was there and who wasn't? Neighborhoods, lunch counters, church congregations looked like what?
These are three stories that describe that America, the one that created me back when whiteness trumped everything; where even if your mama didn't cook in high heels, never owned a strand of (fake much less real) pearls, and where even if your daddy busted his ass at menial labor and there was never any way your parents' noses were ever ever gonna get up off the grindstone, that was fine as long as yall went to bed White and every morning yall woke up White.
The America I knew (know) is the America Glenn Beck, the Tea Party tea baggers, and the bereaved McCain-Palin 54% are still doubled over in anguish about.
In Beck's America, countering progressivism means you flashback to a time when uppity niggers knew their place or got shot, drowned, or hanged and certainly knew better than to hope-and absolutely not to head-for the White House.
So, here we are on the eve of Beck's so-called "Restoring Honor" rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial consecrated nearly half a century ago by Dr. Martin Luther King with his "I Have a Dream Speech" during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And here I am, deeply indebted to Glenn for proving the truth of his assertion, that it is indeed pointless to even consider Arguing with Idiots. As one who probably has a lot of face time with the mirror, he is unquestionably an expert on the subject.
I'm indebted as well for being prompted to send these three shout-outs to The Real America, my Messages from the Heart and the Heartland to the 18-34-year old white voters, 66% of whom helped bring us President Barack Obama.(Thank you!!!)
These are confusing times, but about this one thing be clear: You are absolutely on the right track....You are not alone...There are many of us just ahead of you, right around the curve. Don't be sidetracked by Glenn Beck's Common Sense, which is simply him preaching to his sycophants, the Idiots Unplugged.
Read my true stories. Sit with them. Let them sink in. What stories of your own do they trigger?
May this weekend be a moment of reflection, the moment When Race Becomes Real for you and everyone you care about.
One thing is for certain: We will never go back.
Part 1: Southern Bell Hell
(My America when Glenn Beck was three years old...the one he yearns to return to)
Eyelids fluttered in disbelief at the sight of me: a Negro, who, at seventeen, dared come to share their breath. Seconds earlier, the supervisor and I had climbed the steps to laughing chatter on the other side of the door of the small prefabricated office. The sounds of people in a good mood had loosened the muscle along the bottom of my stomach as I followed my guide inside. Now, across the threshold, everything had stopped.
It was my first day on a job in an office where Negroes had never worked before. Mr. Champion and Mama had already warned me that drama was likely and my armpits were soggy from the sweat of anticipation. Furious white faces turned up faucets of fear until I was so rank I could smell myself. Sweat pellets pooled at my waist, their icy slide stayed by my best belt. With my arms pressed tight against my sides to mask terror's musk, I felt like the Empire State building plopped down in the Sahara desert.
"This here is Bernice. You sit over there." The supervisor pointed to a tall stool at a shelf facing the wall. Our eyes followed his arm and then his back as he whirled and made a beeline for the door. After he left, they looked at each other and I looked around the room. There was no sign of the glamorous corporate environment I had imagined the white folks and I would share.
The telephone switchboard was a large rectangular console that took up half the room. Waist high, it was long enough to accommodate three tall stools at operator stations stretched out side-by-side. The freeze-frame white folks huddled around two desks pushed against the wall opposite the door and gazed silently at each other. I sat down on the stool, with my back to them, and waited for further instructions.
Not even a month had passed since my high school graduation and there I was, Southern Bell's caramel belle, the new face of equal opportunity. Around the city, others like me were being scattered, one by one, in white segregated workplaces like the Charlotte Transit Authority, Duke Power, the post office, Belk's and Ivey's department stores.
Mama had worked all my life for white folks who seemed dedicated to the proposition that the only place for us was subordinate to them. But there was no chance these white folks could think that because I had been hired to do the same job some of them were being paid to do. Of course, they'd watch me and judge the entire race by everything I did. Of course, I would be so damn impressive they wouldn't even remember why they thought Negroes were such a problem in the first place. Anyway, whatever they did, I would not let them get in my way.
The only desks belonged to the men who traipsed in and out throughout the day responding to complaints we women logged from phone calls. Usually the men stayed just long enough to feel up the women and tell dirty jokes while all of them pretended I wasn't there. I avoided looking directly at them and they returned the favor.
In the men's absence, the women climbed down from their perches, sank into the swivel cushioned desk chairs, and fired up cigarettes. With the men gone, the women treated me different. Sometimes they even slipped up and said a few words to me about how to perform some job-related task. But never once did they say anything that suggested I could be one of them.
When the men were present, though, the chairs belonged only to them and the women draped themselves over the men and there they all lingered in a pale blue swirl of cigarette smoke and sexual banter. I went back to being invisible or became the butt of their jokes.
Things spiraled downward and by the end of the week, the cracker-mean congregants circling me made it clear they intended to have nothing to do with me. So I stumbled through my first days rigid and numb with disbelief. How could grown people who knew nothing about me be so hateful? I had left home on Monday scared, but still confident and hopeful. When Friday rolled around, though, I realized I had been sentenced to race war boot camp and was working overtime in the summer from hell.
Day after day, I unglued myself from my stool to pee, eat, or go home. Determined to prove I was not the mythical lazy nigger and anxious not to do anything to draw attention, I worked through every break and refused to ask for assistance even when I needed it. I figured out things on my own. Gratefully, the work was mind-numbing-sorting, recording, and filing stack after stack of multi-copy repair requests. The only time we heard my voice was when I relieved one of the repair operators on break or at lunch.
At home, a stream of Lawrence propaganda began papering the path to my parallel universe. My first letter was from Ed Wall, announcing my roommate assignment:
(June 20, 1967) Dear Bernestine: We have assigned you to a room in Colman Hall with Kolleen Egan, an incoming white freshman from Merrill, Wisconsin. Lawrence does not dwell on the fact of race, either in admissions or in the general conduct of the college, but we do recognize the fact, and we recognize also that not all of our incoming freshmen are ready to accept a member of another race as a roommate. We trust that you, however, will accept this assignment as routine. With kindest regards, I am sincerely yours, Ed Wall.
And sure enough, the very next day, there was Kolleen's first letter, a warm, chatty handwritten note with her picture enclosed. After volunteering her height, weight, and birthday, she told me she was a lifeguard at the beach which led to a confession: she was "not too fond" of her "extremely naturally curly" hair, which turned "quite blonde in the summer." Then, came bombshell #1: She said she was "dark complected" because in the summer, she got "really dark."
Dark complected? Extremely naturally curly? What the hell was she talking about? The girl in the photo was cute, white, and blonde with straight hair. She was also a cheerleader, Girl Scout, senior play lead, and homecoming queen. Damn! I was going to be rooming with Barbie!
I was light brown. Coffee with several dollops of cream. Caramel, medium toast, mid-range in the line of beige edibles. Just light enough for it to be an advantage, but not so light it created problems for me. My friends and I were skin color experts, obsessed with the tiniest gradations in Negro complexions, which ranged from blue-black to onionskin.. I assumed everybody was as proficient as we were at discerning milligrams of melanin.
Light brown on the Negro color chart, I was black compared to Kolleen and that was without any solar assistance. And, by the time she saw me, my "extremely naturally curly"-i.e., genuinely nappy-hair would be as straight as hers and smoothed into a shoulder-length flip, thanks to a hot straightening comb. Already, I could see that I would be teaching my new roommate-my white roommate -a thing or two about color.
But bombshell #2 was the one that sent me flying off to find Ma, waving Kolleen's letter: She wanted me to come visit her the week before school started and then arrive on campus together. Better than just being my cool roommate, Barbie was fast becoming my new best friend!
Exactly a week later, Kolleen's second letter arrived. After warning me about Wisconsin winters that-"sometimes it drops to as low as 40 below zero"-she renewed her invitation and laid out all the reasons she thought it was a great idea.
I sincerely hope you can come up the week prior to school next fall. You'd be able to meet my family and get accustomed to the life around here. I feel that such a week would do us both a world of good. We could more or less discover each other so that when we do go to Lawrence the adjustment, initially that is, won't be as difficult...You know-this may sound stupid but-before you wrote I was really afraid we wouldn't get along. I'm considered to be sort of out going; I've never even had troubles getting along with anyone. But since you wrote all doubts have completely vanished.
...HAPPY BIRTHDAY!...You mentioned that you were "brown skinned" and that when I saw your picture I'd understand. That's okay. I understand without the picture.
I was so excited! Still, there was one drawback. My "full scholarship" did not include things like textbooks, school supplies, or travel expenses. Budgeting so we could afford my plane ticket to Appleton was already a financial strain on us. So if visiting Kolleen was going to cost even more, we'd just have to meet for the first time on campus. Ma knew how much I wanted to go, but I also knew how much it was already costing to pay for all the other necessities my "full scholarship" didn't cover: suitcases, trunk, new eyeglasses, sheets, towels, pillows, curtains, shoes, boots, toiletries, and an entire wardrobe (including my first part of long johns) chosen for its promise to protect me from Wisconsin's bitter blasts. My warm winter coat ended up costing the same as three months of rent. Everyday we ticked off a new expense, Kolleen's lovely offer fell lower on the list of possibilities.
I turned Kolleen into the newest member of our household. I dropped her name as casually as though we talked on the phone every night like Sallie and me. And I waited for her letters that were showing up like clockwork. Meanwhile, back at the phone company, my officemates were steadily painting a completely different picture of race relations.
I mutely accepted their shunning. I only learned their names by hearing them talk to each other. I always did more than my share of the work. And I nearly made it through the second week without asking a question. When the day finally rolled around and I was faced with a task I could not figure out on my own, though, they finally had me cornered.
I had guessed that Edith was the closest to my age, so I thought that made her the most likely to be helpful and the least mean. Of the three women, once or twice in my presence, she had flashed signs of her humanity, so I chose to ask her my question.
"Excuse me, Edith, but there's too much information missing for me to figure out how this stack should be filed. Can you tell me what should I do with these?" I carried the repair tickets over to show her. Her nails drummed the countertop, sounding like a herd of tiny horses on the run. She looked at her buddies. I looked at her. Nobody said anything.
"What?" she said finally, shuddering and rolling her eyes as though she were fighting off a fit. "I don't know where to put these," I repeated, now facing the side of her head.
"Oh...I...can...tell...you...where...to...put...those...all...right." She swiveled her seat in syncopation to the long pauses between each word, her eyes still locked on her cohorts. Her words came out muffled because she had clapped her hand across her nose and mouth as if she were trying to avoid a stench. When she folded from the waist in an explosion of laughter, our office mates joined in. From that point on, the pattern was set for all our interactions. All weekend, I cried and begged Ma to let me quit. She was resolute.
"If you're ready to throw in the towel now, what're you going to do when you get to college? This is only the beginning, honey. You haven't seen nothing yet.
"They're not laughing at you because they're tickled. They're laughing because they don't know what else to do. All their lives they believed they were better than us just because they were white, but now here you are sitting up there in the middle of them, dressed better, talking better, smarter, and half their age.
"You got a job right out of high school that they probably waited all their life to get and now they think you stole something that belongs to them. It's killing them, so it's their job to drive you out. Right? Well, just remember that it's your job to stay."
So everyday I went to work and everyday I checked the mail for Kolleen's letters that described my deliverance, the life I would soon be entering, far away among well-mannered, white people who were eager to meet me and who would be absolutely nothing like the vile crackers who tormented me daily for sport. Finally, her third letter arrived. They were planning a party, which prompted her description of the teen social scene in her town: "Believe me, the kids up here drink like fish. I just turned 18 but my lifeguard friends are whales. Last night there was a guard vodka party." And she ended as she always did with something that made me happy: "Really, just hearing from you made my weekend perfect...When are you coming. How about a weekend? Say, the 10th or there about."
Kolleen and I divided up responsibility for our list of dorm room necessities. We kept up a constant stream of letter chatter, consulting each other about a range of decisions to be made: sororities were out (too expensive); hand shavers (one each, neither electric). She would bring the radio, hi-fi, and the hair dryer. I would bring the Temptations' "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" and Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
The girl-I had stopped calling her Barbie after her second letter-had a sense of humor, a flair for the dramatic, and, like me, wanted to put her best foot forward.
We can hire the Merrill City Band to play in front of us as we enter Appleton. Oh, how joyful. Listen kid, you & me, we're going to have to stick together at school. I'm going to hate feeling like a new little freshman, but I guess everyone goes through that.
When you mentioned getting a permanent for your hair are you speaking of straightening your hair? I hope so-cause I am very seriously thinking about straightening my hair and then letting it grow. I haven't even had half-way long hair for 7 or 8 years.
In my letters to Kolleen, I tried to be as truthful as I could about the way I was even when the truth wasn't flattering. In response, she told me more about the girl "who never had any trouble getting along with anyone."
Really now, I don't look like my picture. As far as personality is concerned, I'm not really very nice. I try to make people think I'm terribly sweet, but I'm not. I try to be sincere, but it doesn't always end up that way.
I'm terrible when it comes to arguing. I love to! But sometimes I just don't feel like talking to anyone. Next year, since we'll live together, you will be my confidant. I will most certainly need one for the first few weeks; getting used to no Pete may be a bit of a bind. I give some people the idea that I'm a prude. I'm not I don't think. Many times I say things without thinking-things that hurt people. And I run my parents down a lot. I don't appreciate whey they do for me and we fight all the time. Oh, well! I'm just telling you what to expect of me. (you lucky --?)
Can't wait to meet you! I think we will get along really well.
PS When are you coming? Soon I hope.Oh, I'm learning how to play the guitar. If I get pretty good we should be able to sing together a lot next year. Right now my fingers are so sore from pressing the strings that I can't even play my piano.
She played piano-just like my sister. It was an omen, a sign that everything really was going to be fine. So, I started my third week on the job shielded from the telephone repair crew's hatefulness by a new vision of my bright future temporarily intersecting with their dead end lives. Somehow word spread that I was only there for the summer and would leave for college in the fall. Having sniffed out my new resolve, they stitched it to this new piece of information and adjusted their attitudes accordingly.
No matter what they said or did, I pretended to be a deaf mute. In that disconnected space, my hands took over and created fanciful doodles full of curlicues, blocks, and angles on notepads, in the margins of magazines and newspapers, endlessly inventive renditions of the same three letters: PWT. Where I came from, we had a name for these rat droppings posing as people: PWT--poor white trash.
Back on the college front, I was learning about a different kind of clique-Lawrence sororities. This time the bearer of news was a chirrupy co-ed assigned to help me acclimate. Jody was clearly a cosmopolitan chick, a junior who grew up in a wealthy Chicago suburb and who had graduated from a high school that "bristled with competition" and, with 4,300 students, was as big as Kolleen's entire town! Jody loved Lawrence.
(July 13, 1967) Dear Bernestine, I would like to be among the first of many to welcome you to Lawrence.
Being a small school, Lawrence offers many advantages. I came from a rather large high school (4,300) which bristled with competition. I suppose that's all right for large schools, but at Lawrence I discovered that the academic life is centered around the individual. And it's exciting to find yourself challenged, really challenged...
Everyone is friendly. Everyday and every week-end opportunities for meeting people and having fun that relieve the work tension are offered.
The first term is when the freshman is also introduced to aspects of Greek life. The campus is small and close, and one is given equal opportunity to "go Greek" or be an "independent." I chose to "go Greek."
There are six sororities on the Lawrence campus...When not having meetings, the sorority can be involved with service projects for its national chapter's chosen cause-or with practicing for Lawrence's annual Greek Sing, or its folk dance contest. There are many, many projects constantly going on within the Greek world on campus...the girls in the sorority working together as sisters.
Along with the many other activities that you'll find yourself involved in when you arrive at Lawrence during the first term, Bernestine, you will be trying to understand and know the different sororities-and they will be trying to get to know you.
I imagine you'll be hearing a lot of people ask you why you came to Lawrence when they learn you're from North Carolina. It's surprising, but Lawrence draws from nearly every state in the United States, as well as foreign countries. I hope to hear a little from you, and when school starts I'll know you a little better. Again-welcome!
At the end of the month, the Southern Bell supervisor circulated a new schedule.
"I can't work nights and weekends," I explained to him over the phone. "It's too dangerous to take the bus after dark and we go to church on Sunday."
Violent crime in the Greenville section where I lived was a major marker of Charlotte's rise as one of the nation's murder capitals. Three months later, the Charlotte Observer would report that the per capita crime rate for my neighborhood outstripped New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. My supervisor was not sympathetic.
"You can show up for work like I scheduled you or don't bother to come back." Click.
I never went back. And so my first job with the white folks was over. Cold-cocked on arrival, I had never quite made it up off the floor.
Part 2: Sour Milk
(My America when Glenn Beck was nine...the one he yearns to return to)
Our greeting at the Miami Four Seasons was neither warm nor welcoming. But we were the Talented One Percent, black keepers of a Dream then only slightly tattered and we had no intention of being sidetracked by a desk clerk with Cuba still so thick on his tongue that his English was unintelligible. His demeanor, however, required no translation.
Upon hearing we had reservations, he thumbed through a small box of files, drummed his fingers on the counter top, turned his back on us to speak Spanish to a colleague while waving his arms and shrugging his shoulders. We waited as white guests walked up to cheerful greetings, checked in effortlessly, got room assignments and keys and disappeared. When we were the only ones left, the desk clerk faced us with the bad news: We had no reservations and the hotel was full.
I asked for the manager and explained our dilemma: We were third year law students in town to talk to partners of some of Miami's most powerful law firms and we had confirmed reservations. Instead of adding that we were from the Black Law Students Association soliciting contributions for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Fund, I surmised that the big-time lawyers expecting us probably would not like hearing their guests had been treated so poorly. "Lawsuit" floated up from the conversation my three traveling partners were having within earshot behind me. The manager returned to the registration desk and our reservations popped up.
Undaunted, the clerk warned us as he dropped our room keys on the counter: Any complaints about us partying, making noise, or otherwise disturbing other guests and we would promptly be kicked out. The elevator doors closed on us, our baggage, and our indignation.
We passed the night without getting evicted and assembled early the next morning, sharply turned out renditions of our best Sunday selves. We paired off and made our rounds of wealthy UF law alums, starting with the most politically moderate firm first. We hoped the moderates would give us the boost we'd need to work our way down the list to their least enlightened colleagues. At the end of a long day, our performances over, we went back to the hotel and turned in.
The next morning, we decided to eat before we hit the road for the six-hour drive north. I will never know why Jacob insisted we dine at Sambo's. I still cannot fathom why we agreed. As legendary as Jacob's persuasive powers already were even then, we all knew better. We were all Southern born and bred, so the restaurant name alone-Sambo's-should have been sufficient deterrent.
Maybe it was because we had spent the previous day skinning and grinning and asking the white folks with the money and the power to, please, oh please, give us some for the black ones we hoped would be coming along behind us. See what good little niggers we are turning out to be? See? Invest in others like us, buffers against the unwashed and improperly socialized colored masses. Maybe shuffling through the previous day's work had swallowed our swagger and we needed to do something-even something stupid-to get back our juice. If we were spoiling for a fight, we picked the right spot. If we were looking for a cheap meal, we ended up paying a ransom.
A few customers were scattered about when we entered. Service was slow, but uneventful. The waitress finally appeared with steaming stacks of pancakes, eggs, grits, sausage, bacon, and ham which we promptly dug into, talking and laughing until most of the food was gone. Among the breakfast litter was my sweating glass of milk. I always saved my liquids for last, so I grabbed it and took a big gulp.
It tasted funny. I sniffed. It smelled funny. Holding the glass up to the sunlight pouring through the window behind Freemon and Johnnie, clabber was easily visible where it ringed the inside rim of the glass and floated lazily atop the white liquid.
"Yiich! This milk is sour! Taste it." I offered it to Jacob. We passed the glass from hand to hand and reached quick consensus: sour milk.
We summoned the waitress who eventually sidled over. I asked for the bill and told her the milk was sour. Without a word, she marched to the cash register, stomped back over to us, slapped our check on the table, and walked off. I summoned her again. "We're ready to pay the bill, but we need to have this charge for the milk taken off because it's sour." I held the glass up for her inspection. She wheeled around and marched off again. We watched her confer with a white guy who appeared to be a supervisor. Then she was back to announce their verdict. "Ain't nuthin wrong with the milk."
"Maybe there's nothing wrong with your milk," I began slowly, "but this glass of milk is sour." She stomped back over to the counter and returned with the manager. "Ain't nuthin wrong with the milk," he repeated as though his saying it settled it.
"Okay, here, you taste it." I lifted the glass up to them. Johnnie stared straight ahead as Freemon studied his hands, both of which rested on the table. Jacob took turns gazing intently at the waitress, then the manager, feigning fascination. Unnerved by his attention, the waitress looked around for more backup and spotted a Florida State Trooper. I had seen him enter the restaurant moments earlier, had noticed him standing off to the side, eavesdropping on our conversation. I tried again. "Look, all we want you to do is take the milk off the bill so we can pay and get out of here." The trooper stepped up next to the manager and waitress. "There a problem?" His right hand fondled his thigh near the gun in his holster. "Nope. But even if there were one, it'd have nothing to do with you since your jurisdiction ended when you turned off the highway into that parking lot," I advised.
"Officer, I done tol them ain't nuthin wrong with that milk," the manager piped up. The trooper tapped the table. "I think yall better pay this bill and git."
"Okay, here, you taste it and tell me if it's sour." I pushed the glass towards him. "Like I said,..." he began again. I interrupted him.
"Like I said, we're not paying for sour milk. We'll pay for everything except that. Anyway, why are you even in this conversation? What's going on in here has nothing to do with what's going on out there, which is probably where you need to be." I waved my hand towards the ribbon of highway that stretched out beyond the window. Just then, a knee pressed mine under the table. When I followed the others' gazes, I saw them: eight uniformed, beefy white men lined up along the back wall. They had entered so quietly, I didn't even know they were there, between us and the exit.
"Aw, fuck" Johnnie whispered. "The Metro Squad." I had never heard of a metro squad, but their presence was its own explanation. "Let's go," I said, leaning sideways against Jacob to push him out of the booth. Standing, I realized we were the only customers left in the restaurant as it did not appear that the eight goons had dropped in for a meal. We headed for the exit on the opposite side of the restaurant. As we walked, I kept talking. "Just give us the bill without the milk on it so we can pay and go."
Someone tapped me on my shoulder from behind. I turned to face two black Miami policemen who had joined the scene. One beckoned me with his finger. "Can I have a word with you over here, young lady?" It was more a command than a request.
"Where y'all from anyway?" His eyes worked me over as I answered: Down from law school in Gainesville to raise money for the Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund. We wanted to pay for our breakfast, but not the sour milk, so we could get back on the road. Relieved we had found a sympathetic ear, the knot in my gut loosened.
The cop cut me off. "Just what egg-zackly are you tryin' to prove? Don't you know what it's gonna look like if yall get dragged off to jail? Dr. King didn't run around stirring up mess, starting trouble for other people. You say you're trying to help other Negro students. How is you getting arrested gonna help them? All you gonna do is make sure none of ‘em get the same chance you got right now just because you down here starting trouble. You gonna give those folks up in Gainesville exactly what they need-an excuse to put you out of a place they never wanted you in, in the first place."
"But the milk is sour..."
"Shaddup and listen to what I'm trying to tell you cuz you and your friends here are fixin to get seriously hurt." Suddenly, he stepped back, reached behind his back, whipped out a twenty-dollar bill, and shoved it in my hand. "Just pay the damn bill and get the hell outta here," he hissed. "Just pay the Goddamn bill!"
Hot, furious tears rolled down my cheeks and met under my chin. I dropped the money on the floor and stuck my wet face close enough for him to hear my whisper. "Fuck you! Why should we pay for sour milk?! Why? We're talking eighty-six cents for a fucking glass of milk. No. We ain't payin' for it. I'll die before I pay these crackers for their sour milk."
I stumbled over to the guys who stood huddled off to the side, quiet, watching. I told them what the cop had said. Johnnie was the only one of us who had actually been jailed and beaten in student demonstrations not all that long ago. He was painfully familiar with the men still lined up between us and freedom. He spoke first.
"Those fuckas over there, they're Miami Metro, man, what they call the tactical division of the Miami police. They're the crackers specially trained to kick ass, you know, to fuck you up. If we go to jail, they're definitely gone beat the shit out of us.
"And after that, we still gotta call somebody to come and bail us out. And then we still hafta get back home because there's no telling what they'll do to Freemon's car. And they're known for planting stuff on you to get some charges they can make stick."
So there we were: 3Ls in the last stretch, already undergoing the most thorough investigation of our personal lives we would probably ever experience, compliments of the Florida Bar. An arrest-not to mention getting stomped by the Metro Squad-could permanently mess us up. We could face trumped up criminal records that would keep us from ever becoming lawyers and follow us the rest of our lives. Or we could pay the bill.
Outside in the bright, hot day, we piled into the car and drove off. Once we were certain we were not being followed, Freemon pulled off the highway onto a grassy shoulder and leaned forward until his forehead rested on the steering wheel. The sound of our weeping filled the car. We never mentioned that day to each other again.
Part 3: The Wedding Dress
(My America in 1963 when I was 14, the year before Glenn Beck was born; and then later in 2001 when Beck, at 41, launched "Fusion Magazine and gave birth to his Fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment tag line)
A white girl, all grown up, zooms through cyberspace and finds me at my desk. It seems she has a wedding dress encased in glass hanging on her wall and she thinks the framed frock has something to do with me. Mama is the link to this white woman's object of iconic revelry. Fact is I'm not feeling very friendly towards my caller. It's not her fault, and yet...
When my caller was very young, my mother, Odessa Singley, was her Grandmommy's maid. On this nostalgic call, though, my Mama comes out of the caller's mouth as "Odessa" just like it did back when she was seven and Mama was forty-seven. Mama-"Odessa"-was her "best friend," she says; her anchor in a storm of sequential parents, relocations, and other family mayhem. "Odessa was" her harbinger of summers that began with packed bags and eagerly awaited trips to Grandmommy's.
And, forty years ago, "Odessa" made the wedding dress hanging on the caller's wall. Instantly, my caller becomes "the Wedding Princess" even though she never really was a bride because at seven, she was qualified only for the wedding getup, not for the wedding man. "I loved Odessa and she loved me," she declares, whipping me back to the present. Her declaration of my mother's affection for her stops me cold.
Call me crazy, but I'm thinking the maid might've been several steps removed from thoughts of love so busy was she slinging suds, pushing a mop, vacuuming the drapes, ironing and starching load after load of laundry. Plus, I know what Mama told us when she, my sister, and I reported on our day over dinner each night and not once did Mama's love for the Wedding Princess find its way into that conversation: She cleaned up behind, but she did not love, those white children.
But here I am: the phone pressed against my ear and the disembodied voice of the grown up Wedding Princess on the other end. I make a mental note: This is how being white, female, Southern, and 1960 can frame a conversation. Instead of pinning myself to the wall of Princess' lovely memory, I gear up to pin Princess to the truth. In our imminent war of dueling narratives, mine is bout to kick some princess ass.
It's so unfair, possibly cruel, this verbal beat down I'm preparing for Wedding Princess. I mean she didn't do anything to deserve this. Mama wasn't her washerwoman after all. Still, I'm seized with a desire to unroll Princess like I would a sleeping bag packed away damp in the attic and left there to ripen season after season. I'll hold my nose with one hand and give her a thorough shaking with the other, maybe hang her out to dry before sending her back to the attic.
While I'm plotting my revenge, Wedding Princess has already waded deep into her revelries of the day "Odessa" presented her with the Wedding Dress.
It was exquisite. She was such a perfectionist with her sewing, you know. The finished seams, the hemming tape. It fit me perfectly because she had measured me for it, but then I realized didn't have the right shoes to wear with it, so she took me shopping. It was the happiest day of my life! Me and my best friend. Grandmommy had to practically peel it off of me. I never wanted to take it off. That's why it's hanging on my wall. Every time I look at it, I think of Odessa and that day.
I throw my first punch.
"Have you ever thought about the fact that the woman you call ‘Odessa' was the same woman my friends called ‘Mrs. Singley'? That she supported a family on the six dollars and bus fare (fifty cents roundtrip) your Grandmommy was paying her? That the woman you call your ‘best friend' was forty years your senior and had another whole life of dignity, hopes, and dreams that had nothing to do with being in service to you and Grandmommy? That maybe "Odessa" didn't like you as much as felt sorry for you because you were the baby of the family, the one your brother and sister slapped around, the one they were always leaving behind? You ever thought of that?"
Wedding Princess is silent, so I continue.
"I'm not trying to be mean. I'm just telling the truth. I could let your pretty story stand about who ‘Odessa' was to you, but you called me"-which, by the way, was a very brave thing for her to do. So, I felt like she deserved to know my story.
"And as for Grandmommy whose home was such a wonderful respite for you every summer, since we're sharing stories, let me tell you exactly who Grandmommy was to me."
I was fourteen when Congress was debating what they would pass the next year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was sure what they were talking about had something specifically and personally to do with me because we were discussing the same thing in school, too. So, our black segregated classroom conversation became the nail on which I hung the one thing that I knew definitely had to do-very specifically and very personally-with me. I was fed up Grandmommy and the shitty way she treated Mama, most especially the six dollars and car fare slave wage (pardon the oxymoron) Grandmommy dispensed for an entire day of work she was too sorry to do for her own damn self much less her own family.
In my junior high class one day, we talked about how white folks insisted on being called "Mr. This" or "Mrs. That" while refusing to call black folks by anything except their first names. I brought that conversation home to our dinner table that night because that's where we discussed the ways of white folks generally and specifically the ones whose houses Mama cleaned. Because, as she put it, they were constantly trying to find new ways to wipe their asses in her face.
One of the ways they accomplished such a scatological result was that they always got to be "Mr." and "Mrs." while Mama got to be "Odessa."
That conversation had left me on low boil and rising because there was never any talk about how I could do something, how I could have a hand-or even just a little toe-in upsetting that balance of power. So by the time I got home, I had hatched a plan. I knew I was going to snatch my mama some of the respect that was long overdue from Grandmommy.
I had to call Mama at work every day as soon as I got home from school so she would know I had made it home safely and could be sure I wasn't hanging out on the corner somewhere with a dude in a ‘do rag holding his dick and tonguing a toothpick.
Anyway, I dialed Edith Rembert's house.
"May I speak with Mrs. Singley, please?"
" Whooooo?!" Startled indignation dragged that one word out of Grandmommy's mouth long enough for an owl to rotate his head 360 degrees. Silence spread out behind her hoot so long that, for a minute, Edith had me convinced that she really didn't know who "Mrs. Singley" was even though she had been making out a check to ‘Odessa Singley' twice a week for fourteen years.
Click. She hung up on me.
Seven or eight times more we repeated this routine, each call taking less time than the one before as Edith got quicker on the disconnect. (In the days before caller ID and answering machines, she had no choice but to keep answering in case I turned out to be somebody she actually wanted to talk to.) By my final try, I was the vanquished. Edith had cut me down to size and twisted my tongue back to its original position of supplication: "May I speak with Odessa, please?"
This is the story I spit out to the Wedding Princess about her revered and recently departed Grandmommy.
"But that's the way things were with everybody back then. That's just the way it was. That reminds me of..."
She stops, catching herself, suddenly self-conscious. But I'm not having it.
"No, that's the story I want to hear," I goad her. "That one right there, the one you just stopped in mid-sentence. Tell me that story." She complies.
Seems she and Grandmommy were standing on the screened sun porch one day, a space I instantly recall because it starred in my fantasies of curling up with a book among the wicker rockers and chaise lounges with plump pillows covered in a summery floral print.
The Wedding Princess continues: "I don't know why, but I had a quarter and I put it in my mouth. And Grandmommy became so short with me. She said, ‘Take that nasty thing out of your mouth right this minute! You have no idea where it's been. For all you know, it could've been in some Negra woman's bosom!"
"And you're sure she said Negra?"
"Oh, yes! We never said that other word."
"Uh huh. So, don't you think that's fascinating that the worse thing Grandmommy could think to say about that quarter was that it might've been ‘in some Negra woman's bosom'? I mean, not in the gutter, not in the street, not passing through a thousand filthy hands, but in some Negra woman's bosom.
"Mind you, that same bosom would've been attached to other body parts that made up a Negra woman who was cleaning Grandmommy's house; wiping her invalid father's shitty ass; and even cooking and serving Grandmommy her food. A Negra woman who had fed, burped, bathed, changed, and comforted Grandmommy's babies. Yet and still, the...absolutely... worst... place for your quarter to have been was in some Negra woman's bosom."
Surprise! Seems Wedding Princess can take a punch because she's still on the line. So I keep going.
"You know what? Thank you for sharing this story. Really. Because it reminds me of something I've wanted to tell you throughout this conversation, but I keep forgetting and that is this: I want you to know exactly who Grandmommy was to me.
"Remember how you said your grandfather Googled me and how he said wasn't surprised at where I was or what I was doing because he always knew ‘that one was going to be somebody'?
"Well, I owe it all to Grandmommy. She's the one I have lived my total life in opposition to. Without her, I probably would've never made it this far. Grandmommy is the one who put a face to what I was up against as a poor, black Southern girl determined to make it in the world.
"If it hadn't been for your Grandmommy, a mother who made it clear how far she was willing to go to step in the face of a black child to show me exactly what I could never hope to be; if it hadn't been for that day she used the phone to pound me into submission, to show me where she intended to keep me and my kind forever; I might have lost sight of what I had to do to finally put Grandmommy in her place.
"So, the next time you visit Grandmommy's grave, give her a message for me: Tell her Dr. Singley said, ‘Thank you.'"