When I was a girl, I read a lot. Perhaps because I only had brothers until I was seventeen and my first sister was born. The younger ones wanted to tromp their cowboys in the dirt, pursued by their clothespin favorite, Big Head the Bad Guy. The older ones liked to hover over a chess board for hours, oblivious. Being a girl, I could only be 100% sure of their attention when I went out. If my parents couldn’t take me, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself in Washington, D.C.
For a long time I didn’t know we were negroes. That’s what they called African-Americans back then. I only knew our parents brought the world in to us—through great art, great music, and great books—then firmly shut the front door. No neighbors. No classmates. No news on TV. Schools and friends screened in advance. It was the 1950’s. They were saving us.
Untouched by the issues of the day, all I knew was The Little Match Girl died, having lit her last match on a cold night. How I cried. All I knew was, in A Child’s Garden of Verses, Leerie posted down the street and lit the lamps each night. For years I secretly wanted to be a lamplighter! I went to China in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, and learned yin-yang in her novel, Peony. I learned war from Ernest Hemingway. I read James Baldwin’s Native Son, about ghettos and injustice. It was only a story to me. I learned about passion from the French author, Colette.
By the time I was ready for college, I’d read my way across the world. Entering it, I discovered that some of the people I met behaved irrationally toward me on sight. It was like reading a book on a new subject, except this one happened in daily life. Thanks to my parents, I knew I was pretty okay, which meant the world must be broken. It was the 1960‘s. I left school, became a Pan-African Nationalist, and started hating everyone white yes, it’s true). When asked what I’d do if I fell in love with a white person, I rolled my eyes up to heaven and said I wasn’t self-destructive. A brother of mine and I joined a protest organization and I hosted a radio show once a week, Sauti, news from African people around the world. Then one day our mother showed up at our organization and warned our Mwalimu (teacher/leader), Jimmy, that if anything happened to us, Jimmy would answer to her! All this time, we thought our mother could only sing and dance and paint! Apparently, she was also a super hero.
Our Pan-African reputations ruined, we returned to college, me yearning to visit the countries I’d found in books. Years later, I landed an international job. On a free weekend during my first trip to Paris, I went to the train station, Gare de Lyon, to visit the village where Colette—one of my childhood literary idols—was born. I stopped for coffee, the only customers an obviously African woman at another table and obviously American me. The waiter spoke to her harshly, raising his voice. He spoke gently and courteously to me. In my travels, I saw a German waiter mistreat a Turkish customer, saw a London Cockney get his feelings hurt when told his speech was indecipherable, listened to an Israeli woman tell me how lazy and good-for-nothing the Palestinians were.
My book of life now bulging, I started loving everyone, my heart aching for each blindness, each sorrow, exulting with each joy. (When a white man I liked proposed to me later in life, I looked up to heaven and married him.) I was in London with my granddaughter the week before Princess Diana died. We made and cancelled a reservation at the same restaurant where she made and cancelled hers. Glued to the TV as they buried her, I cried. I was overseas with my grandson two weeks before 9/11, continuing to fulfill my promise to show them the world I adored. For a long time, my daughter and I wouldn’t let my grandchildren get on planes. When the Twin Towers went down, not knowing the details of what had happened, yet, I wrote this:
Quiet in America
I have never felt such quiet in America. You can almost hear it.
Like our hearts have stopped together. We are keeping silent for the
people in the buildings, on the planes, who died today. Did the
pilot in the Pittsburgh crash fight his hijacker? Did he give his
life, sacrifice his plane to save a more precious target? Is that
why his flight went down? I have never heard such quiet in America.
Has this happened before? In some other country, at some other time?
Were they quiet when their own people died? Did they retaliate so we
would feel it too?
Will this awful silence spread? When we strike back and they strike
back again? Will it be so quiet we can't hear each other's words,
get so dark we can't see each other's tears?
Now I write novels. Having learned from masters, I cram them full of all kinds of of people experiencing life’s chills and thrills, but underneath I’m always saying…please don’t be afraid; everyone's okay; the only thing to fear is fear; love, love, love!
In her former career in international electrical standards, J R Lankford traveled the world, falling in love with its people, cultures, and beliefs, which she now depicts in novels. Her Mexican-themed The Sacred Impostor is the third book in the acclaimed trilogy that begins with The Jesus Thief and continues in The Secret Madonna. For excerpts and links, visit http://www.jrlankford.com/