Monday, June 28, 2010

Watching in Wonder

Watching in Wonder

“Hey li’l brothers,” Corky slurred as we stepped off the sidewalk to let him pass by on his bicycle.  A broken headlight dangled from two frayed wires, the once fiery red frame was faded by rain and sun and tarnished by rust and seasons, and spokes were missing from the wobbly wheels.  He smelled of old liquor, new sweat, and days without bath or change of clothes.  A lens on his glasses was cracked but he didn’t seem to notice.

“What’s happ’nin brother?”  He stopped and leaned unsteadily on one leg to greet the minister of the little Baptist mission for white folks across the railroad tracks.  He leaned too far and crashed to the ground with a thud and a moan. The bemused minister untangled him from the thicket of arms, legs and metal, lifted him  onto his feet, and brushed the red chalky dust and tiny jagged rocks from his shirt, pants, and skin.

“Corky, are you okay?  What in the world…?”

“No…nope…yep…yes, I’m okay.  Hey, where’re you off to?

“I’m goin’ to the noon Holy Week Service in town.  It’s at the First Baptist Church today.  Let’s park your bike.  You can come with me.“

“Well hell.  You Baptists go to church all the time.  Even on a Thursday.  You all must need it more than other folks do!”

“The services are for ev’rybody…Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians…ev’rybody.  I reckon we all need it!  Come on.  It’ll do us both good.

Hello there, boys.  I almost didn’t see you.  Come here.  Close your eyes.  Hold out your hands.”

We said hello to the minister, careful not to look him in the eyes as Momma and Poppa taught us to do with white folks.  He wore a blue shirt, ‘Dickies’ pants like the ones Poppa wore in the fields, and tattered black shoes.  This must have been his uniform because it was what he was wearing every time we saw him. His bespectacled eyes were circled by perfectly round lenses in wire frames that hooked around his ears and made him look more like a college professor than a new minister just out of minister training school and just starting ministering in our town.  We came to him, closed our eyes, held out our hands and felt the small, barrel shapes of the chewing gum they sold in big barrels at the counter of the S & H Green Stamp store on Main Street.  It was a store we couldn’t enter but that we knew well from the detailed stories of all the things inside by our white friends whose families were welcome to shop there.
“Thank you, sir!”

“You’re welcome.  Now you boys run on to where you’re going and do what you need to be doing.  Blow some bubbles along the way!”

The minister put his arm around Corky’s shoulders and they started up the road toward Main Street.  As they lumbered along side by side the midday sun sat high in the sky and cast their shadows straight down behind them.  A minister and the town drunk going to church together!  It was a sight to see.  We were finished with the chore Poppa gave us to do so there was time before we had to be home for lunch.

“Carver, I’ve never seen a drunk person go into a church before.  What ‘cha ‘spect’ll happ’n?  You reckon he’ll get struck by light’nin’?”

“I don’t know but I figure som’pin’ll happ’n.”

Carver was only five years old but he knew the scientific method like a seasoned scientist.  At home on the farm he was always leading me through the steps of his way of thinking.  We found that it helped us to think this way about people and events because it helped us work our way through our place and position in the world and ways of white folks.

“Well, we did the first step in the method.  We asked a question.”

“Let’s follow behind ‘em and see what happens.”

We’ve never been inside of the white folks churches downtown before.  We’ve only seen the outside of them.  The church we go to is plain and simple.  It’s a one-story building with a steeple on top.  It’s made with pine boards painted white.  There’s an iron bell in the steeple, a bell that rings us awake and calls us to church on Sundays.

The white folks churches, on the other hand, are beautiful and stately.  They’re the tallest buildings in town.  They’re made with bricks, stones, and oak wood and look like castles on each corner of the town square.  There are copper bells in their towering steeples, bells that ring in each hour of the day and play hymns at noontime.

The First Baptist Church is the biggest church of all.  The town doctors, lawyers, bankers, and planters go there, the men and their families who run our town, who cast long shadows over us black folks that stretch from Jim Crow to the Civil War all the way back to the slavery days.  We hid behind the grand old magnolia tree on the front lawn to watch the minister and corky climb the steps to the heavy oaken doors that opened in toward the entrance hall.

Two men in their Sunday suits stood at the doors to welcome them to the service.  We could see around them inside of the wide doors.  On the wall there was a picture of Jesus with long brown hair and a long beard with light around his face looking up to heaven.  Under the picture there was a long table with the words “This Do In Remembrance Of Me” carved into the front of it.  There were colorful spring flowers and gold offering plates on top of it.

The men reached out to shake hands with the minister and Corky.  The minister took his hand from Corky’s shoulder to offer a handshake in return.  Corky wobbled at the sudden freedom and fell into the arms of one of the shocked men. You should have seen that usher’s face!  He looked like he had just eaten a plain radish chased by a spoonful of castor oil!  He pushed Corky back onto the embarrassed minister and into the other usher.  He must have breathed in Corky’s smell because he turned his face away wretching and gagging.

The discombobulated group held onto each other and sort of jitterbugged their way into the church.  They stopped in stunned surprise in front of the table.  Corky raised his arms.  A bottle of liquor he was hiding in the waist of his wrinkled, baggy pants fell out and crashed onto the marble floor.  Streams of whisky flowed everywhere.  Pieces of glass gleamed in the flood of light.

“What the …?!”

“Get him out of here right now!”

The poor minister looked frantically around for a broom or a cloth to clean up the mess.  The smell of the whisky wafted over the lawn and burned our noses.  What were the folks in the sanctuary thinking?

“Go on.  Get him outta here!  We’ll clean it up.”

The bewildered minister took Corky into his arms and limped him down the steps and onto the sidewalk.  They hobbled away.

The men came out onto the steps.  Nervous chuckles gave way to relieved belly laughs.

“He oughtta’ve known not to bring him here.  Especially when he’s drunk. Somebody needs to sit down with that boy and let him know what’s what.”

“Yeah, the next thing you know he’ll be tryin’ to bring nig..."

We moved on around the tree and started home.

Monday, June 21, 2010



On the last day of school before summer break begins, I turn over my classroom keys to the elementary school where I am a teacher. I also turn over my 'teacher voice,' that part of me that helps me be committed, compassionate, and creative for my students for the 180 days they are with me. I take up my pen and my sketchbook where I am a writer. I take up my 'writers voice,' that part of me that helps me be committed, compassionate, and creative for my characters in my stories.

Through the summer I am a full time writer. I am researching and writing about the early Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. The setting of my story is a small farm in Clarendon County, S.C. from 1947 until 1954. The narrator is Carter, a nine-year-old African American boy who lives on that farm with his brother Carver, a five-year-old genius with an inquiring mind and a photographic memory. The action centers on a lawsuit filed by an old farmer in Clarendon County, Levi Pearson, against the county board of education on behalf of African American children for a school bus to help them get to school. That lawsuit became Briggs v. Elliott which became Brown v. Board of Education which became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In my story you will meet Carter, Carver, their Momma and Daddy, Corky (the thirty-something year old town drunk who is brilliant and articulate when sober and stupid and unintelligible when drunk and whose Mother was secretary to Governor Strom Thurmond), Junior (the sixty-something year old giant of a man who has the mind and heart of a little child), and Lillian (based on the person Lillian Smith who was arguably the clearest voice from the white folks during that moment in time. You will also find guest appearances from Larry Doby, Septima Clark, Mojeska Simkins, Strom Thurmond, J. Waties Waring, Thurgood Marshall, and Flannery O'Connor, people you may or may not know from that time and place.

Writing is solitary work that requires early mornings and late nights with books and ideas. It is also community work that requires listening ears and honest hearts of friends. I am thankful to be in the Brother Juniper community with you. As a writer, I hope my work is a counterpoint to the demagoguery that comes around with each generation, a building up of what makes our world and us more human. You can follow my story at Thanks for being in community with me!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Larry Doby - A Picture of Beauty, Genius and Wonder

Larry Doby - A Picture of Beauty, Genius and Wonder

October 9, 1948. 81,897 people filled Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch game 4 of Major League Baseball's World Series between the Cleveland Indians of the American League and the Boston Braves of the National League. More people were at that game than at any other game in the history of the World Series up to that time. The Indians held a tenuous 2-1 lead in the best of seven series.

In the bottom of the 4th inning there were 2 outs and the Indians were clinging to a 1-0 lead. 24-year-old Larry Doby of the Indians dug into the batter's box at home plate and faced pitcher Johnny Sain of the Braves. Doby threw right and batted left. His arcing swing was a beautiful thing that helped him hit .301 with 14 home runs in 121 games during the season. He hit .396 over the last 20 games and that helped his team beat out the Boston Red Sox and make it to the championship series.

On the second pitch, Sain wound up and threw the ball toward home plate. Doby swung his and, "Crack!" the ball took off toward right center field. The crowd held its collective breath and let out a mighty roar as the ball sailed 420 feet into the stands for a home run. It was the decisive run in a 2-1 win for the Indians, a victory that put them ahead 3 games to 1 in the World Series they would win in game 6 in Boston.

In the Cleveland clubhouse after the game a photographer took a picture of Doby and winning pitcher Steve Gromek hugging tightly and grinning broadly tenderly cheek to cheek. That picture was broadcast over NBC, CBS, and ABC that night and published in all of the major newspapers the next day.

I think in pictures and this picture helps me write about the Civil Rights Movement in my home State of South Carolina. You see, Larry Doby was black and Steve Gromek was white. Gromek was from Hamtramck, Michigan and Doby from the Jim Crow South of Camden, South Carolina. One year earlier, on July 5, 1947 at Cominsky Park in Chicago, Illinois, Doby had become the second African American behind the great Jackie Robinson of the immortal Brooklyn Dodgers to play for a Major League Baseball team and the first African American to play in the American League. The year the picture was taken was arguably the defining year of the proverbial 'hard row to hoe' of early Civil Rights Movement. John Egerton poignantly and persuasively helps us see this in his opus that won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, "Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement In The South." It was a picture of beauty, genius, and wonder. It was a revolutionary picture because it showed the world that white supremacy and racism was being overcome.

In "Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby," Joseph Thomas Moore's insightful and wonderful book about Doby's life and times, Doby says, "The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting the home run. It was such a scuffle for me, after being involved in all that segregation, going through all I had to go through, until that picture. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me. But the picture is not just about me. It shows what feelings should be, regardless of differences among people. And it shows what feelings should be in all of life, not just in sports. I think enlightenment can come from such a picture."

This blog is "a short history of losing." American culture defines a 2nd place finish as a loss. Larry Doby was the second African American player to integrate Major League Baseball. He followed Frank Robinson as the second African American manager in the major leagues. Because he was second he is often overlooked and forgotten. When he laced up his well-worn cleats and stepped into that batter's box in Cominsky Park in 1947 he also stepped into a people's history of baseball, a history that is a broader part of a people's history of the United States that shares the stories of women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrant laborers, a history and stories that show losing can be transformed into winning through courage, commitment, compassion, and creativity. Lately, bad news has been coming out of South Carolina. I am thankful for the good news of South Carolinian Larry Doby's life and work. I hope to continue that good news through my writing and teaching.