Monday, July 19, 2010

The federal courthouse in Charleston, S.C. - July 19, 2010


Tonight my family and I walked along Queen Street into the middle of downtown Charleston to the waterfront park at the harbor.  As we ambled along the cobbled street past Poogan's Porch, historic churches, and Meeting Street I thought about the Civil Rights Movement history of Charleston.  I saw tourists huddled around tour guides hearing stories about the places and people of the old city, patrons of pubs and restaurants wobbling along with their arms around each others shoulders enjoying their pints of beer, glasses of wine, and plates of shrimp and grits, and a young black man sitting in solitude on top of a table on the harbor walkway weaving flowers and crosses out of sweet grass in the way of the Gullah tradition and I wondered if they knew that fifty-some-odd years ago Thurgood Marshall began arguing the case of Briggs v. Elliott in the federal courthouse in Charleston before Judge J. Waties Waring, a case that would evolve into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and a judge who was despised by the high society folks of the city and who was offered a one way train ticket out of the state by the South Carolina legislature.  Do we still ask the old questions - What does it mean to be human?  How can we weave a more human world for everyone?  I wonder.  I hope. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

character sketch - Carver

Just tonight, he stood quietly beside his desk with a magnifying glass in his hand. I looked at him from the splintered pine frame of our kitchen door where I was standing. He turned around slowly, like a person who is in deep thought, and looked at me through the lens of the glass. His magnified eye was astonishingly big and brown – as big as the globe in my second grade classroom and as brown as the turned soil of our farm.

- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.

- I cain’t sleep.

- What you doin’?

- I’m studyin’ a tomato.

I walked to him and knelt beside him. I turned his magnifying glass around and looked into his eye. I saw clearly the parts of his eye that my teacher taught to me at school – the colored part that is the iris and the black part that is the pupil. But it was Carver, my five-year-old brother, who taught me how these parts work together to give us our sense of sight. It was Carver who helped me understand how we see. His lessons always began and ended with questions and were filled with an amazing assortment of facts that came from God only knows where. Our talk about seeing went something like this –

- Carter, you know the five senses?

- Yeah. Let me think…seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

-Did’ya know if we divided our brains into three parts, two of the parts would be filled up by seeing?

- Naw, I didn’t know that. Seein’ is that important, huh?

- Yeah. You know what a person who studies the inside parts of the body is called?

- Naw, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that.

- Well, that person is called an anatomist. An anatomist is kind of like an artist whose art he’ps us know
where those parts are and what they do. Did you know there were artists like that?

- Naw, I didn’t.

- Yeah, there was this anatomist in Africa a long time ago named Rufus. He he’pd us understand the parts of the eye. Do you want me to teach you about the eye?

- Sure

- There’s a thin layer on the inside of the eyeball. It’s the retina. No one could see into the retina until microscopes were invented. When people looked inside the retina for the first time they found millions of rod and cone cells. The rods and cones find rays of light and turn them into signals for the optic nerves. The optic nerves send signals to the brain and it turns them into pictures. ‘Cause of the way lenses work, the picture is upside down. The brain turns it right side up. Idn’ that amazing?

- Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know what? So are you.

He taught me the parts of the eye that helped him see the world as everyone sees it. In that moment, though, deep in the dark of night, I tried to see the parts that I didn’t understand, the parts that woke my brother in the middle of the night to study a tomato while our corner of the world slept, the parts that helped him see the world as only Carver could see it. But those parts remained hidden to me. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and held him close to me.

character sketch - Momma

Everything was covered in white. The fields that provided food for us to eat and vegetables for us to trade, the trees that provided shade for us to rest under and lumber for us to sell, and even my Poppa's hunched shoulders as he trudged his way to the barn to milk the cows were blanketed in snow. 1948 would be a year of surprises for us in Clarendon County, South Carolina and for all of the people in all of the places in the United States of America where the Jim Crow laws were enforced by law or by practice, the Jim Crow laws that gave us black folks our place and them white folks their place and no place for us all to be together. Yes, it would be a year of surprises, the first of which was the coldest stretch of days and the heaviest and deepest of snows that the midlands had seen in a hundred years. Momma had her arm around me as we snuggled close together and watched Poppa disappear in the blinding whiteness of the pouring snow.
- My, my...look at all that snow, Carter...look at all that snow.
- It's turnin' ever'thin' white. It's beautiful.
- Yes, sweetheart, it is beautiful.
- It makes ever'thin' look so bright and clean and new.
- Yes, it does. But, you know what? I like to think about what's underneath the snow.
- But there's nothin' but frozen ground and bare limbs underneath the snow.
- And don't forget there's a Poppa under it, too!
- Hee hee hee. So why do you like to think 'bout things like that, things that're frozen and bare?
- Well, it's 'cause of som'thin' that happened to me when I was a little girl about your age. Ev'ry Sat'dy afternoon, my Daddy and Momma would take me and your Aunts and Uncles into town. We didn't own our own farm like your Daddy and I do now, so we lived in what was called a 'sharecroppers shack' on Mr. Wilson's farm. That shack was a dark, bare place that was too small for a family of nine. We all worked so hard on that farm, but on Sat'dy afternoons Mr. Wilson let us outta work to go to town. In town, ev'rythin' looked like it does now under this blanket of snow - white, clean, and new.
The som'thin' that happened that I wanna tell you 'bout is this. We were walkin' down the sidewalk, Daddy in front, Momma behind him, and the seven of us chil'ren all in a row from the tallest to the shortest. My goodness, we did look like ducks in a row, we chil'ren did. A young man and a young woman, a white young man and woman, came a'walkin' toward us arm in arm. As was the custom, we stepped off the sidewalk to let the white folks pass. I looked down at the ground, as I was supposed to do when a white man passed me, and it was then that I saw a sup'risin' thing.
The cement sidewalk had a small crack in it, and out of that broken place grew a flower, a tiny flower. Even though I was a'wearin' my Sat'dy dress, I knelt down on the ground close to the flower so I could cup my hands around it and really see it. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen in my life and it is still the most beautiful flower I ever saw. Its petals were red and yella, its stem was green, and the center a'holdin' it's seeds was black. The yella was the color of the sun in the early mornin', the red was the color of the sun in the late ev'nin', the green was the color of the april fields at dawn and dusk, and the black was 'zactly the color of black folks like us's skin. And there was that flower, a'growin' through the hard, white concrete that covered the earth!
That's why I like to think 'bout things that are covered up, Carter, 'bout things that're underneath. Oft'times, you cain't see them but they're there and they're beautiful and they're a'waitin' for a crack so they can grow and be seen and make the world a better place.
Now, I like to spend time with my Momma and if I have to choose the best times I spend with her then I'd choose times like this, times when she holds me close and tells me stories. Just now I felt her protective arms around me, felt my future brother or sister move and move in her belly to the rhythm of her words, breathed in the smells of buttermilk and flour from this mornings biscuits, and saw her story as if I were there with her in her mind and in her heart. Everything' was covered in white. The ground around me was frozen. But everything inside of me was full of color and warm.

character sketch - Poppa

“You always ‘a askin’ questions,” said my Poppa early to me one morning as I walked my shoeless feet through the freshly turned soil. His hands were on the plow and he was following our old mule Charlie and I was following him.

“That’s a good thing, askin’ questions. Did you know questions drive the world forward, like I’m drivin’ ol’ Charlie down the row? Did you know questions can turn the world upside down, like the plow turns the hard, rocky ground into soft, helpful soil? Did you know questions are like the seeds we’re gonna plant in these rows? It takes a long time to get from seeds to fruits and vegetables and it takes a long time to get from questions to answers that can make a difference in the world. But seeds change to food that feeds people and questions change to answers that can make the world a better place. You keep ‘a askin’ questions always, Carter. Always keep ‘a askin’ questions.”

I’ve always tried to do just that, to ask as many questions as I can ask.

Monday, July 12, 2010

fireflies and soil

fireflies and soil

- Hey fireflies.

At the sound of Carver's voice the fireflies in the mason jar on the table beside our beds began flashing their lights until a warm glow surrounded us.

A surprising thing happened on the day he was born. My little baby brother was wrapped in a blanket, snuggled by Momma’s side with his wide brown eyes open. He was as still as the water in our farm pond on a mid July afternoon. A firefly came into the room with the breeze and lit gently on his nose. I watched in wonder as he blinked his eyes four short blinks and the lightning bug blinked it’s light four short times. He blinked his eyes three long blinks and it blinked its light three long blinks. Was my brother communicating with the lightning bug? Was such a thing possible? The firefly took flight and went out the window through which it came.

When he was two he was laying on his back underneath the afternoon shade of the old apple tree in the back corner of our yard. I was laying beside him, looking up into the branches heavy with green apples, a color of green that we can't rightly make with our tools and substances but that God seems to be able to create with a stroke from a divine brush and palate. I was sharing my thoughts about this with Carver, talking quietly and circling the pad of my thumb around and around his cubby cheek, when a firefly lit on his nose and flashed its soft yellow light three times. His eyes turned inward toward the firefly and blinked three times, as if he was sharing a soft light of his own that was yet unknown to human heart and mind but could only be perceived by the natural world around him. I knew then that he was special, the kind of special person who comes into the world to help it and make it a better place.

On that same summer evening, when he was two years old, with waddling walk and toddling talk, when we were holding hands under the same apple tree.

- Carver, be very quiet, look very clos’ly, and listen very care’fly, okay?

- ‘Kay!

- What color is the grass?

- Gween!

- Yeah, that's right. The color is green. Good. Do you know what's special about the color green?

- Gween is special?

- Yeah, it is special. Look under you. Look out over Poppa's fields. Look up in the trees. Green is under our feet. Green is all around us. Green is over us. Green is everywhere.

- Gween is evweewheyah.

- Uh huh.

I put my hands on the ground, pushed my fingers into the soil, and pulled away a patch of grass.

- What is this?

- It's duwt.

- Well, it's soil. Poppa taught me the difference between dirt and soil and now I want to teach it to you, okay?

- 'kay.

- The word “dirt” comes from the old, old word “drit”, which means “excrement”. “Excrement” is just a big word for “poop”.

Dirt is the ground. It is earth used to make a surface for a road, floor, or other area of ground. It ingrains and blackens people and things.

The word “soil” comes from the old, old words “solium” and “solum”, which mean “seat” and “ground”.

Soil is the upper layer of the earth. It helps plants grow. It is a black or dark brown material made up of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.

Are you lis’nin’?

- Yeah!

- Well, I want you to remember that ev’rybody in the world is like the green grass. We’re all the same. We all have hearts and minds and souls and bodies. No person is better than another. We’re all good and we’re all green on the inside.

- ‘Kay! We’ew aw good and aw gween on th’ inside!

- Yeah, but if it’s hot ev’ry day and it don’t rain for weeks and weeks, the grass gets brittle and ugly. Some people are like that on the outside. Life just dries them up and they do ugly things. You gonna’ see them and hear them when we go to town with Momma and Poppa. They gonna’ tell us that we’re dirt, that we’re only good for being used, that we’re no better’n “poop.” Ev’ry time that happ’ns I want you to remember that we’re not dirt. I want you to reach out and hold my hand, and when you feel my hand I want you to remember that we’re soil, that we he’p the earth grow, that we’re good in the world. Can you do that? Can you hold my hand? Can you remember that? Can you remember that we’re soil?

Carver reached out his toddling hand to me. I took it gently into my own little hand. We were light. We were green. We were soil. We were brothers.