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It was not that Natchez was a horrible, despicable place, for it had a beauty all of its own, in its own right. It was just not for me. I had dug deeply within its guts and unearthed very evil presences that lurked in the background and wore false faces in the foreground. From behind the scenes in Colored Town, I had glimpsed the Ku Klux Klan burning wooden crosses on the black schoolyard, witnessed black folk stuttering and shuttering in the presence of their white bosses, heard rumors of whites terrorizing black communities and shooting or killing blacks for the sport of it and observed from up close white boys throwing bottles and tire irons in the midst of black youngsters. When I was in the fourth grade, I attended the all-white Christmas parade for the first time and, to my surprise, a huge, red-faced boy from one of the marching bands stepped out of line and spat directly in my face. He kept right on marching and never missed a beat. When I was in the ninth grade, I baby-sat for a young, white couple who referred to me as "nigger" but entrusted to me the care of their three children. When the white insurance agent, who came to our house for years to collect payment, grabbed my breasts, I was seventeen and ready to get out of Dodge. The stories that I could tell if time permitted! What about black bodies floating in the muddy Mississippi River, black girls being raped and killed and buried in the woods, black men being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and black people passing for white in order to escape the frenzy of the times?
Let me interrupt just for a second to say that blacks were not exempt from criminal and immoral behavior, for we also robbed, stole and killed and did some of the same stuff that white people did. My point is that blacks were oftentimes falsely accused and there was nothing that we could do about it. Please excuse me, for I know that all stories have two sides but this version just happens to be my own. Must I reiterate that this entire manuscript is of a personalized nature? Anyway, that was the way of the day until the world began to open its eyes to man's injustices towards his brother, to racism as a gnawing cancer in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And what about me? This game was all about me. I was long gone when the civil rights leaders amassed in Natchez and exposed it to world scrutiny and media surveillance. What sensationalism!
When I visit or even think of my hometown today, I am swamped with mostly bad memories of bygone days. And I am especially haunted by the impact that racism had on my childhood, for it just about erased the stages of innocence and naïveté that a child is due. It cut down to a bare minimum my freedom to laugh, to roam about, to trust, to play on the bluff or in the bayou or to walk peacefully down the street. I tiptoed through my childhood, so to speak, almost inattentive to the numerous ante-bellummansionsandplantations,antiqueshoppes,civilwarrelicsand other historic memorabilia that were within plain sight. I was unmindful of the colorful history of the Natchez Indians and the European settlers who paved the way for the foundation of the city. After travelling back and forth over the years, I have come to reacquaint myself with my childhood roots and find that within me, much has really changed and without, the manifestations of the past seem to be frozen in time. The buildings of olden days continue to govern the downtown area while vague modernization languishes in the background. Tree-lined streets mark the entry to the city which seems to await rejuvenation so that it may live again in the days of yore when the South thrived on its customs and traditions. More than a sufficient number of churches give the impression that the residents are conspicuously religious or devoted to a spiritual creed of some kind. Newly constructed hotels, homes and centers are but mere specks amidst the antiquated and obsolete structures that hang on for dear life. The tire plant and paper mill which I remember so vividly to be the source of employment for many shut down years back for reasons that are beyond me. The strong, foul stench from the mill that hovered over the entire city on a daily basis during my time hovers no longer and no longer do the residents have to gasp for air. The high school that I attended slowly succumbed to asbestos as did Natchez Junior College which is now in a state of disrepair and decay. No matter how much I endeavor to renew my vision from long ago, I still see the town cleaving to the era when its ways and practices were deemed sufficiently proper and rigorously correct, when division between the races was the order of the day. I still perceive a town in suspended animation that moves forward but goes nowhere, a town where the past creeps in like a serpent and strikes upon impulse when least expected. I admit that my perception is somewhat blurred and tainted by the invading and inviting and contaminated memories of an innocent and ignorant child.
A product of segregation and other discriminatory practices and very much aware that I lived across the tracks that separated whites from blacks, I believed, as a naïve child would, that things were the way that they were supposed to be, that the world was just and fair, that the whites had the right to call the shots since they were doing so anyway, that being born into racism somehow made it right. And nobody sat me down and openly discussed the issues with me. And who says that anything had to be explained? I thought that slavery was a thing of the past which meant to me—over, done with, finished. What comes to mind right now is that perfect freedom is meaningless in a meaningless world. I knew nothing of my African ancestry or the fact that I was just a remnant of the fabric left over after the rest of the bolt had been sold. Did being a remnant of slavery somehow justify me as a slave? I just knew I was colored and that made all of the difference. And what did being colored mean except to behave, to do what I was told without question, to be quiet when white folk spoke and never to sass the white man.
I used to wonder why blacks hummed the tune of "yah, suh" and "yes, ma'am" for the whites and not for their own people. It was not until I saw movies with black actors playing the roles of slaves that I sensed simulated behaviors performed with a chuckle. My mother told me that many blacks acted thusly because they were imitating family members while others were just "putting on". She also said that whites expected blacks to act servilely and they just got what they asked for. My parents and others who vaguely understood the ramifications of racism lived in fear of white folk who owned the ground on which they walked and the shacks in which they lived, provided the jobs that meagerly sustained their families and created the written and unwritten laws to which they adhered. This fear filtered down to the children who instinctively knew the expression "separate but equal" was but the utterance of idiots who lay down foolish rules for fools to follow. However, we knew never to go out-of-bounds, never to enter the ground floor of the movie theatres, never to sit at the soda-fountain marked "white" and never to sass the white man. For those offenses could have led to trouble. And who knows what else?
Let me mention just one of the times that I broke the rules and the walls came tumbling down. I persuaded my very fair-skinned sister to pretend to be white and make a hair appointment at this white beauty salon located in the downtown area. I was to wait across the street for her because my presence would only have sent up a red flag. The salon catered to high society, the well-to-do, as was obvious by the immaculately dressed clientele and the ambiance. There were no signs that forbade us entry but we knew that this was not a facility for blacks. But we had reached those years which preached pretty at whatever cost. Besides, my sister just wanted her hair curled! That was not too much to ask. The black beauticians refused to press her hair with hot irons and this was her last resort! From across the street, I could see my sister surrounded by several beauticians who combed and brushed her hair. After two hours or so, I began to worry about her and decided to seek her out. All heads turned in my direction as I entered the place in a state of panic. The mere fact that I asked for my sister upset the clients and the help. The whole place was in an uproar! It was as if I had contaminated it with the plague. A tall, thin, well-dressed lady who, I assumed, was the owner demanded that we leave the premises immediately or she would call the police. No one attempted to manhandle us or to remove us by force. In addition, no one asked us for money or attempted to remove the huge rollers from my sister's hair as we exited the place. My sister claimed, through her sobs, that the receptionist said that the procedure would take a short while and before she knew it, the beauticians, one after the other, were washing, rinsing and rolling her hair. She also said that they mistook her to be the daughter of some prominent, white businessman. When she stopped crying, we had taken every short cut available. We were just about home when we heard police sirens. Apparently, the police were not after us or they would have caught us. To our surprise, my mother greeted us with a freshly picked switch from the neighbor's tree. And because I was older, for I was about twelve and my sister ten, I got the worst of it. To this day, I do not know how the word of our mischief reached home before we did. My mother did not speak to us for days. She seemed to be afraid of something! She locked the doors and nailed the windows shut for months thereafter. My sister and I were secured in the back room of the house at night and were not allowed to go to and from school unescorted. In addition, my older brothers were charged with checking each and every one of our classes to see if we were in place. It took quite a while for things to settle down and for my mother to regain her composure. I was terribly ashamed and my mother was terribly afraid.
I tried my best to follow the rules from that point on. Not to say that I did not break them every now and then but I tried not to. I did my homework religiously, read my outdated textbooks and was an excellent student. Sometimes, I listened to the radio or played a game or two with my siblings. I was almost thirteen when my father purchased our first television set which we all became glued to until my mother scheduled our viewing times. I am getting a little bit ahead of myself here. So let me back up a bit to say that rehashing my childhood memories obviously paved the way for me to see that I am neither at their mercy nor at the mercy of any past perceptions, that memories of my childhood, left unexplored and unattended, could have possibly resulted in monstrous and hideous consequences, that conveniently and consistently blaming others and seeking scapegoats for my malaise and malfunctions are shrewd ways of securing the noose around my neck, that failure to narrow down the search within to all good automatically awakens the evil. Believe me! None of us can receive other than what we create. When we look at others, there must be some way of knowing that it is only ourselves that we perceive. But that is not always the case. Is it? Placing ourselves under a microscope of sorts can reveal one thing for sure and that is that our thoughts dictate our lives. When we come to terms with that fact, we can focus on changing our thoughts and our lives will follow suit. When we plow through the evil to disclose the good, we will discover that nothing but God has ever existed. With that supreme thought as our thrust, we will reap the benefits of a new harvest or a new beginning which correspond to our thought system. From that point on, total bliss!
Let me reminisce once again! I had to be seven or eight when I first noticed that my mother was not only afraid of white folk but she was afraid of something unfathomable that had to do with my welfare. She was extremely protective of me and kept me close by her side for the most part. At times, I would see her staring at me and in the corners of her eyes, sadness was accompanied by tears. I did not believe that I was her favorite child, for I always assumed that one of my older brothers was the apple of her eye. I was sure she loved me but she had her ways about her. Nonetheless, I received a lot of her attention even when I did not want it. It did not seem that she could move without me. Although she never caressed me or showed me affection, she carefully watched me like a hawk. She would occasionally awaken me from a beautiful dream to ask if I was okay. She made many of my clothes, drilled me for spelling bees, guided me through my homework, taught me to mop and clean and to assist with minor chores and allowed me to be her tagalong, her shadow, whenever she left home during the day. And that was a rare thing since she was bound and chained to houses which she could never call her own. This practice seemed to trickle down to me, for I was not comfortable outside of the house unless under the watchful eye of my mother who was terribly unsociable and, as a result, so was I. Many years passed before she trusted me to be out of her sight.
It was during these early years that I heard my mother praying, chanting, crying and conversing with God as she went about her housework. I just sat and watched her in silence, knowing not to question her doings but to accept them as part of her nature. Besides, if this were her way of entertaining herself, it was fine with me. In a way, this was our well-kept secret which we shared with no one. And mum was the word! I did not relish seeing her cry and she often did, especially when she spoke to God as if she knew him personally. I was so entranced by these episodes that I would often swing back and forth between being awake and asleep. Why? I did not know. I was certainly not bored but very attentive for a small child. If my brothers had seen her, they would have laughed her off the stage! I must say that I did feel strange or peculiar while she was carrying on. I guess I did not have the heart to tell her that she was putting a spell on me or that something abnormal was happening to me at these little sessions. Today, I can probably give a long, drawn-out explanation about what occurred back then. At the time, I felt that something had a hold on me, that something was putting me to sleep, that something lived inside of me, independent of me which harnessed fear. Sometimes, these sleepy feelings would come upon me at school. I was always afraid that I would doze off like this around my friends who would show me no mercy. Therefore, I tried to be vigilantly alert when I was at school. I drank a lot of water, took a lot of bathroom breaks and chewed a lot of gum. When these methods failed, I used my special privileges as the teacher's pet to ward off the sleep attacks, to move freely about the classroom. I erased the blackboards, passed out the textbooks and took the attendance count to the office. And yes, there were times when no method worked and I was at the mercy of my cruel classmates and, sometimes, at the mercy of my teachers but, above all, at the mercy of my own mind. I remember the time when my second-grade teacher asked me to solve a mathematical problem at the blackboard and to explain the steps I had taken to find the answer. Upon approaching the front of the class, my memory was completely wiped out as to where I was or what I was doing. I stopped dead in my tracks, completely oblivious to my surroundings and entirely disconnected from the moment. It was not until the teacher screamed at me that my memory was jarred into the present, into the world of puzzled classmates and a teacher without compassion. Although I had numerous attacks of this nature, I will only recount a few to evidence the origin of my bouts with what doctors today call narcolepsy, the sleeping sickness.
Excerpted from THE ABSORPTION OF THE CHRIST by Patricia Sadler Moore Copyright © 2012 by Dr. Patricia Sadler Moore. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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