Julius Lester was born the son of a black Methodist minister in the south. His book Lovesong is a beautifully written account of his spiritual journey away from the conventions of his Southern heritage and Methodist upbringing, culminating in his personal self-discovery through a conversion to Judaism.
Growing up in the turbulent civil rights era South, Lester saw a discouraging divide between the promises of religion and the realities of his life. Using the outlets available to him to try to reconcile this split, he became a controversial and prolific writer and commentator who sided with neither blacks nor whites in his unconventional viewpoints. A luminal figure of the times, Lester stood outside of the conventional labels of race, religion, politics, or philosophy.
Lester’s spiritual quest would take him through the existential landscape of his Southern, Christian upbringing, into his ancestry, winding through some of the holiest places on the planet and into the spiritual depths of the world’s major religious cultures. His odyssey of faith would unexpectedly lead him to discovering Judaism as his true spiritual calling.
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It is summer, any summer in the 1940s. I am with Momma and for two to four weeks we will be here, staying with her mother outside Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Grandmomma lives with her brother, my great-uncle Rudolph, in a frame house whose unpainted boards have absorbed sun and rain, frost and dew until they are as gray as restless sleep and as weary as the sleeper who awakens to a day for which he has no love.
Grandmomma's house stands alone, removed from its neighbors and back from the main road like the monarch of an impoverished kingdom. To the east is a large field, "the orchard," Momma calls it still, because when she was a girl (and I can't imagine that), rows and rows of peach, apple and cherry trees flowered where now an infinite variety of weeds flourishes like immorality. On the other side of the "orchard," beside the railroad tracks, is another house, smaller than Grandmomma's, and even more weary. Grandmomma's sister, my great-aunt Rena, lives there with her husband, Fate McGowan.
Behind Grandmomma's house is the chicken yard, henhouse and outhouse. Beyond these are deep woods, somewhere in the midst of which is the family cemetery. In all, there are forty acres of fields and woods enclosed by a sturdy wire fence, whose gate no one ever enters and we seldom go out.
Beyond the fence, on the west, is a dirt road leading to and from the main one on the north. It is wide enough for a mule wagon as far as Grandmomma's gate; then it narrows to a dusty footpath and winds into the innards of Pine Bluff's black community. (We were "colored" in those days when Hope was the name some dreamer bestowed on a daughter, when change was what the white man at the store might give you when you bought something, and progress was merely another incomprehensible word on a spelling test.)
I sit on the porch each day and watch children go back and forth to the little store on the main road. I am a child yearning to be with children, but these wear dirty and torn clothes. How am I supposed to play with someone whom dust coats like roach powder? They look furtively at me sitting on the porch in my clean and well- pressed clothes, socks and shoes(!). (Only now, looking back, do I realize that in the fifteen summers at Grandmomma's, no child ever came to the gate to ask me who I was, where I was from and did I want to play. I realize only now, too, that I never went to the gate so that they could ask.)
I accept such separateness as unquestioningly as I do the air my body breathes. There is something different about us — Grandmomma, Uncle Rudolph, Momma and me. In the evenings we sit on the porch and watch as trucks, filled with fieldhands who work the white man's cotton, stop on the main road in front of the store. With much laughter and loud talking, they jump or climb off and meander down the side road that leads past Grandmomma's to their houses scattered over the fields behind like neglected thoughts. Their loud voices soften as they near Grandmomma's. "You niggers hush! Don't you see Miz Smith setting on the porch?" (That was Grandmomma's name when she wasn't Grandmomma.) A quietness as stifling as the heat falls upon them, fifteen, twenty, men, women and children, hoes at forty-five-degree angles across their shoulders, fraying straw hats or red handkerchiefs on their heads, and as they pass the gate, that gate they never enter and through which we seldom go out, someone calls out loudly, "How y'all this evening?" We call back, "Fine, and you?" "Tol'able, thank you." Only after the last one passes do their voices rise again like birds from tall grasses.
We are different. Daddy is a Methodist minister and I was robed in a mantle of holiness even before the first diaper was pinned on my nakedness. I cannot do what other kids do — play marbles for keeps, go to the movies on Sundays, listen to popular music on the radio, play cards. Momma cannot wear makeup or pants. Only sinful women do that. We represent Daddy and he represents God.
My brother hates all of it. He is nine years older than me. But he does not come to Grandmomma's and I do not know where he is or what he is doing.
I do not hate holiness. Sometimes I wish I could do what other children do, but Daddy tells me, "God has special plans for you," and I wonder what they are. I cannot imagine, but I will never know if I do not nurture separateness as if it were my only child.
We are different, too, because we do not depend on white people for our economic survival. Daddy does not work for white people and we do not have to talk to them or even see them, except when we go to town. We go to town as infrequently as we can.
There is something else different about us, too. Grandmomma and Momma look like white women. Both have thick, wavy long hair and skin like moonlight.
(Summer 1982. Daddy has been dead a year. My oldest son, Malcolm, and I go to Nashville to help Momma sort through the remains of fifty-seven years of married life, sell the house and prepare her to move in with a relative in Washington, D.C. I cannot imagine being eighty-five years old and Life asking me to begin again. I look at her and learn what it is to submit to Life's requirements and create oneself anew as Death takes your hand in his. For Momma, part of beginning again is to go to Pine Bluff and visit the family cemetery for what might be the last time.
("Your daddy was supposed to bring me down last summer but he died before he got to it," she says several times.
(We drive in silence. Neither Momma nor Grandmomma ever had much use for words. Grandmomma died at age ninety-one more than twenty years before and she never spoke of herself, to her children or grandchildren. Momma is not very different. So I am surprised when into the silence she says, "It was hard growing up looking white. I had a hard time in school. The other kids were always beating me up. And when we went to town, the white people acted like they hated us because we looked white but weren't. I grew up being afraid all the time."
(Silence closes around her again like an enemy. It is a silence I know too well, a silence she has bequeathed me like an antique family ring of dubious value. It is the silence of Grandmomma's solitary house and of how solitary we were in that house, in that community and with each other. We were different, Grandmomma, Momma and me, holding ourselves back from the world and all in it — reserved, polite, formal — acknowledging salutations with the fingertips of white-gloved hands while longing for an embrace.)
At night we sit on the porch and I listen to the sounds of Momma's, Grandmomma's and Uncle Rudolph's voices telling of people now dead, and their dead walk through the silences between their words, and I miss people whom I have never known.
Silence acquires the dimension of space at night. There is no electricity in the black community and the lights from coal-oil lamps flickering in the windows of houses in the distance are like matches before the force night is. Night is an absolute, an irrefutable mathematical equation to which one submits with grateful awe. Night and silence are palpable presences I love.
The only time I go outside the fence is to sit by the mailbox and await the mailman. I am not expecting mail but want to decipher the name on Grandmomma's box. I read almost as well as an adult but cannot pronounce the name painted crudely in black on her box. A-L-T-S-C-H-U-L. Grandmomma's name is Smith. Sometimes mail is addressed to Rudolph A-L-T-S-C-H-U-L, however. Who is that? Uncle Rudolph is Grandmomma's brother, which means that he is Rudolph Smith.
I want to ask Momma who A-L-T-S-C-H-U-L is, but she does not like my questions and generally answers them with "No," even when they begin with "Why?"
One afternoon we are sitting in the porch swing next to each other. She is telling me about the orchard and her voice is soft like moonlight on magnolia blossoms and I want to melt into her and, without thinking, my voice soft like the fuzz on a bee's back, I ask, "Momma? Who is A-L-T-S-C-H-U-L?"
"That's your uncle Rudolph's name," she answers.
"I thought his name was Smith."
She chuckles. "That's your grandmother's married name. She was an Altschul before she married."
Al ... I try to say it to myself, but can't. I know she hasn't told me who Al ... whoever is, but if I ask again, she will only say that I ask too many questions.
* * *
Time at Grandmomma's is like the tall pine tree by the main road. It is simply there — straight and immovable, unbending and indifferent. Day becomes night and night becomes day and the new day is the old one's twin.
One morning every week or so, however, Momma says, "Your daddy's coming this evening." I eat breakfast quickly and hurry to the porch. Daddy never comes until the sun is like fire on the edge of the world, but maybe he will come early today. That is what I think each week.
Daddy teaches ministers in summer school at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. I do not know even now what he taught. I know only that I miss him.
Night is squeezing day into evening before I see the blue Plymouth cross the railroad tracks by Aunt Rena's house. I leap from the porch and race across the yard to unlatch the gate. Before the car turns off the main road, I am standing at the exact place Daddy will park.
There is a big grin on his face when he gets out of the car. "Well, what you saying about yourself?" he chuckles, picking me up in the air, which is fun and scary at the same time.
Anybody can tell that Daddy is a preacher. He always dresses in a suit and tie. They are as natural on him as his black skin. He is a serious and, at times, stern man. Even when he grins and laughs (and he laughs a lot), the seriousness does not change. It is as if his grin and laughter are prayers, too.
Though I am glad to see him, I know that the next morning we will go to town to shop. I don't like to go to town, especially when Momma and I ride the bus. We have to sit in the back, and if Momma talks to me, her voice is small and tight, as if her throat is lined with dust that water cannot wash away. She never talks much on the bus, though. So I sit and read the sign over the bus driver's head:
WHITE SEAT FROM THE FRONT COLORED SEAT FROM THE REAR
Daddy doesn't like us to ride the bus.
"What was I supposed to do, Reverend Lester?" Momma will say. "You said you were coming Wednesday, and when you didn't, I got up Thursday morning and Julius and I went to town. There were things Momma needed."
"Wasn't nothing so important that you couldn't have waited one more day," he answers.
"How was I to know if you were going to be delayed a day or another week?"
"You didn't. But I don't want you riding on the back of no bus!"
When Daddy takes us to town, Momma's thin lips are not pressed together more tightly than the boards of Grandmomma's house. I still don't want to go, however. It is hotter in town and Daddy won't let me drink out of the colored water fountains in the stores. He won't buy me an RC or Dr Pepper, either. There were no soda machines in those days and the only places to buy cold drinks were at the colored windows of cafes or diners. Daddy says only "common Negroes" go to the colored windows, Negroes who don't care about themselves, who don't have any pride and let the white man treat them like dirt, and he will let me die of thirst before I drink a soda bought at a colored window.
On many of those hot summer days, dying of thirst seemed imminent. Yet I do not recall being angry with Daddy or thinking him mean. His anger taught me that though we were powerless to change segregation, we would not freely choose it. His anger was self-respect and we took pride in knowing that Lesters did not use COLORED toilets, drink from COLORED fountains, walk through doorways with signs reading COLORED ENTRANCE, buy anything from a COLORED WINDOW, and at home, in Kansas City, Kansas, I walked to and from downtown rather than ride in the back of the bus.
We are walking along a street in downtown Pine Bluff one hot summer day. I see a large round clock jutting from a store front. Curved over the top are the letters A-L-TS-C-H-U-L. Curved at the bottom is the word JEWELERS.
"Momma! That's the name on Grandmomma's mailbox!"
My excitement is met with a long silence. Finally Daddy chuckles softly. "Those are your cousins," he says.
When we are driving back to Grandmomma's he says, "Your great-grandfather was a Jew. Altschul. That's a German-Jewish name. He was married to your great-grandmother. She was a slave. Not when they met, of course. His name was Adolph. Your grandmother was one of his daughters and your uncle Rudolph was one of his sons. That's how come they look like white people. You remember your uncle Charlie?"
I recall being taken to a tiny apartment in Chicago one hot Sunday afternoon where a tall, white-looking man was introduced to me as "your uncle Charlie." I looked up at his dour face, wondering what he had to do with me.
"He's an Altschul, too. Your aunt Rena was an Altschul before she married your uncle Fate. There was another girl, Julia. She's dead now. Your momma was named for her and you were named for your momma. Then there was Ada and Florence. Florence moved away somewhere, passed for white and nobody has seen or heard from her since.
"Well, the way the story goes is that Adolph came over here from Germany at some time or another and him and his brothers somehow made their way down here to Pine Bluff and Adolph became a peddler. He went around through the countryside selling things off a horse and wagon. That must've been how he met your great-grandmother. This was not too many years after slavery and him and your great-grandmother — her name was Maggie. Maggie Carson. A little bitty woman who looked like she was white. Well, somehow she and your great-grandfather met up with one another. His brothers disowned him for marrying her. But I always respected Adolph for that. Back in them times he didn't have to marry her if he didn't want to, but he did the Christian thing, even if he was a Jew. When he died, his brothers came and got his body and buried him in the Jewish cemetery somewhere here in Pine Bluff. I don't see how come they did that. They didn't want to have nothing to do with him when he was alive. I think sometimes about going and digging him up and burying him out there in the family cemetery next to your great-grandmother. That's where he belongs.
"That store we passed, well, the ones that own it are the descendants of them brothers. They're your blood relatives." He chuckled. "But don't you go marching in the store and call them cousin. They'd pretend like they didn't know what you were talking about. Your mother knew your great-grandfather, you know."
"What was he like, Momma?" I ask eagerly.
"He was a very nice man," she says in that proper way when she doesn't want to talk about something, or doesn't know how she feels about it, and maybe that's the same thing. "I was just a little girl, so I don't remember much. But I remember when my father died, and don't start asking me about him because I remember less about him than I do about Grandfather. But when our father died, I remember Grandfather came and got us and brought us out here where Momma lives now. And that's where we lived from then on."
My great-grandfather was a Jew, I say to myself. I don't know what that means, not if meaning is confined to words and concepts. But meaning is also feeling and sensation and wonder and questions.
Altschul. I can say it now. Altschul.CHAPTER 2
After Daddy's death I find among his possessions a large photograph of the church he pastored in Kansas City, Kansas, and next door to it, the parsonage. They are the only two buildings on that side of the block.
"How bleak," my wife says when I show it to her some months later.
I look again. There are no people on the street. The trees are topped and leafless; the sky is as gray as grief. The church is a massive rectangle of huge stones as dully gray and heavy as the sky. Two stories high, it extends from the corner of Ninth and Oakland for three-quarters of the block up Ninth Street. It looks as impregnable, immovable and eternal as a mausoleum. Next to it the frame parsonage huddles as if recoiling from the prospect of such an eternity. I was taken into that house two years after my birth in St. Louis, Missouri, and we lived there until I was nine.
Looking at the photograph, my wife's comment resounding through me, I see a childhood as heavy and gray as the stones of the church, as bare and lifeless as the trees, a childhood pruned and pruned again until who I might have been is not even a memory in my veins.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lovesong"
Copyright © 2013 Julius Lester.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
More than a chronicle of a spiritual search, Mr. Lester also writes of his political journey through the 60's as well. I found it to be a heartfelt book, one in which Mr. Lester conveyed many similar thoughts and emotions that I've had through my own quest for a spiritual life. The final chapter is for me especially moving.
Ok earse it now
I love you. Will you be my mate?