“These white folks, they think the world belongs to them,” Grandma told me 12 hours after Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depyane Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson were murdered in a Black Charleston church by a cowardly white American thug. “White folks been misusing us since I been in this world, if you wanna know the truth, Kie. If you expect any thing more after all they done, you the world’s biggest fool.”
I am one of the world’s biggest fools. I am also a fat Black boy raised by a village of fat Black women practiced in surviving, forgetting and forgiving the raced and gendered violence of holy American rooms. One of these fat Black women – my grandma – taught me how to outlast southern white folks, how to serve, pray, read, write, cuss, listen, laugh and how to properly fear and praise Jesus Christ.
When I was a child, Grandma and I spent hours in Concord Baptist Church in Forest, Mississippi, at revival, in Home Mission and in Sunday school, hoping that we’d learn to walk with Jesus and protect our insides from what white folks had done, were doing and would do. But in far way more ways than either of us want to admit, in our healing spaces in Concord – the place where we were taught to love, honor and remember humongous parts of ourselves – we were also taught to become the world’s biggest fools to and for white folks and white supremacy.
We members of Concord were supposed to love white folks because they knew not what they did. We were supposed to heal them because they knew not who they were. We were supposed to forgive them because salvation awaited she or he who could withstand the wrath of the worst of white folks. We were supposed to pray for them, often at the expense of our own healthy reckoning.
Grandma and her church taught me that loving white folks in spite of their investment in our terror was our only chance of not becoming them morally.
As a child, I wasn’t sure I could question Grandma’s God, or the white picture of Jesus hanging in Concord, but I knew I could question Grandma’s Bible. Grandma never shut my questions down. She’d ask me to read verse after verse, and fill college-lined notebooks with all the biblical questions that fit. By 12, I knew my Bible like I knew every episode of Good Times.
Still, I hated actually going to church. My slacks were too tight on my thighs. My shirt choked my esophagus. My clip-on tie looked like a clip on tie. No matter the temperature, Grandma made me wear a polyester vest. My feet grew so fast that my penny loafers never fit. Plus, she stopped me from putting dimes or nickels in my penny loafers because was something only mannish boys did.
I was 12-years-old. All I wanted to be was mannish.
Inside Concord Baptist church, I loved the attention I got for being a fat Black boy from the older women: they were the only women on earth who called my fatness “fineness”. I felt flirted with and, like most fat Black boys, when flirted with, I fell in love. I loved the organ’s bended notes, the aftertaste of the grape juice, the fans steadily moving through the humidity, the anticipation of somebody catching the Holy Ghost, the unsure lawd-have-mercy claps after the little big head boy who couldn’t read so well was forced to read a greeting to the congregation.
But as much as I loved parts of church, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t love the holy word coming from the pulpit. The voices carrying the word were gaspy, slick, directed and sure of themselves in ways I didn’t believe. There were no Black men in my immediate family and the word at Concord was always carried by the mouths of Reverend Weathersby, deacons or other visiting preachers who acted like they knew my Grandma and me better than they did.
The village of Black women who raised me conjured words like yesterday’s magic, and those Black women, like the other Black women in the church, made up the majority of the audience. But their voices and words were only heard during songs, in ad-libbed responses to the preacher’s word and during church announcements. While Grandma and everyone else amen’d and well’d their way through shiny hollow sermons, I just sat there, usually at the end of the pew, sucking my teeth, feeling super hot, super bored, and really resentful because Grandma and her friends never told the long-winded sorry preachers to shut up and sit down.
My problem with church was that I knew what could have been. Every other Wednesday – and Grandma took me with her most of the time – the older women of the church had something called Home Mission: they would meet at alternate houses, and bring food, their Bibles, notebooks and their testimonies. There was no set music at Home Mission, but those women, Grandma’s friends, used their lives and their Bibles as primary texts to boast, confess and critique their way into tearful song every single time. They revealed the partial truths of their lives, connected those partial truths to everyone in that room, wandered in some of the closets of those partial truths, and wondered if those partial truths held for women not in the room. They made space for everyone listening to share.
Long before I wanted to write like Morrison, Baldwin or Andre 3000, I wanted to write like the women in Home Mission spoke to each other. Their word was Black love.
Sometimes, Kie, at five in the morning, we had to go to white folks’ house and wash they clothes outside, no matter how hot or cold it was. Sometimes they might pay you in some change. Most of the time, they pay you in a little cornmeal. Anyway, we sometimes would be behind they great big houses washing they clothes in the tub out there, and hanging them up before school. And the little white children who was no older than us would be in the house pointing and laughing.
“Black Churches Taught Us To Forgive White People. We Learned To Shame Ourselves. “
White supremacists know that they can count on Black cowardice
Grandma paused and I heard the beginnings of unspoken words pushing against the back of her throat. “We would walk to school after doing all that work, and every single day, a school bus of white folks would pass us and some of them same kids who was laughing at us in they backyards would be on that bus pointing and laughing at us because we dressed like we just got done working, and because we was walking to school instead of driving.”
I asked Grandma if she wished she could be on that bus too.
“Naw,” she said. “That’s what breaks my heart. The truth is that we ain’t never even thought being on that white folks’ bus, or not cutting that cane, or not picking that cotton, or not washing them white folks’ clothes. We knew that was the kind of work n*ggers had to do. Our thing was that we knew that the white folks didn’t need to be laughing at us for trying.”
Trying what, I asked her.
“Well, trying to make it to tomorrow with food in our belly, and clothes on our back. Sh*t, trying to not hit them upside they head. That’s when I knew something wasn’t right with the insides of them folks. How you got damn near every man-made thing we wish we had, and you laughing at us for trying to get less than a thin slice of what you got? It makes me sick,” Grandma said.
“And let me tell you one more thing about these folks. Sometimes, we do the same work for them on Sunday mornings,” she said. “And instead of driving by and laughing while we walking home so we could put on some church clothes, the white folks would drive right by us, slow down, say hello, and keep driving while the kids in the back steady laughing.”