I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. Zora Neale Hurston
We sharpened our knives. Not for oysters, but fish.
Ms. Hurston’s words seemed to be my father’s modus operandi. At 6’3’’, 200-plus pounds and muscular, Daddy commanded the attention of everyone around him. The world busied itself with issues of poverty, race, war, and class, things that affected our segregated lives directly. Eating together as family offered respite.
In creating a meal, Daddy made it up as he went along, singing or whistling most of the time. His resonant bass seemed almost too big for our tiny apartment; it saturated the walls of the small kitchen along with the smell of hot sauce and onions.
We are from a Gullah tradition, descendants of West African slaves who settled along the South Carolina coast building a proud and distinct culture. They called us geechee, a once pejorative term. For us, everything began with rice. One of us would put the pot of rice on, and Daddy would decide what vegetables and spices would be going into the fish or meat dish. We were curious, and each of us showed our curiosity in different ways.
As the eldest daughter, I offered a frowning face. I knew my sister and I would be assigned the job of gutting, scaling, and taking the heads off the trout, perch, croaker, or whatever he and his friends brought back from their day of tossing lines and hooks. If we happened to find a fish belly full of roe (which I would not eat, thank you very much), Daddy was very, very happy.
While I frowned, my mother, an exemplary cook accustomed to Daddy’s larger-than-life show of enthusiasm, rolled her eyes. My sister, an adventurous eater, could not wait. Hungry with curiosity, she could not hide her excitement about culinary exploration (that hasn’t changed. Alligator meat?! Sigh…) I vaguely remember my brothers in the background, watching and learning what it took to be a man adept in the kitchen. My father’s example was a strong one; every one of my brothers became an excellent cook.
“Does any meal stand out as a favorite for you?”
I waited in silence as my sister, 3000 miles away, surfed her memory. Fish was usually fried or grilled, and often accompanied by savory brown gravy.
“Yes. It was like a stew. Not the ordinary fish and gravy. It was a rich broth, thick with lots of flavor.”
I could almost taste her fondness for the meal in my mouth. Fish stew. Of course. That’s what happened with all of those fish heads.
Somehow, the things that were the least irritating and the most comforting have masked or chased away experiences that were the most frightening and least understood. The shadow in our lives was alcohol. Daddy drank.
A survivor of World War II and the Pacific Theater, he suffered nightmares for years, I am told. Alcohol dammed his weeping on those days when he would drive 30 or more miles into Maryland for a brick masonry job only to be told that they weren’t hiring “coloreds” that day. I only remember seeing him weep once, when a dear, dear friend of his died.
But this morning, my mental snapshot is of Daddy standing over the stove, his arms in the air, and a world-engulfing, rapturous delight on his face.
He was fatherly in the best of ways: pretending to be a horse so the children, cousins and all, could get rides on his back; taking us to the carnivals that his volunteer fire department put on every summer—rides and cotton candy included.
Going to the circus, I wanted to grow up and become a part of the magic. Baseball games, finally integrated, inspired my interest in the athletic, even though I felt closer to dance. But I still have my father’s baseball. And, while it is almost a cliché, I stood on his feet as he taught me the cha-cha and whirled me around the room. White hatred could not reach us in these places. He was never MIA (missing in action) like too many fathers. They don’t know what they are giving up.
Some salt, hot pepper, greens and onions. The meals, seafood or meat, weren’t complicated. His eighth-grade education and life experience made him an excellent philosopher and improviser. Daddy was bold in his flavors and his life. He faced things as they came along, following an internal compass about people, life, and food. No one in the family, immediate or extended, would ever lack food. I can’t and won’t speak for anyone else, but I intuited that he wanted me to live by the heart.
A few days after his funeral, I had a dream. He was in formation with other soldiers, and as I walked up to him, he stepped out of formation, turned to me, and saluted.
Grief. Anger. Exhaustion. Faith.
I’m taking time out from my usual words.
Grief is our heartbreak when a five-year-old tearfully asks (after being called the n-word), “Why do they hate us?”
Grief is acknowledging a 14-year-old girl in 1962 trying to buy stockings and make up for the first time knowing all the while that “flesh-colored” did not include her smooth, chocolate brown skin.
Grief is a 19-year-old woman in her first job. Hired and fired on the same day because a white woman told a lie. She burned with humiliation and anger as the owner smirked, “It’s her [Caucasian] word against yours [Black woman].”
Grief is fuel for the anxiety that people of color live with every day in their minds and bodies, day after day absorbing the toxicity of microaggressions at their jobs, in school, or when buying a goddamned pair of sneakers, for God’s sake.
Grief is seeing, fearing, experiencing racially instigated murder.
Grief is standing as a witness to the destruction of Native American lands and sacred burial grounds for the sake of a pipeline. Grief is the recognition of the historical genocide of Native American tribes.
Grief is being a witness to Mexican children separated from their asylum-seeking parents at our southern borders and put in cages. Grief is not being able to help.
We grieve without forgiving.
We grieve for all the children who are born without hate or prejudice and grow to become bitter and hate-filled adults. We grieve when those adults commit crimes against humanity.
The one who grieves seeks healing.
We grieve and are tired of Grief.
Our anger is fed by grief. We are enraged.
We are outraged, our throats are raw from screaming.
Some of us choose to burn the world around us.
Anger moves us to action.
We are outraged at the silence that meets our grieving.
We are outraged at racist strategies developed to persecute Black, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Jews, Native Americans, and Brown people from India and the Middle East. We are outraged at voter suppression, the caging of children, refusal to support DACA, and the banning of Muslim immigrants.
Until now, our grief has been met with bone-chilling silence.
I never imagined a day when hundreds of thousands around the world would stand up and say, “Enough! Black lives matter!”
We are exhausted.
Exhausted with anger. Exhausted with grieving. Exhausted with body-mind trauma.
Exhausted with having to give our children “the talk.”
Exhausted with a focus on surviving rather than thriving.
Exhausted with facing silence.
Exhausted with the lists of the names of the dead.
We have faith.
Faith in our resilience.
Faith in our action. Faith in our unity of vision.
Faith in our commitment to a world of respect between all people.
Faith in a bright and healthy future.
Faith that light will indeed overcome the darkness.
As I write this, the Dakota Pipeline has been ordered to shut down. The Supreme Court has determined that much of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Land including much of Tulsa.
Posted in African American, Black Lives Matter, Commentary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Political reflection, Writing from the heart
Tagged Civil Rights, Political Commentary