My body is a glazed black pot. Inside it is damp, dark, mysterious, with blue veins crisscrossing like rivers. It is shaped by the hands of an old lady, her fingers digging in the damp clay, squeezing wet earth through old fingers, pinching and shaping with flat thumbs. She beats clay into shape, working day and night creating, touching dewy, sticky places, kneading broken, unmended shadow.
Before I was born, hyenas howled at my door, threating to pull me into the underworld. A brown baby girl born in the “colored” ward, pulled from the womb by white hands. Slapped. I sound the alarm in this black and white world.
At one year old, the only child of Eara and LeRoy Frances, I stand on a pedestal, in a flowered Easter dress, holding my stuffed bunny as the photographer takes my picture. This image echoes the black and white picture of my mother taken when she was five years old in 1932, standing in a torn flowered dress next to her father, Monroe O’Conner, and another picture taken of my granddaughter in 1993 when she was one year old, sitting on a pedestal in a flowered dress with a hat on. Three generations stare into the camera, watching.
Until September 13th, I am an only child, with all eyes focused on me. Disruption, chaos: a boy is born. I never forgive him.
I am five. A man with a sandy complexion walks into a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. He places a Nehi orange soda and a pack of cookies on the counter and watches the shadows of Carolyn Bryant’s white hand move on the counter as she places his items in a paper bag. ln the city, he dances with white girls like her, holding them close, smelling their hair, allowing his hands to run up and down their back as he presses his thighs into their bodies. Here in Money, a wink calls the hyenas, who during the dark moon, with lit touches and white hoods, drag him screaming from his great-uncle’s house. Did he call out for his mother, for mercy? Beaten, mutilated, and shot in the head, his bloated body is recovered from the river and flown home to Chicago. His open coffin howls the secrets of the South.
I am in third grade. 1958: Rows of desks, with groomed black bodies raising their hands, answering Mrs. Bradshaw’s third grade questions. Snarling and spitting, she singles me out, shaking me by my neck. Is it because I am a teacher’s daughter? Is it because I am darker than my high yellow classmates? I do not know, but I decide that I cannot win in this environment. I hide. For ten years, I am silence. Staring, watching for another sneak attack, while white people carry signs and spit on black children escorted into school by the National Guard. Hyenas howl and howl.
In the small bedroom I share with my brother, I wake. The door is open to the cedar chest at the foot of my bed. White light fills the cabinet. Chatty Cathy, my blonde, blue-eyed doll, is talking. She is pulling her own string, asking questions. It isn’t the oddity of a six-year-old black child with black hair and brown eyes, hugging and cradling Cathy’s white pale body, but that Cathy speaks.
1963: In a church, four young girls were in the bathroom. They were combing their hair, and one was putting on forbidden lipstick while another waited impatiently for church to start. A flash of light, a sound of lives shattering before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls’ bodies broken. Hyenas retreat.
1966: My grandmother never believed the government even as they sent her packages of processed cheese and powdered milk, and men went to the moon. While she ignores the government, the inhabitants of the last two streets of the black community bordering the white are allowed to go to the white school. Ten of us, dressed in our best, walk forty-five minutes through hyena territory to get a better education.
1968: For graduation I want to go to Big Bend, a national park in Southwest Texas, with my white classmates. My mother refuses to let me. I cannot see. My crack baby eyes are closed. I argue constantly with my mother, demanding freedom, pulling away, tumbling into the world. Leaving home for college, freedom—the bird has flown the coop. Vietnam; Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; students protesting all over the world; Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination; and the Chicago Democratic Convention greet me at this threshold.
I dreamed that my father’s brass clock was sitting on the mantle in the living room of the house where I grew up. A large clock filled the room, marking time. I dreamed that my father, LeRoy, was a slave to the clock. He wound it every day, making sure it was functional. He spent hours, years, turning the key in the side of the clock, which slowly counted the time in our lives.
My father did not have an actual brass clock. He worked at Amoco Chemical Corporation, a global chemical and oil company, as a janitor. He spent years pushing a broom, cleaning up other people’s messes. He went to school to be a tailor. By the time I was conscious of him as father, his dream of being a tailor had evaporated.
I imagine that if my father were white, he would have been a university professor. He loved math. Through his vision, he invested in the stock market, making money that would comfortably support him and my mother in their retirement. After he died, it supported Mom in her old age. He was a man whose life, like the brass clock, ticked away, daily unwound by cultural norms.
In the 1960’s, with Affirmative Action, he was selected for a Lab Technician position, which was still beneath his capabilities. He took samples in tiny vials, checked their chemical content, and processed them in the laboratory. As the white community separated him into unknown pieces, the black community stitched him back together. Stitched him back into a recognizable whole. A man who, like the brass clock, would stand the passing of time.
I remember the call on February 10, 1997 late afternoon.
I was working at the University of California – Santa Barbara.
In my office, I could see the ocean, the bell tower, and who
was having affairs with whom. The receptionist called me;
my mother was on the phone. Faint voice, holding back panic and fear,
she told me my father who walked that morning at the Mainland Mall
had a heart attack while taking off his running shoes. He tumbled
from the bench, hitting his face on the cold concrete floor. Like a
whooping crane flipping its wings, Mother hovered over the memory.
Finally, his body was moved. He was buried on Valentine’s Day.
She, aging, with sagging body and crinkled hands, stands next
to the coffin on wobbly feet, hopping from memory to memory.
My clay heart shatters as my mother holds on. Holds on.
A great river swells up inside me: I am drowning. This river lives between the walls, lives between lives, where waters thump and tug. It lives in my body, a song, nestled in my throat, singing the blues. This great river whistles a tune over and over, shrill to the touch, icy to watch, decaying to taste. This river swells. Sadness marches across my life behind eyelids. I hear Sadness’ laughter, smell her dreams, and wonder who she loves. Sadness: tall and thin, dark as twilight, with braids dancing to the tune of regret. She twirls faster and faster, shattering rain drops, becoming familiar, becoming wind, becoming danger, becoming me.
A chilled January morning in 2008. Barack Obama, the first Black President, is sworn into office. My mother says, “I never thought I would see this happen in my life.” Neither did I. One year later my mother leaves her home, her friends, the land where she was born, and comes to live with me. For three and a half years, we dance as mother-daughter partners, stepping on each other’s feet until we learn the right moves. My feet are sore and flattened.