WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART: SUMMER ‘59
On that first Sunday, Annie dressed in green plaid,
With Peter Pan collar, shoes, and purse all white.
Curly golden hair streamed down her back,
While her blue eyes tried to hide her fright.
It took three buses to cross the town,
Until, at last, she saw St. Mark’s steeple,
In a neighborhood of worn-out mansions and left-behind people.
Tawny browns and ebony blacks, mahogany and coffee-laced-with-milk
Were some of the colors meeting her at the church door.
In satins and silks or cotton worn thin,
Big-hatted women and crisp-suited men were all going in.
Children nudged and pointed at Annie, until stilled by a command.
Heavenly light showered down from stained glass
To scatter more color across each yearning face.
Thundering piano and joyful choir sang of Grace.
There, at the sanctuary door, Annie heard Mrs. James demand,
“How come you to hire that white teacher?
It’s my turn to lead our summer session.
‘Sides, we’s a black church now, Preacher!”
His answer came as he caught Annie’s eye,
“Like I’ve been saying for months now,
White folks are fleeing,
Black folks are seething,
When it should all be about believing!”
Annie slid into a pew nearby and studied the program without really seeing.
What have I done?
What a horrible blunder!
I don’t belong, I don’t fit in.
I’ve never had a close Negro friend.
I never marched against the drum to plead freedom for anyone.
I know we’re equal but I don’t know much more.
Nothing of race or culture or custom.
Little of strife or poverty or shame.
My family came first cabin from across the sea,
Not as plunder or property.
What can I do here, a college girl, and a white one at that?
I know the church and the Bible pretty well.
I can lead songs and follow the lesson, offer up prayers,
And even wipe a child’s tears
But of life, I know so little.
Lost in reverie, Annie’s soul began to stir to rhythms surrounding her.
Song vibrated from wall to wall, people began to shout their Amens.
Her spirits lifted as Annie sang out, and looked at her neighbors.
In God united they stood and swayed to the beat of a belief understood.
Grasping hands across the aisles, prejudice and fear were set aside.
Here was a place, a people and a task
Where Annie would do as good as she was asked.
* * *
It is hard to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 82, the age he would have been today if he’d escaped the assassin’s bullet in April 1968. What would he think of our condition on a “return visit” this week , if such were possible? I’m not certain of his response but suspect it would be a mixture of joy and regret. What might he celebrate or denounce, do you suppose?
How would he challenge us to extend the lessening of hate and intolerance in our world? What can we challenge ourselves to do?
I’ve adopted minute actions: reduce my exposure to media portrayals of violence so as not to condone its use; monitor my language and expressions; and speak up, in whatever small ways I can, against the degradation of humanity.
I’ll be interested in your comments.