I was four when I learned of my deformity. Before that, my left hand, different from my right, was still mine. It was part of me until, later, it defined me.
Mom had taken me to the playground. A Sunny day, the air filled with the happy squeals of children playing on the merry-go-round and zooming down slides, or swinging high enough to grab birds by their wings.
Bucket in hand, I chose the sandbox as my first stop. I knew the two girls already playing there were older. I liked playing with older girls. As an only child, my conversations with others were more advanced than my age.
“Want to share my shovel?” I asked the girl with the cinnamon colored hair.
“Okay.” Then, she stared at my left hand. She whispered something to her friend. Both stared.
The pig-tailed girl crinkled her nose. Red hair laughed and held her nose. “Let’s go before that happens to us.”
I looked at Mom sitting on the bench along side the sandbox. She had tears in eyes.
“Why don’t they like me, Mom?”
“Because they’re superficial. They only look at the surface of a person without getting to know them.”
“See how, on your right hand, all fingers can spread apart?”
“Now look at your left hand.”
“I know.” I spread the fingers I could but my middle and ring fingers are melded together as if one large digit.
“Well, both hands belong to my beautiful Gracie. Your left hand is one of the many things that make you different and special. Everybody’s different one way or the other. But we all have similarities, too.
“They don’t like me because I only have four fingers on this hand,” I say, holding it up.
Mom shrugs. “Some people are afraid of differences. But true friends, people who love you won’t even think about the difference in your left hand. Like Sissy.”
My cousin Sissy has known me her whole life. She held my left hand all the time and didn’t care.
Back then, on that playground, Mom made me feel even more loved, differences and all.
But at age four, even after the pep talk, I didn’t know I’d have to endure the stares, the gasps and ugly comments.
I feel woozy. Isaac’s baby sister had died too young and his brother had been murdered.
“No need being mad at Uncle Elias,” Isaac says. “He’s seen more things than most of us. He knows the rules, the law of the land.”
“Yeah? And he thinks those laws are good?” Olvie says. “All he does is live day to day feeling bad that he wasn’t born white. Why can’t he stand up to things once in a while.”
“He’s just fine being a colored man. He’s just scared.”
“Scared? Everybody’s scared of something.”
I want to ask Olvie what she’s scared of. Not now. I’ve never seen her so serious.
“You’re scared for Sylvia,” she continues. “You’re scared you might be the next one to be beaten and locked up. Chicken Coop here is afraid fire.”
How did she know that?
“So, what do I do?” Isaac asks.
“Do?” Olvie picks lint off of Gladys’ moo-moo, hesitating. “What does Elias think? Not that it matters, of course.”
“This time, he’s scared for me. I told him the whole story. I had to. You know, in case a deputy comes to pick me up. After I told him, he went—”
Olvie holds up a hand. “Let me guess. He went to his Sweet Home Baptist Church to pray for his sweet home and kinfolk.”
Isaac nods. “He asked me to go, but I couldn’t.”
“Uh-huh. How’s prayer worked for your uncle so far?”
“Can’t answer that, Olvie,” Isaac says. “God and me are on the outs right now.”
Olvie sighs. “Fair enough.”
The whistling starts. The Andy Griffith Show is about to come on.
Olvie stands and, to my disbelief, she turns down the TV Volume.
“Maybe you should find an ambulance chaser,” she says, sitting back down again. “Chicken Coop? Don’t your folks know folks in the NAACP?”
“Mr. Overton. But he’s not a lawyer. I’ll ask when they call.”
“Oh, no you won’t. There’s no need for your parents to turn around and come home. We’ll figure this out on our own.” Olvie stares at Gladys. “What do you think?”
Isaac and I roll our eyes and wait for the end of their silent conversation.
“She said chopping off your finger is no longer an option.” Olvie grins. “I say we visit Overton. He’s bound to know someone. Or …” She looks up at the ceiling and sniffs something I can’t smell. “Or, we take Pontiac and drive to Birmingham. Clear this up once and for all so those cops won’t think you ran away from a crime.”
Isaac stands. “As much as you think you understand, you don’t. We cross those county lines and I won’t have a chance to clear anything but my bowels.”
Olvie crinkles her nose. “Well, that’s a disgusting thought. You just cleaned Pontiac and now your want to soil her with your scared shit?”
“Deputy Garvey,” I say. “He seems decent enough. How about we talk to him. Get his advice.”
“Good one, Chicken Coop.” Olvie heads toward the phone.
“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Isaac says. “This is my life you two are talking about. Maybe I don’t want you to call a policeman. Even one you both know.”
Olvie stops. “Okay, Wisenheimer. You think I wear a white hood when I’m sleeping?”
“I know better than that,” he says. “But police haven’t been so kind to Negros.”
“Isaac,” I say, hoping I’m right. “I’ve talked to Deputy Garvey. And yes, I know you’re skeptical of police. But I think he might just do you right. Plus, he also knew my grandmother, and liked her.”
“Was your grandmother colored,” he says frowning.
“Not that I know of.” I grin. “But she was a tolerant person who hated injustice.”
Excerpt from my WIP, Bare Bones of Justice (working title)
After Isaac puts the Pontiac in neutral and maneuvers it out on the driveway, he asks me to hand him a screwdriver. He tightens some do-ma-hickey then replaces the battery with the one he picked up at the local auto part’s store.
“You sure know a lot about a lot of things, Isaac Ford,” I tell him. “And don’t dare say anything stupid like, ‘so you think I’m smarter than the average colored boy.’”
“I read a lot. And my mama teaches at my school. The Academy for Black Youth in case you’re wondering.”
“We don’t have any Negros in my school. Not because they can’t come but because most of them live across town.”
“Separate but Equal,” he says, shaking his head.
I think of my summer reading assignment — A Separate Peace.
“Thing is, Chicken Coop. I want to make something of myself. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how. I can’t play music, I don’t want to be a preacher—”
“Then do something else. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be whatever you want.”
“Okay. I’ll be a surgeon. After they let me in a university because of my a-Maze-ing chemistry and biology grades, I graduate. Then, I look for a job that will hire a colored surgeon. And, if I’m lucky enough to land that job, white folks will say, ‘I don’t want some colored boy operating on me.’ Then, I’m back where I started. Without a job.”
“You’re so cynical, Isaac.”
“Cynical?” He points a finger at my chest. “You know nothing. Nothing! What do I have to be cheery-faced about? Huh? That I can fix a goddam car? Tell Olvie it’s ready. She can drive it in the garage her own damn self. I’m going home.”
From my WIP about forging friendships during the Civil Rights Movement (1963)
I had eaten my Swanson’s TV dinner on top of the TV tray and watched and listened to what I could on TV. Even Dr. Kildare, who usually makes me foolishly swoon, looked more like Barney Fife. I’m going bonkers. I know it.
But bedtime was bliss.
The “TSR”, the Temporary stay room,” as Olvie calls it, could be a lot worse than it is. Although the dresser and the headboard on the twin bed are stained puke green, the room itself is at the front of the house. I have one window that looks out to the street. The window on the side gives me a view of the neighbor’s trashcans lined up against their pink brick house.
I had discovered that the window locks are easy peezy. One twist and I could be home free. I know where our spare house key is hidden. How hard would it be to go home, at least for a few hours? Crank up my record player. Listen to Booker T. or the Isley Brothers on Mom and Dad’s new Magnavox player. Or, with the money Mom gave me for “emergencies,” I could go someplace else. Like, for days.
Current Work in Progress, a novel set in 1963 during segregation.
It wasn’t a Sunday morning. It was a Thursday evening.
I sat on a wooden pew where, beneath my feet in the 1800’s, slaves had congregated to worship in a hole made of dirt. On April 27th, at that same location, I was inside the Simpson Methodist Church erected in the 1930’s.
I haven’t been a church-goer in a long while. I was not there to worship. Yet, inside, a hymn came to me – “Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river.”
In my past, I’ve held workshops on tolerance and celebrating diversity. I taught my early childhood staff how to teach bias-free education to our young children. I paired kindergarteners from east Austin to the kindergarteners from west and gathered the 800 or so children together at Burger Center to enjoy the music of Kinderman.
I’ve done many things to teach tolerance and acceptance of others and each one has made me proud. Yet, each time we step out of our “comfort zone,” we learn something new. This meeting was no exception.
We were not there to worship. Nor were we there to hear a lecture. We were there for the unfolding of a “warm” conversation on diversity and equality.
Reverend Robert Waddle was strong in appearance and gentle in manner. He led the group – around 15 warm souls- in prayer. Then, our local president of the NAACP, Nelson Linder and Dr. Guner Arslan, a Muslim from Turkey and director of the Dialogue Initiative Austin, began the discussion.
Here is a bit of what I learned, re-learned and processed:
We, as human beings, have always strived for identity — both within ourselves and within a group (or tribe). Identity is core to our “humanness.”
But here’s the problem–
When we don’t attempt to understand or appreciate “different” identities, an “us vs. them” scenario is created. So imagine how having 4200 religions around the world could easily contribute to this unfortunate scenario.
As we struggle to understand ourselves, and who and what we identify with, we often reject the identities of others.
Unless we expand our awareness.
Have you been integrated as a person? Who are the folks you struggle with?
Nelson Mandela once said, “Everyone has a seat at the table.”
How round is your table?
“Love is the absence of judgment” – Dali Lama
How much do you love?
What are you fearful of?
Try being comfortable being uncomfortable.
Mr. Linder and Dr. Arslan told us, “Find excuses to bring people of ‘differences’ togetherto discover commonalities.”
So, the small group at Simpson Methodist Church became our small group. We had metaphorically gathered at the river, “the beautiful, the beautiful, river“.
Folks, this river is wide. And there is plenty of room for everyone. Yes, let’s gather at that river. Or any other place where thoughtful hearts are shared.
I was not there to worship, but I did. There are many ways to worship Great Love for Humanity.
Please join us at this round table for a warm discussion on diversity, acceptance and love. I will bring the water for your parched throats but there will be no need for food. Our hunger will be satiated by the breaking of bread in our open and honest dialogue.
I hope you choose to be part of the discussion. Because, if you do, and as the song says, “Soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace.“
I would be most grateful if you would leave a response, a personal experience, even a link to similar posts or articles related to this topic.