Showing up at the latest “First Church of the All-Suffering Redneck” with Mazzy (see Chapter 13) didn’t cause all that much of a stir, but she wasn’t exactly drawn warmly to the bosom, either. Mama was friendly, of course, like she is to everybody, and Flora Lee came over and gave her some cool black hand jive. But generally she wasn’t as well received in my church as I’d been in hers.
Here’s my impression of current Southern racism, if it means anything. It’s still there a bit, but for different reasons. If that makes sense. It’s like somebody might resent seeing her in the Baptist sanctuary, or seeing her brother put his hand on a white girl’s waist in the hall. But that’s just sort of a general background thing that some people are into and some aren’t. Anybody who’s a different color is an easy target for people who want to resent, and want to feel superior to somebody else without putting out any effort. Some people would act the same way if somebody showed up in a letter sweater from the other high school in town, or wearing a beard or a pink shirt.
But back before, it was like, for real. A lot of people saw blacks as an inferior species and including them as people like us was flat-out wrong and an active insult. It went against God and nature, and could harm us. I could still get that from a couple of my old Aunties, and heard tales of older relatives that made it clear that’s what they still thought. You see pictures of people spitting on sit-in blacks or screaming at a girl walking into a high school in Birmingham, they are full of righteous hatred. They are defending their way of life and their designated place in the cosmos and they mean it. Nowadays, there’s just people who like a reason to pick on others.
One thing that put me in touch with some of that, and helped me understand something I couldn’t really put into words was the first real African I ever met. This was in a special get-together in a big church in Tupelo, where we were attending because of the Lottie Moon show and my daddy’s connections to a whole flock of dedicated missionary maniacs he knew from seminary and kept in touch with during his periodic wanderings in the desert seeking promised lands of workable congregations.
It was quite a do, all about supporting some arcane aspect of mission work I never quite grasped, but which caused great nodding of solemn heads and amen-ing of solemn quotes. “Support” in the sense of “get up some money and give it to us so you can feel good”.
And there he was, this tall, heavy-set guy, as black as Doberman, darker even than Mazz. He had gold wire-rimmed glasses, a colorful dashiki thing, and a bright pill box hat I associated at the time with Carlos Santana. I was rather intrigued, actually.
He was from some God-forsaken country like Togo or Rwanda. Touring similar churches to help them get up money to help God un-forsake the place he came from. Actually, I got the impression he was a kind of con man, but he carried it off very well. And for all I knew at age fourteen, that’s the way everybody from equatorial Africa talks and acts. And with this cool British accent I associated with Reggae musicians. He caught me eying him at the reception after the main service and just came right over to me. Took me a little aback. I wasn’t used to strange adult men just rolling up on me like that. He seemed like he’d marked me out for his eleventh wife or some such.
But he just wanted to know more about where and how I lived, what I thought of the mission effort. He was a tourist, I realized. But also a kind of traveling salesman. And I loved listening to him talk, could have listened to him roll out that broad, sun-warmed Oxford diction all day. I asked him about his clothing, especially the hat, and if I expected some colorful tribal significance, was disappointed. He kind of shrugged it off and said, “Perhaps I should wear something more fitting, or the local styles.”
I thought that was silly and said, “But then nobody would know you’re from Africa.’
He smiled at that, had this wonderful mellow smile. He gave me a long look, then leaned over closer to my ear and said, “But without it, I’d just be another nigger, wouldn’t I?”
That startled me, all right, but I was really impressed he’d said it. For one thing, as soon as he said it, I knew it was true. Some of those people who were crowding around eating out of his big old hand would have snubbed him on the street and sure as hell blackballed him–so to speak–from their golf club. I just nodded, no idea how to respond.
He was a gracious guy, didn’t leave me trying to come up with some reply to that one. He straightened up and looked around the fellowship room in the church basement, decorated for the event with pictures of black kids playing around shacks and missionaries standing arm in arm with smiling natives. The only black faces in the place, turned out. He looked back at me and gave me this kind of sad smile and said, “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s quite the same anywhere you go. In my country there is even more hatred and violence than here, and with even less distinctions.”
Then he sort of bowed to me, with a lift of his tea cup, and walked off to join a fluttering circle of deacons’ wives who would have had fits if he’d approached them in a bar. It was a few years before I learned he was right about his country, about people killing each other for being in another tribe or another branch of religion. I remember thinking of him and wondering, is there some get-up you could put on so those guys with machetes and machine guns wouldn’t think you’re a nigger that needs killing?
I considered whether to share this with Tree and LaMa. I finally did and it was funny: LaMa howled with laughter and said, “I’m going out and buying me some Africa threads right this minute.”, but her big sis, Monique, got very quiet and kind of sad and said, “He was right. We’re a total mess. And I don’t mean just us niggers. I mean people.”
She looked around a little and looked back at me like she’d just met me. She said, “Aint’ nowhere to go, is there?”