TITLE: Hart & Soul, Part XI: Behold a Red Lamb
By RENEE GREENE
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We didn't speak to each other for days afterward, nearly a week. Poppy finally came forth from his quarters with a mandate. Mama was to take us and leave his home as quickly as possible. No child who stood up to him was allowed to stay in 'his' house. Damn sorry bastard, I said below audible level. It ain't your house anyway, it's Mommy's. But I was glad we were leaving. Eight years of living in the same house with him had been more than I could stand myself.
About six months later, we moved "up the road" to Peabody Apartments. George Foster Peabody died exactly six months before Mama was born. In his lifetime, he was a personal friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He owned the famous inn in Warm Springs where the polio-stricken former president spent his latter days. Mr. Peabody was also an advocate to the typical Negro Columbusite, being the champion of causes designed to spearhead the new revolution of education and quality housing needs of the Negro in this cul-de-sac midwest Georgia town. A walk through Peabody apartments, however, told a different story. The projects were built mostly for the poor whites, and the elderly whites who were on their way out when we moved in. The year we moved in, Peabody began to brown. Within the next two to three years--there would be no whites left at all. Even in the projects where no one had anything except their bodies, breath, and their monthly government stipend, white flight was in order.
Moving to Peabody brought another feel to living in Columbus. There, we were no longer required to go to St. John. The brother-person and I were the first to drop out. Mommy asked us why we stopped coming to church not long afterward. I shrugged, I was without words; however, Kip ("Skip" to our drunk uncle Lightning), always the one with the quick wit and dry humor, stated as matter-of-factly as he could, "I graduated." Good answer.
We didn't stop going to church at the same time because we had reconciled our differences, we clung to a mutual hatred of one another that was getting more icy by the second. We just both had a mutual dislike of church--particularly St John AME and all of its "holier-than-thou" snooty upper-class Negroes who lived for "things" and self-glorification. Some of the better stewards of the church (there were only a handful) said of the majority, "Negroes who get something just ain't used to having nothing, and they don't know no better."
Roll call. Lois Bryan, snooty overbearing songbird of the AME south. Edward Sherald, funeral man and barbershop owner. Willie J Lewis Sr., Grade A Number One All Star Daddy with a sense of humor that wouldn't quit. He could keep us laughing until the cows came home, the fat lady sung, and the National Anthem signaled the end of the television broadcasting day. His jokes, however, weren't just for the sake of joking--there was always a reason, always a story behind it. K-Renee, Veronica (Ronny), Willie Jr.(Bill), Carol...I often wondered if they knew just how truly blessed they were to be the chosen ones. Helen Barnhart, first cousin to Mommy who wouldn't admit being related to her. The Austin family-with a beloved son, Dallas, who had a reputation for peering up the choir robes of the young ladies as they ascended the back stairway to the choirstand. Rumor had it that his father was shot down at the same Snack Bar where Mama met our daddy over some old school gang-related drug activity.
The Toneys, later the Myricks. The Hammonds and Jacksons--Barbara was an old schoolmate of Mama's. Charlie Harris, a sweet old godmotherly type of woman that we could have stood to know better over time; we met her late in her life, however, and she took her wisdom with her. We were certain, though, that it did not happen before she shared it with everyone she possibly could. Vernelle Marshall: Mama was her protege and what they once believed was her future replacement on the church piano and organ. Ernestine Davis, Ruth Y Lewis, Ernestine Mack, Rosa Evans--former teachers, musicians, backbone of all that was educational during the sweet hours of daylight when young black folk in Columbus were trying to live on their feet rather than die on their backs.
Adam J Richardson Jr. -- didn't stay long enough, but energized and revitalized St John during his short stay in a way that it never saw again. Mr. [James] McRae--old and still kicking it when we came along. A staunch example of how to age gracefully and die in peace. Rev Elijah Smith--the best thing that ever happened to St John after Bishop Richardson. That woman named Sadie who had been married no less than five times and kept changing her name. Mae Washington, bosom mother of the church who stayed in the background, came when she was called upon, did good, and then didn't let anyone know what she did when she did it. Her love of all of us was between herself and her God, but she was our own Coretta Scott King in Columbus.
Every week, we nearly fell over ourselves to hear Mrs. Washington talk to us in that fun-loving effervescent way that she loved to teach us about the baby Jesus and our responsibility as children to be the "light of the world." We scooted down in the peeling-paint baby chairs that fit us so well in those closed-off Sunday school rooms, surrounded by old broken off-brand wax and new boxes of Crayola in every color imaginable until they came up with more. Stuffed bears and toy plastic mice, snakes, spiders. Spinner tops, Jack in the Box, cracker jack prizes that could still be used. Rubber-balled paddles, K-nockas "knockers," handheld puzzleboard games with little dots and funny-looking bald white men who could have sandy black hair and beards and moustaches if you turned it the right way.
Charlotte's Web, Curious George, and Mr. Popper's Penguins next to books about Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Sojourner Truth. Scattered-about tattered hand fans with angelic faces of dark-skinned colored children, whole Negro families complete with a father, the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with someone's funeral home advertising on the back. In the private St John classrooms of Fifth Avenue, right across the street from then publicly-owned Claflin, once a private school itself; we were raised in a conglomerate hodgepodge of throw-away gently-used toys by grown folk who no longer had small children at home. There was a healthy dose of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly amongst the St. John elite. Last, but certainly not least of all, was John Malloy Washington Sr. If I could have hand-picked a father, it would have been him. John Jr., (that very short dude that looked nothing like his father) however, lucked up.
If kindred spirits call us to our future heritage, I was an unborn ghoul designed in sheer lust during a one-night stand. That's how it came off: Like I got invited to this big birthday bash with no opportunity to decline the invitation, or I would have turned it down with a resounding echo of a time-travelling HELL NO. Somehow, I knew in my heart that if the party of my life ever really got going and started to feel real real good, someone--something--out there, would turn up the house lights, announce a last call, and state, "You ain't got to go home, but you got to get the hell up outa here!"
But Mr. Washington never allowed it. At least not in his presence. Negativity couldn't stand in his presence, just as darkness always dissipated when there was light. With him there was always a reason for living, and living well. Always a pat on the back, always a word of encouragement, a never-ending strong male voice that was slowly disappearing in the wind and becoming one amongst an elite minority of southern-born and bred black men. He never failed not one single day to make everyone who came within 50 feet of him feel like they were much taller inside than they were out.
The ugly I saw when I looked in the mirror scampered away like a hit dog hollering when I encounted him at church. I was "just beautiful" to him, and I never stopped for two seconds to ponder if he was lying just to make me feel better. Such a pretty pretty girl, he told me over and over again--and smart. Very smart. Got your whole life ahead of you--strong smart black woman--beauty, talent, brains, sophistication...I knew what he was trying to do, though. And he knew what I was dealing with when church dismissed on Sunday afternoons, and until we gathered again for Sunday school at 9 am the next week. When I returned home from church on those Sundays; for the whole 12 years that we showed up without fail under threat of the ultimate penalty, I so desperately wanted to believe him with all my heart.
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