No Christmas approaches without my thoughts wandering back to the Christmas of my fourteenth year. A year dredged in ugliness.
In January and February, Walter Cronkite droned on about the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Here at home, the civil rights movement was holding its own offensive. We—my mother, my father and I—were part of that second front.
My father owned a barbershop on 14th Street in D.C. My mother’s family owned a funeral parlor across town. Two businesses desegregation couldn’t touch, because touching was the problem. Touching Negro skin. No one but another Negro was willing to do it.
In March, one of my uncles attending Howard University participated in a siege that shut the campus down. My mother heralded him a hero. My father called him an extremist.
I don’t remember a time my mother was satisfied with my father. “You is blind,” she yelled so often, I feared for his sight. “You sees what’s goin’ on here under yo’ puffed nostrils, but you is blind. If you had to bury ‘em, I reckon you’d see.”
On April 4th, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, my mother went crazy, like only a black woman can. Two days later our barbershop went up in flames, along with several blocks of commerce—the result of the riots.
We retreated into a room above the funeral home. We brought beds, a chest of drawers, and the black and white TV my father wouldn’t sell.
It wasn’t only America in an uproar, though.
In May, Walter Cronkite reported on a youth uprising threatening the French government, then on Nigerian forces contributing to a humanitarian disaster. My mother clucked. My father sighed.
On June 3rd, Andy Warhol was shot, but no one remembered because two days later RFK was gunned down. My father was heartbroken. My mother smug in her feelings of retribution.
The next few months were riddled with protests, from the war to the Miss America Pageant. I didn’t want to watch CBS news anymore.
In October, my father made a concession for the XIX Olympiad in Mexico City, and we switched to ABC, but not even the Olympics could bandage people together. While receiving their medals, two black runners made a Black Pride statement, and another shout sounded across the nation.
“Ya’ll go,” cheered my mother.
“Not the place,” said my father.
Then my mother left. For all we knew, she could have flown to Africa.
The year continued with bitter elections, more war, and the Zodiac killer. I got out of school for Christmas, but there was no joy, only numbness.
“Come on, Isaac,” my father coaxed. “Les go get us some pizza and listen to them astro-nauts, headin’ up to the moon.” I had no interest—not until he told me about them leaving earth’s gravitational pull. The earth having no hold—would it make them better people?
Oh, to be free of this earth.
On their first broadcast, Commander Borman demonstrated the controls; Jim Lovell made chocolate pudding; and William Anders played with his weightless toothbrush. Audio and visual were both grainy, yet I was captivated.
The following night, we were ready, stripped down to boxers and undershirts, sitting on an uncomfortable braided rug made of paper, my Grandmother had given us. On the television, the moon appeared as the astronauts were seeing it. Next to the blackness of space, darker than any black man’s skin, glowed the moon, lighter than any white man’s skin.
Commander Borman said they had a message for all of us on earth and he began reading from the Book of Genesis.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light. And there was light. And God saw the light and said it was good.”
As they took turns reading the first ten verses, I was there with God, witnessing the wonder of creation.
Commander Borman concluded with, “Good night—good luck—a Merry Christmas—and God Bless all of you—all of you—on this good earth.”
Christmas Eve, 1968 returned something the rest of the year had stolen. The ability to love my father and my mother. The ability to feel for black and white, Americans, Vietnamese, soldiers, activists, and politicians.
It bound me forevermore to mankind and his Maker.
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