Writing in a Time of Peril: 7.27.2020

The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard reported 4.06 million US cases and 144,552 deaths as of 12:30 pm on July 24.– From Johns 

Hopkins daily update.

The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard reported 4.26 million US cases and 147,103 deaths as of 1:00 pm on July 27. – From Johns 

Hopkins daily update.

Love is the Substance of Justice

I weep as I watch a horse­-drawn caisson carry Congressman John R. Lewis’ remains across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama yesterday. Today I cry and swell with pride as a military honor guard delivered his remains to U.S. Airforce transportation to Washington, D.C. His procession traveled by roadway past The Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument and The Martin Luther King Memorial. I wept again as a jazz musician played “Amazing Grace” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on a harmonica at Black Lives Matter Plaza, The Department of Justice, The National Council of Negro Women. The procession continued to The National American Museum of History and Culture and finally to lie and state in the rotunda if the U. S. Capitol where Wintley Phipps also performed “Amazing Grace.” 

While I watched and listened, I remembered.  

“Gulfside”, and excerpt from: The Salt Box House on Bayou Black, a Memoir

–Andrea Canaan

The summer before my twelfth birthday, my best friends and I gathered at our church, Mt. Zion Methodist Church, in uptown New Orleans. We were on our way to a Methodist church retreat, Gulfside, in Waveland, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. Our Sunday school teachers prepared us for the religious commitment service that would happen at the end of the retreat. Yvette, Lucia Claire, Charliette, and I were nervous about becoming committed Christians. We talked and worried about it together, as only impressionable, newly minted adolescent girls could. We also wondered how long we could stay up each night, and if any of us would kiss a boy that summer. 

As the bus pulled off, our parents, grandparents, siblings, and church members stood on the sidewalk waving, sending us all off. What they did not say, but we knew, was that they hoped to provide us with a safe place, if for only for a week or two, to be young, and away from the KKK, police and firemen’s violent responses to boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. 

We overheard our parents talking about the Birmingham Children’s March. Middle and high school students had marched to end the segregation of public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama. Fireman had been swept them down sidewalks with high-pressure water hoses. Policemen had had let loose K-9 dogs on them. Baton-wielding state troopers had beaten and arrested them. Thousands of children filled the municipal jails to overflowing until they had to use a high school stadium to hold the protesters. It took six days for the federal government to intervene and work with civil rights leaders to gain the release of the children. By then, children had made a decisive crack in the armor of Jim Crow and segregation in Birmingham, but at the high cost of Ku Klux Klan ambushes, shootings, killings of civil rights leaders, and the bombing of civil rights leaders’ homes, businesses, and Negro churches. 

Older youth from my church and community were already training for the March on Washington that coming August. I was afraid for my brothers, sister, and the older youth in my church and community who participated in civil disobedience activities. I could feel our parents’ and church members’ fear like an extra heart fluttering in dread. I could feel our families and communities’ unstoppable will to remain unbroken and unbowed. 

*

The yellow bus drove due west on Highway 90, then due south for sixty miles to the very lip of the shallow and buoyant Gulf of Mexico. The dense air was alive with sun, sand, and the musky scents of salt and seawater. Gulf water was bathtub warm and so shallow we could walk knee deep for half a mile at low tide. We could hear the water’s constant swelling, rushing, and crashing into lazy whispers along the shore. Our second-floor rooms usually stayed cool because of a steady southern breeze, but when there was no breeze, we sweltered and complained bitterly.   

*

Since we all belonged to a youth choir at home, we found ourselves assigned to Gulfside’s choir. After breakfast, a brief church service, a morning round of Bible study, and choir rehearsal after lunch, we were on our own to enjoy the land and sea. We would have a final rehearsal just before the commitment service. 

*

During our last choir rehearsal, the chapel’s caretakers cleaned the church and prepared the altar for serving communion the next day. They swept the concrete floors and wiped down the pews with Murphy Oil Soap. A deaconess placed polished wooden trays with small openings for tiny glass cups on the tops of the altar rails. The deaconesses dressed the front of the altar rails with bright white-heavy cotton cloths where we would kneel for communion. 

*

Commitment Sunday dawned clear, sunny, hot, and, thankfully, with a stiff Gulf breeze. Yvette, Charliette, Lucia Claire, and I dressed in our Sunday best. We had continued to worry about this moment. Would we make a commitment? We promised, not matter what, we would change into our swimsuits immediately after services and spend our last day on the beach. 

*

The chapel was packed with youth, guest ministers, their families, and a few parents. The familiar ritual didn’t help me make my decision. The choir was the first to receive communion. When it was our rows’ turn to kneel at the altar, I felt a terrible pain in my knee. It ached fiercely as Reverend Stevenson spoke in somber tones about confessing sins, asking forgiveness, and making a life–long committing to God and Christian service. I put the thin- white wafer in my mouth and drank the grape juice from the tiny glass cup when Reverend Stevenson served them to me. I tried to kneel on one knee. I didn’t confess any sins. I didn’t ask for forgiveness. I didn’t commit to God or life–long service. I was trying desperately not to scream or cuss. 

When my row of choir members rose to return to the choir loft, I did not. I stayed kneeling with tears running down my face. Reverend Stevenson motioned for others to keep moving. My girlfriends gave me worried looks as they left me behind. Their eyes asked silently. Are you playing a prank or really getting the Holy Spirit?  

I reached down to feel my knee and found something hard and grooved there. My mind searched for what could be so wrong. In a flash, I remembered the deaconess dressing the altar the day before during choir rehearsal there was a tin of upholstery tacks lying open on the concrete floor. 

I tried to mouth the source of my distress to my friends looking down from the choir loft. 

I knelt on a tack.

What? Yvette mouthed back to me. 

There’s a tack in my knee! 

After several tries I could see they did not understand me. Communion was still going on all around me. The music was playing, and the choir was singing come-to-Jesus songs. I was melting in pain and embarrassment. People in the chapel began to murmur in wonder. 

“She’s faking,” I heard someone whisper loudly.

Lucia Claire understood. Oh, I get it! she mouthed to me with a bright ‘aha’ expression. 

She told Yvette and Charliette by whispering and pointing to her knee and then down to me. I could read the words on her lips. Ann knelt on a tack.

Their expressions changed in slow motion: waves of concern, sympathy, amusement, quiet giggles, and in the end, shoulder-shaking, hands-over-mouths, unsuppressed, outright silent–laughter. They continued mouthing support. 

What are you going to do? Should we come down and kneel next to you? 

I responded silently with a shake of my head, no

Their laughter was infectious, though. I began to laugh on top of crying. The more I cried, my shoulders shook, the more my shoulders shook, the entire chapel was convinced I had received the Holy Spirit, except for the smarty-pants who had whispered I was faking. 

Finally everyone in the chapel had received communion and services were ending. Reverend Stevenson signaled to Ruall, the nearest counselor, to join him at the altar. He placed an arm around my left shoulder. His face curved down to meet my eyes beneath my deeply bowed head. I chanced a look up at my friends. 

Oh, now you are really in trouble, Yvette mouthed. 

High- pitched laughter bloomed inside me. My shoulders shook even more, the pain in my knee doubled, and more tears than I thought possible dripped down my chin and onto my best summer dress. 

Reverend Stevenson held me gently. “Ann, what can I do to help care for you right now?” 

My mouth and cheeks stretched in a grimace of pain and mirth. I 

whispered, “There’s a tack in my knee.” 

“What?” he asked, leaning closer. 

 “There is a tack in my knee,” I said more urgently.

“A tack is in your knee,” he said in an incredulous understanding. 

I risked another look at my friends. They were leaning into each other, hands on their stomachs, and laughing impossibly hard. Yvette was drawing short breaths through her mouth trying hard not to hoot and holler. Charliette’s head was flung back, and she was close to scream-shouting. Lucia Claire was shaking her head in disbelief with a throw–your– hands–up–in–the–air look on her face. Our other friends just looked on, giggling and wide-eyed, with their hands over their mouths. I could see other choir members looking, first at my friends with disapproval, then down at Reverend Stevenson, and then at me with puzzled–suspicious expressions. 

“Ann,” Reverend Stevenson said,” we are going to help you up. Ruall will help you out of the chapel. If you can’t walk, we’ll get someone to carry you. Is that OK?” 

Mortified that someone would have to carry me, I answered, “Yes.” 

Reverend Stevenson and Ruall placed their hands under each of my armpits and lifted me straight up. Everything was sharp pain. No laughter. No shoulder shaking. Just struggling to breathe. When I was standing again, and he was sure I did not need more help, Reverend Stevenson wiped my face with his handkerchief, placed soft white square it in my hand, gave me an assuring smile, and kissed me gently on my forehead. I limped through the side door of the chapel on Ruall’s strong arm to a place to sit nearby. 

“Ann, I’m going to pull the tack straight out,” Ruall said.” I promise your knee will feel better right away. OK?” 

I nodded because I couldn’t speak.

She pulled the tack out quickly and cleanly. I felt better immediately. It didn’t even bleed. She wiped the puncture with an alcohol wipe, swabbed it with Merthiolate and put a Band-Aid on it. All of the items came out of her ample mother-teacher-counselor purse.

When the service was over and everyone spilled out of the chapel, some people looked at me with curious stares and whispered as they passed by. 

“Miss Ruall,” I said, “they think something religious happened to me. What do I say?” 

“Tell them you knelt on an upholstery tack,” she said, “and have a good laugh again if they get it. Here are your friends.”  

My friends descended on me. 

“What happened, what happened? Did you really kneel on a tack? Where is the blood?” they asked in a chorus of dear voices.

 I simply opened my hand and showed them the tack with the grooved upholstery head and the new, iridescent shine of the long–needle-sharp brass point. It looked like a tiny brass umbrella without a curve in the handle. They bent and peered into my hand and gasped in unison. 

            “I really thought you got the Holy Spirit,” Yvette said accusingly, as if I had disappointed or tricked her. 

Charliette mimicked being put out. “I thought so too, and I just knew we would have to deal with you thinking you were all saintly or something.” 

“I never thought you got the Holy Spirit,” Lucia Claire said, shaking her head at Yvette and Charliette, “but a tack in your knee! Come on. Have you ever heard of that before?”  

We changed into our swimsuits, walked the quarter mile to the beach and we told each other the story over and over again, from their vantage point from the choir loft, and mine from the altar. We laughed and laughed until we gasped for breath and held our hands to the stitches in our sides. 

*

On the ride home we sang retreat songs and protest songs. As we approached our waiting parents we clapped, drummed, and sang.

Oh, freedom. Oh freedom.

Oh, freedom over me. 

And before I’ll be a slave,

 I’ll be buried in my grave 

and go home to my Lord and be free.

*

I remember the sacrifices our people made to give little black girls just a few more moments before it was our time to get in ‘good trouble.’ I took note that it has been four hundred years after the first enslaved people were kidnapped and brought to this country, one hundred and fifty-five years after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and ratified, fifty-eight years since that summer at Gulfside, the day that John R. Lewis is to lie in state in our capital, and still on this day, we are still combating state sanctioned violence against black, brown, indigenous, and immigrant children, women, and men, along with LQBTQ communities, and non-Christian religious and spiritual communities. Yet, we are still warriors fully armored in our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

I am lifted me up from my rage, terror, grief and despair by the combined past, present resistance and insistence on freedom for all. I am held by John Lewis’ enduring optimism. I play John Lewis’ words that were piped into the rotunda and the songs sung by Dr. Wintley Phipps in the memorial service today.

Civil Rights Titan John Lewis In His Own Words | NBC News …

Dr. Wintley Phipps sings “Amazing Grace”

Rev. Wintley Phipps holds super long note while singing ‘It Is …

I go down my to-do list of self-care: stay physically distanced but not emotionally or spiritually distanced, avoid contact with police, resist occupations, counteract despair, meditate, eat well, rest well, get exercise, connect, connect, connect, stay home–except for the pharmacy & the grocery & then only with mask and gloves & when there are very few people about. Watch less T.V., but stay informed. Laugh a lot. Channel fear, grief and rage into remembering, honoring, and loving compassion to expression, action, and art. 

I continue to chronicle these times.

In Joy,

A

© Andrea Canaan, MSW, MFA

andreacanaan@gmail.com

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