As far back as anyone remembers, the roots of my family tree run deep in the red clay of Mississippi soil. My Mom and Dad were among the first and the very few to break the mold and move out of state. My grandmothers still live there as well as my aunts, uncles and all of my cousins.
The mountains of North Carolina where I spent my childhood were a pretty long drive from my parent’s hometown near Elvis’ birthplace so we did not visit often, but we usually went there for Christmas. I also have vivid memories of visits made occasionally in the summer. My parents would drug me with Dramamine and spread a foam mattress across the back seat of our huge, black “land yacht” of a Chevrolet. My brother and sister and I would play for awhile but eventually doze off as the miles drug on and on. The closer we came to our destination, the higher the temperature would rise. After what seemed an eternity, the wheels of our car crunched to a stop on my grandmother’s driveway in rural Mississippi. My parents then opened the car doors and as we crawled out of the backseat the heat hit us and nearly took away our breath.
The heat seemed to somehow radiate equally from the dusty clay beneath our feet as it did from the white hot orb hanging in a pale blue sky above. By midday, it forced the entire world into a submissive silence and stillness except for the song of the cicadas high in the pine trees.
My grandparents were good people who worked hard but had very little. Their weekdays were filled with their labors and devotion to their children and grandchildren. Sundays were set aside for worship and the obligatory fried chicken and biscuits that followed. They were the kind of people who kept “The Good Book” handy and prayed over every meal and plenty of times in between.
They also used racial slurs as freely as they drew breath.
Mississippi has the largest population of African Americans in the United States and the color line between black and white seems to be drawn in permanent ink, or maybe even blood. I have thought long and hard and I just can’t remember if I ever heard one of my grandmothers in particular ever call a person of color anything but the “N” word. That is why I did not think I would ever go back after my daughters came home from Haiti. I was the first person I know of in either line of my family tree to enter a familial relationship with someone of color.
But…for whatever reason, maybe it was the fact that my grandmothers are in their mid 90’s now, I realized this past weekend that it was time to go. I decided the kids and I would stay with my sister, who lives in a university town that is a bit more integrated, and we would then drive another 1 1/2 hours to visit the grandmothers together. As I neared my sister’s home I called to confirm directions and she said, “Okay. You are about to go through a lot of little towns with big Rebel flags. Don’t get out of the car.” I hung up my cell phone and stared at the tall pine trees standing sentry along the side of the two lane road. Here and there Kudzu and poverty seem to be in a race to see who could overtake the countryside first.
My five children laughed in hysterics at The Muppet Show DVD playing on our van’s TV and I began to pray. I prayed for protection and mercy. I prayed that if my grandmothers’ did in fact respond badly at the sight of their brown great-grandbabies that I would have the wisdom and strength to confront them in love. I prayed that nothing negative my kids heard or saw during their visit would “stick”.
The next day, as we all entered the nursing home together, I took a deep breath and held the girls’ hands a little tighter. We walked down the hall to find my grandmother sitting there as if she were waiting for someone or something although she had no idea we were coming. Her eyesight is failing and she did not recognize me at first.
“Grandmother, it is me, Sherri” I said. “I have my children with me and here are my daughters, the ones you have not met.”
And immediately, she did the most miraculous thing: She pulled my brown babies into her arms and said, “I’m your grandmother, do you know that?” Then, she kissed them both and held them tight.
I am sure there were people staring but she loved my babies as if she had waited for them forever. There was not a hint of malice, rejection or questioning. They were mine and therefore, they were hers. That is all that mattered.
It was a beginning. I have wondered if as she sat in the lunchroom that day if anyone asked her about them and what she would say if they did. Until that moment, the racial lines had been drawn for her entire lifetime in places that were comfortable to her. Black, white. Them, Us.
Suddenly, the line faded and became a bit blurry. There she sat at the end of her life and to her surprise she found something had shifted and it was not so easy to determine who was good and who was bad by the color of their skin. As I was watching that day, the veil W.E. Dubois describes in “The Souls of Black Folk” unraveled just a little bit.
And I thought, just maybe, there is hope after all.