January 17, 2006

A Southern Memory

I found this piece, a childhood memory of the white author's black nanny, very moving. An excerpt:
The sharpest memory of the color line that lingers in my mind is a spring day in 1968, when I was almost nine. Roseanna stood at the ironing board in between the twin beds where my brother and I slept, which she used as laundry tables on washday. I remember the smell of starch and the hissing of steam, and then the sudden realization that Mrs. Allen was crying. Silent streams of tears trickled onto my father's white shirts. When I asked her what was wrong, she almost bellowed: "What's wrong? What's wrong?" She seemed desperate and almost out of control. "They gone and killed Martin Luther King, that's what's wrong!" She choked hard on her sobs and buried her face in the laundry.

I knew vaguely who Dr. King was, and I knew that my father admired him greatly, but I was too young to understand even a little of the magnitude of that murder in Memphis. All I knew was that I wanted to comfort my beloved Roseanna. Never had I seen a grown-up crying like that. And so I said the only thing I could think of to say: "Maybe it will be alright, Roseanna, maybe somehow it will work out for the best."

She lifted her head and almost roared at the obscenity of the thought. "Work out for the best? How could it possibly work out for the best?" Mrs. Allen's face, contorted with tears and anger, looked at me with a stunned expression of rage. "How could it work out for the best that the man that God lifted up to save my people has been shot down like a dog in the streets? Did it work out for the best that Hitler killed six million Jews? Would it work out for the best if somebody burned your house down to the ground? Did it work out for the best that they took King Jesus out and nailed him to the cross?" Her head pitched forward into the crook of her arm again, and once again she sobbed into the laundry.

Somehow I managed to whisper, "We think it did, don't we?"

"What?" she said, raising her red-rimmed eyes at me.

"We think it worked out for the best that they hung Jesus on the cross, don't we, Roseanna? Jesus died on the cross to save us all from sin, didn't he?" I asked her.

"Oh, child," she cried, crawling toward me on her knees. "Oh, sweet child," and before I could move she was kneeling in front of me, reduced to roughly my height by her kneeling, and she squeezed me tight, rocking me back and forth in a muttered mixture of tears and prayers, and she held onto me for a long, long time. Afterwards, she rounded up my brother and my sisters and gave everybody their own little bottle of Coca-Cola, and we took the thick green bottles out to the back steps, where we sat together for what seemed like the rest of the day. Mrs. Allen would wail and cry from time to time, and cling to us. When my father came home, I remember, he hugged her, which I had never seen before. It was a terrible, terrible day, how terrible it was I had no way to know at nine years old.
What I remember from that day is that the black bus drivers in New York City, which I was about to leave, kept their headlights on.

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