By Sikivu Hutchinson
From White Nights
They say the darker the berry the sweeter the juice. But how can that be? When blood runs so dark and deep and bitter. I was never afraid of dying or the sight of blood. Not from me, an animal or another human being. The first time I saw another person’s blood was my mother’s flow, a crushed rose in the white panties she was trying to hide from me, hunched on the toilet reading the funnies and smoking her secret cigarette. We were the only house on the block with an indoor toilet, the stuck-up hoity toities looking down their nose at everybody else when the Depression was tearing up families. And me the bucked tooth silver spoon girl with a daddy who had a steady job at an accounting firm tending the books of companies that went belly up. He and mother were Republicans through and through until Roosevelt and our shining knight Eleanor.
We never had Negroes or colored working for us. Unlike some of the neighbors who were supposedly poorer and would scrape two pennies together for a day’s worth of laundry. I never had the gumption to call a black woman mammy, even as a child it was un-Christian to do so; those colored women who worked to the bone for whites were so majestic and dignified, balancing the world on their backs with barely a whisper of complaint. Or at least that’s how it seemed from the picture shows. The white women were long, lean, vexed and beautiful while the coloreds stood dutifully by their side. How any self-respecting white woman could have allowed that is beyond me. But I loved the picture shows just the same. Not the darkness, not the escape, not Hollywood, not the stories, but the proximity of colored up in the forbidden balcony.
Russ would make a hobby of sitting up there and passing for colored. With his slick black hair and high cheekbones he could have been half-breed anything in the dark to a kid usher lazing through the aisles with a busted flashlight. As a boy nobody cared about me no how no way, so why would they give a shit whether I was white or Negro, he said once, knowing full well that it did matter to the world.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. His mouth is ripe and hang dog indecent. His orderly uniform sags at the behind, vomit all over the front of his pants from a patient he had to restrain. I am a nurse trainee, stiff in my new white shoes, a little fascinated, a little scared of his ferocity. Besides schoolteacher nurse is the only right and respectable occupation for a middle class Indiana girl with a sliver of ambition. The other girls mockingly call him Geronimo preacher man, snickering about the laying on of hands he does in those holy rolling faith healing ceremonies for the destitute. We had always been people of science. Daddy and mother had followed the Scopes’ trial, taking his side when all the rabble screamed for blood. They hated the mouth foaming ignorance, the frenzy of the loon bible thumpers who stormed the courtyard in wolf packs demanding judgment day. We were people of faith but not fanatical, versed in the Bible but not blind. They got newsletters in the mail from the Ingersoll society, reading up on the latest discoveries and insights into the universe, nature and animal cultures. So when the word got around that this ruffian orderly was a faith healer who consorted with Negroes I was curious and disgusted. We knew the Pentecostals were way out there, whooping and hollering and carrying on and talking to god directly like he was their best friend. But the Negro part made sense to me; I could see what the attraction was because of their emotions, the struggle they’d gone through, the sacrifices they’d made living in a country that hated anything black. What kind of pain was that? What kind of things did a mother have to tell her child to make him grow up dignified?
I never wanted my boy to be taught to fear a white woman, to ingest it like poison, a waking nightmare every time he saw me. He was just a tiny brown ball of curious brilliance when we got him, old soul big dipper eyes and moxie for days. After we left Indiana I could see him start to come into himself; the natural terror of white people withering, the hardness in his gaze that he got when he saw them staring at us fading a little. In the market white children would run up behind us with bananas, at the hospital white society ladies would say prayers for the mute African orphan.
Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.
We left because the threats got louder and more vicious. There were several every day, or so Russ said from the pulpit, building a case for relocation. What I did know was that our babies were being affected, their innocence ripped from them. What I did know was that an usher at first service had to have stitches after the white citizens’ league threw a rock in the sanctuary window. Russ was afraid Russ Jr. would be lynched, that the hatemongers would spare no atrocity tearing even babies like him from limb to limb to show us race-mixers what real “justice” was. We knew that nuclear holocaust was on the horizon. We believed that the West would be golden, would be safer. We didn’t flee with our tail between our legs like the town gossips said but with most of our congregation relocating as a unified family. Traveling satisfied my wanderlust. To see the rest of the country was a dream I’d never have been able to know on my own; married, a mother, pregnant shortly thereafter, trapped, all in dulling speed, expected to be at his beck and call, to be the channel for his monstrous designs.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. He has smeared his face with tar, with coal, with black crayon, and is walking toward me, cradling a cancerous liver in his arms like a newborn, pushing it at my breast expecting me to nurse it, his fly unzipped.
Early on I knew about the newspaperwoman and her hold on him. She was worldly and colored. What a fantasy for him to be desired by a real flesh and blood Negress who was so much older, who had standing among the coloreds. I knew that she had a child around Russ Jr.’s age. That she was separated from the child’s father, neglectful of it, holed up in that tiny office scribbling into the wee hours. What would the world have said about her honor and integrity as a race woman if it had known she was sleeping with a married white boy? A do-gooder parasite one step up from white trash fallen so low.
There are five of us in the sanctuary, hopped up on No Doz, peeing every minute. We have been up since dawn and there is still work to do as it nears midnight. There are change of address forms to distribute, donations to input in the bank ledger, hundreds of passport applications to check for accuracy. Mariah offers us fruit punch leftover from the community birthday party. Some of us are ravenous, others are too tired to even drink. The youngest brim and bubble with excitement about the prospect of the journey to the promised land in South America.
I snort inwardly when they call it that. Russ has become a buzzard with the bible, snatching pieces of dead flesh off it when he fancies a taste of religion. As the church grew he abandoned it more and more, making the original transplants, the devout old black ladies who came with us from Indiana, a little uneasy. Still I saw them kiss his ring, making allowances and excuses for him, as they would with any white man that showed them kindness no matter how small. We women are like that, lighting up like fireflies for any man who so much as glances our way, going sour just as quick with other women. Russ liked to flirt and fuss over the old ones because they were low hanging fruit. Miss Essex, a widow and blue chip money grubber, was one of his special pets from the first wave of families who followed us to California. Before we left she deeded us her house, a shotgun shack where she’d raised three kids and buried two husbands, scraping by as a seamstress when colored folk had to be off the streets before dark. Many were eager to help that way. Selling or signing over property they’d worked their entire lives to own to lift up our dream of a socialist retreat in the name of Jesus.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. He is carrying a copy of Marx’s Capital, brazen so everyone can see. It is the first time I think of him sexually. Tracing the outline of that mouth on my bed sheets. Ashamed inside, trying to smother them, force them back down, not because of my desire but the repulsion I feel hearing the rumors about his little animal farm. The other orderlies say that he does things with monkeys, befriending them, binding them to him, putting them in his bed, tucking them in like babies, a regular Dr. Doolittle. They sit in a corner in the cafeteria watching him as he thumbs through a stack of books from city college. The more he has the more it will shield him from them, the star of their dirty jokes and nasty stories.
I did not make him the center of my universe as some believed. If I bowed to him it was because I had a plan. My children had his name. My grandchildren and future generations would take this black mark to the grave.
After the first betrayal and defections, we sought refuge in the foundation we’d built. All the families we housed in communal apartments once slated to be torn down by the city. Russ advocated for them when he was appointed to the housing commission, getting below market and subsidized rents for units the city was eyeing for white college kids. We housed families that had never had a stable place to live, bringing malnourished children into our bosom, uniting cast-offs under the same roof with different parents, a beautiful thing this, an act of godliness, even though Russ would scoff at the comparison.
He has told our people to call him God.
It was my idea to start a free nursery for new mothers who wanted to work. It was my idea that every building we housed our people in should have one. It was important that adults be taught to look past the pettiness of biology. It was necessary that every child be viewed as family. I looked at my rainbow sons, my white birth son and black spiritual son, with pride; tall, strapping, star athletes who loved to rib and test each other, playing basketball long into the night to escape the harangues of their father. They were the best each race had to offer. It was blasphemous to think so. To favor any child over another was against our creed. Still, I tried to keep them close to me, away from Russ’ filth and the sinful parade of women he was sleeping with. The boys despised him for what he did to me, but their minds were too weak to resist.