Today I was reading a sample issue of the literary journal The Sun, July 2013, to see what style of memoir essays they publish. I came across a superb piece by Afro-Am author and University of Illinois Professor of Creative Writing Ross Gay about being a black man in the U.S. About the fear of being pulled over by police (which he has since eliminated from his response mode) and about the survival mode skills that blacks learn from a young age. Plus lots more of his memories and experiences.
It reminded me of the many months that I spent teaching in the Arkansas Delta where I witnessed frequent instances of racist behavior.
Clearly, there are many wonderful non-racist residents of that area, but the old ways are often hard to overcome. You see it here and there in the day to day.
Like the time I stopped at a fruit stand and the white proprietor promptly asked me what I needed, while ignoring the black man who had been standing patiently in front of the peaches. What I needed was for him to wait on the black man—who had been there first! (and I said so…)
The article also reminded me of a memoir piece that I wrote about twenty years ago as part of my Arkansas Artist-in-Education residency report. I had forgotten all about it until cleaning out some old report files when we moved from Arkansas.
The report—A Conversation with Antwan—is about a friendship that I developed with an 8-year-old boy.
I had been painting a 32′ mural at the rear of the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street—right above the levee. It illustrated the flora of the Delta. If you climbed up onto the levee, you could see the Mississippi flowing not far away. The temperature was 106 degrees for several days in a row. I had become acclimated to the heat, and my only concession to it was wearing my wide-brimmed straw hat with the black grosgrain ribbon that dripped off the brim onto the back of my sweaty neck. And sunblock, of course.
I was staying at a cheap motel outside of town, and I often saw the prison guards on horseback, wearing looks of smug superiority with their pressed jeans, big hats and aviator sunglasses as they supervised the chain gangs. They held their rifles crosswise in the saddle as the prisoners busted sod in the 100+ degree heat—sod that a brush hog with a harrow attachment could have wiped out in thirty minutes.
I was driving an old burgundy Dodge Omni. It had a hatchback where I could sit in the shade to take a break. One day at the mural, a small boy appeared from a house on the corner and crossed the street to speak with me.
“I been watchin’ you paint. I thought you were a school girl. You doin’ a good job!”
“Why thank you,” I said. “I’m glad you like it.”
“My name is Antwan. I live over there. Would you like to buy a freeze-pop? My mama makes them. They’re a quarter.” He pointed back at the house.
(It’s part of the community culture there for women to earn extra money by selling homemade cakes and such.)
“Sure,” I said, and I dug a couple of quarters out of my wallet.”
“Get one for yourself too,” I said.
“What kind you want?” Antwan asked.
“Surprise me,” I said.
Antwan returned a couple minutes later and handed me a cherry freeze-pop.
“I thought you’d like cherry.” As he handed it over, he said “It’s OK. I didn’t lick it or nothin’.”
We became good friends. Every day he crossed the street to watch me paint, and I let him paint on the mural with me, teaching him to mix colors in a Dixie cup.
To the passersby who slowed their vehicles to view the mural in progress as they drove on by, we must have been an amusing duo.
Antwan took this opportunity to ask a white lady the questions that he’d always wanted to know the answers to.
“How come—when I wave to white people—they don’t wave back?” he asked.
“They’re just rude.”
“Do you like all white people?” he wondered.
“Heck no. Just like you, I like people who treat me the same as they would like to be treated.”
And so on.
I wish I could share the entire Conversation with Antwan here on this page, but then it would be considered “published”. It would be ineligible for submission to literary journals and other venues. I think I’m going to dig it out again and submit it somewhere.
Those were good days. Even though it was hot as hell during the summer months, I enjoyed the smell of the catfish frying at the cafe on the corner. I enjoyed hearing the tugboats whistle as they pushed their barges south towards New Orleans. Even the kudzu swallowing up the terrain on neighborhood hillsides created a lush cool camouflage of dark, darker and darkest green.
The Delta was a good to me.
I wrote my only poetry there, sometimes pulling over to the side of the road as the last ghosts of summer rose up over the cotton fields—misty mornings. I cut and hand-pieced my Quilting With the Blues series in a classroom in rural Barton, and designed the Children’s Activities Block at the King Biscuit Blues Festival the year that Buddy Guy headlined.
The most inspiring times I spent in the Delta were teaching with legendary blues guitarist Johnnie Billington, the most generous teacher I have ever met.
He and I were Arkansas Artists-in-Education fulfilling a grant award. I was “Miz Linda”, teaching an inter-generational Afro-Am quilting project in a community center where I paired grandmotherly senior citizen ladies with rambunctious pre-schoolers around the quilt frame.
“Mr. Johnnie” was on the other side of the wall, tuning up his guitar, and then patiently giving the 9-year-olds and up—the ones who were truly interested— a priceless opportunity to learn the classic music of their home from an unassuming master. He gave his all to the children of the Delta. Read his story here and be inspired.