Schizophrenic Skeet

“Is there anything else you want to ask me?” Mama said.

SI peeked into the community area where Grandma and her circle of friends sat by the door. Grandma’s lips moved in a blur and she threw her arms about her wildly as she spoke. Thomas was leaning so far back in the rocking chair, he was nearly on the floor cackling up a storm. Even Frank had a hint of a smile on his thin lips. Grandma must be on her next husband. Judging from her and Thomas’ animated body language, it was a story I couldn’t miss.

I turned my attention back Mama’s question. She’d settle my unease about Pawpaw—he was my granddaddy, blood relation or not—but I still had concerns about my biological grandfather, Lindell. I knew nothing about him apart from the fact that he was white and was murdered by bigots. Who was the real Lindell? He was Grandma’s soulmate, but did he have any other family, and if so, where were they now? I was only a fourth of him, but I wanted more. I wanted a connection with him. I wasn’t sure if or how Mama could provide any of that for me, but it didn’t hurt to try.

“How did you feel when Grandma told you about your real father?”

Mama breathed heavily into the receiver. “Honestly . . . I didn’t believe her. I’d just listened to her say all these horrible things about white men. They’re the devil. They killed Reynolds. Then all of a sudden she was married to one—I was half of what she hated. I threw it back in her face.”

It made sense, for Grandma to be completely enamored with a man, yet hate everything about him at the same time—his privilege. The world around them accepted him, but they hated her, and they detested the two of them together. When it came to making a choice, they would always choose Lindell over her, no matter the situation, even in murder. His death would be quick, utterly painless, but hers, hers would be brutal. Such was the agitated relationship between the races during that time—in some cases, it still is. Grandma knew all of this, and she married Lindell anyway. I couldn’t ask to be braver.

“We didn’t talk about him again until I was in college,” Mama said, “actually, when I was pregnant with you—after your father had hightailed it out of there and transferred to another school.”

My father. Scarce memories of him still lingered in my mind, but I could barely even picture his face now. He’d been gone for so long. In reality, he was never around. He showed up when it was convenient for him, usually with a thoughtless present of a wrinkled dollar bill, ill-fitting clothing, or beaten up toys he’d bought from a garage sale.

I never had a relationship with my father. Pawpaw and Uncle Richard were enough, and if Lindell were alive, I knew he would love me just as unconditionally as he loved Grandma. But my real father? Mama said he’d wanted her to get an abortion when he found out she was pregnant. I couldn’t love a man who only saw me as a fetus that needed to be expelled. That kind of man wasn’t a father; he was a sperm donor.

“Knowing that yours wouldn’t be around, it reinvigorated the desire to want to know more about Lindell. That’s when Ma introduced me to his sister, and Meg, if there was any doubt in my mind that Lindell was my father, that all stopped the moment I met Aunt Jenny. It was like looking into a mirror.”

I was standing so close to the ficus tree, that when I sucked in all the air around me, one of the leaves went straight into my mouth, and the tip scratched at the back of my throat. I coughed it out and screeched, “Did you say aunt Jenny?”

Mama didn’t hear the utter shock in my voice. She continued on plainly, “Yea. Sweet lady. She died a few years ago. Her husband’s actually at Cedar with Ma.”

“Drake!”

“Yea, that’s his name. You’ve met him?”

“He’s been following me around like a lost puppy all afternoon, calling me Jenny!”

Mama laughed her high-pitched hyena-like series of “hee-hees” then said, “He’s a frisky one. He was feeling up on me when I first met him too, and Jenny was still alive then!”

“Let me call you back, Mama.” I marched back to the community area to confront Grandma and Drake. All this time I thought he was calling me Jenny because he was a lonely old man, when in fact, I was actually her distant niece. No wonder he claimed I looked just like her. Grandma did say all the women in our family looked like their aunts.

“Oh, ok, hon. I’ll probably be sleep when you call, so just text me or leave a message.”

We exchanged our “I love yous” and I hung up the phone.

Grandma was still talking about her next husband. She clawed at the air in front of her, as if digging into the ground. “He kept hearing someone knocking. Knocking under the floorboards. But we lived on the first floor. There was nothing there but dirt.”

“He dug his own damn grave,” Thomas snorted.

“He dug himself straight to hell,” Jerry added.

“Yeeeeeaaaah!”

“Grandma!”

She jumped when she heard her name and looked up at me. “Oh, Meg. I didn’t even see you there. I was just telling everyone about Skeet. Would you like to—”

I shook my head and put both hands on my hips. “So, when were you gonna tell me that Drake’s wife, Jenny, was Lindell’s sister?”

“Damn!” Jerry said.

Grandma’s jaw dropped, and I could scarcely hear her whisper, “Oh,” before she quickly closed her mouth.

—Nortina


Be sure to check out other “S” posts from the A to Z Challenge.

Revolutionary Reynolds

“Mama! I’m so glad you called me back!” I returned to my corner in the lobby next to the ficus tree. The nurse at the front desk watched me out the corner of her eye. That noisy woman spent more time eavesdropping on my conversations than she spent doing her own job. Then again, working the front lobby of a nursing home was probably an eventless endeavor. How many residents had regular visitors? Grandma had been there three years, and I could only remember a handful of guests who came as often as I did—most of them volunteers. I was the highlight of her day.

“What did your grandmother tell you?” Mama’s voice sounded dejected.

“Am I interrupting something?” I asked.

“I’ve been up since five in the morning,” she said.

“I won’t take long.” I blew air through my cheeks. Now that I had her on the phone, I didn’t know where to start. Uncle Richard had already answered the questions I would’ve asked her. What more could Mama tell me about Lindell, anyway? She’d never met him, and she was too young to remember her first five stepfathers after him.

I’d spent most of my afternoon seeking proof of Grandma’s unbelievable stories. Now that I had someone to finally settle my befuddled mind, my only inquiry was why had it taken so long for my family to say anything about our history? Why was I the last to learn the truth? Why did Grandma have to be in a nursing home before she told me?

“When did Grandma tell you about your real father?” It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but depending on how she answered, maybe it would bring me closer to understanding why I was left in the dark for so long.

Mama’s breathing picked up, and a steady whistle of wind blew into the phone. She was outside, probably walking to her car after another long shift. “I don’t think she ever really told me,” she said exasperated. The door closed, and I could hear the jangling of her keys as she turned the ignition and cranked the engine. “I found out by accident.”

“How? Did you find it on your birth certificate?” Most people never saw their own birth certificates, but there were few times when it was needed to prove one’s identity. I could only remember twice asking Mama for my birth certificate. The first, when I signed up for driver’s ed. at school, and the second time was when I registered for my first passport.

“No. And my birth certificate has Milton Gregory listed as my father.”

Milton, the man who married Grandma after Lindell died so she wouldn’t face the shame of having a baby out of wedlock.

R“I found out about Lindell when I was about ten. It was right after Reynolds died.”

“Reynolds?”

“He was Ma’s husband after the preacher.”

“Oh,” I said silently. I chuckled at how neatly everyone’s chapter fit so perfectly together—Grandma, Uncle Richard, Mama, even the nurses who’d only gotten bits and pieces. Many different narrators, but still the same story.

“He was a black rights activist. He actually tried to start a Black Panther chapter in our neighborhood. It scared Ma to death. She kicked him out when she found his stash of guns. I know it was only for self defense, but the people in power don’t see it that way. They don’t like it when their status quo is disrupted. That’s why organizations like the KKK and the Neo Nazis still exist, and the Panthers are dust.”

I knew before Mama even said it; Reynolds would suffer the same death as Lindell, rooted in hate and racism.

“He was protesting with the textile workers in front of Morningside Homes when they got him.”

“He was one of the people killed in the massacre?” It was an event that would mar our city for years to come. Morningside Homes, an apartment still leasing today, but who could visit it without being reminded of how demonstrators were killed like wild game in broad daylight—in front of television cameras, broadcasted on the local news—while the police did nothing. I wasn’t there, but I’d seen the videos, listened to the chants of “Death to the Klan!” as cars with Confederate flags on the bumpers circled the block. I watched the Klan members pull up to the curb, take rifles from their trunks, and gun down anyone in their paths. Despite there being video chronicling the whole massacre, every single Klansman indicted was acquitted of all charges.

“Ma beat herself up about it. She kept saying she sent him to his death. I just wanted to cheer her up. I’d gotten into her makeup, and I was gonna doll myself up to make her smile. That’s when I found the picture of her and Lindell.”

“And she told you everything?” I asked.

There was silence on the other end. I suspected Mama was nodding. She was notorious for making gestures over the phone knowing I couldn’t see her. If she would finally upgrade her barely functional flip phone, maybe we could FaceTime. I didn’t see her enough. I missed my mom. New Orleans was too far away, and the flights I worked on went either North or West, never down South, never into the bayou.

“I think I always knew my real father was dead, though. She’d been married so many times, and none of them stayed around long enough for me to start calling them daddy.”

“Except Pawpaw.”

“Except . . .” I could hear a deep sigh. I knew a speech was coming. “Listen, honey. As far as you’re concerned, Daddy will always be your Pawpaw, ok? Don’t let all this new information confuse you about who your family is. Daddy loved you and me like we were his own blood, and he was crazy about Ma.”

I laughed a little in my throat. “Thanks, Mama,” I said. She always told me exactly what I needed to hear.

—Nortina


I’m all caught up! Whoo hoo! Thanks for sticking with me, and be sure to check out more about the A to Z Challenge. By the way, I’ve been trying to put a little history in my chapters, and the massacre at Morningside Homes was definitely a true event. If you’re curious to learn more, click here.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for Your Elders

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d waked and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know , what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

—Robert Hayden (1966)

 

In Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” the speaker looks back on his childhood and remembers his hardworking father, a man who made many sacrifices for the well-being of his family.

I love that this poem opens with the line, “Sundays too my father got up early.” In Christianity, Sunday is recognized as the Sabbath, the seventh day of creation when God saw that all the work he had done was good and rested. Sunday is the one day we don’t have to work because God made it holy, yet this man rose from his bed in the wee hours of the morning even on Sunday and labored—chopping wood, tending the fire—so that his family could wake up to a warm house.

Of course, at such a young age, the speaker couldn’t properly appreciate his father (“Speaking indifferently to him”). How could he understand the aches and pains that went into providing for a family?

What did he know? It’s a question we should ask ourselves; one we should ask our children as well. This current generation has a serious entitlement problem. They expect things to automatically be given to them, even when they don’t deserve it. Who knows, maybe our parents said the same thing about us, but it breaks my heart when I see children disrespecting their elders.

nysutunited_130621_civilrights_01
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., third from left, marches in a line of men with arms linked during the March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo)

That “old bag” marched for your right to sit at the front of the bus. That “wrinkled fart” took on bullets for democracy knowing he would come home to signs that said, “For Whites Only.” That “stupid bitch” faced hate and persecution to become the first African American to graduate from the all-white high school you now attend with Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Muslim, and black, as well as white students. You wouldn’t have the luxuries you take for granted if it had not been for these brave men and women.

But what do they know “of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Today for Black Poetry Writing Month, let’s pay homage to our elders. Let them know we appreciate their sacrifice. While they don’t always need our gratitude because they’re motivated by love, it’s nice to hear a thank you once in a while. Tell them thank you.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Activist

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)

 

Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” was written amidst violent race riots in the summer of 1919 which included 28 public lynches. McKay famously used the sonnet form to speak against racism and call his community to action, to fight back.

The beauty of “If We Must Die” is that it’s universal. Even without knowing the history behind it, anyone facing oppression can identify with the powerful message within its lines. It’s even said that Winston Churchill read the poem in the House of Commons during World War II and that many British soldiers carried copies of the poem on their person.

Almost a century later, McKay’s poem still speaks to a generation fighting for their lives. Last year saw a rise in a new kind of civil rights activism, the Black Lives Matter Movement, in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many other unarmed brothers and sisters, unjustly slain, killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances, seemingly with no remorse.

Stephen Lam / Reuters
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Screams for justice rose above the flames consuming cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. While the majority of protests were peaceful, many turned violent, but all were met with stiff police response in full-on riot gear.

Demonstrators put on die-ins in large shopping malls and on the sides of highways, saying, if they must die, they will not leave this earth until the world knows and respects that Black lives still exist and matter equal to every one else.

Today’s optional prompt for #BlaPoWriMo is to write a poem (bonus points if it’s a sonnet) that condemns racism. Write a poem for the contemporary activist who refuses to be picked off by an establishment that views her race as expendable. Write a poem for a people who will not be made victims anymore.

—Nortina

Black History Month: A Poem By Yours Truly

So What If It Was a Black Man?

Have you noticed how often you play the Race Card?
Your Blackness has become a crutch,
A liability that sets you back
Instead of propelling you forward.
You blame you darker complexion for not getting that job
When you don’t have the degree.
You curse little Sarah,
Who went missing yesterday,
But don’t want to admit that
Troubled Shaniqua actually ran away,
And although Black on Black crime is at its height,
When a Black man’s murder is reported on the news,
In your mind, the killer is always white.

In a time when it is
Post-slavery
Post-Jim Crow
Post-Civil Rights,
The ratio of white to Black is
Forty-three to one in the White House
And the reciprocal in the Big House.
Yet you still sit on your ass
Moaning and groaning
Like every misdeed done in this country
Was solely based on race,
But it doesn’t encourage you to fight
Against this country’s apparent corrupted ways.

So what if it was a Black man
Who killed Trayvon Martin?
Would he be arrested on the spot?
Possibly.
But would you still show the same compassion and sympathy
For any innocent teen who lost his life unnecessarily?
So what if it was a Black man
Who was cheated out of a high paying job
And resorted to life in the streets,
Selling drugs and young girls’ chastity,
Then sent to prison
Because he couldn’t conform to society?
How would you change a system
You accuse of being modern day slavery?
So what if it was a Black man
Who was a high profile athlete
Charged with breaking the law,
And when the news spreads across all sports networks,
The league deals him a harsher blow
Than his white counterpart
Accused of the same crime a week ago?
Would you expose this unfair scheme
Or worry about how it will affect
Your fantasy team?

What does it mean to be Black in America?
For you, it means the same as it did half a century ago.
When a Black man was charged with rape
Just for staring a white women in the face,
And the Mammy loved her white employer so much
That she didn’t give a damn about the men of her own race.

After your ancestors fought in a war for their Freedom.
Began a movement simply by refusing to leave their seats.
Marched on Washington for their Civil Rights.
They would turn in their graves
To see injustice remain as it did
Just so you could continue to sit on your couch
Complaining about the color of your skin.

—Nortina


We often play the race card for menial things, but when something serious happens, we ignore it, we disappear behind the opinions of others, we fool ourselves into believing that it has nothing to do with race when, in fact, it does. I’m an optimist. I would like to say that we live in a post-racial society, but reality sinks in every time I watch the news, or simply turn on the television and see stereotypes prancing around on sitcoms. What hurts me the most is that minorities clearly see it, but the ones who have the power to change it only choose to do so when it affects their wallets. I would say that this poem, written a couple of years ago, is a call to action. A manifesto. I want everyone, not just black people, to get off their lazy asses and channel their Civil Rights brothers and sisters. The fight isn’t over until the phrase, “It would’ve been different if the guy was black,” disappears from our vernacular.

Black History Month: Ballad of Birmingham

Ballad of Birmingham

On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

 

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

 

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free.”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

 

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.

 

The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.

 

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.

 

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

Dudley Randall, 1969

 

 

The above poem was written by African American poet, Dudley Randall, on the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in which four innocent African American girls lost their lives. In the late 1960s, Birmingham was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. The most discriminatory and segregated city in the South, Birmingham was known to violently oppose protests and demonstrations advocating desegregation and civil rights.

Religion has always played a major part in the lives of African Americans. We kept our faith in God during the most trying of times—slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, the list goes on. The church was the center of many nonviolent marches and demonstrations. This couldn’t ring more true for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which birthed many marches at its steps.

It’s a great tragedy that the KKK targeted this church, and an even greater tragedy that four young girls,  14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair, died because of it. Their only crime, attending Sunday school that morning. It’s sickening that it took years, decades, to bring the men behind this to justice, especially when it was speculated that the FBI had information on the identities of the bombers as early as 1965.

Attack us at our roots, they schemed. Destroy our core, our faith. Murder our children in cold blood, and we shall surely crumble, right? WRONG! We continued to protest and march. We were vehemently determined for justice. Dr. King spoke before a crowd of 8,000 people at the funeral for three of the girls, fueling the fire for justice.

It took a long time for the perpetrators to be caught, but as we waited we saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now there is talk of repealing the Voting Rights Act, and I say we need to channel the energy of our Civil Rights ancestors and fight this. The law may not seem necessary now, but give a man too much power, and he will abuse it. Next thing to go would be the 15th amendment! It isn’t necessary either, right? What are we really doing here? We’re allowing them to erase our history, rewrite it so that it looks like African Americans always had the right to vote, that they were never denied citizenship because their “grandparents” were slaves. Southern grade-school books already completely ignore slavery. That’s only the beginning.

I will always stand against something that will deny me the knowledge of my history, to remind me how far I’ve come, and you should too. Stay informed my brothers and sisters, and if you see anything that threatens your soul, fight it. Fight it with all your heart. Fight it in memory of your four daughters.