Thursday, December 31, 2009
Our farm is 160 acres of fields, meadows, trees, and streams to walk over, crawl through, climb up, and swim in. It is there for us to explore and investigate and we spend as much of our free time as we can exploring and investigating it.
Our school is a ramshackle shanty, not built of brick and stucco and filled with teaching supplies like the white schools but pieced together with rotting wood and tar paper, empty of desks and textbooks. Carver has 47 students in his 2nd grade class and I have the same number in my 5th grade class. We are shoulder to shoulder and back to knee in our classrooms!
Our farm has a stream that runs along the back side of our property line. Carver and I like to stand in it barefooted on summer afternoons and feel the smooth rocks against our heels and the wet sand between our toes. We stand as still as we can and look at the life living just below the surface of the water. We talk about all the things we feel, see, and think about.
Our school doesn't have indoor plumbing, so we don't have water fountains and flush toilets like the students at the white schools have. We drink water from dippers in open buckets and pee and poop in an outhouse at the back corner of the schoolgrounds. Sometimes we can't play outside on hot, humid days because we have to stop and gag when we breathe in the putrid air. We help our teachers clean up our school each day because we don't have janitors to help us.
Our farm gives us all the space in the world to run freely until the calves of our legs throb achingly and the cheeks on our faces glow brightly. When we want to see how the little world around us is living or passing on, changing or staying the same, growing or fading away, it gives us all the room we need to walk at our pace asking questions, researching ideas, making hypotheses, doing experiments, and talking about our findings. Yes, it gives us our own space, our own room, to be us, to be Carver and Carter.
Our school is a long way from our farm so when we get there in the mornings and back here in the afternoons our calves are throbbing and our cheeks are glowing but it's not from running freely or walking leisurely. It's from marching dilligently the nine miles to school and the nine miles home. Yes, we walk eighteen miles each day to school and back home. And that is how my story begins.
- Dis one right here.
- Oh, dat one. I could barely see it. It was hidin'.
- Well, dat's how nature he'ps dis little one. It can hide so de bird an' de wasps cain't hurt it.
- I hav' a question fo' you.
- 'Kay. Go 'head.
- Well, you told me all de ways nature he'ps protect de caterpillars from de birds an' de wasps. But what 'bout shoes? 'Member, you said Daddy's boot might accident'ly crush de life out o' one o' dem.
- Dat's a good question, Carter. De answer is de way nature he'ps dese little ones mos' o' all. Come over here an' look a' dis wit' your eyes.
I stood beside Carver and we looked at one of the most wondrous things in the world - the caterpillar wrapped in a chyrsalis waiting to become a butterfly. Yes, the chrysalis. Did you know the word chrysalis comes from the Greek word 'chrysolos', which means 'gold' in English? Most chrysalides have a gold tint in their color, a tint that tells the world something important is happening inside of it, a change is taking place, a metamorphosis is occuring, something completely different will come out from what went in.
Remember I told you that 7 out of 10 folks in Clarendon County were black folks? As you will learn, life could be dangerous for black folks. But we were a community and we wrapped ourselves around each other and in March of 1948 told our county, state, country, and world that something important was happening inside of us, a change was taking place, a metamorphosis was occurring, and something completely different would come out from what went in.
Carver taught me all about caterpillars. Late one spring afternoon we were sitting together under the oak tree in our back yard, a tree we called "Ol' Giant" because it was humongous with two limbs that looked like a giant's arms branching out of a knobby trunk that looked like a giant's knee. It was one of the many places that became a laboratory or a classroom that my little brother used for researching and for teaching.
On this particular afternoon there were caterpillars everywhere, inching their way over and around "Ol' Giant" and us.
- Look at all dese cat'pillers, Carver. Dey's no end to 'em.
- Well, it might look like dere's no end to 'em but dey hav' to be careful 'cause dey hav' pred'tors dat are out to hurt 'em an' ev'n kill 'em. See dat bird a settin' on "Ol Giants" arm? It's ready to swoop down on one o' dese little ones and use it fo' its ev'nin' meal. Hear dose wasps a buzzin' round de nest at de porch door? Dey'd like to use one o' dese little ones fo' food, too. When Daddy comes in from the field, his mud cakes boots might accidentally step on one dese little ones and crush de life outta it. So dey's many tings day could put a end to 'em.
But dey's some ways dese little ones can protect demselves. Dese ways are 'mazin', wonderful ways nature gave to dem to he'p dem. Look at dis little one. What is de first ting you notice 'bout it?
- Its got bright colors all around it.
- Well, dis little one is a Monarch. Dose bright colors tell dat bird and dose wasps dat it has been a eatin' pois'nous plants an' so is pois'nous to eat. Nature makes it tough on de inside so it can be safe on de outside.
How 'bout dis one? What you notice 'bout it?
- Hey, dat is a cat'pillar larva. At first I thought it was bird droppins'.
- Well, dese little ones will be Tiger Swallowtails. Nature he'ps dem camoflauge demselves so dey can stay safe.
What 'bout dis one?
- It has two big circles dat look like eyes.
- Well, dose are called eyespots an' make dis little one look bigger an' scarier dan it really is. Nature he'pd it look like a snake so dat bird an' dat wasp will leave it 'lone.
"De book o' Exodus tells us dat de heart o' God OBSERVED de mis'ry o' de Jewish folks in Egypt, HEARD deir cries on 'count o' dey task masters, KNEW dey suff'rins, CAME DOWN TO DELIVER dem from de 'gyptians, an' CAME DOWN TO BRING THEM UP out o' Egypt to a good an' a broad land, a land a' flowin' wit' milk an' honey."
"An' de book o' our lives here in Clarendon County an' de lives o' all de black folks 'cross de Jim Crow South tells de story dat de heart o' God OBSERVES de mis'ry o' black folks, HEARS our cries on 'count o' our task masters, KNOWS our suff'rins, COMES DOWN TO DELIVER us from Jim Crow, an' COMES DOWN TO BRING US UP out o' Jim Crow to a good an' a broad land, a land a' flowin' wit' milk an' honey, a land where we can walk side by side wit' white folks an' look dem in de eyes as equals an' as human bein's, a land where we can drink from de same water fountains wit' white folks as equals an' as human bein's, a land where we can eat at de same lunch counters wit' white folks as equals an' as human bein's, a land where black chil'ren an' white chil'ren can sit down beside each other an' learn together in de same classroom as equals an' as human bein's, a land where white folks soften deir hard hearts an' share deir social power an' deir economic power an' deir political power, a land where we are all equal an' human bein's."
"God's heart is full o' wonder. Deep inside o' God's heart dere is dat pecu'lar ting raises up life an' sets down death, dat ting dat makes de world a more human place to live in."
"Dat same book o' Exodus in de Bible dat tells us 'bout de hearts o' de Jewish folks tells us dat de heart o' Pharoh an' de hearts o' most o' de 'gyptians was hard. De Pharoh an' de 'gyptians knowed de hearts o' de Jewish folks was in mis'ry an' was cryin' out on 'count o' deir task masters, dey knowed de hearts o' de Jewish folks was suff'rin', dey knowed dey was oppressin' de hearts o' de Jewish folks, an', even dough dey knowed dese t'ings, dey didn't offer no balm fo' de mis'ry an' suff'rin, dey didn't open deir ears to hear de cryin', dey didn't care. Dey hardened deir hearts, an' deir hearts was as hard as de Clarendon County ground after a month wit' no rain. Dey hardened deir hearts an' deir hearts was hard."
"An' de book o' de lives o' white folks here in Clarendon County an' all over de Jim Crow south tells de story dat de hearts o' white folks is as hard as was de hearts o' white folks is as hard as was de hearts o' Pharoh an' de 'gyptians in Egypt. Dey ain't off'rin no balm fo' our mis'ry an' suff'rin, dey ain't op'nin' deir ears to hear our cryin', dey don't care. Dey hard'nin' deir hearts an' deir hearts are hard."
"Dey know our chil'ren walk miles an' miles to an' from school ever' day but dey don't offer no buses to ease deir little, calloused feet, dey don't offer no buses like de white chil'ren have in dis county - dey ain't off'rin no balm fo' de mis'ry an' suff'rin'. Dey hear dat most o' our chil'ren done lef' school by de sixth grade an' 1/3 o' dem cain't read or write - dey ain't op'nin' deir ears to hear de cryin'. Dey won't offer us loans to he'p our farms survive, won't share deir harvesters wid us to get our crops in, but will fire us from our jobs when we stand up and speak out ag'inst dis injustice - dey hard'nin' deir hearts an' deir hearts are hard. Deir hearts are hard like de hearts o' Pharoh an' de 'gyptians, hard like de hearts o' all de folks who have oppressed other folks throughout hist'ry up to dis day, hard like de hearts of all de opressors to come."
"But deir hearts are full o' wonder. Deep inside o' deir hearts dere is dat pecu'lar thin' dat sep'rates livin' people from dead people, dat pecu'lar thin' dat makes it possible fo' dem to soften deir hearts an' become more human."
"De book o' Exodus in de Bible tells us dat de hearts o' de Jewish folks was in mis'ry an' was cryin' out on 'count o' deir task masters, deir hearts was suff'rin', indeed deir hearts was oppressed by de Pharoh and by de 'gyptians."
"We hav' to step off de saidewalks to let white folks pass us by - dat's mis'ry. We cain't drink at de same water fountains as white folks do, even if our mouths are dry as dust during a summer drought an' there ain't no colored water fountain to be seen - dat's suff'rin'. We cain't sit as equals wit' white folks at de lunch counter or in de classroom 'cause we are treated as sep'rate an' unequal - dat's oppression. Our hearts are cryin' out like de hearts o' de Jewish folks in Egypt, cryin' out wit' de hearts of all de folks throughout hist'ry up to dis day, cryin' out wit' de hearts of all de poor folks to come, cryin' out 'cause o' mis'ry, suff'rin', an' oppression."
"But our hearts are full o' wonder. Deep inside o' our hearts dere is dat peculiar thin' the sep'rates livin' people fron dead people, dat peculiar thin' dat keeps us from a' dyin' out in despair but he'ps us cry out in hope, dat peculiar t'ing dat makes us human."
I think my Daddy's heart is faithful and soft. It's like a big, beautiful Better Boy tomato swaying quietly in the whispering winds of our southern, summer skies.
His soul is bright and gentle, like a yellow ear of sweet corn wrapping itself gently in tender husks, protecting itself from the searing sun, woolly worms, and harshness of life.
His mind is persistent and broad, like an engine running a plow, working through problems, fixing anything, accepting me, and allowing me to grow as the land accepts the seed and allows it to grow.
His strength is helping and enduring, like the Farmall tractor we borrow from a white neighbor, a tractor that keeps him from struggling behind a mule and a plow.
Yes, he's a farmer, a person of the land, and he's my favorite farmer. Just as he sows the seed and gathers our garden every year, so he sows faith, hope, and love into mine and Carver's hearts, souls, minds, and strengths and gathers us to himself.
One thing he's not, though, is a person of great education. As a matter of fact, I'm in the fifth grade and I've already gone past him in formal schooling. But he's a person of great faith. Every Sunday morning, after the chores are done and we eat our breakfast, Daddy, Carver and I put on our best overalls and Momma puts on her pretty dress and we go to church. It's there, listening to the sweet singing of the choir and the poetic preaching of the preacher, that Daddy finds Jesus, the Jesus who wants to free black folks from being hurt by white folkd and white folks from hurting black folks, the Jesus who wants him to work to make the world a better place for black folks and white folks, the Jesus who wants him to know good things and do good things. It's there, in church, that he learns about wonder, that wonder is the root that makes knowledge grow. It's there where he learns how to wonder. It's there where we all learn how to wonder.
I can hear those sermons and see that wonder with the ears and eyes of my heart. The preacher preaches -
"Grandmommas an' Granddaddys...Mommas an' Daddys...chi'ren...brothers an' sisters in Christ - Good mornin'! May de peace o' de Lawd be wit' you! Dis mornin' I want to talk wit' you 'bout de heart. Did you know de heart is full of wonder? A long time ago, a moment in time before Jesus was born, there was a seeker of wisdom named Aristotle. He taught folks dat de heart is de most important organ in the body. He studied baby chickens, and when he looked at those chicks, those chicks just as they started comin' togetha inside o' de egg, he saw deir hearts and made de observation dat it's de heart dat's de first organ to form. He taught folks dat de heart is de seat o' intelligence, that all o' de good t'ings we b'lieve and all o' de good t'ings we do come from our hearts. He taught folks dat de heart is a hot, dry organ and dat de other organs, like de brain and lungs, simply existed to cool it. He taught folks dat de heart is de center of our vitality, dat what is deep inside of it is de peculiar t'ing that sep'rates livin' people from dead people. He taught folks dat de heart is wonderful!"
- Well, that new baby is gonna be comin' soon.
- Uh huh.
- Carter, let me look in your eyes and you look in mine, okay?
- Okay. Why, Momma.
- Well, Carter, you do know your Daddy and me love you, don't you?
- Yes'm, you tell me every day.
- I want to tell you again. I love you.
- I love you too, Momma. And I love Daddy, too.
- That's what I want to talk to you about, Carter. I want to talk with you about love. Is that okay,
- It's okay, Momma. I like to hear about it.
- Well, love is a wondrous thing. You know your Daddy and I love you. You might think, "There's only one of me so Momma and Daddy can give all their love to me. But when my brother or sister comes then there will be two chil'ren so Momma and Daddy will only be able to give a half of their love to me."
That kind of thinkin' is right thinkin' when you're talkin' 'bout things, like the peaches that come from our trees in June. If I have two peaches and give one away, then I have only one peach left, don't I?
- Yes'm., you do.
- Well, you might think love works the same way as peaches do. But it doesn't. When you give away love, you don't lose part of...you gain more of it! It would be like having two peaches and giving one of them away and having three! Love is like that...the more you give away, the more you have to give away!
It was the coldest stretch of days and the heaviest and deepest of snows that the midlands had seen in a hundred years. Momma had her arm around me as we snuggled close together and watched Poppa disappear into the blinding whiteness of the pouring snow.
- My, my...look at all that snow, Carter...look at all that snow.
- It's turnin' ever'thin' white. It's beautiful.
- Yes, sweetheart, it is beautiful.
- It makes ever'thin' look so bright and clean and new.
- Yes, it does...it does. But, you know what? I like to think about what's underneath the snow.
- But there's nothin' but frozen ground and bare limbs underneath the snow.
- And don't forget there's a Poppa under it, too!
- Ha! So why do you like to think 'bout things like that, things that're frozen and bare?
- Well, it's 'cause of som'thin' that happened to me when I was a little girl about your age. Ev'ry Sat'dy afternoon, my Daddy and Momma would take me and your Aunts and Uncles into town. We didn't own our own farm like your Daddy and I do now, so we lived in what was called a 'sharecroppers shack' on Mr. Wilson's farm. That shack was a dark, bare place that was too small for a family of nine. We all worked so hard on that farm, but on Sat'dy afternoons Mr. Wilson let us outta work to go to town. In town, ev'rythin' looked like it does now under this blanket of snow - white, clean, and new.
The som'thin' that happened that I wanna tell you 'bout is this. We were walkin' down the sidewalk, Daddy in front, Momma behind him, and the seven of us chil'ren all in a row from the tallest to the shortest. My goodness, we did look like ducks in a row, we chil'ren did. A young man and a young woman, a white young man and woman, came a'walkin' toward us arm in arm. As is the custom, we stepped off the sidewalk to let the white folks pass. I looked down at the ground, as I was supposed to do when a white man passed me, and it was then that I saw a sup'risin' thing.
The cement sidewalk had a small crack in it, and out of that broken place grew a flower, a tiny flower. Even though I was a'wearin' my Sat'dy dress, I knelt down on the ground close to the flower so I could cup my hands around it and really see it. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen in my life. It's still the most beautiful flower I ever saw. Its petals were red and yella, its stem was green, and the center a'holdin' its seeds was black. The yella was the color of the sun in the early mornin', the red was the color of the sun in the late ev'nin', the green was the color of the april fields at dawn and dusk, and the black was 'zactly the color of black folks like us's skin. And there was that flower, a'growin' through the hard, white concrete that covered the earth!
That's why I like to think 'bout things that are covered up, Carter, 'bout things that're underneath. Oft'times, you cain't see them but they're there and they're beautiful and they're a'waitin' for a crack so they can grow and be seen and make the world a better place.
Now, I like to spend time with my Momma and if I have to choose the best times I spend with her then I'd choose times like this, times when she holds me close and tells me stories. I love to feel her protective arms around me, feel my future brother or sister move around in her belly to the rhythm of her words, breathe in the smells of buttermilk and flour from this mornings biscuits, and see her story as if I were there with her in her mind and in her heart.
Everything' was covered in white. The ground around me was frozen. But everything inside of me was full of color and warm.
A surprising thing happened on the morning my brother Carver was born, a thing that turned life on our small farm in Clarendon County, South Carolina upside down. It was March 16, 1948. The window was open in my Momma and Daddy’s bedroom because spring had come early and Momma appreciated the cool morning breeze blowing through the cotton curtains after her long night of labor. With the breeze came a lightning bug. Did it stay up all night, flashing its light to the sleeping world? Or did it sleep all night, taking flight at dawn, shining its light on the waking world? “You always ‘a askin’ questions,” said my Daddy early to me one morning as I walked my shoeless feet through the freshly turned soil. His hands were on the plow and he was following our old mule Charlie and I was following him. “That’s a good thing, askin’ questions. Did you know questions drive the world forward, like I’m drivin’ ol’ Charlie down the row? Did you know questions can turn the world upside down, like the plow turns the hard, rocky ground into soft, helpful soil? Did you know questions are like the seeds we’re gonna plant in these rows? It takes a long time to get from seeds to fruits and vegetables and it takes a long time to get from questions to answers that can make a difference in the world. But seeds change to food that feeds people and questions change to answers that can make the world a better place. You keep ‘a askin’ questions always, Carter. Always keep ‘a askin’ questions.” I’ve always tried to do just that, to ask as many questions as I can ask.
There are two questions I haven’t had to ask, though, since that morning Carver was born. Here was the surprising thing that happened. My little baby brother was wrapped in a blanket, snuggled by Momma’s side with his wide brown eyes open. He was as still as the water in our farm pond on a mid May afternoon. The lightning bug that came into the room with the breeze lit gently on his nose. I watched in wonder as my brother blinked his eyes four short blinks and the lightning bug blinked its light four short times. He blinked his eyes three long blinks and it blinked its light three long blinks. Was my brother communicating with the lightning bug? Was such a thing possible? To help me see that I could believe my eyes, he blinked one short, two long, and one short blinks and the lightning bug blinked the same. He finished with one short blink and it gave a final short blink before it took flight and went out the window through which it came. It was at that moment I knew the answers to the two questions we all ask deep in our hearts – How can we be useful, of what service can we be? There is something inside of us, what can it be? I was meant to live life with my special brother and write down what was inside of us.
My little brother stood quietly beside his desk with a magnifying glass in his hand. I looked at him from the splintered pine frame of our kitchen door where I was standing. He turned around slowly, like a person who is in deep thought, and looked at me through the lens of the glass. His magnified eye was astonishingly big and brown – as big as the globe in my second grade classroom and as brown as the turned soil of our farm.
- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.
- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.
- I cain’t sleep.
- What you doin’?
- I’m studyin’ a tomato.
I walked to him and knelt beside him. I turned his magnifying glass around and looked into his eye. I saw clearly the parts of his eye that my teacher taught to me at school – the colored part that is the iris and the black part that is the pupil. But it was Carver, my five-year-old brother, who taught me how these parts work together to give us our sense of sight. It was Carver who helped me understand how we see. His lessons always began and ended with questions and were filled with an amazing assortment of facts that came from God only knows where. Our talk about seeing went something like this –
- Carter, you know the five senses?
- Yeah. Let me think…seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
-Did’ya know if we divided our brains into three parts, two of the parts would be filled up by seeing?
- Naw, I didn’t know that. Seein’ is that important, huh?
- Yeah. You know what a person who studies the inside parts of the body is called?
- Naw, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that.
- Well, that person is called an anatomist. An anatomist is kind of like an artist whose art he’ps us know where those parts are and what they do. Did you know there were artists like that?
- Naw, I didn’t.
- Yeah, there was this anatomist in Africa a long time ago named Rufus. He he’pd us understand the parts of the eye. Do you want me to teach you about the eye?
- There’s a thin layer on the inside of the eyeball. It’s the retina. No one could see into the retina until microscopes were invented. When people looked inside the retina for the first time they found millions of rod and cone cells. The rods and cones find rays of light and turn them into signals for the optic nerves. The optic nerves send signals to the brain and it turns them into pictures. ‘Cause of the way lenses work, the picture is upside down. The brain turns it right side up. Idn’ that amazing?
- Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know what? So are you.
He taught me the parts of the eye that helped him see the world as everyone sees it. In that moment, though, deep in the dark of night, I tried to see the parts that I didn’t understand, the parts that woke my brother in the middle of the night to study a tomato while our corner of the world slept, the parts that helped him see the world as only Carver could see it. But those parts remained hidden to me. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and hel him close to me.