The following story first appeared in my third book, I Wish You Had Been There.
It is presented here following a conversation with a friend about our grandmothers.
Listen But Shut Up
When the old ladies assembled I was the only child allowed to sit and listen to their discussions. I did not know why, until many decades later. They had detected my gift of good memory and took a chance that I would someday use it constructively to share memories of their time. (Valdosta, GA. Circa 1939-1949)
Grandmama Mariah was a member of an inner circle of colored ladies whose wisdom, temperament, and engagement stabilized colored communities. They did what women are noted for; they are the keepers and carriers of the culture.
As the wife of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, her membership in some organizations was expected. If an invitation was extended to Sister Mariah Alexander, it was understood that her companion would probably be little James Edward. Between the ages of four and ten, I accompanied my grandmother to meetings of her church Missionary Board, Stewardess Board, quilting bees, gatherings to harvest and preserve fruits and vegetables, and more than enough assemblies for what they called “just for social fellowship.” I was not consulted about whether I wanted to attend, I was simply told when to wash my face and feet, which pair of overalls to put on, and if necessary, which pair of pajamas to pack.
Many of their meetings were held in member homes, because “The Women’s Building” was built by whites for white women only. So Mama, her niece, and other colored matrons of the community decided to build their own meeting place. They named it the Mary Church Terrell Building, honoring one of the most active contemporary fighters for equal rights for women and Negroes. It was in that special place that colored women convened for the Phyllis Wheatley Club, to honor the slave girl who became a poet, and whose works were praised by President George Washington and King George III.
One day Mama told me I would attend another meeting of the Phyllis Wheatley Club to meet a special guest. When a very dark lady with smiling eyes entered the building, one could see a special presence. Such was the aura of Mrs. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, the notable educator, author and civil rights activist. It was during the period of World War II, but Mrs. Bethune reminded the colored ladies that they were on the front line of another battle we could not afford to lose: the battle for the survival and advancement of colored people. She prefaced her sentences with the pronoun “we,” to emphasize that every woman there was her equal in the struggle. Furthermore, she promised to remind President Franklin Roosevelt that the unity and resolve of colored women was unshakeable. He was awaiting her visit at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he found some comfort from the crippling illness of polio. She was among a group of colored advisors who were called his “Black Cabinet.” But it was through her special relationship with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt that Mrs. Bethune was able to constantly reinforce colored aspirations, leading many colored ladies to call Mrs. Bethune, “Our First Colored Lady.”
Most of the gatherings we attended that were related to religion followed reasonably predictable formats. Before any conversation or business was conducted, they prayed and thanked God for bringing us together. Those ladies identified me as the boy-child recipient of their special pampering, hoping that I would glean from their conversations and mannerism some values they wanted preserved. Another purpose for my presence was to recite the 23rd Psalm. I critiqued my performance by the number of times I heard, “Yes, Lord.” Then I settled into my position on the floor in the most distant corner, where I read a book, realizing that if I uttered one word of what was discussed, their next gathering would be at my funeral.
When those old ladies assembled otherwise, their agenda was whatever was on their minds. Some things were always on their minds: men, how young people were going to hell-in- a- hurry, and loose women. They knew for certain that they were the appointed keepers of God’s word, and it was their divinely inspired duty to prevent this world from becoming a den of sin and iniquity. Those who most threatened the community were the women whose morals and behavior justified them to be low rated to the status of hussies, or worse, strumpets. My ears still remember their words: “She’s a strumpet, a purveyor of perdition and damnation, and she ought to be washed with lye soap, and then rinsed in the blood of the Lord.” That always evoked the chorus of “amen’s.” On more than a few occasions I almost shouted something to urge them to tell me more about those women. Furthermore, those married ladies issued fewer social invitations to those clearly identified as “widow women,” a not too subtle reference that translated into, “Since she ain’t got a husband; she ain’t gonna get mine.”
They also used many euphemisms. No woman was ever pregnant – she was “in the family way.” Menopause and hot flashes translated into “the change of life.” When their husbands had urinary problems, they announced that he was “having trouble making water.” When I heard the men describe their problem, they simply said, “I’m having trouble peeing.” No wonder the ladies called them heathens.
Having exhausted or tired of the subjects of sin, trifling men, and general social decay, these prim pillars of the community turned to other gossip. When one sister hesitated, cleared her throat, and said, “God knows I shouldn’t mention this, but…,” I became alert, because I was about to hear the details of somebody’s business. I dared not change my position on the floor, for any movement might have suggested shifting to hear or for clearer understanding. I was trained to hear and understand without display or utterance. Those ladies who didn’t initiate the gossip listened intently and rolled their eyes, and fanned a little faster with the cardboard fans that the funeral homes donated to the church. When the gossip was really scandalous, they shouted, “Oh my God,” and grunted as though being pierced by the spear of the crucifixion. I never heard one word of contrition for stealing the fans from the church.
If the gathering lasted too long, I often fell asleep where I sat. Almost routinely I awoke on the lap of a lady in a rocking chair, deliberately chosen to rock my lower torso, while my head bobbled between her full bosoms. It was a most unusual sensation. She would then give me a kiss on both cheeks and say, “Here you are, sugar baby,” then reach into her apron pocket and present me a tea cake or a piece of candy.
Just as they started, they also ended their sessions with a tribute to God. And only God knew what else they would discuss before we meet again.