TO BE TWENTY AGAIN
For Debbie Rand, Volunteer, Mississippi Summer Project, 1964
To be twenty again,
believing change is possible
because I have changed,
believing barriers can be lifted,
because I have known friendship
across the color line, deep friendship.
To be twenty again
and to know the power
of a social movement
that transforms its participants
as well as the world,
to know I've found a place, a way of life that allows love of God
and commitment to justice
to flourish side by side.
To fall in love again and again
with life and idealism as it manifests
first in one and then another
young man's eyes.
I lived so intensely,
believed so absolutely,
felt so acutely.
I had the energy to do so
and lacked the experience
to feel afraid or use caution.
I grew outside the bounds
of my white, middle class upbringing.
I grew outside the experience
of my professors at college.
There were times of connection
times of anger
and fear of losing all we'd worked for.
There were times of trust
and times the trust shriveled
in the light of a sharp afternoon.
Oh, to be twenty again
and refuse compromise.
To believe justice is attainable.
That love will replace greed.
To believe people can live
and work in mutual respect for one another.
To be twenty again
and believe it is all possible.
[I wrote this poem after seeing Debbie Rand at the 1994 reunion in Jackson Mississippi. Debbie spoke of missing the fervor and idealism we had in 1964.]
Copyright © Chude Allen, 1994, all rights reserverd.
FOR JUSTICE AND FOR LOVE
For the young woman I once was, Pam Parker
My attention is on the spirit,
the feelings of hope and courage
that are building
in this predominantly black crowd
as everyone sings.
My heart is opening to a palpable,
collective cry for a world of love and justice.
I have been told all my life
that I cannot sing.
But the thin brown-skinned man
at the front of the church
has told the audience,
"If you can't reach the note,
and I am singing
Oh, freedom! at the top of my lungs.
The singing ends.
The group quiets and sits down.
I sit with the others.
A woman moves to the pulpit
and begins to speak.
She has dark brown skin
and seems to be a few years older than I.
Her voice is strong
and her words impassioned.
Everyone is focused
on what she has to say.
It is hot in the church.
People wave paper fans
in front of their faces,
cardboard rectangles with a picture
of a white-looking Jesus on one side.
Jesus has shoulder length wavy brown hair.
He is holding a lamb.
The background is brown.
Throughout the church
brown colored fans wave,
as if on a breeze.
I reach toward the pew in front of me
and lift out a cardboard fan from the rack.
The other side has a drawing of a building
and the address and telephone number
of a black funeral home
in segregated Atlanta.
I wave the fan in front of my face,
but I am not used to using a fan
and it distracts me
from what the woman is saying.
Putting the fan back in its holder,
I settle into the pew.
My shoulders touch those
of the students sitting next to me.
Perspiration trickles down my sides.
I smell hair preparations and sweat.
Here in the balcony of this church
listening to the speaker,
I know God is present.
I feel Him in my heart and in the room.
God is love and love fills this great space.
Faces glow with this love.
People's edges disappear.
I feel a unity, a oneness,
and know it is good
and beyond good.
Every fiber of my being knows
this openness of self, this surrender
to God who is love,
is what it means to be fully human.
I am neither white nor not white.
The people around me
are neither black nor not black.
We are all beautiful.
We are all children of God.
In this moment I am not afraid
of beatings or death.
Should my body be killed,
my spirit will live on
in the bones and marrow of the people here,
even as they will live forever within me.
I am determined to fight
for justice and for love.
With a Thank You to Daphne Muse
a black activist
we both knew in the Sixties.
He was killed in 1970.
A friend discovered the connection.
"Daphne talks about him the same way you do.
She said for you to call."
Daphne tells me she went to Washington after graduating Fisk,
joined the Black Movement,
worked with Ralph at the Drum and Spear Bookstore.
I say, "You know I fell in love with him
that summer I was in Mississippi?" She nods.
"Ralph was different
from the other black men on my project," I say.
"He wasn't afraid of white women.
He treated me like a person."
"Yes," she nods. "Ralph wasn't afraid."
"The others kept their distance," I respond.
"Well," she says, "remember Emmett Till!"
"We were around his age when he was killed.
It had a deep impact on us."
"But Ralph wasn't afraid."
She smiles at a memory.
"We were in a small town in Mississippi
in '67 or '68 walking down the main street.
"You know how white men
would be leaning up against a wall?
Well, Ralph walks by this white man
leaning against the wall.
"'Hello, Mr. So-and-so,' he says.
'Hello, Mr. Featherstone,' the man answers.
My mouth fell open.
A white man in Mississippi
calling Ralph Mr. Featherstone!
That's the kind of man he was!"
Later at home, I think of Emmett Till,
the 14 year old Chicago boy
who was brutally murdered
while visiting relatives in Mississippi.
It's not clear if he said "Bye baby!"
to a white woman or whistled at her.
He hadn't understood
the white southerner's pathology.
Hadn't understood how much violence
was visited upon black men.
Did it to show off.
The white woman's husband and brother
beat his lips off his face, smashed his head in,
threw him in the river.
I think of Emmett Till
and how the men I worked with in Mississippi
had been teenagers
when they saw the photographs in JET magazine
after his mother insisted the casket be opened
so all the world could see
what they had done to her boy.
I notice a book I bought one day while browsing.
It's on black women in literature.
I take it upstairs and make myself a cup of tea.
In the table of contents there are four interviews
with women in Mississippi.
I turn to them.
In the last interview I find a discussion of lynchings.
This old woman said Emmett Till was castrated
and forced to eat his genitals.
Her sister added
that they did an autopsy
and found his genitals in his stomach.
I'd never read anything
about Emmett Till being sexually mutilated.
I call Daphne. "Yes," she answers,
"I remember the story."
She has nothing to add.
We talk about our children
before saying goodbye.
I am sitting in my son's room by the window.
The dogs are sunning themselves in the backyard.
I think of the black men and women
with whom I worked in Mississippi
hearing this story when they were young,
hearing of the mutilation and killing
of a boy their own age whose so-called crime
had been to speak to a white woman.
Whether the mutilation occurred or not,
people believed it had
and the horror was real.
I think of Ralph,
who loved me and whom I loved
that summer in Mississippi.
I think of Ralph, who is now dead,
blown up in a car.
I think of Ralph, who lived his life unafraid.
Copyright © 2004