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.
Copyright © Chude Allen, 1994, all rights reserverd.
[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.]
FOR JUSTICE AND FOR LOVE
For the young woman I once was, Pam Parker
I stand in the balcony of the church,
which is filled with people singing.
Mine is one of a few white faces
scattered around the church.
Yet, at this moment
I am not conscious of being white.
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
I meet her at her office
and we walk to a restaurant nearby.
I have come to talk of Ralph Featherstone,
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 © Chude Allen, 2004, all rights reserverd.
We are the survivors of Mississippi
but I knew one who did not come back
Not one of the murdered
the three young men, two Jewish and one Black
but the fourth who died that summer of 1964
in a car accident that may or may not have been an accident
He is the forgotten one
His was the first dead body I ever saw
his death the moment dying for freedom became real
I didn't know the others, you see, the three young men
or Medgar Evers killed the year before
I've since sat in meetings hearing how helpful Medgar Evers was
to young activists in Mississippi
I've read about the three martyred youth
and met some of those who loved them
but I knew Wayne
Wayne Yancey was large and very black
he wore a big cowboy hat
and left his job as a welder in Chicago
to fight for the cause of freedom
knowing full well about the South
having been raised in Tennessee
He was young, his life ahead of him
the same as all of us who came to work in Holly Springs
And then we heard he had died
and I went to see him at the viewing
He was so still laid out in front of me
and I didn't know what to do
I hadn't even liked him
not being able to forgive his initial greeting
"Do you want to have sex?"
He'd said it to me in the kitchen of the freedom house
the first time we met
And was nice about being told "No!"
his light "okay!" ending the discussion
for him but not for me
Even as I railed against the obsession everyone seemed to have
about sex between Black men and white women
I couldn't see past my prudery to a man who cared about people,
especially the freedom school students
He drove to a country freedom school one day
to make sure there were no students needing a ride home in the pouring rain
He was, perhaps, careless about being seen driving with a white woman
but two brothers, who did not have a ride, got home safe and dry
I didn't know that about him, however,
never having allowed myself to see him as a full person before he was gone
And so, I a young woman of twenty stood before his body
and didn't know how to say good-bye
Copyright © Chude Allen, 2014, all rights reserverd.
Whenever I've thought of that summer in 1964,
I've remembered Delois,
one of the students in the Freedom School.
So many images flood my mind, but the main memory
is of us walking along the side of her father's fields
when she brought me home to spend the night.
We walked on a dirt tractor road
in the quiet of the evening,
far from the prying eyes of racist whites.
We walked and talked the slow talk of friends
out for an evening stroll,
with the sounds of the birds and insects keeping us company.
It felt so normal. Normal? There was nothing normal
about two young women, one black and one white,
walking together in Mississippi in 1964.
Nothing was the least bit normal
about this young twenty-year-old white Freedom School teacher
visiting a black student's family.
There was nothing normal about the friendship
that had developed between us.
And yet, that is how I remember it.
Delois offered me an evening of quiet friendship
in spite of all the fear and tension
we faced challenging racism in Mississippi.
She wanted me to come meet her parents and see her home.
Oh yes, I remember dinner — not the food,
but the tenseness as I sat at the table,
all of us being polite
and trying to make conversation as we ate.
Her parents had a watchfulness.
I assumed it was a fear of racist whites
as well as their own ambivalence about us white Civil Rights workers.
Yet, when I think back to that dinner now
and see her mother studying me
over the bowls of collards and beans,
I wonder if it wasn't also personal.
What mother doesn't study the friend
her eighteen-year-old daughter brings home,
the girl who represents the world outside
the boundaries of family and community?
I don't know if her mother liked me
or whether that was even a question in her mind.
But I do think she was looking for what her daughter saw in me,
for clues about how her daughter was changing.
And I do think she was anxious
about what those changes would mean
for both herself and her family.
I've experienced enough of life now
to know that all change is difficult,
even when you want it, even when you know it is good.
And change, after all,
was what the Freedom Schools
and the voter registration work were all about.
Changing the relationships between black and white.
Copyright © 2015, Chude Allen, all rights reserverd.