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Windows into Grandpa: Part 1

May 25, 2012

This is part of a larger piece, a part I read this past April as a part of the Givens Foundation Collaborative Reading held at Intermedia Arts.


Age had left him to shuffle his feet as he walked across the floor in the duplex he built, the one in which he lived for half of his life. His words were hard for me to understand. It might have been because I was used to hearing Midwestern voices, his New Orleans accent was too unfamiliar, another language that I strained to hear correctly. But it was really his advanced years, so many years that I, as a child, could not comprehend: So many years that even his wife, official records or any other family member could not be sure how many years it had been. So many years that I was constantly anxious to watch each step, each breath, afraid that he might die at any moment. I was as afraid to lose him as I was afraid that, as a mere child, I was not yet been equipped with the emotional and social tools to deal with such an event if it should happen in front of me. I was afraid of what I would do without him.

Our Grandpa did not always shuffle. As a younger man, and even into late middle age, he was a lean, tall, dark-skinned man with distinctive and strong features in his face and toned muscles that were apparent even under his well-dressed self. And a walk that needed no swagger because it was strong, true and belonged to a man whose beauty struck every set of eyes that were lain upon him. He had the respect of people to whom he gave love, care, and a benign fear of God.

I was afraid of grandpa, not because of what he might do, not afraid of any anger or wrath. As a young child, such a man was a strange sight to me. He seemed bigger than life, and the people who knew him, including my mom and the man who she married, treated him so. But as I grew older, I did not discover the secret to why this reverence persisted. I don’t quite know how to explain it , except to tell you a few things that mother would often say about what it was like growing up with him.

Her mother, our Grandma, was a yeller and a spanker. She was larger than life in her own right, big enough to match with Grandpa, maybe his emotional opposite: a woman to fear because of the whippin’ you might get if you stepped out of line.

Grandpa never yelled. He never spanked. Mom would say, as many whippins’ and harsh words as she got from her mother, she feared nothing more than the possibility that she might disappoint her father. The wince of pain and the lingering fulfilled promise of, “I’ll give ya a whippin’ so bad, you won’t be able to sit down for a week,” from her mom was nothing compared to the deep, dark, empty pang in her heart from letting her father down—a heart to be repaired, soon enough, by the his love and adoration.

Grandpa was a man of few words. Except on Sunday morning. Grandpa was a preacher, pastor of the Second Bright Morning Star Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It seemed like the rest of the week, he read his Bible. Wise eyes peered through large, thick glasses with heavy plastic frames. Quiet in a sea of darting grandchildren and dueling televisions, he sat with the leather-bound Bible, turning the white thin pages with his long, black fingers and thick, ivoried workman’s fingernails. I could not imagine when or how this sagacious discipline was cultivated, nor how the dry words of his King James, which I knew well from my days in Baptist Sunday school, could be translated into the rocking sermon that brought the congregation to its feet, caused women to weep and played on well into the afternoon, even on the hottest of Louisiana summer days.

Long, hot summer Sunday mornings. Sermons too long for a small child who had, by a strange happening of fate’s logistics, grew up in a sedate, Swedish Baptist church that had services that ended on the hour, leaving just enough time to linger in the foyer with fellow congregants and get home to take the roast out of the oven before it burned.

Grandpa’s sermons: too foreign coming from this creature in whose image I was made, Grandpa talking words, like music, that I could not believe were supposed to come out of a human. Sounds so rich and deep, like the most complicated jazz baritone. Too complicated for that small child to decipher.

Grandpa was old, not just in the eyes of a child who could not imagine being “so old.” The years of hard work at a cement factory made use of his long, strong arms, but also consumed his joints and left him with black lung disease. Years of upkeep on the rental properties he owned, the hauling, pounding, digging and mending did as well.

Rock and roll is a powerful thing.  Most people don’t know why.  I am not sure, either, but it has more to do with the black church than any of us will admit.  Grandpa was not a fan of rock and roll.  He was not a fan of dancing.  He did not follow Little Richard, Elvis, Bobby Darin or the Beatles.  He did not want to. He did not have to.

The Sunday morning sermon was not the fare of the 17-year-old “Me Generation” teeny-bopper, on the first slope of adolescence, first taste of love’s desire, barely off her parents’ good-girl leash.  My not-so-vague notions of what whipped girls into a frenzy moments before and after Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand;” or the swiveling hips of Elvis that the camera was only allowed to leave to the imagination of the television audience, pale in comparison to the rocked emotions of a dozen women wearing white in the front pews each Sunday whose lives had already lived bigger sparks of excitement, toil, tears and care than the Sullivan girls would ever feel, even into their old age.

Sunday morning was not teeny-bopper tame.  Against a backdrop of furniture dressed in Jesus’ royal red velvet, behind the pulpit, before the choir, with sunlight streaming in the east windows, Grandpa would rise, dressed in a the sharpest of suits draped over his lean and angular frame.

The sermon—the whole spectacle was hell-defying. It had to be. I did not know at the time, how much even there, in that church, in that neighborhood where it felt comfortable to be black, and at the same time, uncomfortable to be not black enough—that the people who toiled in that sea of humidity, heat and racial strife where profoundly aware of all of this at every moment. The songs, the preaching had to be potent enough to at least hint at some well of salvation and freedom from the present day, heart-hardened Pharaoh.

If Grandpa could defy hell and the apartheid under which his reign dwelt, it would be no problem to move the emotion of more than a few women, no problem to make them “fall out” in their pew, or save them, if for no longer than they could sit in their Sunday best for those few hours each week.

These were attentions that Grandpa would mostly ignore, but Grandma—she would not.

It is said that jazz is that thing that came to birth when European instruments got into the hands of the African diaspora.  It lead to the blues.  It lead to rock and roll.  It lead to a Godawful fear about what was going to happen to the piano and horn lessons that were given to the nice children of middle America: a Godawful fear that this dark music would make their children forget their fear of God.  So it is with the King James Bible.  European instrument of Protestant politics, corrupted in the hands of the African Diaspora, what would it sound like?

In the hands of grandpa, King James did not sound as the King intended.  He sat in quiet, most afternoons, with the Bible on his lab, gently turning the onion skin pages, thumbing through the Exodus, the temples, the acceptance of Ruth, prophet after prophet, angle’s visit after angel’s visit, a birth, life and death, rise from the dead, redemption, sweet redemption.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2012 12:15 pm

    I feared and respected my grandpa…..a blur in my memory bank right now.,,but a lot of history remains from his actions, words etc. Seems as tho you captured the times along with your family very well, Clarence.

  2. Tom permalink
    May 26, 2012 1:34 pm

    The comment about the European bible and what happened to it in the hands of the African diaspora was an amazing passage-making the parallel to music was brilliant. Great post!

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