Black Preacher at the Family Reunion

by maorzo, via Flickr

In 1982, the year you were eleven, your dad’s family reunion was held at a public park in Newport News, Virginia.  It was a place of woods and creeks and picnic tables, set against the eastern shore of the southern part of the James River, a few miles before it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.  You heard more than one family member that day say they hoped the place wouldn’t get overrun by the locals, meaning the packs of young black males on bikes or on foot from the surrounding poor neighborhoods.  They were often there playing basketball on the cracked and faded courts.

You and several of your male cousins—four or five boys, you will remember—played war in the woods while you waited to be called to the picnic area for lunch, where fifty or so relatives, toddlers to the elderly, would chattily swarm around the splintered tables and pile their flimsy paper plates with fried chicken and salads from KFC, and all manner of cover-dish appetizers and desserts—soft-shell crabs, cole slaw, banana pudding, lemon squares.

After playing for an hour or so in the woods, one of your older cousins, Kevin, a chubby fourteen-year-old with a mean, crooked-toothed grin and a mom-inflicted haircut, dared you to yell nigger at the basketball players from behind a thick copse of trees.

You were looking out at a full court of ten older black boys and young men, most maybe sixteen to twenty years old, muscles and sweat and back-and-forth joking.

One older man—he looked about thirty-five—wore athletic glasses with a band holding them onto his head. You thought he was a teacher, maybe a coach, because everyone listened to him; they waited to see what he would say when there was a foul, a potential foul. He was the center of their disbanding and reforming circles on the court.

You stared at the men and boys, especially at the man you thought a teacher, who came across as a person of real dignity and authority, and then at the metal hoops and backboards, the falling-down fencing, rolled up in places like the edges of once-wet paper.

The backboards looked indestructible, like big, square storm grates, and you had been told, had heard, many times, that that was because blacks (what a strange descriptor, you thought even then, for people with skin of widely varying shades of brown) would steal anything they could carry, even a heavy backboard.

When you were very young, because of things white people (who are actually more pink or tan or beige) told you, and because you were a child and when you are a child everything said is the truth, there is no such thing as a word that is not the truth—because why would there be?—you imagined the houses of black people were filled with pointless objects, stolen for the sake of stealing. Almost every word out of every mouth that you understood to be trustworthy made you believe that black people operated like rats, running wild in the secret streets, hording the unusable. They were incoherent, savage. And they couldn’t swim.

“I’m not going to do that,” you said to Kevin, hiding from the court now in the deep-green foliage, sweating in the heat, the wet sunshine, sweating from running and climbing the small hills, hills where Revolutionary War soldiers and Confederate and Union soldiers had walked and climbed and run and screamed and fought and killed and died. Sometimes you felt the layers of time beneath your feet—or that is how you will remember it. Smell of honeysuckle. Saw of bees. Penny-colored pine needles. Stripe of gold light stenciled onto green grass. Earth smell so strong it must have come from inside your own head. Virginia. Childhood. You grow old. You go everywhere in the country, travel the world, and you sit down to write a sentence and you are still there.

“Yeah, you are,” said Kevin.

“No, I’m not,” you said, laughing, trying to make it seem as if the whole thing was ridiculous, would require no more of your attention.

Kevin took out a knife, a little plastic knife from KFC, serrated on one side, translucent and blue-tinted, and held it up to your throat as the other cousins stood around watching though you won’t actually remember them doing this just remember that they were there and that is what they would do in a scene and this is a story and you are a writer so just go ahead and imagine the other cousins, four of them, ragged white boys with filthy clothes and knees and faces or whatever. Dirt-creased necks, black-edged fingernails. Tap into your repository of working-class white people stereotypes, if you like. Use “trailer park” as a place-holder in the draft.

“Do it or I’ll cut your throat,” Kevin said. You thought about it, yelling the word and then running and it would all really just be a game, some fun at the reunion, but you didn’t want to do it because the man, you still believed, was a teacher of some kind, and he was teaching the boys playing and maybe not only basketball but other things, too, because he kept stopping to talk to them and pat them on the back, and they were paying attention and smiling, laughing at what seemed like his jokes.

You felt the cousins holding you and you felt the dull knife edge saw across your neck and you felt—you will feel it again later, remembering—that electric sting, the hot blood on your skin, the panicked slap of your hand on the wound. And later you showed your mom the cut at lunch but didn’t say how it happened and your mom said what happened, a stick? and you said, yeah, a stick, and then she put a napkin against your neck. She lifted the napkin and looked every couple of minutes until the bleeding stopped, said: Some stick. Careful.

Then this image: it was hours later and you were standing in the parking lot at dusk and the black man with glasses in a sweat-stained gray shirt was laughing with all the other black boys and young men as they loaded their basketballs and bags into a clean, new, white church van that had written on its side the Holy Redeemer something something Church of Christ. You must have been with your mom and dad and brothers but they aren’t in the memory. It’s just you at the end of a hot day with a raw, pink cut on your neck and dirt-stained everything and the sky is gray-blue with a distended pink belly.

You are staring at the black man and patting gently at your neck. He shuts the van doors. He walks toward you and asks if you are okay and you say yeah I am except my neck got cut out in the woods and the black man says he likes to use Bactine on his cuts—you’ll remember this very clearly—even though it burns a little at first but the cut goes away faster and that is usually all there is to it. Good as new. You can get it down at the drug store. Give you some, son, if I had it, but we left the aid kit at church.

You look at the man. He is smiling. You want to say that you got your throat cut because you wouldn’t yell nigger at him, but you don’t know how. Talking. Other people. You back then. You might as well have been trying to rebuild a car engine, or do particle physics.

Before the man gets in the van and drives away, he says God bless you, son. Then he pats you gently on the shoulder and looks into you. A second. Two seconds. Brown eyes and blue eyes. Nothing much. Why even remember this?

But in your dad’s ’65 Mustang, on the way home, your mom turns around and says why are you crying what’s wrong is something wrong, and you say it’s my neck, my neck hurts, and your mom says we’ll take care of it honey we will just calm down, but it’s not your neck, or the anger and shame and helplessness you feel because of your cruel and stupid cousin Kevin, who could have done anything he wanted to you—beaten you delirious, hung you from a tree. You don’t know what it is. Exhaustion, the long day, the plastic picnic knife, your white family, those black boys and men, the squalor of the poor neighborhoods near the park turning slowly and darkly now in the car windows, a hand on your shoulder, a blessing at dusk. The world expands every day. Words barely touch it. And now your heart has opened like a sieve and you cannot hold back its tiny flood.

Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.