Clutching Hems of American History
Rather than save these to drop, one at a
time, I prefer to name all at once the
famous people I have known, nearly.
I never actually met Franklin Roosevelt,
though I felt like I did. The Japanese
bombed Pearl Harbor two days before my
fifth birthday, and the only attention I
got was that mother made just for me the
special plate that I had requested--
liver, spinach, and squash--and
something blander for all the other kids
she invited to the party.
The Three Stooges performed live at the
Ritz Theatre when I was only 8. They
said nasty words that I had never heard
before. All the business leaders and
deacons from the church laughed. I went
home scared. I still have never heard
most of those things in public, not even
on pay TV.
We ate most Sunday dinners at Mr. Gus's
Sanitary Cafe. His son served as bus
boy, the one that grew up, became a
medical doctor, and sold Elvis all those
General Dwight David Eisenhower came to
my hometown when I was 11, to close a
fort where Daddy had sold lots of paint
and nails. Daddy got me his autograph
at the Rotary Club.
I heard Harry Truman speak at Valley
Forge, at the 1948 Boy Scout Jamboree.
Since we knew that Thomas E. Dewey would
win, the Alabama troops talked while Mr.
Truman spoke. Besides, our families had
told us that he was only a small-town
My family refused to buy gas from the
Adams boys, even before they went all
the way to Birmingham to hurl Nat King
Cole off the stage.
When Jackie Robinson played in the All-
Star game at Detroit, I went to his room
in the hotel and knocked. He came in a
towel, all dripping from the shower, and
said "Where you from, freckled little
carrot top?" When I said "Alabama," he
laughed and said he'd gladly sign my
ball. My Dad's delegation to the
hardware convention thought that was
very funny, but I was proud. He was the
handsomest man I'd ever seen.
Chester Swor, a famous Baptist preacher
from Mississippi twice ate watermelon
rind pickles at my mother's dinner table
when I was in junior high. He could
make the whole town shiver when he
talked about sin being like a little
moth that got into the generator of a
large city and hurled it into darkness.
Ted Turner went to my same prep school,
Howard Baker and Pat Robertson had been
to the same school before I did, but we
had not heard of them then. I wonder
what they all thought when the school's
founder, Dr. J. P. McCallie, took out
his penis in the Bible Class to show us
what circumcised meant.
I once got to chauffeur Frank Lloyd
Wright from the Waco airport to the
Baylor campus. He made me stop at least
half a dozen times in the short trip, to
fetch different Texas wild flowers.
"Son, this part weighs six times the
stem that sustains it. I wish I could
build an arch like that!" He had only
a couple more years to live. "Learning,"
he said, "is like your hand. If you
hold it as a fist, no one can put
anything in it. If you open it, be
careful to whom."
My roommate at Baylor early became
president of an important college in the
Midwest, and dropped me even from his
Christmas Card list since it was
dangerous to know queers.
Mr. Felix Alexis Dupont built the school
where I taught in Delaware. I first
took him for a gardener when he drove up
in a battered old Chevrolet.
Back home, the Adams boys burned a
Freedom Rider bus before my family and
neighbors resumed responsibility for law
and order. Dad chaired the school
board and year after year upheld his
oath to the State of Alabama.
At Mr. Dupont's school I taught the son
of the Governor of Maryland during the
first year that I joined marches to
protest segregation in the Delmarva
Peninsula. One night Wallace came to
speak at Cambridge, Maryland, and
General Gerston and the National Guards
confronted our protest with fixed
bayonets at the corner of Race Street
and Alabama Avenue.
Governor Arleigh Burke, Eisenhower's
chief of staff, stayed in my home on the
weekend of the Bay of Pigs Crisis. He
was the god-father to a boy for whom I
was advisor at the school. He regaled
all us lesser folk with The Truth.
Loudon Wainwright, Jr. embarrassed me at
that same school when he told in his
Valedictory how I had allowed students
to stay up pass curfew to talk about
ideas. But I emigrated to England after
that summer anyway, and stayed a year.
I spent a whole day with John Howard
Griffin once. A mutual friend had told
him that I had given away over 50
paperbacks of Black Like Me to educated
white Southerners. "What did they think
of it?" he asked. "They said you had
written a good book, but a popular book,
not a scholarly book." "Damnit, Louie.
Ashley Montague has already written a
superb scholarly book, Race, and these
very complainers won't read it. I
purposely wrote a book that I knew that
they would read, and they fault me for
it! You can't win."
I assigned Babbitt to the literary
survey section I once taught for
business majors when I went back to
graduate school. One afternoon when my
Father visited, we took a walk. A
student car screeched to a halt. It
looked like a circus trick when eight
young men crawled out. "Hey doc," their
leader, a student in the survey said.
"I want you to MEEEEEEEEEE.... [his
voice crescendoed, like Ed McMann's
saying "HEEEEEEERE's Johnny,"]
EEEEEEEEET George Wallace Junior. I
had read in the paper that Junior was in
town for a concert. Clearly my student
had told Junior, still in high school,
that he was about to meet a real live
communist; but Junior didn't believe or
didn't care, after I greeted him, "Oh,
the famous folk-singer."
While at the University, I lived next to
the head of the local KKK in the
home town of the national Grand Dragon.
I lived one block from the Bear Bryant's
stadium, which meant that every time the
game ended, some drunks would chunk
rocks at my old rattle trap on which I
had painted a peace sign. But I never
actually got to see the Bear.
I delivered a tall iced-tea glass full
of scotch to Malcolm Are You Running
With Me, Jesus Boyd when he sat on the
altar of the University Presbyterian
Church encouraging black students to
speak out against whites in the
audience, just three years after Mr.
Wallace Senior had stood in the school-
house door up four blocks up the same
Poet John Beecher, the great-nephew of
Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher
Stow, slept in my house. I persuaded
the Alabama students to invite him back
to his Alma Mater, though the faculty
elite did not like him, perhaps for the
same reason Robert Frost didn't.
"John," Beecher said Frost had told him,
"don't write any more nigger poems.
That issue will go away. Keep your
Poet Robert Peters was cooking roast
beef for us in our home in Wisconsin
when his family called to tell him that
his mother had died in Eagle River. He
set the oven at a low temperature and
left a note on the table telling us when
to turn it off. We returned to an empty
house filled with garlic.
I have slept in the home of Leonard
Patterson, assistant-pastor at Dr.
King's church. He lost his job at
Ebenezer not because he was gay, but
because his lover was white.
I have met over two dozen bishops, but
try not to remember many of their names.
The Bishop of Atlanta once summoned me
for discipline because I had told the
Constitution that a church in South
Carolina had written to welcome my black
husband and me. The bishop told the
Constitution that I had "disturbed the
peace and good order of the Church."
I spent a week with Carter Heyward, one
of the Philadelphia Eleven first women
priests of the Episcopal Church. "Love
without justice is cheap,
sentimentality," she told me.
Adrienne Rich co-keynoted a convention
with me once, of Black and White Men
Together, as the only woman there, and
yet she normally doesn't speak with men
present. "I didn't know myself until my
black lover taught me that I would have
to deal with my Jewishness to become
whole," she told me afterwards.
Laoshe's daughter taught German at the
same foreign language institute with me
in Beijing, but I did not know that
until after I had moved to Hong Kong.
While I was in Beijing, Barbara Smith
visited my home in Wisconsin, but I
suppose she doesn't count, since I
wasn't there and she got to see only my
Zhang Yong, one of my students in
immediately got placed as the anchor for
the evening news on Central China
Television, in English, but heard
nightly by more people than exist to
listen to Rather in the USA.