Here is a story I wrote on August 27, 1986, about the Old Young’s Store on Highway 51 in Norfield, MS.
My Dad, Tom, shared this story with me today, from his childhood in the late Depression years. Back in those days, prohibition was still a fresh memory, and the destructive effects of alcohol were well-documented. Our society today seems to have forgotten about the damage alcohol can do, and about how it comes from something – such as corn – that can do so much good.
It’s amazing what the memory can do, even after 85 years. Here is what he told me today.
When I was a young student in our local high school in the late 30s and early 40s, the Bible was a part of our everyday activity. Devotional was held before the class session, and we actually stood and quoted the Ten Commandments as a part of our lives. In those sessions, we also looked at other aspects that might affect our everyday lives. One of the things we talked about was the effect that the use of alcohol could have. I do not know who the teacher was, but he was always reminding us that we needed to obey the Ten Commandments and to keep our lives as clean as could be. I do not know the author of this poem or where it came from, but I do remember this is one of the things we memorized:
The Song of the Corn
I was made to be eaten,
And not to be drank,
To be threshed in a barn,
Not soaked in a tank.
I came as a blessing,
When put in a mill,
As a blight and a curse,
When run through a still.
Make me up into loaves,
And your children are fed,
But if into a drink,
I’ll starve them instead.
Then remember my warning,
My strength I’ll employ,
If eaten, to strengthen,
If drunk, to destroy.
Many years ago at Christmas, my Mom took me to visit Miss Lubertha Porter. A frail African-American lady in her nineties, Miss Lubertha huddled near an old wood-burning stove to ward off the cold of a Mississippi December. She greeted us warmly and we all exchanged hugs as we presented her with a pecan pie and other leftovers from a school Christmas party. Her eyes danced as she greeted us, belying the frailty of her aging body. The house was ramshackle, and looked to be in danger of falling in at any moment. The warmth provided by the old stove was limited to one room of the creaky old structure, and Miss Lubertha was covered in quilts. An ancient King James Bible lay nearby, its pages yellowed and tattered from decades of daily use.
We stayed a few minutes, as my Mom and Miss Lubertha reminisced about things that had happened 50 or 60 years before. As the memories swirled around, they seemed to take the remaining cold from the room.
Miss Lubertha was actually not a “Miss” at all, having survived a husband who passed on many years before. Her children and grandchildren lived in houses of various ages and states of upkeep around her on a piece of land that had been in their family for generations, adjoining our own ancestral property. An educator, Miss Lubertha had taught untold numbers of children, in the process helping create more generations of teachers. In those days, Miss Lubertha and other African-American educators had to teach in a separate school from the whites-only schools. They had to make do with what they could; everyone was poor, but the “black” schools were given even less. Somehow, though, they managed to teach and guide generations of young people. My mom, her parents and numerous aunts had also devoted their lives to education of the youth; it was just another thing our families had in common.
The old matriarch was beloved to our family, with family ties going back into the misty past. Going to see her was like a rite of passage, paying homage to a lady who had lived her life with dignity and purpose, and to a connectedness that transcended the differences of race, age and culture. As I looked around the small house, I noticed a scarcity of furnishings: an old iron bedstead, a creaky table and chairs and three framed pictures on the wall: one of Jesus, one of Martin Luther King, and one of John F. Kennedy. Those pictures were arranged neatly on the wall, over a small end table containing candles and an aging, but lovingly framed, photo of a handsome young man in military uniform.
As we got back into the car for the short trip back home, I thought about Miss Lubertha and those framed pictures on the wall. For all of the things she did not have, Miss Lubertha must have considered these important. Of course, I got why Jesus would be represented: A strong Christian woman, Miss Lubertha made it clear whom she served. Our house also had a portrait of Christ, for similar reasons. Dr. King was obvious as well; his inspirational leadership and tragic death helped galvanize the civil rights movement. But why JFK?
As the years progressed, I began to understand. JFK was to her, as he is to many black people, a symbol not only of the tragedy of lost hope, but also of the shining light of promise. Cut down in his prime, and perceived to be at the forefront of the civil rights struggle as he took on an entrenched establishment, Kennedy was a symbolic and tragic torchbearer. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, and regardless of what revelations history makes, he will no doubt remain an iconic figure.
Today, I don’t know if such shrines can still be found in African-American households. But if they do, there may be a picture of President Barack Obama among them.
After the election of 2008, many white people in America seemed stunned at the results. Obama’s initial election — and phenomenal support among African-Americans — wasn’t really the surprising thing; after all, he is a man with some African ancestry, and his message of hope and change was refreshing to many in a war-weary land. No, the surprise was the mandate he seemed to have, and from a surprising number of people ostensibly in the political center. However, when Obama was re-elected in 2012 after a first-term which disappointed many supporters, many were still scratching their heads. Black support still seemed to remain, immutable and steadfast as ever before.
So what aren’t we getting? What is it about Obama that makes him the new Teflon president (or is he)? Miss Lubertha’s wall display provides some of the answer; still, it’s complicated.
White people make a lot of assumptions, many of which are likely wrong. Having lived as a white person for more than half a century, I confess I don’t know what it’s like to be black and I never will. But (that being said) I do understand that there is a whole lot of iceberg under the surface attitudes that make us all human. If we are to seek “first to understand,” as Covey says, “then to be understood”, we need to start with examining our own assumptions.
To help explain the phenomenon that is Barack Obama, it’s important to understand the context of his rise to power and election. President Obama is revered among many African-Americans, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Among the African-American community, Obama is not believed to be perfect, or even close. Many people voted for him not because of the political positions he took, or the fact that he gives a good speech, or his political prowess. No, they voted for him (many twice) because he is a torchbearer, who represents a coming-of-age of the promise that anything is possible.
For most of the 239 years since the Declaration of Independence, most black people lived as second-class citizens. Little black kids might have dreamed big, only to have those dreams cruelly dashed against the rocks of a harsh reality. But here is proof of the promise that black parents told their kids as they tucked them into bed: “one day, a man who looks like us will sit in the White House.” Now, that wall has tumbled down. And though the achievement can be rightly laid claim to by legions of civil rights pioneers, not the man himself, Barack Obama will forever be the Joshua who led the way through the fallen wall of Jericho.
Many white people think the civil rights struggle is over. It’s easy to think this way; of course, the world of 2015 is light-years removed from that of 1962; a statue of James Meredith now stands near the center of the Ole Miss campus, as he prepares to walk under an arch labeled “courage”. As a Southerner, I’m proud of that. We have come a long way; sometimes, I get the impression that much of the rest of America lags behind. But…every time a Dylan Roof or Michael Brown exposes America’s racial fault lines, it reinforces the notion that racism is still lurking in the shadows of America. These events will continue to pluck at the scab, preventing healing from taking place.
Society seems to have removed many of the obstacles that once kept minorities from achieving whatever dreams they dared to dream. Certainly, there are many more opportunities open to people of color; but often they go unclaimed. I suspect this has a lot more to do with economics rather than race, but I could be wrong. Still, many black people of all ages have felt the sting of subtle racism: the sounds of car doors locking at intersections, being stopped for “driving while black”, and overzealous patronization, to name just a few examples. Hypersensitivity? Perhaps; but when it’s you, perhaps not.
There are many other assumptions whites have about blacks, and vice versa. If we are to understand each other and move forward, we must deal with them. The fact is that our world is much changed from that of our parents and grandparents. Science has torn away the veneer from the very notion of “race” itself, in the process revealing that we are much more alike than we are different. We now stand at a crossroads which may well determine all our futures.
Miss Lubertha died in 2002, just six days shy of her 100th birthday. Her legacies are the young hearts and minds she helped nurture and develop, and the lasting brush strokes she left on the canvas of lives around her. I, for one, am sad she’s gone, although I know she rests in the arms of her precious Jesus.
Last year, I attended the 175th anniversary of a church very near the places I described early in this piece. Some of the old church records had been retained and kept lovingly all that time. Among the notes was a piece of information that surprised me: when the church was first founded in 1837, it was open to all, regardless of race or status. Among its members were a number of black families. That fact was noted without comment, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. This truth stands: the ties forged during that difficult time have transcended the years.
There were no “black” churches or “white” churches back then, as there are today. Slavery was a fact of life, Mississippi was largely wilderness inhabited by native tribes, and life was no doubt brutal for those hardy souls trying to tame it — whatever their race. There is, however, also little doubt there was a lot of cooperation in the struggle to survive the harsh frontier world. At the church — the cultural and social center of the community — they apparently understood something we seem to have forgotten: we all look the same to God.
Hmmmm…sounds like a good place to start.