As I dug into the clay-riddled earth, hoping against hope that I wouldn't dismember any earthworms or uncover anything weirder than that, I got to thinking about where I was and what I got to be a part of last night and, right there in the sunshine, I had another one of those epiphanies the outdoors so often ushers in.
It all started yesterday morning at the regular monthly meeting of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., when a man I'd never seen before stood up and made an announcement that there would be a special event last night in one of the African-American churches in a small town twenty miles north of here. The event would be in special recognition of Pat Morris, a latter day Rosa Parks, if you will, who has become the face of the struggle for social justice in this parish over the past four years.
Despite her bachelor's degree in mass communications, she literally cannot get a job here flipping hamburgers (she has tried to apply when a "help wanted" sign was in the window and been told as much). She's been insulted and threatened and offered MAJOR money to sit down and shut up, but she just keeps pushing. How did the money get to be major? Her efforts and the efforts of a seriously adept lawyer have finally put some things in motion that everybody -- especially the local Powers That Be -- had come to think were carved permanently in stone.
Over time (and I'll be writing more about this soon, when the website goes up), the Courts have now demanded that the parish schools have to be brought into full compliance with ALL the orders that followed Brown v. Board of Education more than fifty years ago. That means that the number of African-American teachers has to be raised from 13% to 40%. It means that the parents of students who drove their children to "better" schools at their own expense over the past forty years have to be reimbursed appropriately, as was originally ordered. It means that schools with flooded basements and failed sewer systems and rotting infrastructures leaking asphalt have to be knocked down and replaced, if necessary. Recently, it meant that when a new head coach was needed at one of the local high schools, the best qualified man had to be hired, even though he was an African-American -- the very first time in this parish they've ever hired a Black head coach and that was only done on threat of being jailed for contempt of court after they'd already put a less well qualified White man in the position. The bottom line: a federal judge with an independent monitor reporting directly to him has ordered the school board to ante up once and for all so that every child in this parish can expect to receive the same quality of education, regardless of where they live, how poor they are, or what their skin tone.
In any case, as a result of all this, Pat Morris, as you can imagine, is persona non grata in these parts. She has pushed this envelope like she can't help herself. And she's paying the price for it, just as many before her have done. Local White folks think she's the Devil. Some people of color are literally afraid of even looking as if they're connected to her in some way. And there's also folks of color who think that "rocking the boat" just "makes trouble" and should be avoided to "keep the peace." Hell, there's even folks who sell their votes, including African-American ministers who "help" White candidates get elected in majority Black districts for a "contribution" to one church fund or another. So, even in her own community, Pat has her work cut out for her.
Consequently, last night, a small congregation of maybe forty or fifty people showed up at a lovely church they didn't nearly fill to say thanks to Pat. The music was stomping-good. The testimonials about Pat and her work were loving. And the preacher chosen to inspire and encourage her moved the earth, as far as I was concerned. I was, of course, only one of two White faces in the crowd and surprised, frankly, to see another one. I've gotten accustomed to being even more of an oddity than I used to be.
When the envelopes were collected for the "love offering" for Pat, I was embarrassed. I'm dead in the middle of a two month period without income myself. I just transferred my meager savings into the account to pay my current bills. And, though I have slipped her some cash in the past and sustain the organization at a stronger level than most, I didn't have much to put into the kitty.
The fact is, I couldn't afford anything. And being raised a middle class White girl, I didn't want to go to the event because of it. Still, I knew I had to be there to show my support to this woman of valor who is taking it on the chin for all of us. So, I put a tired little twenty and five ones in the envelope with her name on it and drove up to the church.
When the collection was taken out to be counted, I stood there thinking about how small the crowd was and how little my contribution and how likely it was that most of those in attendance wouldn't have much to give either. But when they announced the results, the tally was over five thousand dollars. I was speechless. And grateful. Grateful that I got to be a part of that, that I got to see that outpouring of support for this woman who SO deserves it, that I got to be reminded that this is the way it's always been done.
Later, I was talking over chicken wings and cake in the fellowship hall with another woman I respect greatly. I don't know why, but for some reason, being around Glinnis always makes me feel kind of silly and superficial, like I have a LOT to learn about a LOT of things. Anyway, I was telling her how strapped for money I am right now and how, because of that, I didn't feel able to participate in a food drive a mutual friend is running for rural families in Mississippi. I hastened to add that I normally give substantially to feed Haitian street kids (as if I needed to validate my existence in some way). Then, digging myself ever deeper in my cognitive stew, I mentioned that, anyway, there are hungry people right here in the parish we're in. Which was not the point in the first place.
"Why don't you just quit beating yourself?" she asked, shooting me a look that was harsher than her question, a look I couldn't immediately discern.
Then, this morning, swatting at mosquitoes and wondering if my knees would hold out long enough to plant the alamanda, it hit me. It's taken me more than a decade to realize my dream of having an alamanda vine planted by my front porch. But it's there now. And even though I'm just renting, aren't I just renting my body, too? I mean, nothing is permanent from what I can tell. And even if I move someday, the plant can go on blooming, a marker, as it were, to my having passed this way.
Nobody expects me -- or anyone else -- to do it all. It's not necessary, for one thing. And it's not possible, for another. In fact, it's an ego trip to see oneself as imperatively central to any effort for social change. Or anything else, probably.
If I do whatever I can with whatever I have wherever I am, I'll be doing my share and that's all that's important. It's not about me, after all -- how I feel or what I do or even what others think of me or of what I do. It's what we do together that makes it possible for us all to survive and the grand unfolding of history to continue.