Return to the Table of Contents.
J U L Y 1 9 9 8
by Emily Hiestand
Discuss this article in the Community & Society forum of Post &
From the archives:
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea."
"They sang reluctantly, even on Sunday, the long and short metres of the hymn-books, always gladly yielding to the more potent excitement of their own 'spirituals.' By these they could sing themselves, as had their fathers before them ... into the sublime scenery of the Apocalypse."
HE school for the spirit is
everywhere and unofficial, but when I was a child, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in
the early 1950s, an awful lot of the formal spiritual education I received took
place in a room in a cinder-block building called the Annex -- a consecration of
folding chairs, library paste, and construction paper in assorted colors. In
that school we learned the Ten Commandments, and how to be a shepherd in the
Christmas pageant. We learned a phrase I have not forgotten -- "the still, small
voice" -- and we learned hymns. Each week one or two children were asked to
select the hymns for the children's service.
One week a timid towheaded boy sat by my side as we leafed through wafer-thin pages, and I chose "Wasn't That a Mighty Day," "Wade in the Water," and "Go Down, Moses." The hymn numbers were chalked on the board (we gave just the numbers, not the titles, to a teacher), there was a reading, and then we recited the prayer we were learning, being careful and proud to say, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," in the Presbyterian way, rather than "trespasses" and "those who trespass against us," as my Southern Baptist relatives did. The problems posed in a child's mind by the two phrasings, both individually and in comparison (bankers? property lines?), are a detour of too great a magnitude to entertain here. When the time came to sing, we opened our hymnals to the numbers on the board. We sang the first song and were turning to the second when one of the teachers suddenly halted the proceedings, searched our faces, and asked, "Who chose these hymns?"
The tone of the question was not admiring and not entirely accusatory either. It was not at all easy to interpret. The timid boy and I must have looked the most miserable of the miserable, for the teacher's eyes came to rest on us. I had not abandoned a slight hope that we were being singled out for praise, but after I had been identified as the active agent, I merely received a long, hard look. Those were the days when a look was still a full player in the house of manners. The teacher then selected other hymns (dull ones), and the morning went on in an ordinary way until we were released to run to our parents, in the fellowship hall of the church proper, where we squirmed until they finally stopped socializing and I could race to the family car, be driven home, take off my fancy clothes, and at last, over my mother's chicken and dumplings, and then the Knoxville News-Sentinel,return to the regular world. But I was changed.
For the rest of that day I hoped by mimicking normalcy to paper over the gulf that had opened between myself and society. I had chosen bad hymns. Or not bad, exactly, because what would they be doing in the hymnal in the first place if they weren't good? Adults often gave a reason, however tenuous, for their rules: "Look both ways, because a car might be coming." "Eat your flan, because your mother made it specially." But no explanation was offered for why we should not want to sing what were then called Negro spirituals. I grasped that the matter, whatever it was, was not theological but rather a social nuance, and I suspected that it had to do with the spine-tingling quality of my chosen hymns -- songs that were stately and high-toned with longing and sorrow, and also, curiously, with far more happiness than could be found in the regular grizzled psalmodies.
There was a good deal about the situation that a seven-year-old could not grasp. Most citizens of our town had come from other regions of the country -- and even from other countries -- to distill uranium and do atomic research. Oak Ridge was Atom City, hardly a typical southern town, and yet when Christine Barnes and I went to McCrory's five-and-dime, we passed two water fountains, one of them labeled with a hand-lettered cardboard sign. We had seen the Jim Crow sign for as long as we had been coming to the dime store, and we found it not exactly repulsive -- we didn't have the consciousness for that -- but in some way shabby. We didn't like it and we defied it. Many times Christine and I went to the "colored" water fountain and drank from it. Our act was a combination of scientific interest -- calmly testing to see what would happen to us or to the five-and-dime if this curious division was breached -- and a child's inborn antenna for the weak places in adult logic.
Tennessee in the early fifties was a segregated state, although the mountainous, hardscrabble communities of Appalachia had never been conducive to the plantation and sharecropping systems, and many of the black citizens of Oak Ridge had migrated from the Deep South to labor in the secret bomb factories. Blacks in Oak Ridge during the war years discovered one of the most intentionally segregated communities in the country; Manhattan Project officials had set up the town's housing and even commercial districts to conform with prevailing racial customs of the region. By the late 1940s scientists and religious leaders had begun to object. Oak Ridge was to send white pastors to Selma with books for black churches, and to desegregate its pools, movie houses, and restaurants more willingly, perhaps, than any other southern town. A group of white men in Oak Ridge guaranteed all their business to the first white barber to integrate his shop. Black and white women created a day-care center and swim programs. But progressive Oak Ridge was layered over existing racist structures, and during the 1950s African-American citizens lived and went to elementary school in a segregated part of town.
T was in this unusual town, in a border state, in my parents' music cabinet, that I first discovered black gospel: a handful of recordings tucked among Charlie Parker's "Bird of Paradise," the operas Turandotand Der Rosenkavalier,and, surprisingly, a single of Rudy Vallee singing "As Time Goes By." My younger brothers and I had a small portable record player for listening to translucent orange records of "The Little Engine That Could" and the terrifying "Tale of the Grasshopper and the Ants." But after we had been trained to place the needle on the empty band at the beginning of a record, we were allowed to use the adult phonograph -- quietly. Sitting on the floor with my back against the cabinet, I listened over and over to several thick 78s, mostly of Mahalia Jackson (accompanied by Mildred Falls) rendering the slow poetry of "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," and the flattened sevenths of "If You See My Savior." These were the compositions of Thomas A. Dorsey -- not Tommy Dorsey but the synthesizing genius first known as Georgia Tom, who superimposed blues tropes over religious hymns, migrated north to the steel mills, and began to create gospel blues at the Pilgrim Baptist Church of Chicago. Once I was a little older, I listened to the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, to the 1929 recording of Blind Willie Johnson singing his eerie, strangled "Let Your Light Shine on Me," and to the mighty sound that came from Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds.
I was listening, unawares, to recordings made in the wake of the success of the Mills Brothers -- gospel songs arranged in jazz, boogie, and blues styles that appealed to white as well as urban black audiences. Many years would pass before I found the independent-label recordings of a more rural gospel tradition, of early-Depression-era choirs, and of quartets from the black colleges singing "Get Right, Stay Right" and "I'm in a Strange Land."
Meanwhile, the few records I did know spun on the felt cushion of the record player in our living room, issuing the haunting, bent notes of the southern New World. As Mahalia went "sightseeing in Beulah," I sang with her, forgetting that my grandfather, a fine baritone, had declared, "Child, you cannot carry a tune in a basket." No matter: Mahalia and I had feasted with the Rose of Sharon, had been on speaking terms with the spirit. It was not only the words -- each one a physical fact, each one opened up, entered into, and walked around in -- but the majestic juice of the sound: the sweeping river of the woman's voice, bigger than any woman in our science town had ever allowed herself to sound, and the low, sweet solidity of the male voices. There was a moan at the center, but even so, long after the record went back into its cardboard sleeve there was gladness and buoyancy. It was a serious sound, and it also jumped. This was more than song, this was philosophy, for which children are always on the alert -- as they are for any evidence that adults are pleased to be alive.
O try to explain fully why one loves what one does seems not only fruitless but a little wrongheaded, on the order of dissection and with similar consequences. "Who chose these hymns?" The answer, needless to say, was that the music had chosen me, and mercifully I was yet too innocent to wonder whether I had any right to what was on that handful of 78s in my parents' music cabinet. By the time I had grasped the irony of my rhapsodizing to black gospel, and soon to the Delta blues of Son House and Robert Johnson, to the cri de coeur of Bessie Smith; by the time I understood that the absence of some dignities that I took for granted was one provocation for African-American lyrics -- by that time buses full of Freedom Riders were rolling south toward Anniston and Birmingham.
But that was still a little in the future. I was perhaps eight the summer in the early fifties when I sat one Sunday afternoon with relatives on a front porch in Alabama and saw a long line of black folks coming down the dusty red shoulder of the road beating tambourines, shouting and singing in a celebration unlike any I had ever witnessed in Atom City. "They've let out at Hurricane Baptist," my aunt Clara said. "Looks like somebody got saved this morning." I was ready to go to the road -- to follow along or to be closer, I didn't know -- but my aunts said, Oh, no, that would be tacky, impolite, and not done. (Tackiness was, I knew, in a way worse than wickedness, which is rooted in original sin and subject to forgiveness, because tackiness is something you ought to be able to avoid altogether.) "You stay right here on the porch," they said.
Most, but not all, of my Alabama relatives spoke respectfully of their black neighbors, with whom they shared a God, speech patterns, cuisine, Hurricane Creek, and the heat and wilting humidity. At that time my grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles were firmly embedded in the culture of segregation, but personally, in that curious, oft-remarked doubleness of the South, they were neighborly. They and their African-American neighbors had lived on adjacent lands for a long time, and their connection was real: collard greens, peanuts, tools, and sickbed courtesies were exchanged. A great-uncle did legal work gratis for his black neighbors, mostly routine matters; but once, his intervention with the court spared a man named Oscar Prince from an undeserved and hideous fate. Over the course of their lives many of my relatives traced the logic of their faith through to its radically beautiful conclusions. And yet we understood in the early fifties, sitting on a porch, going to a five-and-dime, singing in a Sunday school, that there existed some line, ill defined but strong, that was not to be crossed.
Most of a century has passed since W.E.B. Du Bois named that line and called it the problem of the twentieth century, but as the millennium arrives, the legacy of the color line is palpable in American life. One of the times that line is still deeply inscribed and observed is Sunday morning. That hour on a porch in Alabama was decades in the past when, nearing fifty and having lived in New England for twenty years, I woke up one cold winter morning ready to heed an old intuition.
HE Union Baptist Church, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sits between a U-Haul warehouse and a Shell service station. On Sundays its members may park in the lot of a defunct nightclub across the street. The church building is a handsome late-nineteenth-century structure, shingle-clad, with a tower that was once struck by lightning. The entrance doors are made of a honey-colored wood with a bas-relief cross on each panel. Inside, the congregation is busy this morning getting children into their small red robes and getting the four choirs of the Combined Choirs combined.
"Merry Christmas and welcome to Union!" calls a woman bustling across the foyer.
The sanctuary is up two flights of stairs, a great room with rows of turned maple columns that support a wide mezzanine and an organ loft. A rain forest of poinsettias stands on the altar, and high in the chancel wall a diamond-shaped stained-glass window refracts the low winter sun into a beam of light. Over the length of the service (services at Union seem to fly but run to two and a half hours easily) the beam will slowly scan the room, surrounding one person after another in a violet nimbus.
The house is filled this morning: perhaps 400 people are in the pews. I notice, of course, that 399 of us are chestnut- or chocolate-brown, or the color of café au lait or toffee, or blue-black, or ocher-brown -- the great spectrum of hue we improbably collapse into the single word "black" -- and I am the shade that the Japanese call pink, that graphic designers specify as PMS 475, a light beige improbably called "white." But I knew this would be so. And I confess that I, a lover of hats, am also noticing the hat line. I am one of the few women present not wearing a great hat. Except for weddings, funerals, and brief prayers in tiny, candle-lit chapels on Greek islands, this is my first morning inside a church in three decades. Hat envy is not the first feeling the prodigal wants to have upon her return, but there it is. I could be wearing a great hat too, I think -- and without one I feel incompletely dressed. A woman nearby wears a ruddy turban with a single saffron plume that moves gently in the air. A few rows ahead another woman is wearing a deep-red hat with a wide brim. It looks sedate -- until the wearer rises, revealing a small comet of solid rhinestone on the underbrim. An elderly woman wears a beret at the perfect Parisian angle. Here are African wraps; a Moroccan pillbox; hats with veils, netting, and beads; and a high-modernist hat that looks like the upswept roof of the terminal at Dulles Airport.
NUMBER of years have passed since that December celebration, and I have had cause to think in that great room about more than hats. Everyone knows that the black church in America is a rock and a beacon, and others are far more steeped in its ways and history, more qualified to speak of its nature, than a white woman whose beliefs do not rest within any one system. But surely people of any faith or ancestry may feel the moral fire that has moved in this church and others like it. And anyone may register the gravitas of its rooms. Anyone may notice that this church is a place of routine loveliness, an American place whose respect for elders, whose gloved ushers and afternoon collations, whose tradition of formal address and courtesy titles (Reverend, Deacon, Doctor, Brother, and Sister), are all elements in a honed artistry -- in the sheer comeliness of the community -- that is itself a form of sanctuary.
HE oldest women, the matriarchs of the church, are the first to extend a welcome, the first to ask my name, where I live, whether I am married. These women pat my hand, saying things like "Bless you, child, come back and see us." I'm more pleased than I can say, not only to be so graciously received, but also to observe a group of elderly women wielding their power to size someone up. During the first months I attend this church, my pew neighbor is most often Doris Callender. ("Miss," she corrects me when I say "Mrs. Callender" -- "I'm Miss.") Miss Doris Callender is a small woman who often wears a blue felt hat and always sits near a stained-glass window where, without eyeglasses, she follows Scripture in a tiny Bible printed in tiny type -- a text that is to my younger eyes only a blur.
Many mornings the message comes to me not only from the pulpit but also from Miss Callender, who has just turned eighty. I know because a notice of her birthday offering of eighty dollars was printed in the bulletin. "One for every year the Lord has given me," she told me. She is reserved but kindly, and one morning discreetly slips me a tissue when she sees me dabbing my eyes. When I thank her, she whispers, "That's what we're here for, to help each other," proposing an answer to life's most pressing question in nine soft words.
I sit next to Miss Callender and another elderly woman -- a widow I'll call Gladys Reed -- through April and May, and in June of that year a heat wave settles over New England. One sweltering Sunday the sanctuary is aflutter with paper fans donated by a local funeral home -- exactly the kind of fans that my great-aunts kept on their front porches and in their parlors, printed in over-the-top Maxfield Parrish colors and stapled to flat wooden sticks that resemble giant tongue depressors. The sermon is under way, and the room is growing warmer. As a young, white-gloved woman -- officially, an "usherette" -- passes our pew, Gladys Reed pantomimes that she requires a fan. The usherette whispers apologetically that the fans have run out, whereupon Mrs. Reed fixes her with a look. It is swift and momentary, and in another room it might not even be noticed. But here, where elders are treasured, are attended, the younger woman fully absorbs its meaning: an elder wants a fan right this minute. Scurrying, the usherette returns with an extra program that Mrs. Reed might use in lieu of a fan. My seatmate barely glances at it, dismissing the patently absurd idea of using a program as a fan. Next the top part of a fan is brought -- an old and battered cardboard lacking its wooden handle. Mrs. Reed sniffs, moving her hand in a minimalist gesture. Stricken, the usherette disappears. Ten, fifteen minutes pass, and the room grows warmer. And then the young woman reappears -- out of breath, clearly having left the church, driven many blocks to the funeral home, picked up new fans, driven back, raced inside and upstairs to the sanctuary, and hurried down the aisle to present Mrs. Reed with the first from a stack of new, whole fans. Mrs. Reed accepts the fan with the faintest of nods.
Emily Hiestand is a writer and an artist. Her essay in this issue will appear in Angela the Upside-Down Girl, to be published this month by Beacon Press.
Illustration by Robert Goldstrom
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Hymn; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 70 - 80.