I heard there was a fat skunk, all white,
who waddled in the yard followed by two kits
the men called babies.
I heard about a pair of chipmunks and raccoons
that hung around the kitchen.
A hummingbird appeared one morning,
a gray-tailed hawk at noon,
and at night, feeding on mosquitoes, bats carved
dark curves in the darker sky.
In the concrete room without windows
where we held class, I was impressed the men all knew
each bird and animal the others mentioned.
They could pinpoint their location
in the prison they inhabited.
I recently visited my mother who lives not far from Beardstown, Illinois. Beardstown is the town I model Palmyra after in my first book. My mother still cannot understand why people in the town are not more enthusiastic about that book. My book is a little mean about the town. It neglects the kindnesses you find in any little town: people who love their families, who help their neighbors, people who have mostly lived their whole lives in one place and so they know that place in ways that other people, people who move here and there, can never know a location.
Beardstown had been a sundown town, a nigger don’t let the sun set on your head town. Ugly. I was fifteen when we moved there from South Carolina. I had never seen racism like I saw in that town. I could not understand how people living in an all white town and an all white county could even be racist. Who did they have to direct those feelings towards? In the south, we thought only southerners were racist. That is the lie the north tells. At any rate, I went back to visit last month.
I went to church in Beardstown with my mother. She said you can take Holy Communion even if you have not made Confession in thirty years and are in a state of mortal sin. Mexicans have moved to Beardstown now, and I was not surprised to see Latinos at church, but I was not prepared for the Africans. Somehow people from Togo have wound up in that little town on the Illinois River. They have black skin, beautiful clothes and speak French. The program was written in three languages and the choir sang African songs and played African music. I sat in church with white people, Africans and Latinos.
When I lived in Beardstown, three young black men came to town to work on the bridge but they got chased off. A girl at school told me her father used to go lynchings. I lived in the south all my life and no one ever bragged to me about such a thing. But things do change. Sometimes it seems to me like everything is going to hell, but that day I saw that it’s not. Everything is not going to hell. Some things are okay. Sometimes things change and they get better.
Tonight we went to a vigil to show support for the Muslim community. It was a candlelight vigil, but I didn’t take a candle. I said to Chuck, candles make me feel weak, and he said he knew. Instead of candles, he said, it seemed like we should hold flares.
When a woman risked her life to rescue Deogratias from a banana grove full of corpses during the genocide in Burundi, she told him Hutu or Tutsi didn’t matter to her. I’m a mother, she said. That’s my ethnicity.
My niece showed me a blog in which someone accuses her of being a “Swarthy Ethnic.” She is pretending to be white, the blogger says. He includes the photograph above, my niece in an ad for Powell’s Books, saying, ”Note above, at first you see the long blond tresses and think Swedish Girl! Nope! look closer, she is olive skinned, brown-eyed and belongs to the new group of Fake Blonds. It is not an accident Powell’s has a hispanic or polynesian with fake blond hair on the front page. I find it interesting that as White people are shut out by the Media and Corporate American, the Swarthy Ethnics have co-opted our exclusive hair color of blond.”
Brother! My niece is a blue-eyed pale-skinned German/Irish and, yes, Swedish girl. Although, really: so what?