When Why Appears
The Personal is Political, Post 4
On weeknights as Momma sat glued to the image of Walter Cronkite on the national TV news, I adopted the habit of pacing. I worried Daddy home
with my waiting by the window and appealed to the God of Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John to keep him safe. On most nights, the lights would eventually flash against the living room mirror, and the slam of a car door would have me scuttling into my bedroom in relief.
“He-LO-OH!” Daddy sang in tempo with the steps of his size 13 shoes
and the slap of the screen door. He went straight to disarm himself of the
tools of his trade and placed his gun, credentials, and sunglasses in a still life on his bedroom dresser.
When he did arrive home for our six o’clock dinners, Daddy would drop
slivers of stories that were designed either to make us laugh or shiver. One
night, he told us how he apprehended a draft dodger hiding in a bathtub
behind a shower curtain. On another, he divulged the tale of a suspicious man at a park who was caught offering children candy. Never were the stories about the Ku Klux Klan, whom he surveilled in the middle of the night, or the Black civil rights workers on whom the F.B.I. spied. He was on the trails of someones or somethings over the course of many early morning departures and missed dinners when he was, in his words, “on a case.” When he was home, Daddy’s favorite spot was in his recliner behind the daily editions of the Clarksdale and Memphis newspapers.
After Daddy left for work or was busy with yard chores, I took to
scanning the day-old Commercial Appeal for headlines, photographs, and
answers. The Vietnam War, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, civil rights stories, and LSD suicides were all divulged in conservative style.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, seventy short miles from Clarksdale, headlined the newspaper’s front page on April 5, 1968. I didn’t understand everything I read, but in the published photographs of Reverend King’s funeral, I saw the pain in Coretta Scott King’s face and wondered what it would be like to be one of the children of a man who was killed because he was hated for the color of his skin.
Something hollowed in my heart when the adult voices around me fell silent. As far as I understood it, the White community in Clarksdale, my parents included, shed no tears at the loss of Dr. King. Why?
A new day dawned when I realized there were questions I had never thought to ask. Sudden power inhabited the words What if, Why, and How. Like magic, questions became balloons, kites, sails, geese, sky things. Upward I sent them, secret prayers from a girl finding a way to make contact with all she didn’t know.
Reflection: Think about the “why” moments in your childhood. How did they shape you?
Read The Personal is Political series, Post 1, Post 2, and Post 3, for the fuller context of this story.