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I was a revolutionary, p.11

I Was a Revolutionary, page 11


I Was a Revolutionary

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  “Lay off,” he said, shaking me away. He wasn’t but a sophomore and thought he already knew all there was. He said he was staying right there, and I told him he best get his black ass outside.

  “Chill, Petal,” one of the freaks said, setting his hand on my shoulder. He was wearing sunglasses with no lenses and his shirt was opened to his belly button. “We’re rapping.”

  I put my palm right into that hairless chest and pushed him back against the locker.

  “You best not lay hands on me again.”

  He formed his hand into a peace sign, said he was a pacifist.

  “Better go with your sister, Bug,” the other one said, looking just as crazy-minded as the other. Overalls with no shirt underneath, an American flag tied around his waist.

  “Bug?” I said. “What he mean by that?” It was the first time I’d heard his nickname, the name his friends called him, the name he’d go by up until the day he disappeared a decade later after leaving a commune in Colorado, never to be seen again. Every once in a while I’ll bump into one of the old heads here in Lawrence—they’re all respectable lawyers or bankers now—and they’ll ask about him. “Any word from Bug? He ever turn up? I bet he’s still out there.”

  “It’s what they call me,” my brother said with a shrug.

  I pointed at the one in overalls.

  “His name is Brian.”

  He thought on that a long moment, biting his lip as if in deep contemplation, and said, “I can accept that.”

  We ran to catch up to the walkout, Brian dragging his big feet the whole way. We joined the group just as they made it outside the main entrance of school. I was standing next to Rodney and he took hold of my hand. We turned around and what a sight that was. All those white faces in schoolroom windows, wondering what the hell we were up to. A few teachers had come outside, asking what was going on. We said nothing, turned, and marched to the community center, where Honeyboy waited.

  Later that night, when we got home, word had spread.

  “You better have an explanation,” Mother said. “The school has been calling all afternoon.”

  Brian gave her a quick kiss to the cheek as he brushed past her and disappeared into his room. A few seconds later the metallic sound of rock and roll behind his closed door. She turned to me: “Well?” I tried to explain to her what we were doing. She’d been at the meeting the previous spring. She knew the problems at the high school and had come out in support.

  “They ain’t done nothing for us since May, Mama,” I said.

  “I am your mother, not your mama.”

  “They buy a few books and hire a part-time colored counselor and expect us to go back to the fields?”

  “Would you listen to yourself?”

  “We done asking for things. We taking them!”

  “How can you expect to be taken seriously when you sound like—”

  “Like what? Sound black?”

  “Ineloquent,” she said. “You’re acting ignorant, Petal.”

  “Which one of us acting?”

  Mother had her education and saw to it that her children did too, but oh how our affectations nettled each other.

  “You need to be smarter than them,” she said. She paused, sat down on the couch. She had an unsettling way of remaining composed at all times, and her only tell at that moment was the way she ran her hand over the lace stitching in the couch’s pink floral pattern. “Progress is made through thoughtful, patient work—not through rash decision-making. Not through coercion. Look what we did with the swimming pool.”

  For a decade she’d been part of various groups trying to integrate private pools, so we’d have somewhere to swim in the summer. When that failed, they fought to have ballot measures introduced that would create a municipal swimming pool. It was voted down in ’56, ’61, and ’63, but had finally passed the previous year. That was how change happened, she said. That’s the thing. It wasn’t that Mother accepted the way things were. She’d been involved, had taken me to marches since I was little. She knew things at LHS were rotten for us. What we were really debating that night in the front room was strategy, but I couldn’t see that, couldn’t see her reticence as anything but betrayal.

  “You know they call it ‘coon lagoon,’ don’t you?” I shook my head: “Crumbs.”


  “The white man drops crumbs and you stoop to pick them up and say thank you.”

  “Don’t sharpen your tone with me, Petal.”

  But I was too worked up. I could hear it in my own voice: Honeyboy’s words, his inflection.

  “Grateful to be a nigger.”

  She rose slowly from the couch.

  “You see what that done to Daddy. Sitting in a room by hisself in Topeka.”

  Mother was looking at the floor, as if she weren’t listening to a word I was saying.

  “To be black the way they want us to be in this country can’t help but make you crazy. Something wrong with you if you ain’t!”

  The force of her slap sent me backward, the shock of it—Mother had never laid a hand on me—made me crouch and, despite myself, cry. She didn’t say anything, just turned and calmly walked away. I heard the creak of the staircase and then the slow clack of her heels on the wooden floor upstairs as she made her way to the bedroom and quietly shut the door behind her.

  I snuck out that night, made my way to Rodney’s house across town. It was unusually warm that September and I began to perspire. When I arrived, I tapped on Rodney’s window and a few moments later he opened it as he held a finger to his lips. He listened hard for a few seconds to hear if anyone had stirred and then hoisted me up into his room. I was still worked up hotter than hell and whispered all sorts of familial blasphemies to poor Rodney. I called my very own mother a high-yellow bitch. I called Brian a cracker-lover. I called Daddy a mad Uncle Tom. Shame on me. I resented my mother’s skin, her intelligence. I resented her comportment, her gradualism. I resented her privilege, which I’d enjoyed and benefitted from because her father and grandfather had managed the near impossible: to become successful businessmen in Kansas City at a time when colored folk were lucky to find work as a bootblack. I resented that we had a nice house and white neighbors. Why didn’t we live with our people on the east side of town? I was a wet-faced, angry mess, and Rodney held me until it was out of my system, my eyes sore and my throat strained.

  I took the long way home that night, walking down Massachusetts Street, looking in store windows. I stopped when I came to Stoughton’s appliance store. It was dark, only the faint glow of a light left on in a back room. Daddy had once worked there when I was young. I tried to imagine him standing behind the register or carrying something to a customer’s car. I saw him smiling at the customer, a white man in a camel topcoat and feathered hat. “Yes, sir. You’re welcome. Thank you, sir.”

  The next morning I made my way to Veteran’s Park, where we had agreed to set up our own black school, right across the street from LHS. Rodney called it symbolic, Honeyboy called it revolutionary. We set up tables and chairs, a tent. By this time word had spread about our alternative school and black people showed up to hold signs, show support, to teach classes on the stories and history excised from our regular schoolbooks. The park was humming. There were reporters covering the story, asking questions about our demands. “But Principal Medley says you have a colored teacher at LHS,” one of them said.

  Rodney responded, “He’s a Negro. He’s not black. There’s a difference.”

  We would all return to school in the coming days, satisfied with having made our point. The administration would meet some of our demands. We’d have black cheerleaders. Rodney and I were seniors. We would graduate and go to KU the following year and join the Black Student Union. In two years Rodney would be shot as he fled from the police. In ten Brian would disappear. In thirteen Daddy would pass away, still in the sanitarium. Those beautiful men: dead, vanished, or insane. And then there would be only me and Mother.

/>   She showed up that day in Veteran’s Park. I first saw her standing at the periphery, on the sidewalk, dressed up in a way that embarrassed me at the time. I was still smarting from the previous night and we didn’t speak, but we stood close enough to eavesdrop on what the other was saying. This was how we sometimes communicated. Honeyboy approached her. “Verna, thank you for coming.”

  “My name is Mrs. Johnson,” she said.

  Honeyboy seemed to know Mother didn’t care for him, and he let go a little nervous laugh. “Of course, Mrs. Johnson,” he said, adding, “ma’am.”

  “I heard you need teachers,” she said, and he led her to a group of people, some sitting in chairs, some sitting on the grass, all waiting to hear her speak.


  [It Just So Happens You Have Many Concerns, 1961]

  The pleasant sound of two fresh inches of snow crunching under the slow spin of your tires on a January morning. It’s too cold to make them walk, so you’ve dropped Petal and Brian at school and now you make your way to the doctor. You don’t take the most direct route. You have a few minutes, so you take the Oldsmobile to the north end of Massachusetts Street, near the Kaw River, and turn south. The lampposts wear the newly fallen snow like stoles. There are red-and-white bows on street-corner signs, holly wreaths in storefront windows, and unlit Christmas lights still snake through the trees, though it is the middle of January.

  Tonight you will watch the Kansas President’s Farewell Address with a group you’ve come to be acquainted with. This group, the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy, gets together to discuss, debate, and propose plans for furthering equality in Lawrence. It is intended to be an interracial gathering of like-minded folks from the university and the town, but it is mostly white faculty members and their wives, a few forward-thinking folks from local church groups. You are one of two Negroes—sometimes three, when Sherelle can get off from work—and there is one Oriental from the Chemistry Department. Recently your work has been focused on integrating swimming pools. The previous summer you picketed the Plunge, a private swim club that doesn’t admit Negroes. Unsuccessful, the demonstration was denounced as a Communist plot by the Lawrence Committee for a Free America and the Save America from Communism Council. Everyone belongs to a group, a society, a committee, a council, and yours will now turn its attention toward generating funds for an integrated city pool.

  But you’re not thinking of that now. For now you are concerned with keeping the appointment you’ve scheduled, so you continue south on Massachusetts, past the candy-cane swirl of barbershops, past Raney’s Drugstore, past Weaver’s department store. You still can’t pass Stoughton’s without looking in, half expecting to see Tommy.

  At the doctor’s office, you take off your long, winter fur and sling it over your arm. You draw stares from the white girls in reception, the white patients in the waiting room. “Verna Johnson,” you say and fill out paperwork, as instructed. You take a seat and rest your small purse on your lap, resisting the urge to itch the spot where the nylon under your mint-colored dress has snagged a rogue hair. You will not scratch under their collective gaze. When he calls you back—a silver-haired man, whose indulgence of bay rum overpowers even the anesthetized nothing-smell of the medical office—he takes you to a small room near the back. It doesn’t say COLORED on the door, but you know this is where he takes the few Negro patients he has. Not many can afford private treatment. Daughter of a well-to-do real estate executive in Kansas City who has made his father’s business profitable by managing to sell homes in redlined white-fled neighborhoods, you can.

  He looks at your chart, and though it says why you’ve come, he asks anyway. When you tell him, he asks if you’re married.

  “Yes,” you say, which is true, though sometimes you tell people you will never see again that your husband has passed away.

  “May I ask why you would like oral contraception?”

  He seems to know he’s being inappropriate. He closes the chart but quickly opens it back up, feigning a second glance at something he might have misread. It would be easy enough to say that you and your husband have two children and two children is all you desire to have, but you don’t. You cannot tell him the truth, which is that you’ve not made love to your husband in eight years; which is that you’re seeing one of the men from the group you’ll be attending tonight. You cannot tell him that this man is white, nor that he is married to a woman who also attends the group and with whom you are friendly. You cannot tell him that this man was a professor of yours years ago at KU and that the affair started before Tommy went to Topeka. You cannot tell him any of this, and your privilege allows you to know you don’t have to, and you tell him so.

  Though he has been allowed to for over a year, your doctor is hesitant to prescribe the Pill, believing that it encourages promiscuity. But he has a bigger concern: population growth. The figures are staggering and sometimes he finds himself awakened in the middle of the night by the image of a planet shrinking until it is the size of a marble residing in the bellybutton of a pregnant woman. He does not subscribe to the eugenicist theories of his medical forebears, but the numbers don’t lie. Higher birthrates in racial minorities meant more children born into poverty, which meant the need for more social services, which meant more government involvement and higher taxes, all of which were minor nuisances that distracted from the real overarching problem: the finite supply of necessary resources to keep the species alive.

  You don’t know that he’s considering all of this in the long silence that has come between the two of you before he relents, writes the prescription, and retreats to an empty adjacent room to wash his hands before seeing his next patient. Right now you are struck by the certain fear that he knows you’re sleeping with a married white man.

  Neither of you knows the complexities of the other.

  You have poor kin in Mississippi who were sterilized without their consent or knowledge, who have wondered aloud why God won’t bless them with a child as He has you, and many years from now, when the duplicity is revealed and thousands of folks begin the long process of seeking legal recourse, you will recall the silence in this office, on this day in January, when there was new snow on the ground and President Eisenhower, Ike from Abilene, Kansas, was to give his farewell address.

  [The Leastest, 1970]

  We. We live on the Farm. We snort and smoke and drink and fuck. We inject things meant for barnyard animals. Cow speed! Tranquilizers! We make a living selling shitty ragweed to dealers in Florida who use it to cut the good stuff that comes up from South America. K-pot, ditch weed! Which grows wild in the fields outside of Lawrence, brought here in the hooves of Texas steer in the days of the old cattle drives. We’re on the Silk Road for drugs, the meeting place of every east-west/north-south drug runner. Baghdad on the Kaw. Highway 40 SDS. We are the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers! We are from towns most have never heard of—Coats, Seneca, Sublette, Holcomb—and we’ve dropped out of school and landed in communes and stash houses in and around Lawrence, which is burning, burning, burning. This is the summer the cops have killed Rodney Burnside, and three nights later they shot that white kid outside the Gaslight. Now there are fires every night, bombs, arson, snipers in windows shooting cop cars. People are arming themselves: the Panthers in east Lawrence, the Lawrence Liberation Front in Oread, the Klan and the Minutemen at the police station, scared citizens in their homes, clutching shotguns. Everyone is on edge, and we want only to roll the fattest jay and exhale a mushroom cloud on the city, but right now there is little interest in drugs. Right now the market has spoken and people want guns, and so we will deliver weapons we have no clue how to use.

  The cache arrives in the trunk of a green ’62 Skylark, driven by bleary-eyed Weathermen who’ve been driving for twenty hours straight, headed for a meeting in California. Two dykes. They’ve been put in touch with us by a guy who knows a guy who once scribbled the address of the Farm on a piece of paper and then swallowed that piece of paper.
We direct them to pull around back so their car stays out of sight from the road. We watch them unload the package and switch license plates. We are to run the guns to the Panthers, who will hand us an envelope of money. They want us to go now, but Lawrence is under curfew. It’s too hot, we tell them. We’ll go in the morning. “Don’t double-cross us, or we’ll blow this place to fuck,” they say, and we nod.

  “Wouldn’t dream of it,” we say. “We’re on your side.” They look us up and down and tell us that we are not on their side. They are not a chatty pair. When they speak, it’s mostly to tell us about the big meeting in California they can’t tell us anything about. They do not partake of the spliff we pass. They ask us if we’ve read Lenin and we say we are the walrus. They are not amused. We are lost causes, at best human shields for a future bank expropriation. They will allow themselves a bowl of hippie gruel, three hours of sleep, and nothing more before they resume driving. They tell us when we wake they will be gone and we will forget their faces and the make of their car. “If I hear from the Panthers that you didn’t deliver the package,” says the one who looks uncannily like John Brown, “I’ll personally come back and blow this place sky high. You won’t even know it’s coming.”

  If it must be so, we tell them, we’d prefer not to know it’s coming.

  The other one is also thin but with blond hair that looks to have been dyed even blonder. She is, in fact, blonde on blonde. Is that what Dylan meant? We’ll debate this later when the dykes have gone to bed, tripping outside under the lonesome stars. She looks at me and asks, “Why aren’t you a Panther?”

  I rise from my chair quickly, muster a straight-faced anger.

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