In Poetry, Race on February 26, 2013 at 1:16 am



In the Sunday school class for 8-year old boys

at the big church in downtown Dallas,

the teacher, his hand on the Bible

lying open in his lap, suddenly declares:

Watch out for niggers.

They’ll push you off the sidewalk.

This lesson countering everything I’d ever seen

went home with me that Sunday, but

there was no one to talk with about his words

because my mother had died

and no substitute would do.

From around this same time, 1939 or ‘40,

I received another far more vivid lesson

on a rare day of snow in Dallas.

When school let out that afternoon we all

were pummeling one another with snowballs.

Soon my red, red hands were aching so

that I left for the half-mile trek home,

crying, crying, crying with pain.

At Gaston Avenue, a black woman,

who must have been a maid from one

of the big houses nearby, was waiting for a bus.

What’s the matter, boy? Come here, she called.

Rubbing my hands vigorously in hers

and looking me right in the eye, she said,

Listen. I’m going to tell you something.

When you get home put your hands

in cold water and rub them together

till the pain’s all gone.

She paused to let me take it in.

Did you hear what I said?

Repeat it back to me.

I repeated every word.

I didn’t say hot water, did I?

No, you said cold.

You won’t forget what I said, will you?

No, I won’t forget.

Ten minutes later, her voice echoing in my ear,

I rubbed my hands in the stream

of cold water till all the pain was gone.

I never saw her again.



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