Here we gather with expectant hearts. Please grant us peace, strength, and favor as we gratefully embrace this chance to release our fears, and reveal our truths.
Little Rock was celebrating sixty years since the integration of Central High and somehow I found myself getting ready to escort local civil rights legend Annie Abrams to a private dinner for the Little Rock Nine. I struggled to keep my mouth from dropping open; being surrounded by so much Black excellence and history moved me to tears. I’m sure I was shaking somewhere on the inside when Minniejean Brown squeezed my hand, but that settled when she made eye contact. Her smile was soft and sweet. Terrance Roberts strode in tall and proud with a small caravan of loved ones shuffling around him. He was cheerful, always smiling; He didn’t hunch, his posture seemed deliberate. I caught a glimpse of Elizabeth Eckford through the crowd, the famous woman from the photo. She’s captured on September 4, 1957, with her notebook in her left hand, the other swinging gracefully beside her skirt. Three white women trail behind her, too close for comfort, even in a still shot. Hazel Bryan Massery, the woman screaming with her entire body, reached out to Eckford years later to apologize for her hateful behavior. They are still attempting to reconcile. The contrast between 15-year-old Elizabeth’s poise and the white women stomping around her is exquisite. Eckford is collected, though who knows what’s happening behind those sunglasses. Sixty years later, from across the room Eckford was smiling.
That night, Rodney S. Slater, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation under the Clinton Administration, and his wife Cassandra hosted a private dinner event to honor the Little Rock Nine and their continued efforts. Eight of the nine were invited to speak. Jefferson Thomas’s widow spoke in his place. During Gloria Ray Kalmark’s speech, it was as if two disparate planes collided. I barely learned about these people in my history books, but when I did they were distant and in black and white. Here they were fully formed, able to attest in some way to how far we’ve really come. That night, as Karlmark got up to speak she seemed small. Not frail, just small. Her voice shook and her hair was pulled back into a slick ponytail. She remembered her trigonometry class, where her peers had conspired to put nails onto her seat out of spite. She knew they were jealous, so she chose to stay seated and clench her lips to keep from screaming though the nails had pierced her deeply. Instead of daring to go to the bathroom by herself without protection, she chose to bear the pain until the end of the day. The pauses between her sentences were hollowed out by what we could not see. That day there was fire in her belly. The more she spoke, the more the fire snapped and popped, she began to move. She swayed behind the podium and stretched out her hands. We all stood and clapped vigorously.
Carlotta Lanier, the youngest of the nine but the first Black woman to graduate from Central High, said she had refused to speak about these things for thirty years. She left Arkansas and “found her oasis in Colorado.” Many members talked about being triggered after hearing their classmates’ stories at events similar to this, every 10 years. In response to Karlmark’s story Lanier said, “Listening [to Karlmark] just made me think of things that took place for me at that school. Things I had to overcome. But I was determined—once I got started in this—that there was something at the end of this rainbow. And at the end of this rainbow, there is hope. I needed that.” Her words were tender, but raw with intonation and the kind of truth you can only come to after have lived through something.
When I told some of my peers that I’d be escorting Mrs. Abrams to a few of the weekend events there was awkward silence. Some of the white progressives had voiced their intentions to disengage with the sixtieth anniversary events due to the current state of the political climate. “How can we celebrate integration and progress when this is the world we’re currently living in?” they asked. I was familiar with how much white people love to forget that this country has always been this way—or perhaps they just don’t have to know. Sixty years later, eight of the nine were still moving, marching, standing—still fighting, their words and experiences still relevant. Minniejean stood at the front of the room with her hands praising the sky shouting “Look how far we’ve come!” Still smiling, charging us with “this lifelong sentence” to fight long and hard for what’s right. Proud to be black. One by one they cried, and laughed, and screamed and told stories that made their voices quiver, their hands shake, and their eyes water as if it had just happened yesterday.
Because it still is happening.
When I started this writing the birds were singing. Now the sun has betrayed the sky and the moon moves in to sing its lonely lullabies.
The day had been full of endings for me. I sat on the edge of my bed and wondered if the reason I’m so drawn to my ancestors is because there is also something within me that is both part of and far away. Something veiled, hidden, buried. Something ancient in me that needs to be spoken to and learned from. An inner ghost.
I came home to myself after night class on a long ride down Arkansas’ finest highways with a few menthols and some of Kirk Franklin’s greatest hits. I struggled at first to find my note amongst the roar of the choir, as the altos do, and I was reminded of all the times I found myself in a room full of beautiful black strangers, bonding, recharging, loving, and spontaneously bursting into song. Suddenly I couldn’t feel like such a lost child for whom church was once a home and a parent. When I was two weeks old my single mother brought me to church. She handed me to a sweet evangelist couple who would later become my godparents and ran down the aisle to lay at the altar. She realized that despite society’s expectations of the Black woman, she couldn’t do it on her own. So she brought me to the place she knew we’d both be acknowledged and loved on when it seemed like no one else would, even our selves. But in the Pentecostal church, the cost was high. We were in somebody else’s hands now, and it became the pattern of my whole life. I’d place anything and everything in someone else’s hands for them to care for it while I wept. Only to lose all control over my things. I’d give greedy men my power in relationships. I’d give my voice to people who wanted to control my narrative. I’d give my time to people who didn’t value it. I’d give power to selfish people, narcissists. I’d give way more than I would ever see back. For most of my life the people in the church would take me under their wing and we’d sing. We’d sing songs about love, history, strength, faith, and power. Songs that we could put our feelings into—our hopes and dreams and frustrations. Songs that had been passed down for generations. To this day there’s nothing more remarkable than an old hymn or the sound of a choir, full and robust, dozens of people breaking through silence in a three-part harmony, pulling up the dead.
I had searched for weeks, and several calls later I found a Black woman therapist. Sometime before the anniversary dinner I sat across from her with my legs crossed while she wore the same smile, as always. We complimented each other on our new hairstyles and laughed some. It was lovely being seen that way. I knew that it wasn’t so much my rambling I was trusting her with, it was all that hangs silent in the exhales and the pauses. The things I only had silence for. We dug deep and traveled together through parts of myself I hadn’t seen much of before. Yet fear prevailed. Now that I knew I had control over what I do, why, how, when, and who I do it for, I had to make a choice. She looked at me and said, “Imagine you were in a burning building and there were a group of firefighters down at the bottom telling you they’d catch you. You know if you stay you’re gonna burn up and die. But there’s a chance, that if you jump, you’ll be okay. So why are you gonna stay where you know certain death awaits you, when there’s a chance that you could actually live?”
If you look hard enough, two long roads, two lights, two lines, two paths converge into one. It’s my understanding that this is perspective and distance. Furthermore, that the understanding of those concepts speaks to the existence of depth. Trying to maintain so many identities became unbearable and echoic. The cost of power became to high and I already had a stockpile of grief. I had been watching the red birds crowding my doorstep for months and waiting for something to happen. And in the space between one moment and the next, it became clear that my ancestors, my guides, are probably less concerned with freedom of the past for the future, than they are with freedom in the here and now. It was already bought; it didn’t need to be earned.
I came to love Annie Abrams, Arkansas native and civil rights activist, the first time we met. Whenever we talked I felt like I was transforming in real time, right in front of her. Around the same time things that used to be okay in my life were no longer. I couldn’t tolerate spaces, people, or social groups that fed my unhealthy beliefs and made me feel small. I didn’t like the way people spoke to me, the way they treated me, the things they got away with. I didn’t like that I cared so much. I was tired of having to defend every breath. The stress of starting graduate school eight months after receiving a bachelor’s degree compounded the culture shock of coming from progressive-subversive Southern California, where people in my community donned “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, Coexist bumper stickers, and where going to massive rallies on the weekends was becoming a trend, to Conway, Arkansas, where 61% of voters voted for Trump. “This is a life long sentence” Minniejean said, as if we had no choice. Even if it was true, I wanted my own peace. I showed up on Mrs. Abram’s porch for advice on a chilly Saturday afternoon a couple of months after the anniversary dinner. She chastised me for not wearing any stockings and told me that my toes would fall off. She’d been leading the community for over sixty years, fighting racism and injustice globally, nationally and locally every day for the better part of her life. I came to her in confusion, fear, and doubt which mostly translated into long silence and sentences that trail at the end. Language of values and mental health aside, I could no longer choose only parts of myself, especially if it meant choosing how I wanted to be rejected by my own community. I just wanted to make art and was in a desperate pursuit of justice. I do not remember all that I asked, I just remember the word “How?” flying out of my mouth over and over again. She listened intently and nodded with her hand draped across her mouth holding up her chin. After I spouted a string of statements and attempted to pose them as a question she said, “I see you’ve come here for instruction, so I’m going to tell you a story.”
“The old man down the road was known as fearfully wise, to be respected and revered. Two boys, looking to get into some trouble, decided to test how wise the old man really was by tricking him. They climbed a tree and grabbed a bird out of its nesting place. One of the boys said, ‘Take this bird and cover it in your hand. Then we’ll go ask the old man if the bird in your hand is dead or alive. If he says it’s dead, open up your hand and let it go. If he says it’s alive, crush it in your hand and kill it.’ So the boys set out to execute their plan. When they arrived the old man was sitting outside on his porch. One of the boys said ‘If you’re so wise, tell me if that bird in his hand is dead or alive.’ The old man chuckled and said, ‘Why should I? I cannot answer that for you. The answer is in your hand. You’re the one who has control.’
‘The answer is in your hand.’”
Once I had settled my mind, I went up to the place where my imagination could stretch—rise, fall, and burst into a million little lights shooting from the top of my head deep into the soles of my feet. I saw a woman grow 10x the size of the space she was given. I saw her dance, twirl, then turn into a splash of water flowing free and strong. I saw the horizon pulsing, and every time the waves rolled they’d release a pair of hands to the sky, then the sun would burst through the scene and carry it back into space where I danced in expanse, taking as much as I wanted to, reveling, living, in my finite nature.
When I settled down to play with the stars between my toes she crossed my mind. I wondered if I could find my ancestors here. In curiosity I called out to her in an airless void, into the place where the mothers gather. I was afraid of this desolate space and the dryness of the air. My chest rose and fell too rapid for stability. She was wrinkled in the face but young in the body. She came to me, nose to nose, mouth to mouth, and kept my gaze. I asked, trembling, “Is she kind?” The woman leaned back to resolve something in her spirit; there was space between us. And then, I saw myself. When she turned to resume her seat upon the chipped wooden steps of a simple but earnest house that had seen one too many storms within itself, the others began to appear. All waiting, watching, speaking in that way they do, with their mouths closed and nostrils full of air. The women found my eyes and I was full of questions. Yet the only thing I could manage with my words was a discernible question, “Are you tired?”
The women do not speak with their mouths, as I’ve said, but I felt the resolve within myself once more. The sound of generations breathing beneath your skin, the reason I knew she was here. I knew it within myself for a few moments before I said, “Please tell me, what it is. Tell me what it is so I can make it go away.”
And then one by one, the women left me. And I flew back out into the space. The stars wrapped themselves around me and carried me back down to myself.
Gabrielle Lawrence is a writer and editor. Even when she isn’t doing the most, she is still in the spirit of much. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Arkansas. Her writing can be found in Gravel Magazine, A Gathering Together journal, Words Apart Magazine, and others. Follow her @gabrielle__l on Twitter or Instagram.