Encounter with A Georgia Peach
On the Road
Notes from my Journey through the Heart of the New South
As I boarded the Grey Hound from the District of Columbia and departed from Richmond Virginia, the cradle of the old Confederacy and the home of Afro-American tennis great, US Army officer and sports historian Arthur Ashe, I was perchance seated on the coach beside a righteous elderly southern white woman from the old school of southern grace and charm. She had clear alabaster skin and her hair was a silvery gray; tucked in a bun like those stern 19th century Anglo-Saxon women who led the temperance movement. She introduced herself as Mrs. Crisler, and later informed me that she was a widow. And as I listened to her musical southern speech she soon began to inquire into the fate of my soul.
I wondered if there was something about my demeanor, unbeknownst to myself, that signaled to her that I was about to bust hell wide open should the bus crash and we suddenly departed this life. Perhaps it was the rakish angle that I wore my hat, or maybe she had peeped me blowing up some high grade “wisdom weed” – a gift from a righteous Rasta brethren in Washington – as I skulked about in the shadows during my rest stop in Richmond, the cradle of the old Confederacy, the first of many rests and rejuvenations through joy that I would make during my long journey on the big dog from New York City down to Baton Rouge Louisiana, a lovely lazy city sprawled along the Mississippi river, whose population had doubled since Katrina wrecked a million lives. Maybe I just looked too city slick to be a saved man, and she figured my soul was perched on a slippery slope. Whatever yardstick she was using to measure the depth of my Christian commitment, the lady sure pegged me right.
I quickly fessed up and frankly told her that my soul was on shaky ground, and as she began to tell me what would be required to get into heaven come judgment day when my soul is finally weighed in the balance, I began to feel like I was hanging over hell’s fire by an eyelash! Hence I listened carefully as she unfolded a blueprint explaining how I might mend my ways before the good lord ends my days. And she promised that if I followed her advice I might yet escape eternal damnation and come to rest in the bosom of the Lord. For this, she declared without a smidgeon of doubt, is why the savior died: to wash away our sins with his sacred blood. I had to concede that it was a heck of a tale, about how and why Jesus died on Calvary’s Cross, but she was such a true believer I could not bear to tell her that the story had long ago ceased to make any sense to me, or that the communion ritual where the believers symbolically ate the body and drank the blood of the Christ strikes me as a grotesque and barbaric act!
Ms Crisler, as it turns out, is a life long Georgian, a small town lady who lives close to the land and pulsates to its rhythms; she is also a true Christian soldier of the Pentecostal faith. She had a ready answer to all my questions about false prophets and fake Christians, with which I usually flagellate the proselytizers. When I questioned her about the professed commitment to the Lord by Satin’s minions such as Pat Robertson and George Bush, certain that I had presented her with an unanswerable conundrum, she remained cool as a cucumber and issued this unambiguous instruction: “Center your faith in Christ and follow his word.” And she assured me that if I did these things I would wind up in heaven at the end of days, even if I was the only one there. Never mind George Bush because like a tinkling cymbal and a crashing drum, lo his earthly powers were nothing beside the power of God. She warned that I had best be concerned with the fate of my own soul: “When your time comes you will only have to stand in judgment for yourself.” She admonished. It was such an inspirational message I almost wished I could believe it. For it would be truly an Amazing Grace that could save a wretch like me!
We chatted about the old South and the disappearance of the racially segregated system that we both had grown up under, she in Georgia and me in Florida, and agreed that we were glad to see it go. I reminded her that when I had left the south in 1959 we would never have been allowed to sit beside each other and carry on a conversation like two human beings created in the image of God. I told her that I hated the old south so much that it took me 35 years to return to my home! She seemed truly embarrassed and remorseful about the way southern whites had behaved in the bad old days of American Apartheid, when maintaining white supremacy was a sacred duty of every white person and the vaunted purity of white southern was a pretext for the murder of black men. After watching her squirm for a moment I decided to drop the subject. After all, white women in the old south had no more power than black men in relation to the tyranny of white men. Excepting whatever influence they could exercise as wives, mothers, sisters, and favored aunts. Like quite a few black women, they were sleeping with the enemy but their influence was limited.
As we continued to talk I discovered that she worked with the sick and elderly who are shut in. And when I discovered that she sang to them our conversation turned to sacred songs. When I asked her about the songs she sang, she said simply said: “I sing the old songs.” I took this to mean the traditional church music of the south, as opposed to a lot of these modern songs that you can’t tell from the Devils music. I could tell this because it’s the exact same way that I feel about the new So-called “Gospel” music; we can’t tell a lot of it from the Devil’s music! The more we discussed the music the more obvious it became that we had grown up singing out of the same hymn book. As we both recognized the songs the other had sang it became clear to me that the reason we had sung the same songs is because black and white southerners share the same culture, the same protestant values and beliefs.
Listening to Mrs. Crisler talk was just like listening to my Aunt Gussie, or my grandfather, George Benjamin, my father’s father, who was a righteous deacon in the Pentecostal church, a mighty servant of the Lord who gave generous tithes to his church. As we talked it became clear that a great part of the reason that black and white folks get along better in the south than the north today is because black and white northerners do not share a common culture. Northern whites are largely of immigrant stock of fairly recent origin. And furthermore English is not their first language, and most are not protestant Christians. For instance, in New York City, the largest metropolis in the world, most whites are either Catholics or Jews.
Thus the liturgy of their churches and synagogues are foreign to black Americans, who are virtually all Protestants and many are conservative fundamentalists. For instance, among the hymns that Mrs. Crisler knew and loved was “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Since I am fascinated at the paths through which different people find religion, and the ways in which religious ecstasy has inspired great art from Michael Angelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Mary Lou Williams, I told her the story of how professor Thomas A. Dorsey – a blues musician who was playing piano with Ma Rainey at the time – came to compose this sadly moving and beautiful sacred song upon learning that his wife and child had both died in childbirth. It is perhaps a tribute to the majesty of the human spirit that such beauty could come from such sadness. But I’m sure that Mrs. Crisler would see this as one of the many ways that God extends his grace to mankind. “All things work together for good to those who love God and are the called according to his purpose,” she said.
Professor Thomas Dorsey: Father Of Modern Gospel Music
With his protégé the great Mahalia Jackson
Since neither of us could sleep through the motion of the bus, we talked through the evening and I discovered that like my mother and grandmother she likes to preserve fruits and vegetables. And like my grand mother – my mother was too “nice/nasty” to play in sand – Mrs. Crisler has a green thumb and actually raises the vegetables she cans in her garden, although she confessed that she bought her peaches from farmers in South Carolina, and act of treason for a native daughter of the “peach state.” And like my grandmother Claudia Bellamy, who also played the piano and sang in church, she also grew flowers that her neighbors complimented her on.
After a rest stop in Charlotte North Carolina I took out my laptop to demonstrate how a computer works. Like my mother, Mrs. Crisler is somewhat leery of the computer – for which, like my sister Melba, I hold her computer literate sons responsible! - But I think having a computer and access to the internet can greatly expand the universe of our senior citizens. That’s why I seize upon every opportunity to introduce them to the magic of the personal computer. And in this case, because she is such a good speller and has a solid knowledge of English grammar, we ended up writing an essay together. Mrs. Crisler, a lively septuagenarian was, in every way, an ideal traveling companion. Although her attempt to win me for Christ has thus far proved futile, for if George Bush and Pat Robertson are men of Christ, I’m down with the Devil!
Since we had stayed up all night composing the first draft of the essay, we remained awake until she departed in the small town of Gainesville Georgia, where she had lived most of her life. As I watched her meet her ride, another proper southern lady whom I assumed was also a righteous servant of the lord, I speculated that Mrs. Crisler could not imagine the world from which I came, and I felt acutely the great divide in the country that is the inevitable result of our radically different world views. For while the north is aggressively secular, meaning they still believe in the Thomas Jefferson’s “firewall” between church and state, the south is a cauldron boiling over with religious passions that increasingly resembles the Islamic revival, with increasing numbers of people apparently longing for an American theocracy. That’s why Bush has been such a success down here with his simple minded messages about being born again, and advocating ludicrous measures like a Constitutional Amendment against Gay Marriage, both of which are highly improbable.