This is What an Identity Looks Like continued
I felt right there, reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God which is set in Southwest Georgia. This was a landscape which I knew and when I say landscape, I mean people, I mean land, urban/rural difference, what we ate for dinner; the first landscape I lived in without the family which had raised me, though of course that family was with me and in me, but none of them had been inside this world. In the cadences and the people of Hurston’s novel, I, who in some ways belonged everywhere and belonged nowhere, was at home. I knew the place Southwest Georgia, not just the cotton and peanut fields, not just the wood houses whose walls might be papered with newspaper, not just the quilting frames handed down from one generation to the next, not just the feel of mixing biscuit dough by hand as Mrs. Odessa Mae Christian taught me, but I knew the language, the river of its cadence, the way the words came together to make a whole. And like the fluency of my childhood in Haiti, this is a fluency which would fade, but never disappear, as I aged.
When I read W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, I walked into a room where I felt at home and welcome. DuBois’s perceptions set off little firecrackers of I know this. His radical turn of mind and the ideas he revealed to me delighted me. It was the delight of finding the new inside the familiar, of learning something I’d known without realizing I knew it.
I felt as I read: That is me.
Of course, that casual That ignores almost everything: I am a white northerner (well, actually Jewish and because of that not raised to think of herself as white, a person who spent a formative childhood year as a white child in Haiti, a person raised by a chosen mother by affection —a music teacher who was the descendent of enslaved Africans, a child of a remarkable schoolhouse in Greenwich Village, child of two mothers in the 1940s and 1950s).
That That is a self-indulgence. My mother Eunice could say, self-indulgence, as if it were the most venal of sins.
The photo is a panorama shot of a coal camp, the small houses, the tracks for the trains to carry the coal out of the holler to the Kanawha River where it will be put on barges. The picture is black and white and gray, a composition which perfectly fits the frame. The photo's black and white quiet can not contain the life within.
McDowell County, WV, 1974:
The realtor had reluctantly brought my children's father, our two pre-school children, and me to the coal camp. He had driven us across an active creek and into the camp where, to our eyes, everything was lush and green. The creek made a whispery sound as we got out of the car. The children ran and capered.
"There are a lot of problems," the realtor said as we walked across the grassy yard and stepped up onto the side porch. With a skeleton key, he opened the door into the kitchen. I had a flash of how we would move here, our children would play with children here, my husband and I would come home from our jobs to this small, house. We would fill it with our and our children's things. We would make it our home, even if we weren't supposed to rent here.
"For one thing, the bank," the realtor said. On either side at the top of the stairs was a small bedroom with a sloping ceiling.
"But that can be ironed out?" my husband asked, and it is so odd, more than forty years later, to think there once was someone I called "my husband.” Someone whose last name I took.
The realtor in his trench coat looked out the small-paned second-floor window. "Sometimes it floods.Sometimes this entire bottom is below water." The children were trooping between rooms.
"But people can get out? when it floods?" my husband asked.
"And the trains," the realtor said. "They come by all times of the day and night. Make the houses shake."
"But, when it floods?" my husband persisted.
"You're stuck, until the water goes down. Can't get in or out, even an ambulance. And insurance," he said, "don't ask no insurance company to cover something in Elkhorn Bottom.”
I was getting my divorce in Boone County, W.V. The usual family judge was not present, so a substitute, whose field was not WV Family Law presided. There were four of us at the table: the substitute judge, the court secretary, my lawyer, and me. We got through the question of my former husband’s dower right in the $19,000 hilltop house my woman partner and I had bought, the custody plan which he and I had worked out. The divorce was a done deal when my lawyer said — an apparent after-thought — that I would like to return to my maiden name. WV law required a woman with minor children keep her married name until she took another man’s name. My lawyer asked to have the name change included in the court order granting the divorce. The substitute judge nodded. The court secretary, who as a Family Court regular knew this request defied family law cleared her throat and tried to catch the judge’s eye, but he sailed on and granted my request.
I returned to using Faith Spellman Holsaert. Social Security. Paychecks. Driver’s License. Oh, Happy Day. The one place I could not take back my old name was the US State Department. I could not get a passport in my real name.
1988. Through my long-time political friend and mentor Anne Braden, I’d become involved in the Rainbow Coalition. I was doing advance work in the Kentucky coalfields for Jesse Jackson’s visit as a presidential hopeful. I was driving long days from Huntington on the Western edge of WV, crossing over the Ohio and driving down the eastern edge of Kentucky to Hazard, with its honorable and bloody labor history. One dawn as I drove south in Kentucky beside a rock face, I passed a deer, running its heart out beside the road. As I kept up with traffic, it kept up with us, its black eyes bulging, until it finally dropped behind.
My friends Carl and Anne Braden had been attacked by HUAC in the 1950s; the Braden’s crime was that they, a white couple had, by pre-arrangement with a Black couple who were the Bradens’ friends, bought a house in a new white development and sold it to the Wades, the Black couple. This supposedly revealed the Braden’s Communist sympathies. The visit to Kentucky by HUAC had been a riotous circus of anti-communist fervor. The Bradens, journalists, were fired by the Louisville newspaper, run by the so-called liberal Bingham family. Their name became infamous, particularly among Kentucky white people, and it also became synonymous with political bravery in certain circles.
At the end of one particular day, I attended a night meeting. People sat in a circle on metal folding chairs, discussing the campaign and Jackson’s unprecedented visit.
At the end of the meeting, as I prepared for the long night drive back to WV, a Black man in his 50s or 60s stopped me. He was heavy set, with the marked hands of a man who worked hard for his living. He wore a plaid wool jacket. We spoke about Rev. Jackson for a few minutes. As he turned to go, he told me in weighted, low-voiced tones, “I been knowing the Bradens a long time.”
In those words, “I been knowing the Bradens…” I felt the coded message: that he was a man of a particular politics, that the Bradens’ infamy had not scared but had rather drawn him, and, to my exhausted mind, that he had recognized in me, a forty-something remnant of the Civil Rights Movement, that I was one of them, the people who had .. been knowing the Bradens a long time.
We had to leave West Virginia in 1991. She was the apple-cheeked woman who drove in from an outlying county in her four-wheel drive, hung her heavy denim jacket on a peg in the entrance. She was a big-time Faith H magnet. Still is. A crush in a life-time of unrequited crushes, I thought. She was married. Every morning, I looked to see if the denim jacket had been hung on its peg. She’s here. But unrequited it was not. She was the boss. Quel horreur, my long-deceased mother might have muttered in her grave: Faith in bed with management. Some of my bourgeois feminist friends at that work place had known I had a queer history and had, without my knowledge, outed me to her, only upping her fascination with me. It got ugly at work. Over many months, we each lost our jobs and in the course of that year, were invited to only two of my friends’ houses, I, the Queen of potlucks and political gatherings. Ostracized. Almost 50 years old, the economy beginning to go squishy, I would never have full-time work again.
We hadn’t been together long. I was the woman with the 1950s interracial family, the one with the Civil Rights Movement history. It was all new to her. It was exotic to her. We were recently moved from West Virginia to DC, moved closer to my SNCC history than I had been since the 1960s. We were new to the Lesbian Rap Group at Whitman Walker Clinic.The Rap Group met in a sub-basement with metal grates on the window. Sometimes it was so crowded that people crammed together on the floor. That room, that group, was the most diverse group I’d ever been in, , intergenerational, crossing race and class lines.
It was very heady to her. One night as the group was breaking up, someone said something and she said, loudly, bragging, showing off a bit that she knew me better than anyone: “Oh, Faith. She thinks she’s Black.” She had no idea what damning words they were. I knew some people in the room must be watching to see what I would do. I had to say, “I do not. Don’t you ever say that again.”
In the car driving home, she said, “What?”
“That is the worst thing a white person could think.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just don’t ever say it again.”
When Vicki and I began to travel out of the US in 2000, my passport name became an issue. Half the time I forgot my passport name was in my not-really name, once attempting to board a plane under the wrong name, for which there was no ticket. Luggage tags had to be written in my not-really name. Preparing to marry Vicki in 2013, I had to obtain a copy of my divorce decree. There it was: the judge’s order granting me the use of my original name. Within six weeks I received my passport, my way in and my way out, in my real, my given: Faith Spellman Holsaert.
We met at Beyu, on a Saturday for breakfast. which meant each of us was setting aside a Saturday pattern of family, errands, free time from the work week. Beyu describes itself as a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, and live jazz venue in downtown Durham. Beyu is owned and run by a Black businessman. Their coffee is good and the space, especially on a Saturday morning, is conducive to writing, internet surfing, or soul-searching conversations. Kifu and I barely knew one another, though we had been to some meetings and some poetry workshops together through Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind. We covered a bit of our growing up years, discovered funny moments of shared history. I spoke about my conversations with my friend Nia about organizing. I said I didn’t want to spend my time helping white people combat their racism.
“Maybe you need to spend some time thinking about that,” Kifu said crisply.
She has turned her rental inside out and upside down so that the house is the history of border crossing and domestic work and beds of love and oppression and burned candle ends and empty bottles, an entire book case of empty wine bottles. She has turned home on its ear. She has eliminated places to sleep or shower or shit. She has hauled in packing sisal and sand and pebbles. This is no longer a house. It is a place of transition and we move from room to room. She has been aided and abetted by Erin B, Jade, Catherine, and the skateboard kids who have gathered around midnight to drink and smoke and add to the work. Books stack up as tall as a woman against the walls of the inner passage, Malcolm X and Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis and broadsides and scraps of old political news and her pit bull tracks our movement. The cat sleeps in an altar in that picturesque curl-up cats do. Beings of shiny plastic sheeting and twigs and canvas daubed with paint for eyes and mouthes, and clothespins traveling up and down their bodies, rise from pools of living pansies and mirrors. An old fur coat hangs and there is lace and knotted ropes and bottles in the bedroom closet. The wise women converge, taller than I am red and black and green, altars upon and behind and in front of more altars. Open House, we are Harm Free Zone, SONG or Southerners on New Ground, the skate kids, Dismantling Racism, the man whose work appears at Pleiades Gallery, a reporter, family from NOLA, Erin B’s father who comes in from smoking in his car. And Shirlette.
She is out back, in the quilty travel trunk fabric spill of the Femme Cave for a while, then lounging in a chair under the towering magnolia. An Artist’s Talk in which she wants to know what we, the watchers, think. Nearby, a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, a flutter of pastel shimmer cloth in the branches. Her brown face shadowed by the tree, a tree which could have sheltered fugitives (and does), a few long leaves drape down in front of her face. Her mouth is cinnamon red. Her eye gleams in the shadow. Kai Lumumba Barrow. Durham.
Sometimes I refer to my partner Vicki and myself as “old ladies.” It started mostly as a joke, maybe after AARP sent each of us membership applications when we turned fifty.
At Falls Lake. I had survived cataract surgery and a MOHS scraping for skin cancer. It was a quiet late summer morning. The day before must have been a doozy: there were beach toys and orange life vests, including an elaborate flotation ring with the head of a dinosaur, scattered up and down the scalloped edge between water and beach.
I walked diagonally into the deeper water, enjoying the laughter of three small and boisterous boys, whose mother watched them from the shore. I walked to the far end and turned back. When I reached the three boys, one of them said, “Miss, can I play with this?” The floating dinosaur.
There were no other families in evidence. I said, “Sure.”
I turned to repeat my lap down and back, up to my shoulders in the water, swimming some of the time, walking some of the time.
The boys’ mother cried out to them in Spanish as I breast stroked toward the horizon.
The oldest answered. She sent off more questions. “It’s okay,” he said. More questions. “It’s okay, Mami. That old lady said I could.”
I breast stroked on, a few beats before it came to me: that old lady was me.