It's the ragged source of memory, a tarpaper-shingled bungalow whose floors tilt toward the porch, whose back yard ends abruptly in a weedy ravine. Nothing special: a chain of three bedrooms and a long side porch turned parlor where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked every evening over the news, a long sunny kitchen where Annie, his wife, measured cornmeal, dreaming through the window across the ravine and up to Shelby Hill where she had borne their spirited, high-yellow brood. In the middle bedroom's hard, high antique double bed, the ghost of Aunt Jane, the laundress who bought the house in 1872, though I call with all my voices, does not appear. Nor does Pomp's ghost, with whom one of my cousins believes she once had a long and intimate unspoken midnight talk. He told her, though they'd never met, that he loved her; promised her raw widowhood would heal without leaving a scar. The conveniences in an enclosed corner of the slant-floored back side porch were the first indoor plumbing in town. Aunt Jane put them in, incurring the wrath of the woman who lived in the big house next door. Aunt Jane left the house to Annie, whose mother she had known as a slave on the plantation, so Annie and Pomp could move their children into town, down off Shelby Hill. My grandmother, her brother, and five sisters watched their faces change slowly in the oval mirror on the wall outside the door into teachers' faces, golden with respect. Here Geneva, the randy sister, damned their colleges, daubing her quicksilver breasts with gifts of perfume. As much as love, as much as a visit to the grave of a known ancestor, the homeplace moves me not to silence but the righteous, praise Jesus song: Oh, catfish and turnip greens, hot-water cornbread and grits. Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles; generations lost to be found, to be found.
Marilyn Nelson - 1946-
The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows; only their children feel the holy ghost that makes them jerk and bobble and almost destroys the pious atmosphere for those whose reverence bows their backs as if in work. The congregation sits, or stands to sing, or chants the dusty creeds automaton. Their voices drone like engines, on and on, and they remain untouched by everything; confession, praise, or likewise, giving thanks. The organ that they saved years to afford repeats the Sunday rhythms song by song, slow lips recite the credo, smother yawns, and ask forgiveness for being so bored. I, too, am wavering on the edge of sleep, and ask myself again why I have come to probe the ruins of this dying cult. I come bearing the cancer of my doubt as superstitious suffering women come to touch the magic hem of a saint's robe. Yet this has served two centuries of men as more than superstitious cant; they died believing simply. Women, satisfied that this was truth, were racked and burned with them for empty words we moderns merely chant. We sing a spiritual as the last song, and we are moved by a peculiar grace that settles a new aura on the place. This simple melody, though sung all wrong, captures exactly what I think is faith. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That slaves should suffer in his agony! That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy nevertheless was by these slaves ignored as they pitied the poor body of Christ! Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, that they believe most, who so much have lost. To be a Christian one must bear a cross. I think belief is given to the simple as recompense for what they do not know. I sit alone, tormented in my heart by fighting angels, one group black, one white. The victory is uncertain, but tonight I'll lie awake again, and try to start finding the black way back to what we've lost.