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-
Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood memory. I was cycling with a male friend, through a small midwestern town. We came to a 4-way stop and stopped, chatting. As we started again, a rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign, hurricaned past scant inches from our front wheels. My partner called, "Hey, that was a 4-way stop!" The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe under his brand-name beer cap, looked back and yelled, "You fucking niggers!" And sped off. My friend and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We remounted our bikes and headed out of town. We were pedaling through a clear blue afternoon between two fields of almost-ripened wheat bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace when we heard an unmuffled motor, a honk-honking. We stopped, closed ranks, made fists. It was the same truck. It pulled over. A tall, very much in shape young white guy slid out: greasy jeans, homemade finger tattoos, probably a Marine Corps boot-camp footlockerful of martial arts techniques. "What did you say back there!" he shouted. My friend said, "I said it was a 4-way stop. You went through it." "And what did I say?" the white guy asked. "You said: 'You fucking niggers.'" The afternoon froze. "Well," said the white guy, shoving his hands into his pockets and pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot, "I just want to say I'm sorry." He climbed back into his truck and drove away.