In Julie Dash’s film “Daughters of the Dust,” the women process indigo in the same fashion as their ancestors on St. Helena’s island. Nana Peazant, the family matriarch, works the indigo to the point where her hands are permanently dyed blue.
The Peazant women wear two colors: indigo to represent the past and white to represent the future. Slavery and freedom. Where there is indigo, there is also white. One color is never far from the other.
When I saw this film back in 1991, I saw a family fighting to move forward and preserve traditions. But more than anything, I saw my blues on screen. When I get blue or sad, it’s deep and varied, as muddled and rich as the dye that bleeds from the indigo plant.
I have indigo days.
In the film, the history of processing the indigo is a source of shame and pride. The 20th century was dawning and the women of the family were caught between old ways and new possibilities. Indigo and island life would always be wedded to another with no room for the future to take hold. But here’s the thing about indigo: it stains. Indigo stains everything it touches. If you get near it you will be marked.
And do it is with my indigo days.
I try to avoid the indigos, even when I know they will overtake me. The harder I try to avoid the stain of indigo days, the more permanent the pigment. Most times, I give in. It’s just too hard to fight. I take to my bed and sleep, which only delays the indigo reaching into my skin. It is then that I choose to stay awake and sit under my indigo sky.
I have learned to mask the indigo days when I have to go to work or be in public. I lower my voice, smile, wear bright colors. If my indigo leaks, my students think they’ve done something to deserve my dour attitude. I don’t correct them. It’s too hard to tell the truth. My indigo is my business and, if I let it show too much at work or even at the grocery store, I might succumb to the stain forever.
On indigo days, I avoid mirrors. This is quite a trick since I need a mirror to put my makeup on. I don’t want to look at myself, for I know I’ll see traces of blue under my skin and trickling out of my ears.
When I catch my reflection, I wonder if people can see the indigo. Anyone who really knows me can see that some kind of cloud is threatening to choke me. Am I pulling it off, this master trick of looking just fine? Would anyone believe that I am one step away from full on madness? Yet, here’s the thing about life in the 21st century: most co-workers are work friends. They don’t know you as well as they pretend to. Social media has taken the place of staying in contact is your real friends, so even they don’t get to look into your eyes or have a reason to hear your voice on a simple phone call. And if you live alone, well, you can choose to deny your indigo to the mirrors but the walls that hold you and the floor that supports you, yeah, they know you have the indigos.
Most times, the indigo clouds leave. The sun comes out and there is nary a trace of the indigos. Sometimes I wonder if I dreamed about the depth of the indigos: how close did they come to my skin? How could I be stained one day and clean the next?
It is, to me, the profundity of the indigos. The existence of whites and indigos at the same time, warring for the same space. Sometimes freedom wins, flashing her gauzy feminine fabric in victory. Great clouds of white fabric, like the skirts of the Peazant women, obscure all doubt about indigo. The ocean wind picks up the fabric, snapping it like sheets on a clothes line on a summer day.
Nana Peazant, like the indigo she wears and bears, will not go away. She is standing in the shade, waiting for the sun to go down. Waiting her turn to turn my days blue again.
She takes your free time, of which you have so little, and clogs it up with horrendous sadness. She does not take lightly to other suitors, like your job or your health. She won’t even let you drive your car one stupid mile without making you forget where you are going.
Like most jealous bitches, grief comes in a huff and leaves without warning.
Just as grief exits the stage, in her place comes mourning. She’s the quiet, older auntie who sits in the corner. Don’t mind me. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll sit here a while.
And so she does.
I grieved Linda’s passing when she was alive. Every time she was hospitalized, I grieved. When she was not deemed sick enough for a liver transplant, a hymn would rise in me. And when she was taken off the transplant list because of other compounding illnesses, I started to grieve all the more.
Our last phone call felt like church. Crying in an aching sort of way, the kind that makes your heart crease. Thanking God for his goodness and mercy, saying I love you, assuring each other that it—this life and the one after—would be all right. Yes, indeedy, it was church. His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me. My lord…
A church is where I planned to be on March 4, the day set aside for her memorial at the historic San Fernando Mission Church in Los Angeles, California. My plan was to find a Catholic church as lovely as the Mission Church so that I could say my goodbyes in God’s house.
The things is, I’m not Catholic. I was going to go to the church around the corner but it has all the charm of a 7-Eleven. My next plan was to stop in at the largest Catholic church in Hartford. It’s gorgeous and Linda would have liked it. But churches don’t stay open all day like they used to and all I wanted to do was to spend a few quiet minutes in prayer, maybe light a candle, most certainly cry in peace.
Instead of the sanctity of a Catholic church, I went to the next best church that I know Linda would have loved: Ulta.
Beauty geeks know that if you need to get your makeup fix, you go to Sephora or Ulta. Sephora can be moody with all the black lacquer and techno music. Ulta has the bright lights and mixture of high end and drugstore brands.
The best part of going to the church of Ulta was that Kim was with me. She knew that the day would not be easy for me and said that she would do whatever I wanted. Earlier in the week, she asked if I wanted to go the casino; totally her thing and not mine. One of the casinos has a Sephora in their adjoining mall but casinos depress me. Too many old people spending money they don’t have on the chance of striking it rich. I wasn’t about to spend March 4 dodging old people with walkers and oxygen tanks trying to beat me to a slot machine.
Ulta was the perfect choice. I found the Tarte mascara and the concealer I’ve been waiting to try( Shape Tape is everything!). If you’re into brows, you have to check out Anastasia. I mean, anything Anastasia. I went for the brow gel in chocolate. Since I already have enough lipstick to last the next few years, I didn’t buy any but if I was going to buy a lipstick it would have been Lipstick Queen’s Frog Prince. Trust me, it is your color. Kim sampled everything I did, although she didn’t buy anything.
Kim, however, was not content to let the day end. She took me and mom out to dinner at a gastropub in town. Stepping through the door, I caught my breath at the loudness of the restaurant. So many people laughing and talking, as if grief and mourning had never visited their homes.
We took seats at the cook’s bar and watched skilled hands prepare everything from pizza to steak tartare. Kim ordered Prosecco for all of us, a sparkling Italian wine. Linda was Italian, Sicilian to be exact. We often talked about the many iterations of Italian Americans. She hated the New Jersey stereotype of the big haired, loud talking Italian women. The east coast did not have the exclusive rights to Italian heritage. Linda was born and raised in Los Angeles and would fight anyone who claimed that she was not a daughter of Sicily.
Salute! To Linda, we said as we clinked glasses. The Prosecco danced on my tongue, as bright as was Linda. The seat next to me was empty but it was occupied by Auntie Mourning. I managed to avoid her most of the day but she followed me to that damn restaurant. Don’t mind me, I’m just sitting here. I did my best to ignore Auntie Mourning and even thought to force a tear or two so that she would go away. Mourning doesn’t give in that easy. I let her have her seat.
Since Kim was treating us to dinner, I was going to have my usual: Caesar salad and fish and chips. Kim hates my pedestrian taste in food, which I would rather call traditional. Besides, my stomach is sensitive on very good days. Still, I decided that I would try something new.
I began with the burrata and figs with serrano ham. This surprised Kim because she knows how I feel about cheese. I can do American, aged cheddar, gruyere, anything that’s fairly dry. Soft cheeses are out. When I read the menu I couldn’t recall exactly what kind of cheese burrata was and nearly sank in disappoint when the server set my plate down. I saw that is was a softer cheese. I will say that the presentation was gorgeous: Armagnac glazed figs wrapped in delicate slices of serrano ham and set atop the clouds of burrata, with a sweet reduction of balsamic vinegar and topped with just enough arugula and basil.
The first taste almost made me cry. Linda was burrata: traditional but ultimately unexpected, joyous, delightful.
On the outside, burrata is mozzarella, firm and milky white. But the inside is filled with cream and strings of mozzarella that would otherwise have been discarded. If the outside is classic, the inside is surprisingly sweet and luscious.
I took another sip of Prosecco and returned to my figs and burrata. Laughter from a nearby table mixed with the line cooks chopping and slicing. Bluesy music and the clink of plates added to the night air. Mourning left. Not sure where she went but I knew she’d back. For now, I had Kim, mom, my figs and burrata and a very fine glass of Prosecco.
Salute, Linda, e Dio vi benedica.
They say that it will be all over in the morning, that it will be better in the morning.
But what happens when morning arrives and the stillness of the night remains? No one tells you that there is a relationship between the morning and mourning.
I miss my friend. Her laughter, her grace, the ease with which she said bitch. When Linda asked me questions to which I didn’t have an answer, I’d say “Fuck if I know.” And she’d laugh at the truth of it all.
In the morning, I sit upright in bed, close my eyes and place my hand on my forehead. I say my prayers in the silence of the day, and thank God for waking me up, ask God to bless me, and to keep me a relatively good person.
Even after I’ve said this prayer, my faith tends to slip. These days, is it possible for the day ahead to be a good one? Fuck if I know.
I wonder if she’s laughing in heaven.
My work attire almost always includes jeans. I would never have thought I’d dress this way to work. Yet teaching college English does not, for me, require skirts and heels. It’s easy to look like you don’t care when you wear jeans, so I try to make things look better by wearing dark-wash trouser jeans. In the winter, brown leather boots, a sweater, and hoop earrings complete this look.
In the past two weeks since Linda died, I’m afraid of looking like I just don’t care and is why lipstick is my essential accessory.
I learned long ago that if I wear brown lipstick, I look mean—or at least unimpressed and disengaged. When I want distance, I wear brown lipstick. NYX makes a matte brown lipstick called Brooklyn Thorn. It is one ugly lipstick, making a swath of muddy brown across my full lips. I haven’t worn this lipstick since Linda died because I don’t want to look as sad as I feel.
I’ve been wearing Milani’s coppery bright “Making Me Matte.” It’s really like a crushed penny on my lips, shimmery without being too young. Other days it’s lip liner and the pink mauve of Trust Fund Beauty’s “Blame Game” lipgloss. And when I want the perfect juicy plum, there’s no match for Givenchy’s “Rouge Interdit Vinyl.”
In the morning, in the midst of my mourning, it is color that is getting me through.
When I hit the lottery or when Publisher’s Clearing House finally comes to my door with that oversized check, I’m going to buy as many beauty products as I can. For now, I get the products I can afford.
Days are long when you are in mourning. I am trying, really trying to feel better one hour at a time. Today, I’d had enough of trying to feel better. I needed products. It’s not like I don’t have soap and lotion at home. Believe me, I have a ton of it. I just don’t feel like using any of it. My intention was to get to Target and get this lemon and sugar body scrub I’ve been reading about and maybe a bottle or two of argan oil body butter. I only made it as far as Bed, Bath, and Beyond, which is just another place that conspires to get my money. I found a Moroccan Rose sugar scrub with argan oil and organic shea butter. Then I lucked out and got one of the last tubes of good old Dr. Teal’s lavender body lotion. I know I’ll smell like a garden when I’m done. It’s what I’m after: the smell good, feel good way that lotions and scrubs and body washes make me feel. Linda would understand this need for self-care, this need to cocoon myself in feminine scents. I want to call her and tell her how amazing the lotion smells. Somehow, I think she already knows.
I am not new to mourning but I am so much better at taking care of my soul. I’m not rushing this process of mourning, as much as I would love for it to be over. But the morning will come, the true morning when I will awaken with gratitude and peace and a newfound resilience for living my life without my friend.
Someday. But not right now. And I’m okay with that.
You are never ready. Even when you know that death will visit, you are never ready to learn that death stole under the door of one of your best friends, held her hand and silenced her breath.
But death did visit and now the earthly side of Linda’s transition is complete.
I exhaled the moment I learned she died. Perhaps I’d been holding my breath for a long time. But that’s what I remember, the exhalation that is still creating its meaning.
She’s gone. I let myself think it before I could say the words out loud. She’s gone, as in not here anymore, not among the living. Linda Marie Alcorace—with raven-haired curls, icy blue Sicilian eyes, who loved God and was a bone deep California girl. It is nearly inconceivable that she died.
* * * * * * * * *
It didn’t occur to me that living in Connecticut makes it hard to maintain a friendship with someone who lives in Santa Monica, California. We met as grad students in the summer of 2009 at the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program just outside of Boston. In the early stages of our friendship, after the first residency was over and we went back to our respective homes, we wrote one another lengthy emails. She hated to text, as did I. We are writers, we often reminded one another, so why was it hard to write? Talking was the only way for us to communicate.
We solved our 3,000 mile distance with weekly phone calls. More accurately, a few phone calls a week. Sometime last year, she asked me to post about the state of her health on her Facebook page. It was summer and she was in the hospital again. It may have been a low blood count or ascites or both, I truly cannot remember. Linda wanted folks to know where she was and not to worry. Although she was smart to bring her cell phone to the hospital, she tended to her health and knew it was impractical to be in contact with all of her friends.
It was not the first time that I was her Facebook writer. When she had been hospitalized in previous years, I took to Facebook. When she started a GoFundMe page to raise money to go to the Mayo Clinic in Florida in the hopes of getting a liver transplant, again I communicated with her friends and our friends as much as Facebook allowed. When her beloved fiancé, Mark, died five years ago, through tears that left her nearly inaudible, she asked me to post the news to Facebook.
Kerry, you’re such a good friend, came the comments.
Thanks for keeping us updated.
You’re an amazing friend to Linda…thank you!
Linda’s so lucky to have you for a friend.
Such comments made me uneasy and I never knew why. I tucked them away for a time when I could digest the reason for my unease.
Last Thanksgiving, her health really began to fail. We had always talked about death, her death. There was much that was going to be left undone. Her Facebook page was not something she wanted to outlive her, which is why she asked one of her nieces to finally delete the account.
It took me a minute to get used to Linda’s absence on Facebook. What’s the point? she asked me. While she killed her Facebook page, she was still—then—alive.
And we continued to talk except for the time near Christmas when she was hospitalized for a few days. Shortly after 2017 arrived and she knew death was close than ever, I told her I would stop calling her. I didn’t want to tire her. She cried and asked me to please keep calling her. And I called. Every day until two weeks ago. We ended each conversation with I love you.
Except the last phone call. After the I love you’s, I said, Goodbye.
Linda said, Goodnight.
On Monday, February 6, 2017—three days after her 57th birthday—Linda died. I had promised Linda that I would use Facebook to let people know, especially the community of writers affiliated with the Solstice program. I struggled with the message. Not what to say but how the announcement looked. Black text on a white background was too stark, too plain.
I have one of those quote-maker apps on my phone. I chose a dusky purple background, just perfect for Linda. She spent her last days in her home on her purple velvet couch. It was a color that she loved in decoration, jewelry, and makeup. I added her name in a warm pink color and her birth and death dates in rich gold and joined that image to one of my favorite pictures of her. Only then could I announce her passing in Facebook’s dour black text.
The sweetest condolence messages came pouring in. They made me cry for all the love Linda was getting, all the incredible adoration for her brave life. Yet these were not the only messages.
Kerry, you’re such a good friend, came the Facebook comments to my post and in private messages.
Kerry, you were such a brave/wonderful/faithful friend, came the texts and the emails.
I don’t know how you could stay by her side but I’m glad you did.
The day after Linda died, I told my sister, Kim, that way too many people were applauding me for being Linda’s friend. Kim reminded me that many people turn away from those who are sick. For me, the truth of Linda’s life was that she was sick and she was going to die sooner than later. But until her death and long before her body began to truly fail, she was a woman, a daughter, a sister. She was Mark’s love. She was my sister/friend. What terrible thing was there to bear? To witness? I am not extraordinarily gifted with a super-friend gene. If that were the case, Linda would have had a new liver, her cancer would have fled her body, and the love of her life would be alive. I did with and for Linda what I want for myself: I was present.
I am not stronger than most people or made of tougher mettle. I am sinewy perhaps in the ways that matter. My heart, my faith are both strong and muscular. Yet I see none of those qualities as extraordinary. As Kim ultimately declared, I could be Linda’s friend because of the way I am made.
I sat with Linda’s illnesses, albeit on the phone. Distance didn’t make it easier to be her friend. I couldn’t distract her doing the things one does in person. We didn’t watch TV or go to the movies. We didn’t go out to dinner or lunch, we didn’t watch Fourth of July fireworks on the beach. All I could do is listen to her and talk with her. When she asked me about my day, I asked about hers. If she told me that she had a hellish day of appointments at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, I’d say I was sorry. Because I was sorry. But then I’d ask her about a makeup video I’d seen and she would ask me if I wanted a nail polish she bought that wasn’t her color after all.
We talked about men and cooking and men and Beyoncé and writing and teaching and men and Jamaicans and Italians and college and Oprah and men and Africa and theater and dance and men and Prince and siblings and drugs and hospitals and death and chocolate and cars and men and angels and God and love and the sweet heaven we knew awaited us.
Our hours-long phone conversations would end someday but not right away. Until our phone calls ended, Linda would be my friend. I absorbed everything she told me to the point of saturation, only to be able to hold more. Spongy was her nickname for me. To be sure, she gave as good as it gets when it comes to friendship and she was often the spongy friend. She sat with me and listened to me and knew my heart like no one else. Many times, she called me asking if I was okay because her clear as diamond instincts told her that I was sad or troubled. If I wanted to talk with her but was too busy to do so, by the next phone call she would say, That’s okay. I could tell you were thinking about me.
A few hours after I learned of her death, a song came to me that I believe Linda sent. “Glad to Have a Friend Like You” and is from the 1973 Marlo Thomas album “Free to be You and Me.” It’s a children’s song with a simple melody and catchy lyrics. I searched YouTube until I found the audio. At the sound of the familiar chorus, I sang out loud alone in my kitchen and smiled at the memory of my beautiful before a torrent of tears and a wave of grief nearly knocked me over:
Glad to have a friend like you,
Fair and fun and skippin’ free.
Glad to have a friend like you,
And glad to just be me.
Goodnight, Linda, my sister/friend. I love you.
I am a brown skinned black woman. Not deep like Lupita Nyong’o or rich like Angela Bassett. More like a redboned sistah without the freckles. I’m dark enough not to tempt ashiness and dark enough to know that I need Vitamin D.
My regular GYN was out on medical leave and, when you’re a woman, there’s an annual appointment that it’s best not to miss. I scheduled to see the first doctor I could. Dr. G. seemed to be kind enough when he introduced himself. But he didn’t smile much and sighed heavily when explaining everything. The sighing was his verbal tick and nothing I took personally. I did, however, wish I was still teaching public speaking so I could use this as an example in class.
My physical examination was over and Dr. G. reviewed my list of meds. The multivitamin is fine but add a Vitamin D supplement, he said. It’s nearly impossible to get Vitamin D through food alone.
Okay, I thought, I know all of this. I sat there waiting for him to tell me that my skin color is one of the reasons that I don’t get enough Vitamin D.
Dr. G. talked about not getting enough sunshine. I nodded in agreement.
And, he said, most of us work indoors.
Dr. G. stopped to write an order for a mammogram, then swirled in his chair to face me. After a deep sigh, he said, And another reason you don’t get nearly enough Vitamin D is because there’s sunscreen in most of our creams and lotions.
He blinked no more than three times and then stared at me. No mention of melanin or skin color.
Did he not notice the all-encompassing brownness of my skin? In 2017, are you telling me that you are not going to mention melanin as a barrier to Vitamin D absorption?
Dr. G. asked me if liked almond milk. If not, I should try it.
I didn’t get a chance to answer before he went headlong into the story of his 21-year old son who didn’t drink almond milk for years and how the doctor is worried about his son’s osteoporosis.
By the way, Dr. G. asked, have you had a bone density test? You can have it the same day as your mammogram.
Then it was back to Vitamin D supplements and the pitch for almond milk. He told me that his son hated it before he even tried it. It’s hard raising teenage boys, lamented Dr. G. Today, his son drinks almond milk to appease his father, which Dr. G. didn’t mind. He just didn’t want his son to have weak bones.
Why was this doctor wasting my insurance dollars and my time telling me about his son? His son could be black but this white guy did not tell me his son was black (because white folks usually tell you when they have black relatives). Maybe Dr. G. had stock in an almond farm in California but I doubted that such a person would winter in New England and work on Fridays. No, this guy was doing everything to avoid talking about race.
Yet, most people can be forced to talk about race. I was the proverbial redbone in the room but I was sure Dr. G. would cave and finally be brave enough to talk about my skin color. Dr. G. was a dog in need of a bone. I tossed him this: Are there any other reasons that I might be Vitamin D deficient?
Deep, deep sigh from the doctor this time, coupled with a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of his head. Try the almond milk.
I declined to have a chaperone in the examining room, so there was no one there but me and Dr. G. It is possible that Dr. G. was afraid of a racial confrontation. What if he mentioned my skin color and I lost it? I’m taller than he was and (maybe) slightly larger. After all, there are countless cases of nearly naked black women attacking their GYN’s with speculums.
As far as I know, deeper skin color is a valid reason why people my color don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun. It’s not racist to say so. Yes, there’s a gentle way to say things but this dude didn’t dare go there and preferred to go around the damn block instead of discussing the obvious.
At that moment I missed my regular doctor and did my best to wrap up this appointment.
Is there anything else I need to know? I asked as I made a motion to get off the examination table.
No, Dr. G. said in quite a reassuring tone. You’re in great shape.
He reached for my hand and, for the first time, smiling, said, It was nice to meet you.
Dr. G. grabbed his notes and before he reached the door, well, you know what he said.
One of the best friends I will ever know is dying. Linda has multiple illnesses and what they are do not matter at this point. She is dying right now, today. Yes, we are all dying but this is not something I think about to feel an alliance with Linda. She is dying right now and I am not. She has no reason to look forward to the future on earth because she will not be here. Arrogance, history, hope or all three lead me to believe that I will remain on earth.
I’ve started to think about the flowers I want to plant this year. Mini petunias and New Guinea impatiens. Gerbera daisies for sure. The Morning Glory seeds always sprout, despite the fact that these flowers are supposed to be annuals. The seeds are close to the foundation of my house, keeping safe until the moment in late spring when their heart-shaped green leaves announce their arrival.
The day lilies will come back, as will the peonies. The lilacs will fill the air in spring with their heady powdery fragrance. The hydrangea, well, I hope it’s the year for hydrangea. The soil in the side yard brings forth such lovely bluish purple hydrangea.
I take pictures of the garden and text them to Linda. This year I won’t do that.
Transition is in effect.
I’ve lived long enough to know that the world does no stop when someone you love dies. And I don’t want this world to stop after Linda dies. She has taught me so much about living on this earth. The body, I always knew and believed, was temporary. The spirit and soul live on.
Linda and I are two peas in a pod. We both love God and believe Jesus to be our Savior. We love God so much that we know He loves all of who we are, including the parts of us who firmly believe in religions, other than Christianity. Linda and I believe in other ways of knowing the space we consume.
Like me, Linda’s sun sign is Aquarius. We are the humanitarians, the intellectuals, the dreamers. Linda and I also share the same rising sign and moon. Sisters, we are, separated by four years, 3,000 miles and the mothers who birthed us.
In the past few years, Linda and I have talked a few times a week. Since December, we’ve talked nearly every day. In this time, we wonder about heaven and God. We wonder what kind of work we’ll do on the other side. This is important for a few reasons. One, we believe there is another side. Two, we crave fruitful lives and expect to be occupied with something once we get to the next plane.
Transition is why we can talk like this.
I am transitioning, Linda told me several days ago. A verb, not a noun. Active. Happening.
I asked Linda to look out for me when she dies and to send me big, clear signs that she is speaking. She said of course she would but that she expects to be busy looking out for her mom. I get this so much. We are daughters with loving yet demanding mothers. Linda and I are childfree women. We do not understand what it is like to love a child the way our mothers love us. So, we try to understand them, we try to give them room to love us. We are ever the child, even in the midst of impending death. Her mother hovers, Linda says, but she knows that her mom is heartbroken that her eldest child is dying. My mother, now, is also hovering because she knows my sister friend Linda is spending her last days on earth.
We are women and girl-children at the same time.
Transition enables us to have fluid identities.
I don’t know who I’ll become when Linda dies. But I know who I am because she lived. Her friendship has been—and will always be—a treasure in my life. Linda taught me that I did not have to fix anything about her life. She taught me the gift of being present, for while her life was fraught with a myriad of complicated medical issues, she’s always had time for me. She’d call when she had a feeling that I was excited or super-blue about something. We cried and laughed and swore like broads, not babes.
The more we talked about fun stuff, like makeup and men, the more I could accept the temporary shell of the body.
The more we talked about God’s timing, the easier it was for me to take joy in the friendship we share.
The more we talked about why we are friends, the more I felt infused with gratitude.
Linda is in transition of the body and soul.
Yet, so am I.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” that she did not “weep at the world.” When the essay was published in the late 1920s, slavery was still something the old folks remembered. Too many black folks wept because they lived in a country that did not recognize their humanity. There would be no weeping for Zora, who waited on no man or woman of any color to afford her an ounce of humanity. She was a self-appointed woman. Instead of crying for a life that she felt she was owed and did not get, Zora was intent on prying open the jaws of the oyster to get the pearl she wanted.
But what else can you use a knife for, especially an oyster knife? I guess if you are in trouble or facing some sort of danger, and oyster knife is better than no knife or at all.
Oysters do not want to be disturbed. They want to keep the jewel for themselves. After all, a freshwater pearl takes as long as six years to cultivate. Yet when you are outside the oyster, you want that pearl, which means you need the right instrument. An oyster knife if short and blunt with just the right physics to get the break the oyster’s shell.
It is why Zora kept her oyster knife sharp.
When I was in seventh grade, two girls had a fight over a boy. A knife fight. One girl took a switchblade and slashed the back of the other girl from shoulder to waist. I didn’t see the fight but heard enough retellings to believe it happened.
I wondered what it must be like to feel that—even if you didn’t have the right—you had the power to use a knife that way. What must it feel like to think that you are owed something, that you have the right to something denied you? Boys were beginning to be on my radar but I was still so afraid of my own shadow to even think that a boy would like me. I couldn’t conceive of fighting over a boy.
As a 12 year old, I wanted for nothing. My family was secure and my home was a sanctuary. I never went hungry, had a backyard to play in, and a private pediatrician. I didn’t have to fight for anything.
I guess the girls in that fight had a different life. I really don’t know. But something compelled them to decide to fight over a boy. They believed that one of them would win and the other would lose. Of course, few things turn out as planned.
The girl who got cut won the sympathy of her classmates and teachers. And the girl who used the switchblade? She never got the boy.
We are not friends, my students and I. When I was a younger college instructor my students called me Kerry. I believed that if my students called me by my first name it would lessen barriers between us. After 20 years in the classroom I have earned the title of professor. It’s not just a title; it’s an instrument that I use in the classroom to inform my students that I have the knowledge, the wherewithal, and the right to be called professor.
I often tell my students a little bit about my background during the first day of classes. I absolutely tell them that my freshman year was a disaster and that I dropped out of college, taking my grade in gym and my English credit with me. Yet I eventually went back, I tell them, and my proudest degree is my associate’s degree. I worked hard for that first college degree and from then on I knew I could succeed academically at that level.
There’s a lot I don’t tell my students; after all, this is a professional relationship. If anything I would tell my students that I am the great-great granddaughter of Eliza Williams. I would tell them that I am the great-great granddaughter of a woman who was a slave, a wife; a woman who became a landowner, and a midwife. I would tell them that my teaching is an instrument that I use to honor Eliza. But it’s too much to say in the classroom, far too much information for them to know about me and it really won’t matter when I’m grading their papers. But being Eliza’s great-great granddaughter means everything to me. I am her blood. Her blood is in me. I use this instrument called my life to honor her life.
Perhaps my entire life is an oyster knife, picking and poking and prodding at the stubborn oyster shell. And I am committed to using my sharpest instruments to exact the pearls I am owed.
I will use my writing, my wit, my intelligence. I will use my compassion, my faith, my love. I will use this body, infused with the blood of my ancestors, to be the woman who God designed me to be.
I will get that pearl for me and for Eliza.
If you look closely at the necklace that rests below my collar bone you will see the glimmer of a fine jewel. Is that a pearl, you ask. Why, yes, it is. Yes, it is.