Authors: Pearl Cleage
Seen It All and Done the Rest
Baby Brother’s Blues
Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do
I Wish I Had a Red Dress
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day …
We Speak Your Names: A Celebration
Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot
Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth
For my father, Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr.,
and for Kay
“Do nothin’ till you hear from me.
Pay no attention to what’s said …”
Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
WEST END NEWS, NOVEMBER 5, 2008
ELL, THE FIRST THING THEY GONNA HAVE TO DO,
said the morning after the election, “is rethink that whole Black History Month idea.”
Mr. Eddie frowned. “How you figure that?”
“We got a black president now, brother! What do we need with one month? Every month can be Black History Month!”
“Man, you crazy! You not even gonna give the white folks one month like they gave us?”
“They didn’t give us a damn thing,” Mr. Charles said. “We took that month, just like we took the White House!”
“Now you gettin’ carried away.” Mr. Eddie shook his head. “We not the only people who voted for him. A lot of everybody saw the same thing we did. An honest man who could handle the job.”
“Okay, so while he’s handlin’ the job, he can just issue a decree saying from henceforth,
month will be Black History Month, except for
which the white folks can have to focus on their history.”
“How are they supposed to fit all their history into one month? These white folks been around a long time.”
“Now you showin’ your ignorance. We been around a lot longer than they have. We had libraries and museums when they were still swingin’ through the trees and we had to tell it all during one little month, and the shortest month at that!”
“So why can’t we do better than they did and just let history be history?”
Mr. Charles looked disappointed, but his voice was patient. “You not gettin’ into the spirit of things, man. What’s the point of having a black president if you can’t pull rank now and then?”
“You talkin’ about pullin’ rank and the man is trying to figure out how to save the country!”
“He ain’t gonna figure out how to save nothin’ if he don’t pull rank every now and then.”
“He figured out how to get elected, didn’t he?”
HEN THE PHONE RANG AT 5:25 A.M.
WAS ALREADY UP, PRETENDING
to meditate. Miss Iona didn’t even wait for me to say hello.
“You have to come home.”
“I am home,” I said.
“That is where you live. This is home and you know it. I called you last night. Where were you?”
“Probably somewhere minding my own business,” I said. “And good morning to you, too.”
Miss Iona Williams had been my parents’ friend for as long as I could remember. On a lot of the nights when my father would be out late at meetings and my mother was defiantly finishing up her graduate studies, it was Miss Iona who came to sit with me and fix me dinner and hear my prayers and tuck me in. When my mom left the Rev and moved to the West Coast, he got custody of Miss Iona. She’s one of the few people he cannot intimidate, although he never stops trying.
Five years ago, at sixty plus, she got married for the first time to Charles Larson, but refused to take his name.
“I’m not trying to make a statement,” she had explained to my mother who tried to offer feminist congratulations at the wedding. “I just don’t see the point.”
Miss Iona wasn’t maternal in the traditional sense of being motherly. She was more like a really great friend who never took any shit from you, but never gave you any either. When my mom was being too ideological and my father was being too omnipotent, I always knew I could trust Miss Iona to give it to me straight.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning! Did I wake you?” she said without waiting for an answer. “I’ve been up for hours, but I was trying to wait for a more civilized hour before I called you.”
She was just trying to be polite. Miss Iona always called very early or very late. Other people’s schedules were of little or no concern to her. She had that in common with the Rev.
“I’m up,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Just what I said. You have to come home right away. Your father needs you.”
This was not a crisis. This was a delusion.
“The Rev doesn’t need me,” I said, calling him by the name everybody called him, except my grandmother who died when I was five, and who always called him
. Even my mother still called him Rev, although she had disavowed the practice in an essay on the patriarchy that won an award in a big-time feminist journal. It was a good piece, too, but after a lifetime of calling him
, what was she going to substitute?
“He hasn’t even spoken to me in five months.”
“Well, he needs to speak to you now because he has completely lost his mind.”
“There is a difference,” I said, “between insanity and intractability. He’s not crazy. He’s just stubborn.”
“Have you seen yesterday’s paper?”
I haven’t lived in Atlanta in more than a decade, but I knew Miss Iona meant
The Atlanta Constitution
“No, I …”
“That’s why you’re not on a plane down here right now,” she interrupted me. “If you had seen it, that’s where you would be. On your way to talk some sense into him before he undoes the work of his whole lifetime.”
Miss Iona was known for her unflappability, but she was really getting wound up. The Rev must really have put his foot in his mouth.
“What did he say?”
“What did he say? How about when they asked him about those signs Reverend Patterson put up at the church …”
“Bilingual signs. You know, first in English, then in Spanish right under it. We’ve got a lot of Mexican families coming on Sundays now, nicest people you ever want to meet, but a lot of them don’t speak much English yet and Reverend Patterson thought the signs would make them feel welcome.”
Reverend Patterson had become the senior pastor at the Rock of Faith Community Church last year after my father retired and the Rev had always been supportive.
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing!” Miss Iona said. “That’s the whole point, but not according to your father.”
I could hear the paper rustling while she found the part of the article she wanted to quote exactly.
“The Rev said, and I quote, ‘you can go overboard with this multicultural thing. Next thing you know, we’ll be offering tacos and sangria for communion Sunday.’”
“What?!” My father was a champion of diversity. This had to be a misquote.
“It gets worse. ‘Before they start worrying about teaching these kids to speak Spanish, somebody needs to teach them how to speak English. That’s why they can’t get decent jobs. Our president is content to bask in his own rhetorical flourishes without acknowledging that most of our kids can’t even speak their own mother tongue, much less read it. And that doesn’t have anything to do with white folks. That has to do with being sorry. Why doesn’t Barack Obama talk about that?’”
I closed my eyes and felt a familiar throb behind my right eyeball. My father’s relationship or lack of relationship with President Obama was the reason I was up at five o’clock in the morning trying to calm my ass down in the first place. My father once had been a big supporter of then-candidate Obama and had spearheaded an independent voter registration drive that put 100,000 new names on Georgia’s books. From my position inside the campaign, I let people know that my father had offered access to this list of enthusiastic new voters in a state where Republicans were expected to make a clean sweep everywhere but the city of Atlanta, where, of course, Obama was expected to cream all comers.