Willie Lee Carter
How are you? I suppose that's a silly question, giving where you are and all. I have to say, when I get there, I hope you'll come and find me. I'd love to meet your daddy, and your cousin Sam Cooke (yes, I've forgiven you for playing his music until I thought I'd go wiggy) and besides, you were always good with directions and can probably show me around. Remember -- I want to see Shakespeare.
But that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because it is June 4, 2008, and Willie? A BLACK MAN IS THE DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
Now, you may know that too, but when Barak Obama started his campaign I thought of you first thing. Is it perfect around here now? Nope. Still a lot of problems, but compared to your childhood and young years, it for sure is better. The little boy YOU were learned foul language in the margins of your beginning readers, because the white kids wrote things like "N*****s should die" and "F*** the N*****s" in their beat-up worn-out readers, knowing they'd be given to the children in your school.
I remember we were watching the teevee and you were lying on the floor on your stomach, and I was tracing those black rosettes on your back...there were three of them on your shoulders and one just below your belt, almost on your behind. They felt hard, lumpy, and you didn't go into much detail about how they felt when you got them. But you told me about it -- the day you were out protesting with your friends and the cops came by on horseback with the electric cattle prods and dug them into your back.
I remember your going to apply for a job and coming home right away because "there were a couple white guys there to apply too" and you couldn't believe you had a chance of getting the job....and I remember crying with frustration about it and trying so hard to convince you that it really didn't any difference in St. Paul, MN in 1965. And I remember how proud you were when you got the job (orderly in the morgue of a major hospital) even though there HAD been white guys applying.
I remember how frightened you were when we went to the hospital for our daughter's birth, and how you stood outside the nursery window and a tear coursed itself down your cheek as you looked at her, and how later you held my hand and told me about a girl from your school in Selma who had gone to the hospital to have a baby and was told the baby was born dead, but she and everyone else believed that wasn't true, that the baby had been "done in" by the white doctor.
I remember your Mama's visit (give her my loving best, Willie Lee!) when she couldn't believe watching our neighbor children playing together, all colors of human race, and how she sat out on our little porch and watched a black man and white girl walking their little boy in his stroller and whispering "They'd lynch him fo' sure back home"...and meaning it. (We lived in Minneapolis then, in a very nice neighborhood where there was every combination of human color possible, and we liked it so much!)
I remember hiding in the bedroom and crying, and your coming in and explaining that I might as well just go with it, because your mother, -- my mother-in-law -- was going to call me "Ma'am" no matter what, because she saw a white woman, never mind your wife, the mother of your daughter and pregnant with our second child. We took her downtown but she couldn't go in any of the stores, whether or not she saw other black folks going in and out. Conditioning....many generations of it, are not so easily dismissed.
Willie Lee, I'm so excited about this. You and I talked about how it might be when our babies were grown. Is it like we thought? No....but the potential exists now, and it's a lot closer to reality than when we were sitting in our ol' living room. Our dreams didn't evaporate never to be seen again. More to the point, my opinion is that your scars were not obtained in vain. Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney did not die in vain. The Civil Rights movement didn't create Utopia, but Willie? There is a definite chance (I'm going to do MY part) that there will be an African-American man in the White House, and NOT answering the door or polishing the silver.
PS Our daughter and son say "hello"
PSS And also, when I get there, would you please make me up a plate of your barbecued ribs? Your daughter makes some almost as good as yours, I'm happy to say, but I'll still be looking forward to yours. You know, just so's you can start planning.
PSSS They do have barbecued ribs in Heaven, right? RIGHT???