Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Letter to Willie

Willie Lee Carter
Heaven

Dear Willie,

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.

Your widow,
Dale

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???

27 comments:

Iron Needles said...

Very good, Dale-Harriet, very good.

Cathy-Cate said...

Dale-Harriet, that made me cry. Happy, bittersweet tears.

Slightly tangentially, but just slightly, you'll have to meet my husband sometime; he has a piece of a bullet in his thigh still, courtesy of a (I think) Mississippi farmer who didn't like long-haired motorcyclist hippies on *his* country roads, back in the early 70s.

We have come a long way, despite how far there is to go.

Alyson said...

Dear Willie Lee,

Your widow just made me cry. Again. (You'd be proud of her, making friends and spreading love everywhere she turns. Bet she always did that, huh?)

I hope you get basic cable up there, you must hear this man speak. Haven't heard anything like it in my generation. Been a long time since a man got up and moved people like that.....'bout, oh, forty five years or so....

Linda L. said...

That was so moving, I'm nearly speechless.

Your letter should be required reading for all schoolchildren. We so need to remember our past in order not to repeat its mistakes.

Mother of Chaos said...

What a beautiful piece. Thanks.

Elizabeth said...

Wonderful post. Truly.

Marsha said...

That was just beautiful.

MollyBeees said...

This made me cry, Dale! Both for the poignancy of the writing and memories as well as the horrible injustices that were done and continue to be done. Baby steps!

yarndork said...

Wow. Just wow.

kmkat said...

Wonderfully eloguent post, D-H. Brought tears to my [mostly unsentimental] eyes.

pacalaga said...

It isn't heaven without barbecue.
Thanks for that.

Georgiana said...

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Alwen said...

And that black man sure can speak!

Jane said...

Absolutely amazing. What a lovely tribute.

Yarnhog said...

Now you've gone and made me cry. I'll think of you and Willie when I cast my vote for Obama.

Lee said...

How beautiful and eloquent! This piece deserves to be published.

Marianne said...

I just received a link to your blog in an email from Lynn (in Ireland) and I'm so glad she did. I see your name in comments at quite a few blogs I visit, don't know why I've not come a callin' before now... seriously.
I am so touched by this post, your letter to Willie, shed a few tears...Thank you... my very best to you, Dale-Harriet. I'll be back.
oh and yeah, pacalaga is right... ;^)

elizabeth said...

Wonderful. You talk about how you cry at movies, your post just did that to me.

Miss T said...

Lovely. Thank you for that.

Ulster Lynn said...

I suppose since Marianne referred to me I should also post. Your love and loss moved me to tears. I wish your husband could join in this party with you. Carrie linked to your beautiful tribute to your husband and I've sent it to knitting and non-knitting friends and family stateside, who have also been touched. Thank you for sharing all this.

MX said...

Made me cry. Very sweet. And hopeful!

NeedleDancer said...

Well said.
And thank you for those reminders.
I sure hope folks don't get scared to do what's right in the polling booths!

esmereldaknits said...

Thank you, Dale-Harriet. I came here through another blog, and I'm very, very glad I did.

Power and strength to all of you in the run up to November. Those of us who cannot vote for this change will be hoping right alongside you.

Best,
Claudia

BC said...

How eloquent and poignant a post. It seems a terrible shame that such a masterful text be published only in such a limited venue. I,for one, have copied it in it's entirety so that once my children have matured enough to comprehend it's full meaning, I can share it with each of them. Imagine their pride when I conclude the recitation with "Your Grandma wrote that!" Very well done, Mom. -- The second child

Anne said...

Dale-Harriet, that was beautiful. Just beautiful. I hope your dear Willie Lee will make some barbecued beef ribs (I don't eat pork) so that when I get to heaven, I can join you! I wish I could have known him.

And, changing the subject, I came over here from Stephanie's blog to mention that you might consider Target for undies. I always see the small sizes fully stocked - it's the sizes for us curvy divas that I must hunt for.

Kitty Mommy said...

I didn't have free hands to comment before we left for the weekend, but wanted to pop back and tell you how touching I found this letter. Thank you for sharing it with blogland.

Carrie K said...

Thank you for sharing this letter.