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It was late that night that I danced with Africa. Under the moonlight, in front of my brethren, to the forbidden music my mother had instilled in me for so many years. The breeze rushed past my face, blowing my long, dark locks about me as I once again envisioned my true home. I could feel the hot sand my mother had told me about, dry and grainy, instead of the red Georgia clay beneath my bare feet. The barn creaked and groaned with our drums, our music. The moon lit our heritage with its spotlight; the same light that shone on the motherland.
Danced I did, all the while my while my sister, Lissy Anne, sang in Swahili, the language of our captive ancestors. I was surprised to hear her. I hadn’t seen her since I caught her crying earlier. She was so emotional, but it made her voice beautiful. Her deep, guttural voice filled my heart, hands and feet with such a spark of excitement, I could not stand still for a moment. I thrust my arms and stomped my feet in rhythm with her spoken soul. Such soul rises from the heart of our ancestors, or says Papa Raymond. Where ever it came from, her soul spoke to mine, and with it I inhaled the sweet sounds of mother Africa, a place I couldn’t get to. But I had seen Africa. I saw it in my mother’s eyes, heard it in Lissy’s voice, felt it in Papa Raymond’s embrace and sermons.
In the distance, I heard a shotgun. Everybody in the room stilled in silence. Lissy stopped singing’. More guns sounded, followed by screams and yells. Our neighbor, David yelled “Run!” and dragged Lissy and me from Papa Raymond’s barn. Everyone scattered. We ran into the dark woods, taking the trail leading to Lorraine Billings and her husband’s general store. We ran in the dark, David clenching our hands tightly. My skirt swirled around my legs, tripping me up. As I tried to keep my balance, we broke free of the trees, into our small town of Walden. We kept running, Lissy crying and huffing. She was a little heavy set (though most of the brothers of the church didn’t seem to mind, especially David) I was still in mid-fall, David almost dragging me past our neighborhood shops and stores. My ankle finally betrayed me as we came upon the general store. David broke the lock and flung open the cellar door as we heard footsteps and the sounds of peoples followin’ me. I suddenly pitched forward, biting the dust and hitting my chin against the cellar door frame. Lissy gasped as my teeth clacked together, loud and painfully. The sounds got louder, closer. David simultaneously threw me over his shoulder and shoved Lissy down the stairs. She hit the floor with an OOMPH and I thought I heard a sob. David turned on the stairs and closed the door, locking the door with the thick wooden bolt. He then walked down and sat me down gently.
“Are you two okay?” he asked gruffly, breathing hard and wiping his brow. Lissy shook her head.
“I’m fine, Dave. Just a little shaken up and irritated.” She said, but it didn’t sound like she was talking about what just happened.
“Lissy, honey, please. This isn’t the time.” He responded, wiping his face in exasperation.
I brushed the dust and dirt from my linen dress, and then gave a quick shake of the head. They were at it. Again. No one is really sure if they are courting or not, but it’s an uncomfortable mess.
“They must have heard the drums, or Lissy’s screaming.” Said David, moving the boxes of groceries to reveal the passage door. Lissy stuck her tongue out at him, and then walked down the exposed tunnel. The tunnel leads to my house and back to Papa Raymond’s barn. It was left over from the Underground Railroad, when our ancestors were oppressed and the Billings weren’t so racist.
As we walked down the dusty tunnel, Lissy hummed spirituals. She had stalked off in front us. David, catching her mood, half ran to catch up with her and whisper something in her ear. She shoved David, only for him to grab her hand and kiss it. I caught the words “I’m sorry, and I mean what I said,” but nothing else. While he talked, she seemed to relax. Eventually, he became happy, and calmly walked next to David. I wished I could be like that, but my mind was elsewhere.
My mother’s words kept echoing in my head. The last thing she ever told me was to do what she said, “Africa is where those of color belong. We are the colors of the savannah, the love that flows through that homeland.” I can’t help but want to go home. A home I have never seen. When we reached my basement door, Lissy and I bid David goodnight, and left upstairs for bed, tired from running from persecution…again.
As I slept, I dreamt. In my dream, I saw Africa. I was in beautiful grassland, filled with gorgeous animals. A hot, humid breeze kissed my face. A smile crept upon my lips. I ran towards the beautiful wildlife, laughing and giggling, and playing with monkeys. They climbed in the big oak tree from town square. It had a thick rope hanging from it, which I found odd. While I watched the monkeys in awe, I heard a whisper.
“Lora….Lora….”it said. I turned to see my mother. I cried out in happiness. I ran into her arms, her sweet, powdery smell rushed into my nose. Tears ran hot down my face like teapot steam droplets. “Momma, I missed you!” I screamed into her arms. My mother held my face up and held a finger to my lips. She let me go and pushed my hands away.
She suddenly took off through the brush. “Wait! Mommy!” I shouted. She looked back and motioned me to follow her. So I did. We ran through the dry brush, me following close behind my mother. In the distance, I heard waves. I smelled the sea, the salty brine smelled sweet and inviting. As we came to a clearing, I saw my mother step into the sea, right up to her waist. She smile and waved at me. A wave splashed behind her. The wave was bright red as it washed over her. My eyes opened in horror as I looked down at the incoming tide. It was thick and crimson. Blood. And floating in it was bones, bodies, shackles and….my mother. The wind blew, and I heard the whispers of despair. Somehow I knew, this was the blood of my ancestors. And those were the corpses of my heritage. I screamed. The world was going black. I took one last look at my mother. She was trying to tell me something
“It was….the store….forbidden….that man---“
The blackness overcame me.
In the real world, Lissy Anne shook me awake.
“Chile, what is wrong with you? Are you okay?” she asked, “you were screaming like a newborn baby during Easter Sunday dinner!”
“Yeah….it was just a dream.”
This Sunday was the day of Papa Raymond’s sermons. I was supposed to bring the anointing oil. I walked into the Billing’s general store, greeting Mrs. Lorraine, the old white lady that owns it with my head held high and my eyes to the floor. I walked to the short front desk.
“Virgin Olive Oil please ma’am,”
“What you need this for, n*****? Fo’ that heathen church?”
“Yessim’, it’s for our church.”
She thrust the oil at me and snatched my money, without giving me my change. As I turned to walk out, Mr. Billings pushed past me, his hands covertly grabbing my behind for a brief moment. I gasped loudly and almost spilled my oil. Without thinking, I dragged my finger nails across his pale, pretentious face.
“How dare you?” I asked, barely above a whisper. The shock almost silenced me.
Mr. Billings looked to where his wife was. She ducked into the back room, out of earshot. She hadn’t seen anything. Mr. Billings got close to my face and contorted his own into a wild grimace.
“You’d better hush little tar baby,” he hissed, “I shushed your back-to-Africa momma and I’ll shut you up too!” He raised his hand at me.
“You are ugly, worthless. You are dark and evil, and mean nothing. You should be happy I even touched you, you ole dark witch!” That white devil took his oppressive white hand and slapped it clean across my face. I stumbled a bit, almost falling.
I ran out that store, pushing past that demon and others like him. As I ran, I heard him cry “That n***** girl’s a thief!” and “get that black monkey!” but I never stopped running. The hot dirt billowed up into my sun dress. I knew I couldn’t stop running. My life depended on me running. I ran down the long, dirt road that went past the oak tree from my dream. I had yelled, scratched, and “disrespected” a white man, all punishable by death. My eyes blurred with tears of angst. I wiped them, and blinked the rest back. When I opened my eyes, I ran through an unavoidable wreckage of a moonshine bottle. I felt the glass go right up my foot. I knew I was fallin’ way before I pitched forward. I put my hands out to catch myself, but I reacted too late. I smacked my head hard against a clay rock. I closed my eyes as I felt a trickle of blood flow down my face. Pain pounded against my temples. When I opened my eyes again, black boots were right in front of my wide black nose. I looked up to see Mr. Billings, just as someone’s white, hairy hands slipped something rough and threadlike around my neck: a noose. As my head reeled, I flashbacked to the night I watched my mother sway in the wind, hanging from the same thick rope that now resides around my throat.
I was hoisted up into the air. I closed my eyes and pretended I was home, melting into the deserts and the jungle. I pictured the savannah, the wildlife. And I pictured my mother. Because I knew that this was the end of me. As everything went black, I couldn’t help but want to go home. The home that was filled with natural peace and harmony. The home where the only time people worried of color was when they looked at the wonderful outside beauty. The home my mother wished for.
“Lissy, where is your sister? She was supposed to be here with my anointing oil 20 minutes ago. If she doesn’t show soon, you send someone to find her, you hear?”
Papa Raymond turned his big belly towards the hallway leading to the sanctuary. I turned my back on him and quietly shuffled towards the back door. I slid out of the screen door and was careful not to let it slam behind me. My dress fluttered in the stiff, hot wind blowing outside. As I descended the steps, he showed himself.
“Why did you tell me to come here?” I asked. David closed the distance between us. He took me hands into his. “Don’t do that; it ain’t proper”
“My love is proper. Just because I can’t marry-“
“And why is that David? You say you love me, but why won’t you show your love by marrying me? You give every single excuse but the truth! I-“
“I AM NOT THE DECENT
MAN YOU DESERVE!” he screamed, “I am broke, Lissy. A poor sharecropper. I didn’t get special learnin’ the way you did. My mama wasn’t a teacher like yours. I can’t provide for your! I’m in debt to Mr. Billings right now! There’s no way he will let me get a wife and get a family started when I can’t even pay my debts!”
“ I didn’t ask you to be anything but yourself, David. Why do you think I love you so much? Because you are yourself! We will find away to fix your debts, I promise….”
Just then, Papa Raymond stepped into the church’s backyard.
“Lissy Anne Darvis and David Willie James, if ya’ll don’t get your tails to the sanctuary, I will put you over my knee like ya’ll was my own!” With that he turned into the church, and we quickly followed him.
Papa Raymond wobbled to the pulpit, his huge, black body jingling and sweating. He turned back and motioned for me to start singing. I sang an old hymn. I let the words burst through me, touching everyone in the church. As I sang, Papa Raymond preached the good word.
“We are the forgotten children of Africa. The good Lord speaks to us in Swahili. We are the offspring of the oppressed and murdered. We must connect back to our roots in the motherland-“
Suddenly, the doors burst open. Everyone looked toward the big front doors. I stopped singing, trailing off. My neighbor, Sue, ran up to the altar, huffing and puffing, breathing like she just ran to the big city and back.
“Papa Raymond! Lissy Anne! Come quick!”She yelled. Her eyes were streaming.
“What the matter chile, what ails you?” barked Papa Raymond in his deep preaching voice.
“It’s Lora Mae. She was h-h-hung. She swingin’ from the big oak tree in front of city hall. Misser Billings and his boys done lynched her, said she was causin’ trouble in the general store.”
We buried my sister in her finest white cottons. My sister was murdered, just like my mother before she. She was killed because of the darkness of her skin. She was killed because I couldn’t put my own needs aside. We are the descendants of the slaves of Africa. We all share a darkness of skin, a certain pigmentation that makes us unique. This coloring comes from our Mother Land. It is the colors of the savannah, the grasslands and the wildlife. It flows across our skin and gives us a power to love like no other. We are the colors of Africa.