My Daddy Dead

my daddy dead image 2


Read by Kathya Alexander

Driving to church that Sunday morning, all of us was in
Quinton’s new pink Pontiac. The one with the back light fins.
The radio is full of static. All the windows was rolled up and closed.
I feel like I got on some kind of armour instead of my new Easter clothes.
I’m sitting between Quint and Mama in the middle of the front seat.
And Twinkie and LuLu sitting in the back. Directly in back of me.
On each side of them sit Lucky and Sissy. So we couldn’t let the windows down.
Cause Sissy say the wind gone blow her hair.
And she ain’t walking in church looking like no clown.
She say with this new hairstyle she need every strand to stay in place.
Her hair is comb like one of them Beatles. Comb to the front. Down in her face.
The air in the car is hot and clammy from everybody taking up air to breathe.
Ever so often my niece Twinkie cough. And her sister LuLu start to sneeze.
“Mama,” I say, “Can’t we open the window?”
I like Sissy and all. But my head bout to blow.
Mama say, “Mandy, don’t start worrying me bout them windows.
And don’t let me have to tell you that no mo’.”
I don’t know why Sissy hair mean more to Mama than my breath.
I got myself a sick headache. And I hurt down in my neck.
My eyes is watering like I’m seeing things. And my stomach it is churning.
And I got a smell in the back of my nose that smell just like a house is burning.
All of us got on two-piece suits. Mama’s is the color of a deep dark rose.
And she got on a hat that’s the exact same color. With a veil that reach down to her nose.
Aunt Ree make the hat that Mama is wearing. Mama she make the suit.
Her hat cocked so her silver widow peak show where it’s done greyed down to the roots.
All the hats that Mama wear lately done had some kind of veil on them.
Until today, she been dressing in black. But, today, she say we gone all start to live.
I thought living was what we had been doing. Every day and all the while.
But, today, somehow, is suppose to be different. I can see it in the way my Mama smile.

The radio is blaring to be heard over the static. In between the church songs they been
talking about some colored marchers crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It’s some Negroes down to Selma, Alabama. Mama reach over me to reach the knob and say,
“I can tell by the noise that’s in this static that this gone be a real bad day.”
Ever so often, I look over at Quinton. His face wear something look like a smile.
I’m trying to look anywhere but the highway. I’m getting sicker with every mile.
“Can’t we at least crack a window, Mama?” I’m gone die anyway so I ask her again.
“Mandy, hush up,” Mama say. Then she lean across me as she bend
over even more closer to hear the radio better. I want to tell her to get up. But what can I do?
So I just sit there like a dummy. Feel like her elbow gone go straight thru
the big bone in my leg. But do Mama care? She just continue to use my thigh
like, to her, it ain’t nothing no more than a armrest. I feel like I’m about to cry.
Mama say, “God gone make things better for coloreds bye and bye. Up in the sky.”
Quint say, “But colored folks is tired of waiting.”
Mama say, “Tired ain’t no reason for folks to die.”
Quint say, “It’s time for Negroes to stand up for themselves
and help God on this path to freedom.”
Mama say, “And them white folks on that bridge is saying
if you can’t join ‘em, then you might as well beat ‘em.
And don’t go blaspheming, Quinton Delacortes,
the Holy Name of the Lord.”
“I ain’t blaspheming nothing, Mama.
I’m just repeating what God say in His word.”

I think when they get to the other side of the bridge,
they gone kneel down and pray to God above.
And sing the Civil Rights National Anthem.
It’s a song that’s call “We Shall Overcome.”
Everywhere you go and all on the radio,
seem like coloreds is singing the song’s refrain.
Rev. Jasmine is playing it on the radio.
I feel a storm inside my brain.
Quint say, “Colored people trying to change the world
and all the bad things going on in it.”
Maybe things is changing somewhere up North.
But far in the world as I can see in it,
everything going on the same way it was.
And folks in Uz don’t see nothing wrong with it.
Colored folks in Uz still get up off they seats
and let the white folks sit down in them.
I done been raise that way all of my life.
It ain’t even been nothing I done never found
time to think or worry about.
In Uz, children get up to let everybody sit down.
Daddy tell me, “Mandy, now you look close.
Cause you watching history fixing to be made.”
Mama say, “Hush talking to that chile bout that foolishness.
Long as I live on this side of the grave
ain’t no chile of mine gone be caught up in this mess.
Grown folk ought to know better.
But the chir’en they don’t.
And long as God leave breath in me
you can be show n’an one of my chir’en won’t
never be mix up in this Civvie Rights mess.”
She hold my head close to her breast.
“The children marching cause they tired,” Daddy say,
“of being treated like they something less.
Ain’t your children suppose to have
the same things that God bless the white children with?”
Mama say, “A.D., that’s what y’all don’t see.
God done bless me with His breath.
He bless me when He woke me up this morning.
Dress and clothe in my right mind.
God blessing me in spite of white folks.
Been blessing me.  All the time.
And you couldn’t pay me to sit behind that counter up to Franklin Department Store.
I done seed that man stand behind that counter pick up food from off the floor
and put it on them white folks plate. Just as nasty as he can be.
So why I want to eat behind white folks? You tell me what that’s gone gain me.”
Daddy say, “Belle, that ain’t the point…”
“That’s the point exactly far as I can see.
The Bible say wherever you is, content is what you spose to be.
Daddy say, “Belle, you know being second class citizens ain’t what the apostle meant.
You can look all thru the Bible. Moses came cause the people wudn’t content.
Didn’t in the Bible God return His chosen people’s captivity?
God mean His people to be whole.  God mean His people to be free.”

“Shush!  Shush!” Mama say.
Rev. Jasmine, the DJ, he done start to talk again
about them Negroes down to Selma
and they walk across that bridge.
It seem like we ain’t gone never get to church.
Never get out this car and this long, stuffy ride.
Quinton exit on Ninth Street off the freeway.
My eyes watering with tears. And I feel like crying.
Ninth Street in Little Rock is a whole different world.
Colored women dress up and go to smoky clubs
and dance with some other woman’s husband.
At the Lucky Lady, you can play the numbers. And bet on the dogs.
Most people live in apartments on this part of Ninth Street.
And they don’t wake up in time to send they children to church.
Even thru the closed windows, I can hear the games they playing.
One group of heathen children standing out on they stoop
in front of one of the apartment buildings.
They playing a game I play sometime with Jewel or Brenda Nell.
Sometime we play it after school in the yard.
It’s a game that’s call Ain’t Dinah Dead.
                     Aint Dinah dead, the leader call.
                     How she die? the others say.
                     O she died like this, the leader call.
Then she twist her body all kinds of ways
to show what Dinah looked like when she died.
                     O she died like this, the other children say.
And the one who can’t do like the leader, the worse
got to be “It” the next time we play.

I can hear the game the heathen children playing
ringing over and over in my head.
We finally get to the church and I jump out the car.
I bend over and breathe in great big gulps of air.
Sissy say, “Mandy, are you all right?”
“No, Sissy.  I been sick this whole long ride.”
Then Mama walk up. She grab my arm
and pull me over to the side.
She say, “Mandy, I ain’t fuh none of yo’ foolishness.
I particular ain’t fuh n’an one of yo’ fits.”
“I can’t help it,” I tell Mama.
“My head is hurting and I’m feeling sick.”
Just then Sammie Rain walk up.
“Y’all better hurry up,” she say.
I look at Mama thru the fog in my head.
Curtis done already start to play
the processional music. Since today is Easter,
ain’t none of us gone wear our robes.
That way all of us that’s in the choir
can show off our new Easter clothes.
My head is pounding. I can’t hardly walk.
Sammy reach and pull me by the arm.
We rush into the choir room and take our places
just as Curtis play the last opening chords.
The song of the heathen children still ringing in my head.
So I keep messing up the beat.
I’m dipping and stepping when I ought to be swaying.
I feel real shaky on my feet.

When I finally walk thru the door into the sanctuary,
the very first thing that catch my eye
is the Pastor’s chair that belong to my Daddy.
I catch my breath. And I start to cry.
They done took the black mourning cloth from off my Daddy chair!
This is just not suppose to be.
And if it was suppose to happen,
seem like somebody coulda at least told me!
I still cannot believe my eyes.
When a Pastor die, they drape his chair in black
for a mourning period of at least six months.
My Daddy ain’t been dead for three months yet.
The whole church stand up with the choir.
Over the organ, you can hear the sound of shuffling feet.
I look over at the pew where sit my Mama.
She will not even so much as look at me.
Cause she know she wrong for how this happen.
She coulda at least gave me some kind of warning.
Now I know why she sit in Daddy chair
when she say the blessing at breakfast this morning.
Ain’t nobody never sit in my Daddy chair.
His place done always been at the head of the table.
He wasn’t the kind of man who was gone miss a meal.
I thought Mama cried cause she finally missed him this morning.
But what she really was saying, I see now,
is that this the day when Daddy no longer have a place.
Not at our table. And not at our church.
The only place my Daddy got now is a grave.
Down in the ground. Up under the earth.
Ain’t nothing left of him now but his rotting body.
When I close my eyes, I can see, like yesterday,
the pallbearers as they tenderly carry his body
out of the church after the second funeral Down Home.
I can hear the gravediggers scooping dirt from out the ground.
Tears is running down my face.
I look at Mama. And she frown.

All I can hear in my head is the heathen children’s song
and the game they was playing bout Ain’t Dinah Dead.
You know how sometime you hear a song
and can’t seem to get it from out your head?
That’s what it’s like for me this morning.
Rev. Long say, “Today we celebrating Jesus being raised from the dead.
And now it’s time for us to pause in the program
so the children can get they speeches said.”
Miz Angel Lea get up from off the front pew.
She the Mistress of Ceremony for the Easter program.
“Er-rer,” Miz Angel Lea clear her throat.
“Can the church give us another A-man?”
“A-man,” the congregation say.
“Speak thru her, Lord,” Miz Caroline groan.
Miz Angel Lea ask the choir for a “A” and “B” selection.
The music from the organ sound like a moan.
Curtis start to play “Just As I Am.”
He raise his hands and the choir stand up.
Everybody, that is, except for me.
I can’t seem to move. Feel like I’m stuck.
I can hear the kids in the audience out there laughing.
I look at Mama. I can tell she mad
cause I’m embarrassing her in the public.
Mama look like she want to go up side my head.
“Sang, Bessie,” Miz Caroline say.
“Sang the song,” the church all on they feet.
When the choir finish singing and everybody sit down,
Sammie Lee have to pull me to my seat.
“The first selection is by little Miss Cora Lee Sanders,”
Miz Angel Lea say. “Come on, baby, and say your speech.”
Cora Lee mama push her to the front.
Cora Lee can’t be no more than three.
And she shame-face in front of the congregation.
“Say your speech, baby,” Miz Sanders say.
Cora Lee mutter something and run back to her seat.
“A-man! A-man!” the church all say.
“And the next selection is a special treat.
Miss Amanda Denise Anderson will bring us her own unique rendition
of that great Negro sermon by James Weldon Johnson.
That timeless standard called, ‘The Creation.’”
The whole church applaud. They been waiting for this.
I done done The Creation before.
But, when I stand up in the choir stand,
my feet feel like they ain’t quite touching the floor.
Last year for the Christmas program, I did this speech.
Everybody say it was the best thing they done ever seen.
I walk slow to take my place in front of the pulpit.
My head is bowed. And I’m feeling mean.

The first line go, ‘And God stepped out…”
So I turn away from the audience so when I turn around
I can step out like I’m as mysterious as God.
I ball my hands into a fist. And I open my mouth.
But what come out is,
                     “My Daddy dead
                     How he die?
                     O, he died like this…”

I hadn’t intended to say them words.
Seem like something just come over me.
And, if that wudn’t bad enuf,
I acted it out for the whole church to see.
I clutched my chest just like my Daddy did
on that Sunday when he had his heart attack.
He had just finished up his sermon.
He was doing the benediction, in fact.
I flailed my arms out to the sides.
Stepped back two steps like I was bout to fall.
That Sunday when Daddy had his attack in the pulpit,
the church rose as one and, as one, they called
out, “Catch him!  Catch him! Somebody catch him!
Don’t let him fall and hit his head!”
Deacon Morgan was the first to reach him.
But, by the time he got there, my Daddy was dead.
The whole church was in confusion.
“Hush!  Hush!” Miz Caroline cry out.
I slowly come from out the fog
and realize it’s now that I’m hearing her shout.
My ears is ringing in my head.
Miz Sella Mae running up and down the aisles.
Everybody else looking over at my Mama
to see what she gone do bout her youngest child.
Seem like I can see everybody’s reaction.
All of a sudden, and all at once.
I feel like, for the first time, I can really see.
Not just what’s on people’s face. But what’s in they hearts.
Mama’s gray streak shining in the sunlight,
the rays is bouncing from off her hair.
The sunbeams shining thru the stained glass window
bounce off her head and into the air.
Her face is twist in perfect agony.
The tears she cried this morning done start to flow again.
She allow them to run free down her face.
Then she fix her mouth in a bitter grin.
Then Mama open her mouth wide and she holler.
It’s a high-pitch mewling put you in mind of a cat.
The birds outside fly into the windows.
The ushers run to where my Mama is at.
They fan her with some fans that we got from the funeral home;
I think they come from Ruffin and Jarrett.
The sound Mama make come from high in her throat.
The birds outside can’t seem to bear it.

Everybody looking at her like she uncovering they shame.
The whole congregation is crying in they seats.
One thing I can say about what’s happening with Mama
is that it’s done took all the attention from off of me.
So I run down the aisle and out the front door.
I’m too sick to cry. And I’m too tired to sing.
Besides that, I’m just about sick and tired of crying.
Seem like crying is all I done been
doing since my Daddy died.
My heart is tired from missing my Daddy.
And I’m tired of people treating him like he ain’t never lived.
Inside the church, I can hear Sister Sadie
starting up a old Dr. Watts hymn.
I can still hear Mama in betwixt the singing.
Her voice sound like something I ain’t never heard.
Sound like a animal that’s been wounded.
Or like a little baby bird
that’s done fell from out the nest and been stepped on.
But not crushed hard enuf for it to die.
(That whole long week—even with Daddy’s two funerals—
I didn’t never once see my Mama cry.)

I run out the church into the parking lot.
I lift my hair to get some air on my neck.
I go round the back to the back of the church
and lean my head up against the brick.
My stomach rumble from deep in my gut.
My mouth it start to fill up with spit.
“Help me, Jesus. Help me, God.”
The prayer bubble up from off my lips.
Seem like the whole wide world is spinning.
I feel myself falling to the ground.
And then, just like that! In the blink of a eye,
I feel myself being lifted by the neck and turned around.
I see a woman bright as the sunlight.
I turn to the presence at my side.
Her garment is of a bright, shiny material
that put you in mind of a beautiful bride.
She dressed in a flowing, clingy gauze-like fabric.
And on her head, she wear a crown
that’s sprinkled with the moon and stars.
The angel look me up and down.
She say, “His ways ain’t our ways. Nor is His thoughts our thoughts.”
“What do that mean?” I ask. But the angel do not say.
She already disappearing in front of my eyes.
Her last words is, “Don’t forget to pray.”

I’m so scared, I’m seeing double.
All I can do is stand and stare
off into space with my mouth open.
When Sammie come out, I’m still standing there.
I walk to the car with Sammie holding me up.
The wind feel like fingers playing in my hair.
I keep reaching up and touching the back of my neck.
Like I think I’m gone find a hand back there.
Mama standing by the car talking to Brother Green.
She look at me with what feel like shame.
Her hat done come off and her hair hanging loose.
And I decide right then that she the one to blame
for all the pain that I been feeling.
Cause she won’t sit down and talk to me.
If I ain’t the baby girl of the Pastor,
then who is I’m suppose to be?

Mama look at me and her eyes say it all.
I’m gone have to pay for what I did in church.
She look totally disgusted with me.
Like she sorry she ever took the time out to birth
a daughter that treat her bad as me.
She motion for me to get in the car.
I get in the back seat by the door this time.
I grab the handle and roll the window down as far
as it will go. The air cool on my face.
At least, for the ride home, I’m gone get to breathe.
Breathing ain’t something I’m gone be doing long, I bet.
Cause when I get home, Mama gone kill me dead.
I keep hearing the words and the voice of the angel
ringing over and over, all thru my head.
“His ways is not our ways. Nor is His thoughts our thoughts.”
Then I remember the other words that the angel said.
On the radio they say it was bad for the marchers.
Bloody Sunday they calling this Easter day.
Many Negroes was injured. Maybe some even dead.
So, I bow my head.
And I begin to pray.

Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her poem, “Naa Naa,” appeared in Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. She has won the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award; 4Culture’s Artists Projects Award; and the WRAP Award, Youth Arts Award, and the City Artist Award from Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Her play Black To My Roots: African American Tales from the Head and the Heart won the Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award in Edinburgh, Scotland for Outstanding New Production.

Image Credit: “Act II of the Unruly Hair Portraits,” J.E. Crum

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