on the surface

I don’t understand race. An anthropologist colleague says, “Louie, race doesn’t exist as a scientific category. At best a race is just ‘a breeding community with unstable boundaries’; and you and Ernest knock the hell out of that one, don’t you!”

I see what she means.

Louie & Ernest Clay in the chapel of Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA
Louie & Ernest Clay in the chapel of Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA

Yet racial categories so pervade my life that I cannot hope to understand myself, much less the world, without sensitive and difficult vigilance regarding pitfalls and opportunities.

Mrs. Eula Jackson, our maid, spent more time with me than Mother did during my early childhood (1936-) in Anniston, Alabama. She had no children of her own and treated me with all the affection she might have bestowed on them. Mother often complained when Mrs. Jackson dressed me in my Sunday best to show me off to other maids tending us at the playground. It is easy to imagine why in those years I was closer to her than to Mother.

I was close to her husband too. He worked at my Dad’s hardware store (the building is still there) and generously spent time nourishing me with intrigue and wonder.

Courtesy of Google MapsBut I rarely saw black children my own age except outside the window of our car when we drove Mrs. Jackson home. Occasionally a cluster of them, typically caddies, would spot my buddies and me playing where our street, Keith Avenue, is at a T-junction with hole #15 of the Country Club golf course. Almost always they scampered across the fairway and through a break in the hedge that hid their neighborhood.

“The races don’t mix socially,” my father explained. “There are many fine Negras; some are better Christians than I am,” he said, “and in time they’ll be ready to mix with us, but they’re less than 100 years out of slavery. In their own schools they have a chance to lead. In schools with whites, they’d probably not get much of the respect or admiration they get in their own schools.” Dad later was President of the Anniston Board of Education for several years.

On the surface this seems, but perhaps only “on the surface,” a gentler form of racism than the Klan perspective of some of his cousins, and his grandfather, John L. Crew. John L. was famous for two things, 1) his alcoholism which he acquired as a Confederate private in the “War Between the States”, and 2) his oft repeated statement, “So long as there is a N* left in the world, I’ll never put on my own coat again.” John L. had spent most of that war in a Yankee prison run primarily by black Union soldiers.

our bed
Handmade Bed of John L. & Liza Crew, from Goodwater, Alabama ca. 1895

For over 42 years now Ernest and I have slept in John L.’s 4-poster, but it’s time to downsize and we have it on sale. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting it. We rejoice that few now have the associations that have made the bed so right for us.

A Dutch colleague and I are currently collaborating on an article, “Desegregating Our Spiritual Lives.” It is inspired in part by a resolution, “Establish Response to Systemic Racial Injustice,” passed by General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2015. When we’re done and it’s published, we hope readers will find it as upbeat and challenging to read as we are finding it to write.

Anticipating no connection, I have been treating myself to another John Grisham novel, Sycamore Row. It’s one of the few of his I have not yet read. I expect Grisham to entertain and intrigue, but not to feed my intellect or even to feed my heart. Or so I thought.

In Sycamore Row, Grisham does both. It’s powerful. If you decide to read it, studiously avoid reading any plot giveaways in advance. I was glad that I had not. It’s a great companion piece to some of my other favorites: James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me,” Michele Richardson’s Liar’s Bench et al.

 

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Louie Crew Clay

Louie Crew Clay,  81, is an Anniston, Alabama native and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers. He lives in East Orange, NJ, with Ernest Clay, his husband for 44 years. He holds an M.A. from Auburn University, a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), and honorary doctorates from three seminaries of the Episcopal Church. He is the founder of Integrity, an international organization of lgbt Episcopalians/Anglicans. Editors have published 2,730+ of Louie Crew Clay's poems and essays — including Letters from Samaria: The Prose & Poetry of Louie Crew Clay, NYC: Church Publishing, Inc., November 2015 and  Our Station Forgot to Give the Evening News,  Poetry Superhighway. An eBook in the press' annual 'The Great Poetry E-Book Free-For-All,' online from December 1, 2016. You can follow his work at Rutgers.edu. See also Wikipedia.org. The University of Michigan collects Clay’s papers.