“To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived.” –James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”
Few places hold as much energy for me as my grandmother’s house. Like many of the houses in that area near Anderson, South Carolina, her home is squat and enclosed with winding halls and a roof close and steady to the ground. As is common for this type of house, it is generally poorly lit and the lights hum in their sockets and make the walls look honey-colored, although I always had a feeling that if you turned off the lights, that glow would remain in these off-white and peeled walls. The house smells like turmeric and spices sometimes, and others like hot combs and braids done in sinks. The water smells slightly like her heavy perfume.
One room has displays of painted dishes and a metal, black back door. This area of the house has a stagnant sort of peace, filled with the quiet stillness and fragility of so many valued things, her good china and her. This room is a little ghost town; each blue bowl and ornate plate inhabit a different memory, a different spirit. There is usually a flowery type of decoration on the table, and my grandmother loves to hand make them for special occasions at her church.
The first time I remember visiting was when I was ten for the funeral of my step-grandfather, the man that my grandmother married after my grandfather died before I was born. His name was Luther, and the most distinct memories I have of that visit are looking down at my black Mary Janes, and playing make-believe in the dirt fields behind the church with my cousins, and striking glances at the open casket as we walked past. His waxy skin made my stomach feel empty and horribly full at the same time.
Whispers in the classroom the day after I came back from South Carolina stuck to my long brown legs in the same way the hot black leather of the hearse did.
Anderson was a town with lynchings only a few decades prior, and bashed-in windows, romanticized plantation houses, and abandoned factories ruled my eyes, my mouth, my chest, me. This was where tensions between the white and Black folk came to burst instead of rumbling under the surface. When I returned to Colorado, I remember thinking there is so much laughter after a Black person dies. Kids laughed at me when I told them that my step-grandfather had passed away and I forced myself to make awkward giggles burn in my throat, too. I was quick to tell my white friends that he looked silly when I saw him dead, his lips and nose big and dark brown and kinda yellowish like mine when I don’t get enough sleep or sun, and that I didn’t know him very well anyway.
But that it how it goes, I guess. Black men die like promises and whites find the slightest ways to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid when I laugh I am laughing like that too, so much time spent in spaces not meant for me, that I have no choice but to stretch myself around someone’s finger like gum.
But at my grandmother’s house the day we buried Luther, I did not laugh. I may have before as a child running through the hallways chasing friends, but on the day of Luther’s funeral I was not ten. It was a hot and humid summer that makes windows shed tears like chubby-cheeked babies pressed close to my chest in pictures, connected to me by thin string like in the old dreamcatcher I hung above my bed. The pews and the walls of the church, everything connected by wood, by nails, by tar, by crosses and stained glass, bent into me, and trapped me like the thought of the ache in my grandmother’s backbone.
In sixth grade I heard about my grandparent’s education in the pews of a little schoolhouse church, each row separated by grade in South Carolina at the peak of the Jim Crow era, and the fact that my great-great-grandmother and my descendants before her were slaves.
I also learned from my mother years ago that my grandmother’s first name, Sippie, is Dutch, and my family's last name, Smith, is English, and my name, Zoe, is Greek. I was in fourth grade when we went around and told our classmates where our full name was from. My name was easy flowing through the tongues of pale little mouths, but none of us could yet recognize the distance between my yellow-brown hands and origins of these names that take but don’t give.
I hate to admit that a little part of me wanted to mention the things I have to the white kids in my class when the next member of my family died, wanted to tell them that my parents were well off and had lots of nice china. I wanted to tell them about the people in my family now and where I’m from and that I liked flowers and a kiss, too. And That I liked beautiful music that reminds me of loved ones, too, and the big side of the wishbone for good luck, as if it would give them a little thought that maybe I was like them, and I take like them, and maybe give them a speck of the idea that we are human, too.
Soon I found that I could not take from others like the white kids could. It is not muscle memory for Black people to take; even when we were picking from the cotton plants, it was not for us or our needs but the whims of Europeans. I’ve had nightmares and thoughts of Luther’s face, hands stretching and pulling at his body, skin, and face like chewy candy, how a person can be so stiff and so soft all at the same time. I wonder if I stole a little piece of him that day, like I stole a candy bar in third grade, like taking a nickel from my friend’s back pocket, like I stole a piece of cornbread from my uncle’s table, like I just took a little itty bitty piece that seems to ache more than the rest of me combined.
It’s hard to forget when you want to remember. Instead, I sit at my grandmother’s table, and my mother tells me about how Luther was born in 1930, almost a century before I was born. I feel sick when I suck the bone marrow of a chicken wing clean with my hungry deep mouth that never gives and my soup-cooler lips, because Luther is dead, and from my grandmother there is nothing left to take, and yet we laugh, break the heavy bone, and we take.
Zoe Smith-Holladay is a creative writing major at the Denver School of the Arts. She is the founder and author of www.kidsanimalstation.com, an animal blog that she started when she was eight. She loves nature, activism, and food.