She thinks of the other plant-wide committees formed in her three years at
the mill: excellence, international quality standards, cleanup, collective
bargaining, safety. She'd seen them come and go and they never stuck and
they never before invited her or Elijah. Now it's diversity and here the
two of them are at the table.
Clare thinks of her mother Carol buried not too far away at the Victory Baptist Church. She wonders what her mother would think of this meeting. Her mother was a godly woman, Gran Epps has told her that many times. Her mother died of breast cancer eighteen years ago in North Carolina. Gran went down there and held her only child on the hospital bed, rocking her, singing a Jesus song. Gran Epps made arrangements with a funeral home in Winston-Salem for a long-distance hearse for her thirty-year-old daughter. She packed up her four-year-old grandchild and put her own child in a casket and ferried them both back to Good Hope, Gran's hometown, where Gran's husband, Granpa Charles Hutto Epps, is buried. If Clare's mother were here, she would feel what? What would a godly woman read into this diversity meeting? She wouldn't feel creepy, the way Clare does. More than likely she'd pity them, that they need to be organized and drilled just to get along with each other. But her mother is dead, and it's easy, Clare understands, to make the dead wise.
A man in a plaid short-sleeved shirt stands from his chair at the corner of the first row, revealing finally who will run this meeting. His name is Sipe, a crane operator in shipping and receiving. Sipe is tan and robust, his shirt sloshes over his belt line like a water balloon. He wears khakis and loafers. Today is his day off. He's come in just for this meeting.
"How're y'all?" Sipe asks. He raises his thick hand quickly and uncomfortably. Clare cannot figure if it is in greeting or to ward off responses.
"As I hope you all know, this is the first meeting of the plant's new Diversity Committee." He grins hastily and a comradeliness flashes across his face, implying, Yeah, yeah, I don't want to be here either.
"There's been a situation here at the mill that management has said needs addressing. Each of us has been nominated to be on this committee. From the looks of things, we got a pretty well-rounded representation.
Mother, Clare decides, would lean forward and touch Elijah on the shoulder lightly and whisper to him, Lift your head, sweetheart. They mean well.
Plaid-striped Sipe crosses his arms to ask everyone in the room to identify themselves, and they do. The first few shyly stand to say their names and departments, then others rise only halfway from their seats, holding the backs of their metal chairs and plopping down when finished. Elijah is the first one to stay seated, and the rest follow suit.
When this is done, Sipe tells the story of what happened at the mill to create in management's mind the need for a Diversity Committee. Two days ago, a woman wore a T-shirt to work that read: it's a black thang, you wouldn't understand. Yesterday, in response, one of the woman's co-workers walked in wearing a T-shirt on which he'd drawn with Magic Marker a burning cross, under the scrawled slogan: it's a white thang, you wouldn't understand.
One of the black women in the meeting volunteers, "We thought it was funny." Clare figures this is the woman who wore the original offending shirt.
Sipe nods. He says defensively, "We did. That's right. But a few others didn't. So," he clears his throat, "here we are.
Excerpted from Scorched Earth by David L. Robbins. Copyright 2002 by David L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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