After the hymns had been sung - happy are the faithful dead! - the churchwomen prepared a fellowship meal at one shack or another. Your color didn't matter when it came to who was served and where, but whether you were male or female did. The men were fed where they sat, their wives fixing their plates before their own, wise to their husbands' predilections: Brother Fink ate only the chicken's legs, thighs, and the tail he called the pope's nose; Brother Jackson required that his food be layered - a mound of potatoes topped with meat and smothered with a generosity of gravy. The boys not old enough to be in the men's circle and the girls too young for kitchen help were called in next, made to scrub their faces, and put to the table. Only after the men and the children were served did the women eat: bread heels, chicken backs, the wateriest remains of corn pudding. They ate with babies nursing at their breasts and whispered their hushed stories of hard births and cancerous wombs, jumping up when called to bring another biscuit or glass of sweet tea to the men, whose talk was of dropping wheat prices, Nazi spies, and the local criminal element that ran bootleg out of the bottoms and carried razor-sharp knives. I sat quiet in whatever corner I could find, acting like I wasn't listening, but what I heard told me all that I needed to know: that the world was fallen, that my only hope lay in the grace and glory of God, that Satan was waiting for me to falter at every turn, that he might appear to me as the Angel of Light, deceive me with his wicked tongue, and lead me to hell as his bride.
How many times did I rouse from some nightmare, call out for my mother to save me? I might have left the trappings of my old life behind, but my grief had packed up and moved right along with me, shaped and weighted as though it had a life of its own. I woke one night so sure that the devil had found me that I ran to the cot in the kitchen, told my grandfather that I could feel that grief lying right there beside me like a panting black dog. He lit a candle, took a vial of oil from the corner of the cupboard, made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and pressed his palms to my ears. "Demon, by the authority given to me by the Lord Jesus Christ, I command that you leave this child!" He gripped my head tighter, shook it like a gourd. "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, come out of her, I command you!" He drew his hands away so quickly that the suction nearly deafened me. When I opened my eyes, I saw the tears pooling in the dark shallows of his face, his mouth arched as though that demon had leaped right out of me and into him. I went back to my bed, now cold, and wished I had never left it, had kept my hurt to myself. Silence was a lesson I learned well - how to mute my body, my voice, my heart.
That fall, my first day of school, my grandfather rode me to town on the mule because the pickup had broken down and no amount of prayer would fix it. As we approached the playground, I saw all the white children pointing and laughing until the pretty young teacher came out to scold them. If I hadn't understood it before, I knew it then: we were different, I was different, not only a member of the Holy Roller church but an orphan from the south edge of town who lived where most whites wouldn't. I slid from the mule's broad back, kept my head down, and followed the teacher into the room, where she showed me my desk and placed a picture book in my hands. "You can read for a while," she said kindly, and left me to lose myself in the pages even as the other students filed in and began reciting their numbers. From that point on, books became my solace, my escape. I brought them home from the library, hid them from the eyes of my grandfather, who believed that only the word of God had a place in his house, that stories outside of the scripture might lead me astray.
I completed elementary, kept growing, went with the junior high nurse to buy what my grandfather called my unmentionables - soft-cupped brassieres, panties, sanitary belts and napkins - then stood in my bedroom, confounded by the hooks and straps, ashamed when my grandfather would no longer meet my eyes when I came in from the outhouse. From him, I learned that I was the daughter of Eve, a danger to myself, a temptation to those around me. Couldn't wear pants, only skirts that covered my knees. Couldn't wear makeup or jewelry to draw the attention of men. Couldn't cut my hair, which was my veil of modesty. Couldn't preach because Paul said so. Suffer not a woman. When revival came and the Spirit descended, the sisters who were slain fell flat on their backs, arms raised to heaven, ecstatic in their possession, and I was the one whose charge it was to hasten forward and cover their legs with the lap cloths that they themselves had sewn so that their modesty might be maintained. What would it feel like, I wondered, to give myself over so completely, to fall under such a spell? But not even the fear that I would spend my eternal life in hell brought the call that would lead me to kneel at the altar, lay myself at the feet of the Lord, and the church people noticed. I learned to pretend the conviction I did not feel, to pray with my mouth open, my eyes closed, my hands raised to heaven. I was saved - couldn't they see? Born again. It was a lie I didn't realize I was living, a way to survive the surly dictates of that thing called faith.
Excerpted from In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes. Copyright © 2012 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, 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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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