SPECIAL ISSUE: say her name
If You Get There
It’s 2 a.m. when I pull away from Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles and drive down Sunset Boulevard toward the freeway. The buzz of activity in the city has quieted to a dull hum, as if it is whispering good-bye.
Just a few cars keep me company on the road. Our headlights are collectively the only light. With my left forearm, I keep the wheel steady. With my right hand, I get the Roadtrip Playlist going. Just six hours until I’m back in Oakland. I pull into a 24 hour Starbucks before entering the freeway.
He was the kind of hungry that clings to your skin like a wet shirt. As soon as he pulled away from it a little bit, it snapped right back into place. Hunger was the norm in a time of long lines for government cheese. He didn’t know anything about stock market crashes, but he did know he wouldn’t make it if he stayed in Mississippi.
He got the book from a cousin who wanted him to head North to Chicago. “Book” might have been an overstatement. It was a pile of paper, crudely kept together by a strip of fabric, with writing from at least a dozen different hands. It would guide him, tell him which towns were safe for black folk and which ones to pass through, which hotels would serve him, which restaurants would feed him. He took the guide, a piece of bread, and a Bible.
He never made it to Chicago. Instead he ended up in Maryland where he had to lie about his age to join the Navy—the poor man’s path to financial security—and memorized entire chunks of God’s Word.
The road twists and turns through the mountains. My foot stays on the gas, pressing deeper as the engine vrooms and the speedometer rises. Stevie Wonder tells me not to be Superstitious, and I bang on the steering wheel in time with his beat.
The car in front of me slams on the breaks. The red lights flash on my face and pull me out of my driver’s haze. Next to me, another car also slows down. They must see something I don’t.
And then, as my speedometer passes 85, 75, 70, I see the police car hidden along the side of the road in a gap in the divider. I can’t see the officer in the car, but I stare at the windshield right where I think his eyes are. I hope to send him a message.
Please don’t make my name a hashtag.
There were no streetlights in that part of South Carolina. And our car was the only car on the road. My brothers’ snores kept me from sleeping, so I peeked one eye open slow enough that my parents wouldn’t know I was awake. But there was nothing to see but trees that could have starred in a horror movie. I closed my eyes and squeezed them as shut as they would go.
Daddy chuckled, “If we were to stand outside right now, nobody would see us.”
Mom snorted. “Let’s pray we don’t break down out here. This looks like Klan territory.”
Daddy stopped chuckling. He leaned forward a little closer to the wheel as if that would help his eyes cut through the darkness.
I knew enough to open my eyes and keep watch for white hoods.
My foot gets heavier when a good song comes on. But I remind myself not to speed, not to draw attention to myself.
Don’t talk back to white folks. Don’t be mean to white girls. Don’t lock eyes with them. Don’t talk about white folks in front of white folks. Don’t laugh too loud. Don’t congregate too long or too publicly. Don’t argue. Don’t beat them at anything.
Always wave to the police if you’re a woman or a man who wears cardigans and glasses and has a high voice. Always smile to let them know you’re not scary. Always keep your pants up and your hair straightened. Always step off the sidewalk to let them pass. Always let them touch you when they are curious.
The rule of my childhood: Respectability will protect you. Until it doesn’t.
Stay alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
For her, there was no book to tell her where she could find safety. She strapped her baby to her back and followed the Star, praying the whole way.
I switch from my Motown jams to an audio book. A white woman tells me how to be a writer. She tells me to start with my life, to be brave, to find my tribe, to find the flaws in characters, to write until I find my voice.
The gas meter dips just below a quarter of a tank. The sun has just started to peek over the horizon, turning the sky a bright pink that morphs with the darkness of night. Signs tell me there are gas stations up ahead. But as I approach the exit, my skin prickles and my womb throbs. I hear the message: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop. I wonder if the guidebooks mentioned that particular spot in California as unsafe for the thousands of blacks who fled from the South to Oakland. I thank my body for keeping me safe and press on. But a minute later, the pressure shifts from my womb to my bladder.
Where is the audio book that tells me where it is safe to stop?
“Now, Helen,” the principal said with his hands on his hips, “You know the rules. I can’t make any exceptions.”
All she wanted to do was take Algebra. But Negroes weren’t allowed.
That night, her parents talked about Emmett Till’s funeral in hushed tones. But still, she heard and she knew. She tucked his story somewhere in the folds of her heart. It burrowed deep and became a wound that would fuel a lifetime of anger and insecurity. She stored the lesson he was supposed to learn away, something to teach her sons later so they would know how to stay alive.
I stop for gas when the sun has chased away all the darkness. The attendant inside points me toward the bathroom and tells me to, “Have a blessed day.” She says it without a smile, but I give her a smile anyway.
My smile fades though when she follows me, a few feet behind, down the aisle as I search for something tasty and caffeinated. I begin to hum “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” loud enough for her to hear.
Her eyes brighten in recognition. She goes back to her post behind the counter. I go to the bathroom.
Sometimes I have to remind them I am human like they are.
“Jesus is black,” James said on the church playground.
“No, Jesus is white.” I pointed to the picture in my illustrated Bible.
“No, he is black.” James stood and pushed me just as my dad walked past.
His black and gold preacher’s robe swished around his ankles as he hurried over to us. “Jesus was Jewish,” he said, like that solved the debate. “And men don’t push women.”
James sniffed. “Jesus has to be black, so he will be on our team.”
James was shot and killed before his twentieth birthday. Folks blamed him and his lifestyle, said he made the wrong choices. The implicit message: Jesus wasn’t on his team.
I’m almost home. My legs ache for a rest. My back craves my bed. My feet itch to be free of shoes. The sun beats down on my left arm. I imagine I can feel my skin getting darker with each mile.
I flick on the radio, hoping for a news segment about something heroic, something cute, something to cut through the darkness behind me. Instead I hear black lives were lost, stolen, in a church.
I punch the button to silence the radio. For the first time in six hours, the car is completely silent. My chest swells with grief, not just for the lives lost today but for the other lives now only connected to my spirit. Centuries of hurt live in my skin.
I open my mouth and sing,
“If you get there before I do
Comin' for to carry me home
Tell all my friends that I'm a-comin' too
Comin' for to carry me home.”
Jasmine Evans is a writer, instructor, and curriculum designer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in South 85, Lunch Ticket, and The Copperfield Review. She is an alum of the VONA/Voices workshop and was a finalist for the 2015 Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award.