Myrtle took shape quickly and easily in my mind: she was at once fact and fiction, a rarity in the depth of her hatred of dark-skinned black people and a common stereotype in her inability to identify with dark folks as sharing anything at all in common with her vastly superior, high yellow self.
And though I hadn’t delved completely into her back story within the fictional tale I was weaving, I knew that some of her sense of superiority came from directly from a light-skinned father who doted on her, planted a miniature orchard of crepe myrtles – his favorite and her namesake – in her honor, and loved his precious, beautiful baby girl so much, that he never left her to sleep alone in her room for even one evening in her entire life. I knew that every night, once Myrtle’s dark-skinned mother had gone to sleep, that Myrtle’s father visited his daughter intimately, assuring her of her beauty, her power, her worth.
And yet I hesitated to give this character, who loomed so large and clear in my mind, a voice, a story, a place on the page. Wasn’t this character a degrading stereotype? Did I have any right to conceive and give birth to her fictional selfhood, given that I’ve never suffered such trauma myself and don’t share her prejudice toward people different shades of black and brown than I? And of course, the question which nagged at me most, the one my mother asked me immediately upon her own introduction to Myrtle…
Where did she come from? My only answer was that she felt real to me, informed by literature I’ve read, movies and television I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard, and life I’ve lived. Further, I discovered that the cliched area into which I feared I was stepping was perhaps not cliched but fresh in its perspective, and more willing to receive my company than I’d previously assumed. What I found when I introduced the idea of Myrtle’s prejudice to a group of fellow novice writers, was that people who have not experienced being black in this country were completely blown away by the prejudice that fueled Myrtle from within, that anything so demeaning as a paper-bag test had ever existed, that this prejudice is wrapped up in the tension between darker-skinned field slaves and lighter-skinned, (ahem) biracial house slaves.
And so when I came across this article the other day, I quickly found myself in it.
(Does that ever happen to you? You’re poking around online, click a tweet published by a writer you like and then – BAM – there you are, on the page, even though you yourself didn’t write it?)
And I realized – not quite as quickly – yet another layer of the thick aroma of systemic racism in this country, shared corporately among those of us born and raised here. And struggling, yearning to breathe free, from that stagnant, racist air, are voices like mine – voices needed to illuminate our experience: to empower our peers, and to clarify our experience for those who don’t live in our skin.
Myrtle is not by any means the first character of her kind. But she’s a first for me, and I now realize the importance of working through my reservations and anxieties to give voice to her, her niece, and her great-nephew. While her personhood is fictional, the larger truths she represents are real. Her story – and mine – needs to be told.
I sat in the pew next to my eight year-old, dabbing at my eyes at intervals. Robyn, who was currently reading a piece he’d written after attending the Gay Christian Network conference, had shared this same piece two weeks prior, in our Sunday school class, which he leads/facilitates. My heart sank and rose intermittently, as Robyn shared about the people he’d had the opportunity to meet, all of whom were astonished that he was an openly gay member of a church congregation that allowed him to serve, that welcomed him, that accepted him just as he is.
Robyn’s sharing these mornings fell under the heading of “Exhorting,” a chapter from the book our Sunday school class was working its way through. So Robyn wasn’t just sharing about his experiences at this conference in Houston; he was simultaneously thanking our entire congregation, graciously reflecting to us the deep, meaningful good we’d done as a body, just by inviting him in and welcoming him to stay, to serve, to be.
One particular aspect of Robyn’s message spoke loudly to my heart: He spoke of a woman whose gay son had died of AIDS, and who had taken in one of her son’s friends after he’d been kicked out of his own house for being gay. This young man – abandoned by his parents and surely feeling truly hopeless – had slit his wrists one day while this mom was out of her house, leaving a note that said he’d have been alright if only he could have hugged his mother one more time. This precious, beautiful soul has therefore now taken it upon herself – through Freedhearts.org – to distribute buttons to any and all who ask, which read “Free Mom Hugs” and “Free Dad Hugs,” so that men, women, and children, can have a willing stand-in for their own biological parents at a moment’s notice. So around the conference that weekend, men and women bearing these buttons were peppered throughout those gathered, happy to distribute “free” hugs as needed.
Robyn went on to highlight the individuals in our congregation who’ve never forgotten to include him in their holiday gatherings, who invite him into their homes, and even one truly special, insightful man, who looked at Robyn and told him he was a blessing – a thing Robyn’s own father never told him, instead missing no opportunity to verbally and mentally abuse Robyn.
In time, Robyn’s message came to a close, sniffles were snuffled, more hugs freely given. And as I started to gather my children’s scattered church bulletins, crayons, and bags, I looked up to see an older member of our congregation amiably wishing me a good week, bearing a button that read “Free Dad Hugs.”
I was almost comically overcome with emotion in that moment. I kept it together because: adulting. But I never expected to receive so precious a gift myself.
I’m not sure when, how, or why the Church got its wires crossed with regard to what it means to love each other as Christ loved us. Neither can I pretend that our little East Texas congregation gets it right all the time, and my frustrations are nil because all the things are perfect all of the times.
But what I do know is that this time, with this treasured friend, unique individual, service-minded congregant, we’ve gotten it right: We’ve not alienated him, abandoned him, browbeaten him, bullied him, or sternly insisted that we love him but hate his sin. Instead, we’ve welcomed him in, we’ve loved him completely, and we’ve learned alongside and from him.
I’ve never been prouder to wear a plastic button. I’ve never been prouder to be a member of my church.