April 22, 2004
Looking over some figures about how the black vote is likely to divide in this year's presidential election, I reflected that I have always liked black people, even though I grew up in a time and place where they were regularly described as inferior. That didn't matter to me because I didn't know what inferior meant. All I knew was that all the black people I met were cheerful and kind.
Our maid, Mattie Bell, would do the ironing on the back porch and I would lie on my back
under the ironing board and ask her questions. "Mattie Bell," I would say, "how come chickens flop around so much when they get their necks wrung?"
Though she would chide me, saying things like, "You ask more foolish questions that any little boy I done ever seen," she would always, eventually, answer. And she had very interesting things to say. "Dem chickens, they ain't got their heads no more. And, they's sad about it. But cause they ain't got no heads, they can't think. So all they can do is flop."
It was Mattie Bell who taught me, "If you ain't got the Lord in your heart, it don't matter, no more'n a dead rat what you believe." That has always seemed to me the essence of religious wisdom, and as being more profound than any theological treatise I ever read. It was a good thing to learn when I was only five years old.
When I got to college at Georgia Tech, I had a co-op job at the Tennessee Corporation in College Park, where we did research on what we euphemistically called "agricultural chemicals," but what was really fertilizer. Some of my work was scientific, varying the concentration of oxalic acid in different compounds and then analyzing the results. But some of it was simply hard labor, as when we loaded trucks to go out to the agricultural experiment stations. One of my colleagues in the latter was a huge man named L.C. , who probably weighed twice as much as I did, and was about five years older. I hope it doesn't diminish my manhood to confess that after two hours of loading hundred pound sacks, in the Georgia sun, onto a truck bed shoulder-high, I would begin to get tuckered out. When L.C. saw me wilting, he would step over to my pile, take a sack in each hand, and toss them on the truck like they were feather pillows. He could do more in two minutes than I could accomplish through ten minutes of exhaustion. When he had got my pile down a bit, he would clap me on the back and say, "Everybody needs a helping hand now and then."
It makes little sense to romanticize any group of people. There are sinners among blacks just as there are anywhere else. But, all in all, I think black people add a note of deep sanity to our national discourse. And, I'm glad that they're a part of it.
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