Tacos and Sangria
When the phone rang at 5:25 a.m., I was already up, pretending to meditate. Miss Iona didn’t even wait for me to say hello.
“You have to come home.”
“I am home,” I said.
“That is where you live. This is home and you know it. I called you last night. Where were you?”
“Probably somewhere minding my own business,” I said. “And good morning to you, too.”
Miss Iona Williams had been my parents’ friend for as long as I could remember. On a lot of the nights when my father would be out late at meetings and my mother was defiantly finishing up her graduate studies, it was Miss Iona who came to sit with me and fix me dinner and hear my prayers and tuck me in. When my mom left the Rev and moved to the West Coast, he got custody of Miss Iona. She’s one of the few people he cannot intimidate, although he never stops trying.
Five years ago, at sixty plus, she got married for the first time to Charles Larson, but refused to take his name.
“I’m not trying to make a statement,” she had explained to my mother who tried to offer feminist congratulations at the wedding. “I just don’t see the point.”
Miss Iona wasn’t maternal in the traditional sense of being motherly. She was more like a really great friend who never took any shit from you, but never gave you any either. When my mom was being too ideological and my father was being too omnipotent, I always knew I could trust Miss Iona to give it to me straight.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning! Did I wake you?” she said without waiting for an answer. “I’ve been up for hours, but I was trying to wait for a more civilized hour before I called you.”
She was just trying to be polite. Miss Iona always called very early or very late. Other people’s schedules were of little or no concern to her. She had that in common with the Rev.
“I’m up,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Just what I said. You have to come home right away. Your father needs you.”
This was not a crisis. This was a delusion.
“The Rev doesn’t need me,” I said, calling him by the name everybody called him, except my grandmother who died when I was five, and who always called him Dunbar. Even my mother still called him Rev, although she had disavowed the practice in an essay on the patriarchy that won an award in a big-time feminist journal. It was a good piece, too, but after a lifetime of calling him Rev, what was she going to substitute? Sweetie Pie? “He hasn’t even spoken to me in five months.”
“Well, he needs to speak to you now because he has completely lost his mind.”
“There is a difference,” I said, “between insanity and intractability. He’s not crazy. He’s just stubborn.”
“Have you seen yesterday’s paper?”
I haven’t lived in Atlanta in more than a decade, but I knew Miss Iona meant The Atlanta Constitution.
“No, I . . .”
“That’s why you’re not on a plane down here right now,” she interrupted me. “If you had seen it, that’s where you would be. On your way to talk some sense into him before he undoes the work of his whole lifetime.”
Miss Iona was known for her unflappability, but she was really getting wound up. The Rev must really have put his foot in his mouth.
“What did he say?”
“What did he say? How about when they asked him about those signs Reverend Patterson put up at the church . . .”
“Bilingual signs. You know, first in English, then in Spanish right under it. We’ve got a lot of Mexican families coming on Sundays now, nicest people you ever want to meet, but a lot of them don’t speak much English yet and Reverend Patterson thought the signs would make them feel welcome.”
Reverend Patterson had become the senior pastor at the Rock of Faith Community Church last year after my father retired and the Rev had always been supportive.
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing!” Miss Iona said. “That’s the whole point, but not according to your father.”
I could hear the paper rustling while she found the part of the article she wanted to quote exactly.
“The Rev said, and I quote, ‘you can go overboard with this multicultural thing. Next thing you know, we’ll be offering tacos and sangria for communion Sunday.’?”
“What?!” My father was a champion of diversity. This had to be a misquote.
“It gets worse. ‘Before they start worrying about teaching these kids to speak Spanish, somebody needs to teach them how to speak English. That’s why they can’t get decent jobs. Our president is content to bask in his own rhetorical flourishes without acknowledging that most of our kids can’t even speak their own mother tongue, much less read it. And that doesn’t have anything to do with white folks. That has to do with being sorry. Why doesn’t Barack Obama talk about that?’?”
I closed my eyes and felt a familiar throb behind my right eyeball. My father’s relationship or lack of relationship with President Obama was the reason I was up at five o’clock in the morning trying to calm my ass down in the first place. My father once had been a big supporter of then-candidate Obama and had spearheaded an independent voter registration drive that put 100,000 new names on Georgia’s books. From my position inside the campaign, I let people know that my father had offered access to this list of enthusiastic new voters in a state where Republicans were expected to make a clean sweep everywhere but the city of Atlanta, where, of course, Obama was expected to cream all comers.
The Rev’s voters, already organized and easily targeted, had been gathered from one hundred churches spread throughout the state who had participated in a program called One Hundred Percenters. Each church pledged to register 100 percent of the eligible voters in the congregation and make sure those voters got to the polls. Nobody thought they could do it, but they did. Access to that list would have given our campaign a huge leg up on the competition. His timely offer would also improve both my father’s access to the candidate and my own currency as a bright, energetic, but undeniably mid-level staffer. Enter the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Reverend Wright and my dad shared a belief in the Black Liberation Theology that had always been a strong strain in the African American religious tradition, but had remained largely unknown to most white Americans who first encountered its passionate, pro?phetic cadences when a thirty-second video of Reverend Wright surfaced on the Internet. His fiery declaration that rather than saying “God bless America,” his parishioners ought to “Goddamn America,” for her long history of racial crimes, set off a storm of outrage that led to the candidate’s decision to craft and deliver as eloquent and unapologetic a treatise on race as has ever been heard anywhere. Rejecting the sound bite, but refusing to jettison Wright, Obama’s support for his pastor went too far for some, but not nearly far enough for some radical clergymen who leaped to Wright’s de- fense, charging the media with racism and ignorance and candidate Obama with abandoning a man who had been his pastor for more than twenty years. My father planted himself firmly in the latter camp and stayed there throughout those long, strange weeks when the full weirdness of American race relations was on display for all the world to see.
Jeremiah Wright scared the hell out of those of us who were spending every waking hour working to send Barack Obama to the White House. Trying to explain Liberation Theology to people whose only other exposure to black preaching is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is like trying to explain classical ballet to a group of wiggly eight-year-olds in tutus; a thankless task. By the time the smoke cleared, my father had reneged on his promise to share 100,000 new voter names and the campaign had decided I wasn’t the rising star they thought I was.
I’m not saying it’s the Rev’s fault that my dream job hasn’t materialized yet, but I don’t think his unwavering support of Rev. Wright, even after the man’s disastrous visit to the Washington Press Club, did me a whole lot of good either. Our last conversation before we mutually cut off communication with each other was a terrible exchange of defiance (him) and desperation (me), where we both said things we shouldn’t have. But you know what they say: shoulda, coulda, woulda.
“He’s not plugged in anywhere,” Miss Iona was saying urgently, trying to make me understand. “Nobody’s asking his opinion on anything and you know that man needs to give his opinion!”
At least we could agree on that. “Go on.”
“You should have seen him on election night,” she said. “Me and Charlie had some folks over, but the Rev was just in a funk all night. He wanted to be somewhere with a little more light shinin’ on it, but nobody invited him but us.”
I sighed. This is exactly what I had warned him about. “Do the Obama people really have that much to say about what happens in Atlanta?”
“It appears they do. Precious Hargrove had a big party at the Regency and your father’s name was nowhere on the guest list.”
State Senator Precious Hargrove was a strong contender in the upcoming Georgia governor’s race. She had been a member of Rock of Faith as long as I had known her and the Rev had been the one who first encouraged her to go into politics when she was a young mother, newly arrived in West End, struggling to raise her son alone and make her way in the world.
“Now he’s going all over the state, bad-mouthing her.”
“Bad-mouthing her about what?”
“About supporting the president is what I’m trying to tell you! He called her a . . . wait a minute. Let me get it right. He called her ‘a card carrying member of the Ladies for Obama fan club who can be counted on to follow their handsome hero wherever he may lead them.’?”
This was awful. I had never heard the Rev talk like that to anybody, much less a reporter from The Atlanta Constitution. His comments to the guy were bigoted and sexist, bitter and petty.
“Do you think he’s having some kind of breakdown?”
“I don’t know what he’s having,” she said. “He called a press conference last week and nobody came, so he read The Constitution’s editor the riot act until they promised to do a big feature story on him. He spent the day talking to the reporter and this, this, is the article that came out of it.”
Excerpted from Till You Hear from Me by Pearl Cleage. Copyright © 2010 by Pearl Cleage. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, 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.