Their house was falling apart. It was constructed in the most destitute part of town where the city planners (whites) deemed uninhabitable, the section of town where the terrain was below sea-level, marshy, polluted, far from downtown, drug-infested, violent, close to the highway, airport, landfill. Once you crossed the threshold it was like walking into a storefront church. The sanctity was undeniable. The furniture was well-maintained in protective plastic covers. Food was prohibited in this room. The mahogany coffee table had never had a drink on its surface. On the wall facing the table was a yellowy picture of a blue-eyed Jesus with worn dog-eared edges. Under the picture was an altar where an oversized King James Bible laid bare a list of their birthdates and death-dates. It remained open to Luke 6:20-23:
…Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven…
On the adjacent wall was the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. foretelling a dream. In the corner to the right of door, on an end table next to the faux suede armchair, someone had neatly arranged copies of The Final Call. The issue most read, and atop them all, was the one that denied the Nation of Islam’s involvement in the assassination of Malcolm X. The hallway led you past the living room and divided the bedrooms on one side from the bathroom and the kitchen on the other. One step into the kitchen greeted you with the pungent smell of bubbling red beans, ham hocks, chitterlings, black-eyed peas, cabbage, greens, yams, turkey necks, gizzards, hog malls, pig feet. The matriarch wouldn’t tolerate company while she was cooking, so the only time you could steal a whiff, let alone a taste, was when she watching television. In the three foot space of wall between the refrigerator and window was the calendar he brought home every year as a gift from his job as a mechanic, custodian, dishwasher, bellhop, garbage man, house painter, short-order cook, truck loader, landscaper, plumber, day laborer. The year was 1967.
Across from the kitchen was the boys’ room. That’s where they slept, fought, cried, and cleaned their guns. The oldest had taken to wearing all black to display his allegiance to the Black Panther Party. They would stare at Malcolm X’s image peering out of his window holding a rifle and mimic this pose with their own M-1’s, gazing at their reflection in the mirror hanging on the closet door. The little ones thought they looked slick. When they weren’t admiring their older brothers, they were calculating Batman’s next escape or Bob Gibson’s strike out count.
The other room was the girls’ who were always fighting. Some, usually the older ones, fell in love with Nikki Giovanni. Whatever she wrote, they committed to memory. They grew their hair out and shed their girlish naiveté with blowout kits. The youngest wouldn’t relent about Naomi Sims. If she could be the first black supermodel, they would be the second and third and fourth. Her magazine covers were often ripped down and thrown in their faces. Read a book. Your looks won’t get you anywhere with whitey. Their mother would always intervene.
The parents’ room was the smallest. It was mean with poor lighting and a bed that opened your skin if you didn’t avoid the protruding springs that raised at the slightest shifts in weight. Over the hollow headboard hung a cheap brass cross. The floor model television was the only partially visible when you were propped against the headboard. Every day they would crowd into the room, crammed on the bed or seated on the floor leaning on each other as they watched Andy Griffith and Bonanza. Sometimes they were interrupted by the images of dead soldiers killed in the Vietnam, the tears of assassinated man’s wife, the sounds of a German Sheppard gnawing a black man’s forearm, the flames engulfing their city. These interruptions led to discussions about their direction, what black people should do and when. The children would be forced out of the room then, left to wonder what would happen, while their parents worried about their jobs, bail money, riot curfews, the FBI, desegregation, Fred Hampton, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, King’s path to the promise land.
This 1967 home represents an unfortunate consequence of misreading race. It exists in the mind of William Styron, the place where his knowledge of black culture inspired a portrait of faceless people who have no words, no voices, no souls. They come forward through detailed observations that fail to animate their humanity. That’s why Styron’s Confessions fails. It is not enough to get the “facts” right. You also have to imbue characters with lives that reflect authenticity.
But we are too proud. Our Nat Turner is coming.