My Fantastic Four

My first teachers were women of color. My first, second, and third grade teachers, and the librarian at my elementary school were all black.

Each of them in their own way taught me to love words — to read them, to write them, to let my imagination enter without reservation the worlds that words make.

fugitive library, North Carolina, circa late 1950s/early 1960s

Their love of language, forged in the unimaginable circumstances of their lives, made constant demands on them, and they lovingly passed on to me the joyful vocation of careful word choice and articulation. They taught me that every word mattered.

I read whole biographies in those years. I’m not kidding. I read everything the librarian pointed out to me, and I loved nothing in school better than the times she brought a book to life, filled the atmosphere with her tones and inflections, as we sat in a circle, enraptured by her tales.

Certain words still have their own kind of music in her voice.

The librarian was nearing retirement in my days at Pershing Elementary but the classroom teachers were younger women. This was the early 1970s in Orlando. I had no idea what their mid-twentieth century lives were like before I arrived in their school.

I can sometimes imagine those lives now, of course. The hardships. The traumas. The sadness. The personal victories that brought them where they were. Lord have mercy. Black lives matter.

So it was bewildering when, in the summer between my third and fourth grade years, I heard my mother speaking with our neighbor, Mrs. Hanson, over the hedgerow between our homes.

She told our neighbor that after three black teachers, she’d made sure that I had a white teacher for fourth grade. I did not understand everything my mother was saying but I knew then and I know now that I did not like her inferences.

I ended up learning a lot of interesting things about history in fourth grade but I missed the level of language work I’d been privileged with before.

As I got older I realized that my family had ideas about black persons that I found upsetting at a visceral level. It provoked rage in me. In fifth grade, I read Alex Haley’s “Roots,” and watched a made-for-TV film about the KKK’s murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi.

I was a hot mess. It was all I wanted to talk about for months but I was told that there was “a lot more to it” that I did not understand, that I was young, that I would understand better as I got older, that I needed to cool down.

It’s hard to say this about my mother’s family, and about many of the men I grew up around, and I am sure the ones that are yet living have confronted some of this by now — I pray that some have, I know that some have not — but they were all racists.

I will not go into the things that were said or the stories that were told but they were still said and told in front of me, and there’s something about words when you are young, they work the work of words. When disordered they are evil incantations. Words that at the time your young heart finds bewildering and revolting still get inside of you. They put up scaffolding, even when we consciously reject them.

I am grateful for my early mentors in language, for their intelligence and wisdom — no doubt forged in the cosmic struggle that it must have been to grow up and live life as a black woman in the South in the 1920s to 1960s.

I praise their tenacity about words, their belief in the worlds that sentences evoke, their passion about stories.

I love the way their entire presence — fashion, bearing, thought, enunciation — was defiant, how that infused strength into my fatherless soul. They took every thought captive. They brooked zero bullshit.

I am grateful beyond words that their stories and their care and their loving demands drafted blueprints in my mind and heart, colored with the lilt, determination, and exacting pronunciation of their voices, designs that along with the Scriptures, renovated my interior as I became a man.

I can still hear those sharp and beautiful voices down the cloisters of my mind. I do count on these four women to save me from myself, to demolish what remains of white supremacy in me, in this moment of trial and in all the times that are left to me.

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Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)

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Kenneth Tanner

Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)

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