My last trip of the summer is to Austin, Texas.
My home for nearly ten years, Texas is the state that taught me to be a woman and laid the foundation for what would render her as the first conservative in her family.
Texas is also the state that took away the woman closest to me.
My mother died here.
Coming back was not easy.
The trip haunted me for months.
In 2007, with mother’s affairs all taken care of, I vowed never to set skirt in Texas again. Whether it was the intense Houston heat or the humiliation of losing her home in Lampasas County that took its toll on mother, I blamed the entire state for her death.
Unreasonable thinking on my part?
Yes, but I needed a scapegoat and Texas was fated to become a convenient villain in this tragic chapter of my history.
With the trip fast approaching, my ticket not yet purchased, I found it difficult to muster the strength and enthusiasm. There was a “Lady Bird” Johnson tribute exhibit at the Lydon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Thrust into First Lady-hood after a violent assassination the sweetness of Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson resonated with the wounded country.
Dear gentle Lady Bird died one month after my mother. I was still in Houston when the news broke. Mother loved Lady Bird. and it was fitting that her death occurred soon before that of the woman she admired so greatly. Two Texas women one black one white. One a willing and proud resident, the other reluctant but out of options. One lying in state, the other in the Harris County morgue awaiting a maternal DNA test.
Should I or shouldn’t I? After all, it was Houston and not Austin that it happened. Anger and sadness intertwined with a sense of nostalgia for the place I learned to love- albeit on its terms. This was foreign land to the 19 year old Chicagoan. Exotic in many ways and new- literally new. The highways, glowed with reflecting lights during dusk. Meat was cooked slow on the smoker. Potato salad, watermelon wedges, Mexican food that melted in your mouth. The sweet smell of chicken mole, hot spicy, mesquite wood burning in the August air. Heat, dirt, bugs, tiny toads. Student Baptist tent revivals, Frito pie, Clint Black music playing throughout a woman’s dormitory, sorority girls, cheerleaders and hairspray. Lots of hairspray and eyeliner. My mother’s tears, a scorpion’s sting, fire ants on puppies. All memories of Texas.
Afrocity experienced a lot of “firsts” here. My first time driving, my first time meeting real live Republicans, my first time “you know” first time.
My first time being called a nigger happened in Texas. I will never forget that. It was 1989, rabid Neo Nazi Skinhead Tom Metzger stories were rampant in the news. Geraldo Rivera got a nose job by the best surgeon in town- a stage chair. Remember that?
Geraldo’s fight was typical of what was going on with hate groups. That summer when mother told me I was going to Texas, I braced myself for lynchings. It was only my first week there when I was called a nigger. It shocked me because I did nothing but wash my hands in the sink of a public restroom and tried to help someone get a paper towel. Not a skinhead, but a little blond blue eyed boy. He could not have been more than six years old.
“Nigger,” he taunted as I bent to hand him the paper towel.
We just starred at one another until his mother poked her head in, and called his name, Christopher left me standing there holding the baggage. At least we were now properly introduced.
Christopher allow me to introduce myself. I am Afrocity, the nigger. How nice to meet you.
Later, I met others that would make Christopher look like Prince Charming. While dancing at a club in Fort Worth a man came up to me and said “You look so pretty I could pull your skirt over your head and forget you are black.” Two weeks later, I witnessed my first Klu Klux Klan march. Sure we had KKK rallies in Chicago. I could have seen one if I wanted to. Texas just made it difficult for me to escape the festivities with the KKK march taking place right under my dorm window and all. Shutting the blinds, laying under my Wal-Mart sheets was how I spent that Saturday morning.
Texas tough love taught me to be tolerant.
“Can I touch your hair and skin? I have never seen a black person before.”
It was a question asked by mt sorority sister. We were in the back of a pick up truck, Winn Dixie bags filled with stuff for smores, quesedillas, and of course booze. My sister was beautiful and blond, kind and completely innocent. I put my brown hand on hers bent in her lap so she could stroke my hair.
“Why is it so straight?” she asked. ” How do y’all do that?”
“With an iron,” I answered.
“Y’all iron your hair on an ironing board??” He eyes were popped out.
“No silly!!!!” (Giggling) “We do it with a pressing comb. It is heated.
My brother told me I should of slapped the hell out of her for asking such a stupid question. My reaction was “too kind and naive” he told me. I did not mind the question, it only served to endear her to me.
For the first time, I felt black. Texas complicated my racial identity. In Chicago, my Caucasian friends never touched my face. Their mom’s never made me iced tea served in a mammy doll glass, on mammy doll table coasters, atop the mammy doll table cloth.
“They are just collector’s items you know,” said the Arlington, Texas mom. “My nana and I collected those since the 1930’s”
She was kind, a good God fearing woman who collected black mammy dolls. My iced tea was nice and cold. My friends were starring at me, awaiting a response to the museum of kitsch and racism.
I smiled, “You didn’t poison my tea so you could make a doll out of me did you?”
That Texas kitchen was bursting with laughter. My friend hugged me. “You are too funny.”
The Texas mom was off the hook and we girls would continue our slumber party in the living room watching Pretty Woman on pay per view. Pillow talk, popcorn, peach Schnapps and Everclear would finish us off. We were going to Dallas in the morning to work the Special Olympics, the alcohol needed to be out of our system. Surrounded by central air and white skin, I pryed my way to the kitchen for a glass of water. But someone was in the kitchen. It was Texas mom, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and communing with the mammy dolls.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I am thristy.”
“You’re fine darling, she said getting up to get me a glass. She opened the cabinet and everything inside was mammy doll themed. Her head went down. “Let me get you a foam cup.”
“That is okay, I will drink from anything. “
She turned and looked at me. “I am not a bad person. In Texas this stuff is normal but you are from up North. …I just want you to know that I do not hate black people. My daughter loves you…I have never had a black person in my house before, there just are none here. We have Mexicans in here to do yard work…”
I pulled out a seat at the table. This woman was interesting. “You know the dolls are from a bad time for my race but to you they are mere decorations,” I explained. “Like Nazi stuff.”
“I would nerver-“
“To blacks this stuff is the same thing.”
” I am a bad person.”
“No you are not. You just didn’t know.” I smiled at her, “I never have seen so many in one place…My mother in Chicago would freak out.”
The Texas mom laughed. “Do you forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you but the next time you buy one think of me.”
She nodded, “I will Afrocity.”
Sleep never came up again that night. Texas mom walked with me through the kitchen, mammy doll by mammy doll. Each one had a story behind it. Surprisingly her narratives were not racist at all. She was just a strawberry blond Texas tween, antiquing with her mother, ignorant of the pain caused by her hobby. Someone had to tell the story of race in America. What better storyteller than one’s kitchen.
Today’s pictures tell you that I did buy that ticket to Austin. 106 degree weather, smells of beer from 6th Street, college football, LBJ-land, good Mexican food again. Sushi with a PUMA pal. Texas, I forgive you. Thank you for allowing me grow as an African American woman. Thank you for the “firsts”.
Autographed Letter Signed,