Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

“WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART: SUMMER ‘59,” a short story-poem by Arletta Dawdy tells of coming of age, reaching and rocking across cultures

In "White Girl, Black Heart: summer '59" Arletta Dawdy deals with the doubts and misgivings that concerned her going in her first Sunday service at a Black Church. "Believe me it was a "moving" experience as the church rocked! This was Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in Pasadena and the preacher was a wise man, an Olympic athlete who was well known in his day," says Arletta.

Arletta told me she was a little afraid the title might seem presumptuous, but I've retained it just as is because it reminds me of a conversation I had years ago when I was part of Luisah Teish's storytelling troupe and a sister told me, "Janet, I feel your Black Heart." She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as that, holding it close to me whenever cultural misunderstandings threatened in our troupe. --JGR


On that first Sunday, Annie dressed in green plaid,
With Peter Pan collar, shoes, and purse all white.
Curly golden hair streamed down her back,
While her blue eyes tried to hide her fright.

It took three buses to cross the town,
Until, at last, she saw St. Mark’s steeple,
In a neighborhood of worn-out mansions and left-behind people.

Tawny browns and ebony blacks, mahogany and coffee-laced-with-milk
Were some of the colors meeting her at the church door.
In satins and silks or cotton worn thin,
Big-hatted women and crisp-suited men were all going in.
Children nudged and pointed at Annie, until stilled by a command.

Heavenly light showered down from stained glass
To scatter more color across each yearning face.
Thundering piano and joyful choir sang of Grace.

There, at the sanctuary door, Annie heard Mrs. James demand,
“How come you to hire that white teacher?
It’s my turn to lead our summer session.
‘Sides, we’s a black church now, Preacher!”

His answer came as he caught Annie’s eye,
“Like I’ve been saying for months now,
White folks are fleeing,
Black folks are seething,
When it should all be about believing!”

Annie slid into a pew nearby
and studied the program without really seeing.
What have I done?
What a horrible blunder!
I don’t belong, I don’t fit in.
I’ve never had a close Negro friend.

I never marched against the drum to plead freedom for anyone.
I know we’re equal but I don’t know much more.
Nothing of race or culture or custom.
Little of strife or poverty or shame.
My family came first cabin from across the sea,
Not as plunder or property.

What can I do here, a college girl, and a white one at that?
I know the church and the Bible pretty well.
I can lead songs and follow the lesson, offer up prayers,
And even wipe a child’s tears
But of life, I know so little.

Lost in reverie, Annie’s soul began to stir to rhythms surrounding her.
Song vibrated from wall to wall, people began to shout their amens.
Her spirits lifted as Annie sang out, and looked at her neighbors.
In God united they stood and swayed to the beat of a belief understood.

Grasping hands across the aisles, prejudice and fear were set aside.
Here was a place, a people and a task
Where Annie would do as good as she was asked.

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8 Responses »

  1. My wife, Ruth, was a teacher. The bus drivers were "part of the team," friends who spent considerble time and thought tomake things work. When Ollie died, we went to his funeral, no question. There were five white people in the congregation. (None of the executives of the school system.)

    We were welcomed, and it was plain that our presence was appreciated. The service was beautiful. I have been familiar with the song: "Farther Along" for seventy years, but never heard it sung more beautifully.

  2. Anne Lamott, in her book "Operating Instructions" writes extensively about her experiences as a single mom at her small mostly-black church during her pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her son. The pictures she paints of these wonderful, generous people are brilliant and the stories she shares are of the type everyone hopes to experience but few do in their lifetimes. In "Traveling Mercies" she also has an astonishing piece about having her hair started in dreadlocks, detailing all the race issues and ritual involved. It is a very moving piece.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I love it when our writing triggers responses or memories in others. Edwin, I don't place the song you mention, can you tell us more? And Charon, Annie L is just down the road (well, 45 miles or so) and I've met her several times at writer events; she still has her dreadlocks and her marvelous humor.

  4. Arletta, what a wonderful poem. I know the feeling of being an 'outsider' white person in a company of Black people. Uneasiness runs both ways, as always.

  5. I believe we have all been an outsider at one time or another whether from race or some other way. Your poem showed there is always a common ground for all people if we only look for it.

  6. I loved it. I know how its feels to be on the outside. It was like that for me with my ex-hubbys family.

  7. Reminds me of how many people experience New Orleans should they venture out of the French Quarter, but not stay long enough to call it home. Wish faith was enough to erase racism.

  8. Wonderful. I'm contemplating what career path Annie may have taken after graduating from college . . . . Social work, perhaps? I look forward to reading more of Arletta's work.

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