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A Hungry Heartby Gordon, Jr. Parks
Two of my close friends threw a fine birthday party for me. Two daughters, a grandson, a couple of former wives, an ex-girlfriend, old acquaintances, champagne, wine and good music filled the elegant room overlooking New York's crystal skyline. It was an evening not to be forgotten. Later, joy still coursed through my thoughts when I plumped my pillow and attempted to sleep. But no matter how I twisted and turned, sleep refused to come. Then, in the silence, one large number began roaming through the darkness. Ninety! I tried telling myself that it had nothing to do with anything, but through the leftover haze of red wine, I realized it had a lot to do with just about everything. On my next birthday I would be ninety. I had better get on with it. Later could be too late.
Since that night I have revisited the banquet that life has laid before me. What a superb feast it is! The sweetness of recognition and success, the bitterness of poverty, hunger, and bigotry overlying the rituals of existence: marriage, birth, work, seasoned with pain and joy, and most of all — love. My mother, father, and fourteen brothers and sisters sowed love's harvest. Years after they were all gone, I ate from that harvest when I needed it. Eventually I was to learn to share their love with those who asked for no more than also to be loved.
Nostalgia blankets me when I think back over the years passed. Sometimes I knock on the door of my memory and it opens to an event that came close to denying me a future of any kind. I was born dead. But a young White doctor plunged my blood-soaked remains into a tub of icy water and miraculously gave me life. With determination he had disallowed even death to defeat him. Years later, when told about that event by an older sister, I went to give him my thanks. But by then he was dead. My mother had expressed her gratitude to him by giving me his name. Dr. Gordon was the savior whose color had nothing to do with his giving me, a Black child, a right to life.
Resting deep in the corridors of my memory is another event that helped give shape to my future, though I was only ten at the time. Just a few moments away from death, my invalid brother Leroy turned on his pillow and looked steadily into my eyes. "Pedro," he said, "you've been roughing up people lately. That ain't good. Your brain's more powerful than your fist. Try using it. You're to remember that, okay?" I stood silent. Words failed me as I gazed into the shadows beyond his bed. He reached for my hand. "Okay, Pedro?" I placed my hand on his. Then, with my tears flowing, I blurted out, "Okay! Okay!" and fled the room. His words claimed their rightful place in my upbringing, and within my heart.
I was born in a small town in the middle of the vast Kansas prairie, Fort Scott, a place touched by all the hands of nature. It bathed in lovely twilights, burned in scorching summers, froze in icy winters, and was occasionally battered by tornadoes. Fort Scott was also the mecca of bigotry, where discrimination was solidly built on the stones of segregation, in grade schools, movie houses, churches, even the graveyards. The local high school was racially integrated simply because the town fathers couldn't raise funds to build a separate one. But even there bigotry spewed its venom. Black students were denied participation in sports and social activities. It was a large school, but for them, all that space was deserted.
During those days I ate hatred, a lot of it. Yet, thanks to a caring mother and father, I also ate cabbage, cornbread, grapes, apples, strawberries, watermelon, and slaughtered hogs from a smokehouse. So I well remember what I was and what I wasn't. Still, it is impossible to forget what I lost along the way. Johnny, my best friend, writhing in a pool of blood after being shot by a jealous rival. Buster, knifed to death after a dispute over a bag of marbles. Emphry, gone after a fatal razor slashing. Then there was Kirby, the brutal White cop who carried two big guns on his hips, who earned the title "murderer" by sending a number of Black people to their graves. But thankfully, my birthplace no longer lives in yesterday alone. The present is more like an old clock with young hands moving across its face. I have reason to hope that bigotry is dead in my birthplace. I think I hear it saying, "What I am now, is not what I used to be."
Ken Lunt, my hometown's mayor, writes to me often. I'm not sure why I penned this poem for him, but I did. The local newspaper opened its editorial page for it.
Long before I was born, and for more years than my father could recall, small bands of gypsies roamed the prairie towns begging for food and coins. An older brother, Clemmie, told me a story about their occasional visits to our old clapboard house. "Poppa always fumed up a bit when they came and Mama shared our food with them. 'Sarah,' he would say, 'we've hardly 'nough grub to feed our own, let alone them.' Mama's answer always shut him up. 'The poor people have to eat, Jackson. We'll make it somehow.' The gypsies always left with a basket full of food."
From Clemmie I was also to learn that she held another reason for befriending the gypsies. A Dr. Cavanaugh had told her that she would not give birth to another child. After reading her palm a gypsy woman told her differently. "You're going to have another child — and he's going to be a very special one. Take my word for it." A couple of years later I arrived. Today I regret that Mama isn't here to know that I have tried to give truth to that prediction. Just before my sister Gladys died, she smiled and said, "Don't worry, Pedro. I'll tell Mama and Poppa about everything you're doing."
Like all of my brothers and sisters, Gladys was magnificent. At times I can't help but wonder about what she would say to them. Then comes the question I now ask myself. "What have you actually become, Pedro?" I then recollect those years when death robbed me of so many of my youthful friends. All of them had been denied the existence that I had been granted. In those years, death was working overtime. And I became obsessed with it. Fear walked beside me when I approached my mother's coffin in the middle of the night and raised the lid to take one final look at her. She seemed to be smiling, relieving me of my misery, taking my fear with her. Trembling, I lay down beside her coffin and went to sleep. The fear of death gave up and left. At dawn my father found me there on the floor, asleep.
I was only fifteen. Before death took her, Mama had persuaded Poppa to send me to live with my sister Peggy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Up there, she thought, I would escape the bitter trials of Kansas. My father hardly looked at me after the funeral. When Dan Stover's spindly taxi came to take Peggy and me to the train station he touched my shoulder and looked toward the barnyard. "Just remember your mama's teachin', son, and you'll be all right." Then he walked off to feed the hogs.
Poppa was a man of few words and, like Mama, he was fearless — with a heart as big as a mountain. I remember when he had skin stripped from his back and thighs to cover a child who had been burned in a fire. When Mama asked him why he didn't tell her he had gone to the hospital to do that, his reply was, "It's all right, Sarah. You would have agreed to it anyhow." Years later I asked him if the child's parents came to thank him or bring him flowers. The reply was typical. "No. But I didn't do it for thanks or flowers. I did it for the child."
Winters in Minnesota were unbearably cold. The only thing I was to find colder was my brother-in-law David. From the very beginning he made it clear that I was unwelcome. Autumn was flying off leaf by leaf when I entered his house. He was a porter on a railway. It was a good house — when he was away. When he was present everything looked at me with disdain. Ceilings and walls frowned. Doors creaked. Windows whined in the blow of frigid wind. The softest carpets turned to nails under my feet. My sister, spattered with lumps of hurt, went about in sadness and I, the intruder, was helpless to do anything to lend her comfort. It was thirty-five below zero, and Christmas was only two days away, when David and I had our confrontation. I had been invited to a party by my schoolmates, and for some reason David objected to my going. I insisted, and soon our words turned into blows, and I had him on the floor.
"Get out," he commanded, and pushed me out the door. My few clothes soon followed. I stood in the snow for a few moments, speechless. Then I picked up my clothes and moved off to face the world. I was at the bottom of it, and there was only one direction to take. That was up. "Try using your brain, Pedro. It's more powerful than your fists." Leroy's words were echoing through me, but during those terrible moments I could find nothing encouraging in them. No one could have convinced me that the next years could bring skies filled with brand-new stars. And I could not have dreamed that my world would change so much in just a few months.
Copyright © 2005 by Gordon Parks
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