in the belly of the whale
One day a long time ago, a man named Jonah heard God speak these words directly to him: “Up on your feet, Jonah, and be on your way to the city of Nineveh. I want you to go and tell them that I see what they are doing and I cannot ignore their behavior any longer.”
So, Jonah heard God, The Creator, The Star and Galaxy Maker, speak. And indeed he did get up on his feet and he did set out on his way. But fear crept in and hatred whispered protests into his ears until there weren’t enough stars created in the whole of the galaxy to steer Jonah in the right direction towards Nineveh. Instead, he took cover beneath the sea and let the crashing waves wash away the voice of God.
God being God had to do what only God could do. The Captain of All Seas allowed Jonah to drown out the divine voice inside the belly of a whale. Eventually, Jonah would heed the call and go to Nineveh and share God’s message with everyone there. All of Nineveh would listen and be sorry. They would even be grateful and willing to change. Regardless of this good news, Jonah preferred to die rather than to ever have to trust that voice calling to him again.
I am Jonah and so are you. We all have our Ninevehs.
I inherited my backwards attention and swaggering ways of moving in the wrong direction from my mother. I entirely blame her for this legacy of ignoring all clarion calls from the Creator of All Great Things Both Magnificent and Wee. It is not my fault that I was born a leery coward. Marcie The-Cynic-Alvis-Walker is my name.
When my mother was 15 years old, my grandparents, Mama Octavia and Papa, received a call informing them that their daughter was special and therefore should be one of the first black students to integrate into the town’s all-white school so that she could be whatever she wanted to be. She could reach her fullest potential. She could make something out of herself. She could be any number of things and accomplish a litany of sparkling words and phrases that had never been uttered about any black person that they knew. To imagine, that so much was possible for a child that lived under their roof, right there at the foot of the mountains in Boomer, West Virginia. Who knew there could be such good news and that it would be their good news to share with the rest of the family and all their neighbors and all their sisters and brothers down at the church.
But my mother would not go. She stamped the whole thing out like a rug that had caught fire.
Instead, like Jonah, she looked for her first ticket out of the situation—out of Boomer, West Virginia, and out from beneath the thick black wing of Jim Crow. She took her chance and wooed a boy who had come down from up North to visit family in Boomer for the summer. She rode around town with him in his car and let him imagine the kinds of things young men like to imagine. Then, one day, while her parents dozed in front of their prized black and white TV in the front room of the house, she beckoned him into the kitchen. One kiss turned into two and they set to business on top of her mama’s kitchen counter.
A few months later, the boy did the right thing and married her, as she knew he would. That’s how my mother became Mrs. Nada Patricia Alvis, mother and wife at 16 years old. That’s how she left the tall pines, the mountains, the creeks and rivers, the “for coloreds” and “whites only” signs of Boomer, West Virginia, population less-than-you-can-imagine. They moved up north, twenty minutes outside of Cleveland, Ohio, where she would not have to raise her child negro or “colored.”
When I was in the fifth grade, a boy named Neil, who liked to suck on mustard packets during lunch until the yellow oozed out from the corners of his mouth, punched me the stomach and called me an “ugly, monkey n*gg*r,” for good measure. He was the biggest kid I’d ever seen, with long bangs and a mullet and a peach fuzz beginning of a mustache. He was broad as a man and lurked always at the back of the bus, or hunched in the back of the class. But at lunch and recess, he always emerged like a troll from beneath the bridge, demanding payment from us scrawny little weaklings who tried to keep our distance. One day, I’d made the mistake of not moving fast enough and found myself standing directly behind him in line on our way to the cafeteria. I stood there praying that he wouldn’t notice my breathing. But as kids do and have always done while waiting in line, one kid roughhoused another and that kid roughhoused another until inevitably I was pushed and fell against the wall of Neil’s back. And no amount of tearful apologies could save me.
In Sunday School, I learned that Jonah was a hardheaded, selfish, bigoted, disobedient, cowardly man. He was such a despicable human being that his sailing mates threw him overboard where he was swallowed by a whale. But even the great big old whale spat him out—he was that tough and brined in faithlessness. How could he not listen to God and go to Nineveh? What’s the use of trying to outrun God?
But I knew that Jonah just didn’t want to be punched in the gut. Like Neil, nobody ever had anything good to say about Nineveh. Of course, he didn’t want go quite possibly for the terror of a large fist coming his way. Who could blame him? Certainly not my mother.
The same year she remade her entire destiny on the counter of her mama’s kitchen, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to guard nine black students who were chosen to finally make Brown vs The Board of Education (which passed in 1954) an actual thing and not just a legislative idea.
Though my mother lived miles and miles away from Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama, where black life was colliding into view on every American family’s television screen, The Little Rock Nine were just as close to her as her nearest neighbors. They wore the same formidable expressions that she and all her friends had been taught to wear: Eyes forward, heads high. Don’t pay them no mind. Don’t speak a word. Keep moving forward. Go through the door. This is our new Door of No Return. Can’t go back now. No use trying to outrun God.
The steadfast and unquenchable fire of The Little Rock Nine swept wildly across the whole of the South and made its way to the most northern southern state of West Virginia. Here’s what happened at a high school just two hours from my mother’s home in Boomer:
Eugenia Parr Burroughs, one of the African-American students attending Welch High School in 1957, recalled the incident in a recent newspaper interview:
"When I came to school on Monday, I saw that somebody had spray-painted the word `white' in big letters all over the front of the school. I was very naive back then. There were a bunch of people standing outside the school and some of them were hollering `two-four-six-eight, we don’t want to integrate.' I just kept walking to the school. It wasn’t that I was brazen, it was just that I didn’t understand what was going on.
"When I got to my locker I found that the other black students had been told not to come to school that day. I looked outside and I could see 200 or more people hollering about getting rid of n*gg*rs. I was terrified.
"I had to go outside to get to algebra class and I had to push through a big crowd. I remember the instructor trying to teach the class but the chants kept getting louder and louder.
"When that class was over the principal came to me and apologized for what was happening. My parents sent me a message saying they wanted me to stay in school but I decided it would cool things down more if I went home. A few minutes later a police car came to drive me home.”
Alice E. Carter, Segregation and Integration in the Appalachian Coalfields: McDowell County Responds to the Brown Decision
I do not blame Jonah for not wanting Nineveh’s apology or God’s mercy. Nineveh was a city of ruthless, violent reprobates who had terrorized his people. Would Neil’s apology make it all better? If he’d come to school the next day decked out in clean clothes and with a sack lunch, would I have been grateful or understanding of God’s mercy? Who of us can stomach God’s tenderness towards a racist brute who physically assaulted a scrawny little black girl for no reason other than she was there and different? I want to trust a God that good—a Divine Love that holds and comforts both the beater and the beaten. But how?
I do not blame by mother for not wanting to go to the all-white school and pass through crowds of jeering, spitting protestors. Why would she want to go to school to sit beside white students who did not want her skin near theirs? Why would she want to be taught by white teachers who were convinced that she was unteachable? Why would she want to sit in a cafeteria and eat her lunch drenched in a pools of hatred?
My mother once told me that it only took facing one “for coloreds” sign to make her avoid all public water fountains. “If we were thirsty, me and my friends just waited ‘til we got home.” It doesn’t surprise me that the news of the protests across the south was all it took to convince my mother that she had to go north. And it only took getting punched in the gut once—just that one time—to make me cautious of small-town-God-bless-American white boys who have little hope. To this day, some 40-plus years later, I can feel Neil’s punch move through me and rearrange all that I had formerly believed about myself. I don’t blame my mother for avoiding that kind of disordering experience. Like Jonah, my 15 year old mother had already seen her people getting socked in the stomach, kicked, trampled, and even set on fire. “N*gg*r go home! N*gg*r stay home! N*gg*r….n*gg*r… monkey go back to the jungle that you came from!
On East 151st Street in Cleveland, Ohio, in a little house with a wide front porch and three shoe box bedrooms, my mother and her summer boy made a home. It was her favorite thing to do. From the flower beds bordering the front lawn at the street curb to her vegetable garden in the backyard, my mother smoothed every wrinkle, tucked every corner. There was no regret or ever a nostalgic glance back at her southern roots. Some would say my mother’s hillbilly, Baptist roots unraveled until she became so wild, so untamed and unruly. She drank a little and smoked a lot. She had parties and entertained her fair amount of men. Her house was a constant disturbance of commotion. It was a nice looking home, but unfortunately tinged with chaos. There was too much drama under that roof making our neighbors cross the streets to safety rather than risk walking by.
To her neighbors, my mother was Nineveh, and maybe even a little Neil. She wasn’t the best of member of the block club. I doubt she was invited to be a member at all. She was the n*gg*r to even her black neighbors who probably prayed she would go back where she came from. So I’ve lived my whole life in my mother’s long, lean shadow, wanting to be welcomed into unfriendly places.
On a recent road trip from Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to Austin, Texas, riding beside my white husband and brown child, all of our eyes wide with tension, I truly understood all the reasons my mother, at 15 years old, chose not to cross that threshold of whiteness. As we wound our way through town after town after town with gun shops that threaten friendly fire, I understood why a good jew like Jonah would rather be swallowed by a whale than pass through enemy territory. Our family passed through towns like Lubbock, which just happened to be named after a Confederate secessionist. I couldn’t help but to wonder how many Klansmen passed through Brownwood before me during rallies that had been held there. I hoped that the whole town of Goldthwaite didn’t love their Confederate flag waving at all who pass by the courthouse lawn more than they would love me or my daughter, or my white husband for that matter.
I love my life just as much as Jonah did. I don’t believe that waiting to use the public restroom until we reached a more familiar setting was evidence of my cowardice. If anything, given the facts, I’d been a fool not to proceed with a great degree of caution and stamina to cross my legs, tamp down on my near-to-bursting bladder, and keep it moving through those towns, me and mine heading north in the opposite direction and greater freedom to use a public restroom without fear.
Jonah wasn’t a coward, either. He had every right to be angry and even dismayed by God’s forgiveness and mercy. I would feel the same. Which is perhaps why God is gentle with Jonah, providing him with shelter, food, and a little conversation, even though he sulked in disgust of God’s wonderfulness. I mean, who can love like God? Who can forget such evil so quickly?
Though I’d like to believe that, like Nineveh, Neil grew up to be a man who dealt with himself and wept over his past sins, changed into a lovely ally of all black men and women, and became a good husband and a great father who spread his mustard on hot dogs just like the rest of us. But I doubt it, and I gotta be honest with you that doubt feels justified and good. I prefer to think of him still vile and evil with mustard packets as his only sustenance. I prefer to believe that all those segregationists that terrorized The Little Rock Nine and scared my mother away from school and into early domesticity are burning in the pits of some kind of hell, regretting every n*gg*r they every uttered. And if that means I have to sit in the belly of the whale ignoring that clarion call to forgiveness, then I’ll do my time. May the Lord have mercy on me.