by Michael angel Johnson
Now I would recognize the warning signs, but then, I was only ten. When I cried out in fear in the dead of the night, grandma always came to me with amazing speed. Did she never sleep? Were we so in tune with each other that she knew before me that I would be awakened by a bad dream or was she already there, beside me, experiencing her own nightmares? Once I was calm, she’d get in bed with me and hold my hand. Soon I was asleep. When morning arrived with the security of daylight, I was ushered off to school.
After school, I came straight home. Once I was through the door, grandma would look up from her Bible with a frown and announce that she could hear my loud friends coming a block away, with my voice being the loudest. I smiled because most people said I was quiet. I loved the fact that I could actually be heard a block away. Perhaps I had been practicing my Betty Davis voice and her walk, which always caused laughter from my friends. My friends and I loved to watch old movies from the forties where Betty Davis would cause an uproar with those who were around because of her independent actions. Once the comment about my behavior had been addressed, Grandma stood up and headed for the kitchen.
I followed, trying to match her every step, forcing me to skip in order to keep up. This created a scraping sound on the floor. Throwing the words over her shoulder, grandma would instruct me not to make so much noise because my mother was upstairs sleeping after doing an all-night shift at the hospital. Stepping even closer to grandma, I became her shadow. As we entered the kitchen, she would ask about school. She listened to every detail while preparing supper. She, also, instructed me to do my homework. At which point, I would gather up my books and begin my homework. It was time for grandma to talk about her past.
Grandma’s voice changed when recounting stories about her life in the south. Her southern roots pushed its way past its northern sister and asserted itself with dignity and pride as she explained about those men who wore white sheets and came out in the dead of night with a vengeance when they believed their power was being eroded. Her mother and the other women from the community would sneak out to warn families that they were in danger from the men in white sheets who were called the Ku Klux Klan. With my heart racing, I asked grandma how the women knew where those men were going to attack. These women worked in the homes of those men. The women heard “things” that were spoken in whispers. With that information, the women went out into the night. On those occasions, my grandmother held her own mother’s hand tightly as they raced through fields to reach the homes of those who needed to be warned that the Ku Klux Klan was coming to set fire to their homes or worse. The warning sign was a basket of biscuits that we left at the door. Once back home, grandmother’s mother would stay up most of the night, making sure all was safe with her own family.
When I was ten, I did not realize that my grandmother stayed up most of the night watching for warning signs that perhaps our home, even though in the north, might not be safe from whatever might be lurking in the night.
Michael angel Johnson is a graduate of The Yale School of Drama and her plays have been performed in venues from New York to California. She teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and at New York University. She has written a book, “Ethiopia Awakening,” about Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Edmonia Lewis, the first women of African American descent to earn international reputations as visual artists. More info: www.michaelangeljohnson.com