And For By Grace an excerpt
For my mother’s family Sunday tradition meant Sunday prayer. For the first meal and the last they would gather together, link hands, and say a series of prayers—the Shepherd’s Psalm, The Lord’s Prayer, and everyone’s own selected Bible verse. Her father, like many of the men in the family, was a preacher and I assume this practice came from him.
After my mother was married and had started a family of her own, she stopped doing the prayers except for the few times she would drive me back to North Carolina. Our visits home were rare, every other year at most, and because of our distance and the amount of time we were always gone, our return always held a certain significance. Out of all the family, my mother was the only one who left. While a teenager she’d taken out a map of the state and circled colleges as far away as she could go. She picked one, and during her first year there she met a future Army man, married him, and then moved even farther away. “I wasn’t going back there,” she used to tell me whenever I asked her about this time in her life. “I would have done anything to get away.”
I watched her as she shifted in the driver’s seat, her anxiety becoming more visible as we got closer. “You should start memorizing a verse now,” she said. “Don’t embarrass me.”
Her father, a man I’ve never known, had long since died, but my grandmother had remarried another who was also a preacher, a man who could recite the entire Bible by heart.
“What kind of verse should I pick?” I asked, taking out my own Bible and flipping through the pages. I glanced at all the sections I’d highlighted from previous Sunday scriptures, trying to find something that would work.
“I don’t know, just pick one,” she replied sharply.
A painting hung on the wall of my grandmother’s kitchen where we gathered for prayers. The painting depicted a white-bearded man who sat at his own kitchen table. He was hunched over the table’s edge, his hands clasped together and placed in front of his forehead. His eyes were closed. He prayed.
On the table in front of him was a loaf of bread, a slice of it already having been cut, most likely from a previous meal. Nearby was a metal bowl of possibly soup or oatmeal to go with his bread along with a book, which one would assume at first to be a Bible, but was actually a dictionary. Next to this a knife lied flat.
A loaf of bread, a bowl of soup, a dictionary. The simplicity of it all made the image seem somber, poignant. The man prayed for his meager meal, grateful for what God had given him.
There is a story I must tell you, but in order to do so I must tell you another. It is that of Eliza Cook. While a slave to Dr. James H. Cook, Eliza gave birth to seven of his children. After slavery ended, James Cook’s wife wanted Eliza gone. Perhaps she was full of shame for her husband’s indiscretions, or maybe it was jealousy, or spite. Whatever the reason, she demanded her husband force Eliza off the property. Cook submitted to his wife and Eliza, a woman who found herself with nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and with seven children to feed, turned to the Freedman’s Bureau.
In North Carolina, the bastardy laws required every unmarried woman with a child to name the father within three years of the birth of the child. The law also required fathers to support their illegitimate children or face imprisonment. In Eliza’s case, she’d been enslaved during her children’s infancy and was unable to testify to their parentage. She argued that a new law be made to address situations like hers—women who’d been enslaved but now were free and who, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, should be entitled to the same rights as white women. With the help of the Freedman’s Bureau Eliza took James Cook to court to force him to support her and all of his children.
Within my family there’s been a story handed down through the generations. It’s of a black woman named Leanna Brown who, like Eliza, had a relationship with a white man. The relationship produced two, possibly three children. In the census records for 1880, she is listed with these children on a farm nearby his property. On the census, each of the children carries her last name, but somewhere between then and now something peculiar happens. The surname, at least for the boy, is changed to that of his father.
Eliza’s case brings forward the possibility that like her, Leanna did take the father of her children to court in the hope he would acknowledge them. Like Eliza, it is possible she showed a sense of agency during a time the world wanted her to have none, and so it is possible that maybe he did relent and claim them.
At least, this is what I start to think, but then I remember the rest of Eliza’s story. The court argued that the Civil Rights Act didn’t apply to her situation and thereby didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court. They refused to hear her case. Cook, having won, evicted Eliza and the children from his plantation and they were left dependent upon the Freedmen’s Bureau to survive.
My grandmother would eventually give the painting to my mother as a gift, but my mother didn’t want it so she threw it away without telling her.
“The picture depressed me,” she said afterward. “I couldn’t look at it. I wish now though I’d kept the thing. It could have been worth something.”
The name of the painting is called Grace and was actually originally a photograph taken by Eric Enstrom. After the photograph was developed and printed, Enstrom’s daughter began hand-painting copies in oils and selling them in her shop. Travelers stopping in the town of Coleraine, Minnesota saw the framed picture through the studio window and were taken with the image. One after the other got sold and the picture’s popularity increased. In 2002 the image became Minnesota’s official state photograph. Eventually Grace became one of the most reproduced religious images in the country. It is in homes all across the country—above their dining tables, on the living room walls, small photos placed in wallets and purses. What my mother hoped was rare, significant, was just a copy of a copy, reproduced hundreds, if not thousands of times.
No matter how much I practiced, halfway through the Sunday prayers I’d falter, forgetting the rest of the words. I’d mumble through the rhythm hoping no one would notice, then we’d finish and get to the verse and by then I couldn’t remember which one I’d picked. I’d stall, letting the others go, hoping during that span of time I would remember, but it would come to me and I would open my mouth to find I had no words to say.
“Jesus wept,” my grandmother whispered. “Just say Jesus wept.”
Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, said by Jesus after seeing Lazareth’s sister’s grief. Even though Jesus had come to raise Lazarus from the dead and there was no reason for his tears, he bore witness to Mary’s sorrow and was moved by it. Her pain brought on his own.
My grandmother said the verse again, urging me to repeat after her, but my mother interrupted. “No,” she said, gripping my hand tight. “She has her own verse. She can say it. Hurry up now so we can eat.”
Unrelenting, my mother would make me stand there until I said it, and the rest of the family would patiently wait, and so they all stood firm, silently still. I swallowed hard, glanced up at the familiar painting, and then somehow I remembered.
“For it is by grace—for it is by grace you have been saved,” I began.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a white, British man by the name of John Newton. Newton was a slave trader. The song was inspired from an experience Newton had while sailing his slave ship back home. During the night they’d passed through a violent storm and Newton had woken to find his ship filling with water. He prayed to God for a “great deliverance” to save him and his ship from the ocean’s depths. His deliverance came and Newton wrote the first words to his hymn from the experience.
Newton renounced slavery five years before the publication of “Amazing Grace.” He became an evangelical minister, of all things, and the hymn echoes his regrets over his involvement in the slave trade. The “Amazing Grace” spoken of alludes to God’s forgiveness of Newton’s sins. “I once was lost, but now I am found,” the first verse of the hymn goes. “Was blind, but now I see.”
During the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney there was a point where President Obama paused, then he bowed his head. A brief silence followed, and as he lifted his head back up he began to croon the first few words of “Amazing Grace.” The crowd roared in response. Never mind that later he would be criticized for using a hymn written to describe God’s forgiveness for a man’s participation in the slave trade. No one thought of this now, instead the audience stood. They clapped their feet and cheered as he sang to them the well-known hymn. In a moment of black pain it was a call to rise up. It was a balm meant to soothe a wound open for far too long. It was a way of saying—we will get through this, together we will come together and heal in the ways we’ve always done. We will exhibit God’s grace and get through and, and perhaps, forgive.
“What is the thing you couldn’t forgive?” my mother asked me once. “Like, how far do you believe forgiveness goes for a person? Because I think it’s not the same for everyone.”
We’d gone out for dinner, one of the few times in my memory when she had a little money to afford it. The question had come out of nowhere, and I supposed she asked it as a personal musing and had not meant for me to respond.
“Are you talking about dad? For leaving? For the divorce?”
“What? No, I’m not talking about your father.”
“Who then? Your father? Is this about him?”
I’d regretted asking her the moment I said it. She was always dodgy about her father, and the few details I knew about were always told when she’d let her guard down. I’d hoped that maybe this time she’d finally tell me everything. I settled back in the booth and waited for her to say the words.
“Just forget it,” she answered, then took a long sip of her coke before telling me she didn’t want to talk anymore.
A few weeks earlier, I’d sat on the opposite side of the bathroom door listening to my mother grimace in pain. “Are you okay? What’s wrong? Should I do something?”
“I am going to have my tubes tied,” I heard her say to herself. “No, I am going to have them taken out and burned.”
It’ll be years before I’m able to thread this story together, before I fully understand the context of these events and their relationship to each other, and when I do I will be angry at everyone—at my father for leaving, at the man who would not leave his wife, and at my mother for all of what she never said.