In the tradition of such classics as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Coming of Age in Mississippi," this is a moving universal story, told with honesty and passion, of an era that is a rich, if tragic, portion of American history.
Now sixty-years-old and a grandmother, Ruth still remembers what it was like in Fairburn, Georgia in 1957, during a time when black people drank from separate water fountains, attended separate schools and churches, and used separate entranceways to the town's only theater and doctor's office. She also recalls how the storm clouds of the Civil Rights Movement were churning on the horizion in 1957 and how the Ku Klux Klan, once thought dormant, had been ressurrected to spread fear across the once peaceful Georgia countryside. Ruth also remembers Della Gaddy, the young black woman who strolled down the driveway of her family's home one August afternoon and changed all their lives forever.
Yet it wasn’t that easy for me to ignore my Daddy’s words, and despite Mama’s admonishment to do so, I found myself mulling them over later as I helped Della clear the table and wash the dinner dishes. I also found myself wondering if the preacher at Beulah used the same Bible as our preacher and if he told his congregation the same thing Preacher Dade told us, except maybe he told his congregation to hate white people. Glancing at Della out of the corner or my eye, I considered asking her, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching what I intuitively suspected was a “delicate” subject. Ironically perhaps, it was Della who provided the opening.
“You enjoy church today, Ruthie?” she asked as she scrubbed the first of the white Wedgwood plates—the set had been a wedding gift from Mama’s rich eccentric cousin, Miss Ruby Irene Cook of Macon County, and Mama liked to use the dinnerware on Sundays or whenever we had what she called “an informal meal.” For more “formal affairs,” on the other hand, when she wanted to impress her guests, Mama insisted upon using the more expensive china, also bone-white Wedgwood but with real gold leafing, that Grandma and Grandpa Chandler had bought at some ritzy store in New York City and given to my parents on their tenth wedding anniversary, amid much fanfare.
“It was all right, I guess,” I replied.
“Just all right,” Della said as she rinsed the plate, put it in the drainer, and reached for another dirty plate.
I noticed how very dark her hands were against the white china and how the snowy soap suds glistened in the sunlight that streamed through the window over the sink.
She asked, “So what was the sermon about?”
I shrugged, not wanting to admit I hadn’t really been paying attention to Preacher Dade. Then again, I thought perhaps I had at least a vague idea, based upon my parent’s heated conversation. “It was ‘bout doing God’s will,” I said.
Nodding, Della smiled as she rinsed the second plate and placed it along side the other one in the drainer. She picked up the third plate. “That’s good, and what else?”
“Well, Preacher Dade, he talked ‘bout loving some folks and not loving others.” I reached for a plate and began drying it. “So what’d your preacher talk about?”
“It was a good sermon,” she said. “Reverend Jackson started it by talking about what happened to Abel Richardson.”
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“That’s right, and he said we shouldn’t allow the hate some folks have for us to fill us with hate for them in return because that isn’t what God wants.”
I took another plate from the drainer and swiped it with the dishtowel.
“He also said just because the folks who did that terrible thing to Able are mean and ugly, it doesn’t mean all folks are mean and ugly. Fact is, most folks on this earth are good.” Saying this, Della sighed. “We just have to make an effort to see that goodness and not let the hate of a few make us blind.”
At that point, I somehow knew Reverend Jackson had been talking about white people, and Della simply wasn’t saying as much because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
“Ruthie,” she said, “tell me something: Do you believe God is white?”
I stopped wiping the plate, looked up at her, studied her face, and saw that she was serious. Did I think God was white? Now, that was a darn good question, as well as one I had never before contemplated. “Let me think about it a minute,” I said, stacking the plate I had just dried on top of another one.
“Okay,” Della said. “Think about it. Thinking is always good.”
For the next few minutes, as Della continued to wash the dishes and I continued to dry them, I mulled over her question, but soon discovered that arriving at an answer wasn’t all that easy, mainly because I had never seen a picture of God. Sure, I had seen plenty of pictures of Jesus, God’s only son. They were everywhere—in Sunday-School books, on the fans in church, on Christmas cards, everywhere. And in all those pictures, Jesus wasn’t exactly white, nor was he black. In fact, He looked like somebody with a tan, probably because He’d spent so much time under the hot sun in Galilee and places like that as He’d gone around feeding the multitudes, healing the lame, and raising the dead.
“So,” Della said, “you decided on an answer yet?”
“I really don’t know,” I admitted. “I guess ‘cause I ain’t never seen a picture of God.” I shrugged. “Course, I recall the preacher once saying that can’t nobody look upon God and live, so I guess that explains why there ain’t no pictures.” I shrugged. “I guess that also means don’t nobody know what color God is.” I looked at Della expectantly, wondering if she would laugh at my response.
She didn’t laugh. Instead she said, “You know something, Ruthie; you’re right. Nobody knows if God is white or black or red or yellow or—”
“Or blue or green,” I said and giggled.
Della smiled. “Maybe, but I don’t guess we’ll ever know. Still, the way I see things, if God created humans in His image, since we come in so many different colors, then maybe God is all colors, you know, maybe God’s—”
“Like a rainbow,” I offered.
“Yes, like a rainbow,” Della said and laughed as she reached over, picked up another dirty plate, and dipped it into the dishwater.
It was then Mama stepped into the kitchen. Apparently she had overheard the very end of our conversation, because she shouted, “How dare you.”
Della whirled to face her.
“Standing here in my house and making fun of the Lord God. Filling my child’s head with—”
The white plate slipped from Della’s soapy fingers, hit the edge of the sink, and shattered.
Mama gasped. “My Wedgwood . . . my Wedgwood, you clumsy . . . ”
It was then I noticed that a shard of flying glass had apparently grazed Della’s leg, for a dark stream of blood was inching its way down her calf toward her shoe. And later that night, as I lay under the covers, waiting for sleep to overtake me and listening to the distant lonely cry of a whippoorwill, I thought about what my daddy had said that day, as well as what Mama and Della had said. Then, as my eyes grew heavy, I pictured God: He was sitting in heaven on a golden throne, dressed in a flowing blue robe, and every color of the rainbow. Yet, the last image in my mind just before I fell asleep was that of Della’s blood streaming down her leg to pool in her shoe while my mama screamed about how her set of Wedgwood china was ruined.