Editor’s Note: The following was published in the Gazette in February of 1988. Dorothy West, a longtime columnist for the Gazette and member of the Harlem Renaissance, died in 1998 at the age of 91.
When I was a child of four or five, listening to the conversation of my mother and her sisters, I would sometimes intrude on their territory with a solemnly stated opinion that would jerk their heads in my direction, then send them into roars of uncontrollable laughter. I do not now remember anything I said. But the first adult who caught her breath would speak for them all and say, “That’s no child. That’s a little sawed off woman.”
That was to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I have shrunk in size, a natural concomitant of my advanced years. That my enthusiasm for life and for people of all races and nations has not diminished is sufficient consolation.
In the year that I was five, perhaps because of my precocity, my mother took me to see the greatest evangelist of his time, Billy Sunday. My mother was not really a churchgoer, she did not assume a mantle of righteousness, and knowing that, her sisters made their faces severe and tried to dissuade her from taking so small a child to a large auditorium that was bound to be crowded beyond its capacity. But my mother stubbornly said that she wanted me to have that experience. She wanted me to remember that I had seen the great Billy Sunday.
I have never forgotten. We went early so that we could have a seat down front, and I could see everything. An earlier service was still in progress. We stood just a few feet away from a large side door that led directly to the front rows. People began to pile up behind us, more people piled up behind them, then more and more people until there was a restless army — and probably none as small as me — packed together like sardines.
Suddenly the side door began to open, not inward but outward. Presumably other doors in other sections of the building had people inside and out trying to exit and enter at the same time. For there was now madness. And presently ambulances came clanging. There were cries of pain. And I heard my mother say to a man whose back was toward her, “Mister, for God’s sake, pick up my child before she gets crushed.” In a sorrowing voice, because he heard the anguish in my mother’s, he said, “Lady, I can’t. I’m squeezed in so tight I can’t even turn around.” Perhaps at that time I went into shock. Because all I remember after that is quietly sitting in the auditorium beside my mother, seeming to show no sign of distress, and looking at and listening to Billy Sunday with my mind a perfect blank.
But from that day and for years thereafter, I was terrified of evangelists. When television became a household habit I could not look at or listen to them without trembling. The emotion I had not shown on that terrible day always surfaced. Now I can stand the sight of an overzealous preacher, but I still cannot stand the sound of them. To me they stir up their followers and make them act crazy, flinging their arms around and going into fainting spells, the process becoming an anticipated ritual.
It was in that same year, as I recall, that my undaunted mother took me to see the moving picture version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In my safe world I knew nothing of slavery, not even the word. She wanted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, pictures on a silver screen, to prepare me for the truth of slavery and its heritage.
We went to the movies. I knew about movies. They were stories told with pictures. We went often, and had lively discussions on the way home. The motion picture began, and we were both absorbed. I had never seen a movie before about white people and black people and their interplay. The white people looked happy and the black people look sad. The white people looked rich and the black people looked poor.
Then there came a scene when a white man whipped Uncle Tom, and Uncle Tom just stood and took the beating. And I was suddenly aware that my mother was crying softly. Gently I patted her knee. It is still very vivid to me. I said softly, “Don’t cry. It’s not real. It’s make believe. No man would beat another man. You said only children fight because they don’t know any better.” When we were walking home, she could have told me, “I was crying because it was real.” Perhaps she decided I was not ready to be told. I was not yet ready to bear the burden of my heritage. In this week I have watched the television series, Their Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the racial unrest of the sixties. And I have wept as my mother wept because it was real.