by Michelle Lanier (memory keeper, filmmaker, and folklorist) for South Summit 2021
What are the containers that hold our hearts?
I’ve been asking myself this question a lot these days.
I was taught to know this.
Cherished things went in a King Edward Imperial Cigars box, a massive Columbia Metropolitan Area phone book (with white, blue, pink and yellow pages), the Webster’s dictionary, heavy pots, prayer books, deep freezers, grease cans, rag bags, jewel boxes, pocket books, and lingerie drawers.
Heartstrings were tucked like stray strands of hair into hiding places, saving places, dark-dark places.
Waverly (historic Oasis Space of Columbia, Afro-Carolina) was and is one such heart-shaped box.
She was a plantation before the war, but shape shifted into Black uprisings and dream songs that looked like this.
Imagine a Black Jesus at the all-Black Catholic school, across the street from an all-Black hospital, up the street from one HBCU and around the corner from another, filled to chocolate overflow with the Black veteran/dentist/custodian/first woman physician/renowned photographer/psychologist/blues artist/caterer/yard man and babies, again and again and again, all Black.
This was/is Waverly.
Grand and modest homes are tucked thigh to thigh. Drunken street prophets and bootleggers banter and conspire with owners of chandeliers and sterling silver tea sets.
This is Waverly, and out of the soil of bondage she arose verdant, lush in flora and brazen in her freedoms. (The 1880s were magnificent. The 1980s were brutal, but balanced by the most spectacular displays of bass-rattling lowriders, along with even more college students and clergy of every stripe.)
Waverly taught us things.
She taught me that my skin, my mind, my path were cherished, held, and consecrated.
Even now, there’s a gleaming, brass container at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (also Black) called a ciborium. It’s where the host is held, the communion bread of the bread and (real) wine.
Waverly is this too, haven for the holy of holies, holder of bread and Grace, even when the addicted and afflicted wander in her streets. For they too are her children.
Here are words I have heard there.
“Who’s baby are you, now?”
“Get your books, now!”
“I love you, baby. Take this dollar, child.”
“Bring me some fried hard whiting from Palmetto’s.”
“I think they’re turning tricks in that house.”
“Where you going to college?”
“Are you registered?”
“Are y’all walking to church? Are y’all walking to the Capitol? Are y’all walking to Benedict? Are y’all walking to Allen? Are y’all walking to the beauty supply store? Are y’all going to get fried rice and Chinese donuts from China Hut?”
Here are words I have said there?
“Can we have liver pudding and grits?”
“Can we go with Betty to the step show?”
“May I go to the corner store, pretty please?
“When is the Cotillion this year?”
“Did anyone check the mouse trap?”
“Y’all want to have a dance contest?”
“Can we go to “the Talking Tree?”
The Talking Tree.
The Talking Tree is an elm with a U-shaped trunk, rooted at the corner of Washington and Oak Streets. She made the perfect perch for little brown legs to straddle like a hobby horse. We’d go there to talk it out.
The talk might go like this.
“Why didn’t you share your Salt ’n’ Vinegar potato chips when we came back from the corner store? I gave you one of my fireballs!”
“Why did you laugh at me when I was trying to turn the double dutch ropes?”
“Why didn’t you wait for me to go with y’all when you went to the Icy Lady’s house? I wanted a grape one!”
We would take turns facing each other, in the embrace of the elm, and talk.
Before the then-baby cousin and I were old enough to sojourn to the end of the block, to see the mighty evergreen, we were convinced by the older ones “the Talking Tree” had the power to speak. We believed she was magic. “What did she say?” we’d ask.
There were five cousins, one born every year (stair steps), with the sixth cousin yet to emerge as a Libra season blessing, until a good decade after the height of our mischief. All but one of us were girls and we had all been presented to our people’s society as debutantes in the Poinsettia Cotillion, founded by graduates of a boarding school in Sedalia, Afro-Carolina.
We’d beg to stay at Grandma’s house, particularly on fish fry Fridays, in her brick home ~ a Queen Anne style home for Anne Grace Caution. We’d giggle on pallets of blankets and cushions, on the floor, trying to catch a hint of nudity on the staticky channels, in Grandma’s and Grandpa’s bedroom. We’d run from palmetto bugs or chase them, sometimes with a golden house slipper.
Grandma lived right next door to a peach Georgian house, where Aunt Gael studied miracles and took clients for psychotherapy, baked tender biscuits for peach preserves and collected treasures of gilt, oil paint, and glistening porcelain.
Waverly taught me many things.
I learned to get off the phone during thunderstorms, kneel in prayer, and stretch my brown skin under hot ivory soap bubbles or Calgon salts. I learned to lotion elbows, knuckles, ankles, heals, and to grease my scalp. I learned to always keep a dollar or two handy and tucked. I was taught to wear slips and earrings and to dance and sing out the compression of a week while fish fried, records played, and grown folks sipped and gossiped and laughed.
My heart was held in their laughter.
What I mean to say is that their laughter, the laughter of Afro-Carolina grown folks, held my heart aloft.
Like cooking pots, nestled one inside the other, inside the other, inside the other ~ there were layers to the lessons.
There was a cavalcade of teachers, with literacies as varied as the flowers that dotted the neighborhood. (Dogwood, crepe myrtle, azalea, hydrangea, daffodil, camelia, tulips and, yes, roses.)
One such teacher was Ms. Jenny Collins (a Waverly ancestor) who was as serious about her roses as just about anything else on earth. Ms. Collins was widowed twice, by two Black men in the practice of medicine (an obstetrician and a dentist). Neither marriage produced children and so her wealth was left to bloom under her shrewd care. Ms. Collins wore real diamonds, real mink, and wore her hair in a silken silver bob, like a grande dame of the flapper era. Her skin was the color of cinnamon poured on buttered and sugared toast.
For years, Ms. Collins rented out the tiny cottage next door to her elegant home to Drink Small, the self-declared “Blues Doctor.” Drink is known for singing songs like “Tittie Man,” “I’m in Love with a Grandma,” “Widow Woman,” “Glory Hallelujah,” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” sometimes accompanied by a shiny resonator guitar.
Ms. Collins had a tongue almost as sharp as her wardrobe. She regularly threatened expulsion from her last will and testament, to all those who annoyed her. Ultimately, and to the great dismay of her bourgeois friends, she left her fine home and other treasures to Betty. Betty, one of seven children, also a daughter of Waverly, began cleaning and babysitting and errand-running at the age of 10. Ms. Collins was one of her first customers.
Ms. Collins’s time on earth ended with a strange gift. An imaginary companion named Roosevelt, arrived one day, wreaking havoc. He poured black ink on her brocade walls and smoked marijuana, tainting her chandeliers (that were regularly dipped to glistening in vinegar water) and disturbing the cloth-polished, sterling pots of African violets, which she referred to as her Babies.
In truth, Roosevelt was a hallucination brought on by an egg-shaped brain tumor. In her widowed solitude, in her end days, Ms. Collins’s own brain birthed an entertaining, albeit troublesome, companion.
As a child, I often wondered about the end days.
In preparation for such a time, I was encouraged to sign up for baptism at nearby Second Nazareth Baptist Church, not to be confused with First Nazareth, which guards a far corner of Waverly.
My Sunday school teacher gave me a carefully stapled stack of construction paper. Each color representing the path from evil to good, maybe Agape Love was in there too.
The sisters wrapped me head and tail in white cloth and I was dunked and soaked.
I didn’t rise speaking in tongues, but had definitely imagined tongue kissing Matthew who looked like a Black, curly-haired vagabond, a hippie in a choir robe. His grandma made him sing with us, in the W. M. Bowman Children’s Choir. We wore blue and red and body rocked down the aisle twice a month, us girls hiding peaking hormones with Mitchum Deodorant and Pear Glace lotion from Victoria’s Secret.
The church ladies kept a stash of white bibles for the occasion of submersion and had your name engraved in gold.
Your assigned deacon handed it to you, once dried and dressed. Here you go. Choir singing,
“He will wash you white as snow!”
“I’ll walk on streets of gold”
At home, I turned to the haunted and notorious “Revelations,” determined to scare myself sick ~ A fever dream.
Months before my baptism my mother, Margie, had turned supernova, a self-exploded star, taking herself out of this realm.
All that day and all that night, I could still hear the single shot that rang out over Waverly.
All that day and all that night, it was the autumnal equinox.
There were some things Waverly could not teach.
There were some things we all knew.
There were some things seeking to stay hidden and tucked in cigar boxes, missing diaries, torn photographs, and cookie jars.
For example, after sunset, everybody knew sex workers walked Two Notch, just past the edge of Waverly.
Everybody knew, if you bothered the Icy Lady too much, there’d be no grape cup for you. (Dear reader: The Icy Lady, also known as “Juju,” I have learned, is still alive. Juju sold styrofoam cups of frozen Koolaid from her screen door in one of the original brick buildings of the now torn-down, oldest public housing project in Columbia, called Gonzalez Gardens. These housing projects are not to be confused with Allen Benedict Court, where carbon monoxide ran the people from their homes. Two ran all the way to heaven’s gates.)
Everybody knew that Mrs. Collins’s tenant wasn’t real, he hadn’t poured ink on her mink, nor had he scratched her Cadillac, nor had he poisoned her African violets, her Babies.
Everyone did not know that on some late nights, a brown and tall-boned Soul might emerge sparked and spangled in red bugle beads, spiked Tina Turner wig pinned in place, face shimmering, heels in his hands, neat as his leather Peugeot seats.
That equinox, he was startled too by the sight of me, being dropped off, from nearby Waverly.
A Black high school, C. A. Johnson, served as the bridge between these two parts of Columbia. (Dear Reader: C. A. Johnson High not only educated my own maternal village, she also graduated the Angie Stone, neo-soul siren and early mother of women in hip-hop. She and two other Johnson cheerleaders (The Sequence) would sing:
“Don’t you give up.
Keep going, keep going, keep going. Ahhhh!
Don’t you give up.
Keep going, keep going, keep going. Ahhhh!
We’re gonna funk you right on up. We’re gonna funk you right on up!
I said get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up
Sit back down!”)
That night, I had brought no nightgown nor toothbrush to his and Nana’s house. I was just wide-eyed grief, which, at the sight of his glistening and glorious drag, transformed into something familiar to my ten-year old self ~ Wonder.
That was my baptism.
Surely there must be a God.
I haven’t been home in so long.
Waverly calls me like an insistent rotary-dial, land line.
Brrrrring…. Brrrrring. 256–0169 was Grandma’s old, now disconnected number.
And I was taught to pick up and say this:
“Caution’s residence, Shelly speaking, may I ask who’s calling?”
ABOUT MICHELLE LANIER: Michelle Lanier is an AfroCarolina folklorist, oral historian, museum professional, filmmaker and educator with over two decades of commitment to her callings. Raised in both Columbia and Hilton Head, South Carolina, and having ancestral roots in the sandhills, coastal plain, and upper piedmont of North Carolina, Michelle’s ancestral geography guides much of her interdisciplinary work. As a seasoned public humanities professional, in 2018, Michelle was named as the first African American director of all of North Carolina’s 25 state-owned historic sites. In 2008, Michelle successfully advocated for legislation creating the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which she led as its founding executive director.
She has also served on the faculty of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University since 2000. This work has led to Michelle’s role as Documentary Doula (aiding the birth of films) most notably the award-winning Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, which reveals a global south story of resistance to environmental racism. Mossville has been translated into five languages, screened on six continents, and chosen by the United Nations in an effort to raise awareness about the climate crisis and its impact on the lives of people of African descent.
Michelle has traveled to Panama and Ghana to document African Diaspora folkways. Her ethnographic work on funerary traditions of St. Helena Island, South Carolina led to her role as North Carolina’s inaugural liaison to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which she now serves as an appointed Commissioner.
This piece was commissioned by the New Orleans Film Society for South Summit 2021. South Summit received critical support from JustFilms, which is part of the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression program, and is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.