November 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
I am pleased to introduce Lucia King who has posted the following essay about the African American woman who raised her and her experience of confronting the nuclear age. She, like many others, struggles with the conflicts and confusions, as well as the presence of love, that the relationship engendered, which continue to haunt her today, and the absurdity of the possibility of nuclear war. I think many will recognize and empathize with her experiences.
In addition to being an essayist, Lucia King is a poet. Her poem, A Litany On The Origins Of Our Nuclear Dilemma: 1981 is published below as part of this post after the “More” tag. Despite it being written in 1981, the themes of the poem are relevant today. She writes about loss in childhood. “Childhood–the great burial ground for human pain.” And “How does a child understand this skewed picture of life–this split?” And nuclear war’s verisimilitudes that converge with memories of childhood. ‘ “We are now a global nuclear community tied together by warheads checkering our global landscapes, not unlike those seemingly random memories from childhood landscapes.” ‘
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by Lucia King
In 1981 I wrote a poem entitled “A Litany on the Origins of Our Nuclear Dilemma.” I wrote it around the time of significant negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear arms reduction I call “Litany” a therapy poem. I was engaged in family systems therapy when I wrote it, trying to give voice to the many dualities that had marked my childhood. As described in the poem, one of the dualities I was struggling with was how we treated the black woman my mother hired as our maid in 1948 a few months before I was born and who worked for my mother and father for 24 years until I and my three siblings left for college.
As toddlers we couldn’t pronounce Julia, so we called her Ju-Ju. My experience with Ju-Ju, was loving and fun, and yes, she scolded us when we were naughty. However, from the perspective of the white, segregationist culture in which I was raised, my relationship with her in childhood created a painful duality I could not understand, and a duality in which, as an adult, I have harbored a lifetime of guilt. Ju-Ju fed me, changed my diapers, rocked me in the old wooden rocker, took me out on strolls, and listened to my ramblings when I came home from school–you get the picture–she was the other woman who mothered me. But I was taught that she was different from me, and therefore she, and those like her, had to be separate from me.
In the poem I refer to meals with Julia–she did not eat at the table with us. I took a little poetic license in that verse– Ju-Ju did eat at the table with us, but only when she attended us on family vacations. In our home Ju-Ju had her own bathroom off the kitchen. We called it, “Ju-Ju’s bathroom,” even though we used it. After the workday, she lived in a separate neighborhood across the tracks. She didn’t have children. I always thought of myself as her child, as well as my mother’s. As I learned in Memphis in the 50’s and 60’s of my childhood, there was a litany of do’s and don’ts that were supposed to separate Ju-Ju from me and vice versa. I was taught that Julia was not like me and I was not like her, all because of the color of her skin. Of course, no one ever said we were actually separate because of the color of my skin.
How does a child understand this skewed picture of life–this split? I couldn’t. I was confused by this picture. But I accepted it and from my culture learned to internalize that difference. That split in my culture became a split in my psyche. I had two mothers, one who loved me because I was hers, and another who loved me unconditionally even though I wasn’t hers.
In 2012 I signed up to take a course on the craft of writing poetry at a place called Writerhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, near where I live. The last assignment the teacher gave us in that first eight-week session was to write a poem about my mother’s kitchen. Ju-Ju figured prominently in that poem. One poem about Ju-Ju led to other poems about my life with her, and other poems led to essays, my first one describing my experience in attending her funeral. Julia died in 1983. Now, thirty years after she died, Julia’s love is still sounding within, helping me let go of the guilt about the culture of segregation in which I was raised and allowing me to give voice to my unresolved grief and love for her–and to honor her.
In my exploration of Julia’s presence and meaning in my life, I realized I needed to read more about the culture and history of the south. I needed to come out of my silence and face the history of my place of birth and culture. In my research I have heard a term which was new to me–intergenerational trauma. Understanding its meaning and realizing that it applies to both the oppressed and oppressors has opened up space for me. At the time I wrote the poem, “A Litany on the Origins of Our Nuclear Dilemma” in 1981, I did not realize that my “therapy” poem was giving voice to that intergenerational trauma. I did understand my need for reconciliation and peace. This has been and is a lifetime journey for me. Here is “The Litany.”
A LITANY ON THE ORIGINS OF OUR NUCLEAR DILEMMA: 1981
I first learned of war in childhood, with family and friends.
We practiced it among ourselves so that when we were older
we could prepare for our end,
prepare with weapons bigger than mere words and actions
experienced when young, prepare to destroy ourselves,
our world, our planet, with past differences,
past losses– unresolved, un-mourned, stored inside,
inside our hearts, our bodies, our earth,
ready, waiting for the big explosion.
Childhood–the great burial ground for human pain.
When I was a child in history class, they taught us
about wars–civil, religious, revolutionary, world wars,
it mattered not which war, all wars began and ended–
or so they said. I knew better.
Most wars never ended,
they just took on new form.
When I was a child, I was raised by a woman
we called Ju-Ju. She came to our house
early every morning, and left after dinner at night.
She went on family vacations with us,
she loved us, nurtured us,
but she never ate a meal at the table with us,
She was different,
she was black.
When I was a child at St. Mary’s School for Girls,
Chet Deaton was the only boy
in my fourth grade class.
The son of my teacher,
he had cerebral palsy, and he drooled.
My friend, Drue, and I played with him–
no one else would. He was different.
Drue now writes a history of the Memphis Zoo.
When I was a child, my sisters and I attended
camp every summer– Miramichee for Girls.
My father, a doctor, heard that a girl at camp
kissed other girls, so he sat us down
and described her disease– a lesbian he called it.
After that, I avoided kissing my mother
and my sisters.
When I was a child a tall, gangly boy named Arthur
lived across the street. He was my first love.
Every afternoon after school we played tennis, we talked.
When he went away to school, he wrote
and said he could never marry me,
he was different. He was a Jew.
When I was a child I heard my father say
my mother was a country girl who didn’t read much
or know much about music and art. He never sounded
nice when he said these things, he accented
her difference–perhaps she was not all the things
he wanted her to be.
My mother never spoke loudly,
she gardened and did beautiful needlework.
When I was a child my mother’s mother made comments
about my father’s music , his art, his extravagant tastes,
his Whiskypalian parties. Her son,
had he survived the war, would have attended
the Methodist church, saved his money,
been a good businessman like her husband.
My father had been her son’s best friend
but he was not like her son.
When I was a child my grandfather taught me tennis
And told me about his dead son’s game.
My father taught me tennis and told me
he wished Mom could play. She had a bad back.
My grandfather read me the Wall Street Journal,
and talked about shipping the n…… back to Africa.
I was baptized in the waters of the Gulf on vacations
three and four times a day by Ju-Ju.
I did needlework with my mother.
I listened to classical music with my father.
I saved money, I spent it on pretty things.
I went to Easter services with my family
and Passover dinners with Arthur.
And, I always hurt when I sensed someone I loved
was pronounced different
by someone else I loved.
Being different kept people from people,
being different was used as an excuse for wars
in my nuclear family and community–
wars on who was better, or who had more.
If you were bigger or stronger,
if you had more education or money,
if you had more people on your side,
or had the right color skin,
if you had a Christ on your side,
or a culture to uphold,
you could win these wars.
Both winner and loser were left
with ignorance and loss,
the inability to share in a deep way
what is common to both–
humanity and life.
As I reflect on these seemingly random events
experienced when young,
I hear some small quiet voice
from the depths of my heart say,
“Oh but we did not mean it, we hurt,
we were frightened, we simply never learned
to cherish differences and to grieve past losses.”
I hear others say as they read these plaintive cries,
“Oh, yes, I know, that was childhood,
we all go through it, it was no big deal.”
“If it was no big deal,
if there was no great pain, or fear, or death,
in those small nuclear family and neighborhood wars,
then why, why, as a society, do we have the need,
the capability to destroy our planet?
Was my childhood really so different from yours?
We are now a global community tied together
by nuclear warheads checkering our global landscapes,
not unlike those seemingly random memories
of childhood landscapes.
I wonder now,
Can we learn to make peace– will we?