It was a stream of water that ran by the road in my hometown. It was no more than four feet deep at its braggart’s point and so narrow in some locations that you could step across it on four rocks protruding from the water. Most people didn’t pay much attention to it. For some reason, they named our local high school after this brook–Big Walnut.
Most of the good white folk stayed away from it because it was a hangout–well, it was a place where some of the “negroes” from nearby Columbus would come to congregate on the weekends. There were a few fishermen’s shacks which had been erected near the water, where these darkened visitors would sleep and relax as they cast lines into the nearby flow, seeking to capture a particular style of varmint called a sucker. Now, a sucker was an ugly fish–big huge mouth, with what looked to be thick lips and humongous, bulging eyes. Yes, the good white folks of our town were very careful not to spend much time on the banks of the Big Walnut, or to ever even consider consuming a sucker.
I occasionally went down to look at the water because it wound its way through a very pastoral setting of trees and rocks. On one of those occasions, when I was gazing from the bridge down at the creek beneath, an older fellow saw me and motioned to me to come down and join him. I was terrified, surprised, frozen and intrigued, all at the same time. For you see, he was a negro.
I was fifteen years old and had never spoken with a negro. I had seen them. I had even tackled one in a football game with a nearby city school which was intergrated. But I had never had an actual conversation with anyone of that color persuasion.
He motioned to me again, and because he was an older chap and I felt deep respect for folks of that ilk, I picked my way down the hill to join him at the waterfront. As I arrived, he got a bite on his hook and right then and there, pulled up one of those ugly sucker fish, which looked to be nearly a pound and a half in size. He gave a hoot.
Negro: Would you look at that, son? Halleluia! I have supper for tonight.
(I pulled back in terror at the sight of the ugly fish.)
Negro: Have you ever eaten a sucker?
Me: My dad says they taste terrible and have too many bones.
Negro: Well, I probably have too many bones, and I’m not so sure I taste good, either. But if you smoke ‘em, they are delicious.
(I must have had a comical, perplexed look on my face because he laughed.)
Negro: Do you know what smoked is?
Negro: No! You’ve eaten ham, haven’t you? Smokin’ meat is like puttin’ it near the fire instead of on the fire, and lettin’ the hickory flavor do the cookin’.
(I nodded my head–not because I understood, but because I was bored.)
Negro: Do you like to fish?
Me: Yeah, kinda. My dad and older brothers are nuts about it. I like to catch fish.
Negro: Me, too. By the way, my name is Marsh.
Me: Pleased to meet you Mr. Marsh.
(I was speaking to him from a distance of about six feet, so as to give myself the first fruits of an excellent exit. He stuck his hand out across the distance.)
Negro: No, it’s not Mister. Just call me Marsh.
(I was staring at the hand of a Negro. It was big. I could see callouses protruding from every knuckle. I quickly glanced down at my hand, which more resembled a medium-sized, damp white terry wash cloth. What was I going to do? He kept his hand extended, determined to make connection. So I cautiously inched forward and shook his massive paw.)
Marsh: You come down here often?
Me: No–because …
(I stopped in mid-sentence. I almost let it slip–that the community generally considered this to be reserved for Negroes and not available to the whites.)
Marsh: (interrupting) Let me guess. You don’t come down here because people who look like me seem to own this place, right?
Me: We call it Monkey Hollow. At least that’s what my dad said.
Marsh: He did, did he? Well, we people of a different point of view call it Goshen’s Point. Do you know the story of the place?
(I shook my head.)
Marsh: Tale is that an escaped slave arrived here with his wife and didn’t feel it was safe for him to live among the white folks, so he settled here by the creek, built a cabin and started to raise a family. He called it Goshen because that was the land where the Jews were safe from the Egyptians.
(Once again I nodded my head. I wasn’t really interested–just fascinated by being in the proximity of this aged Negro. I stepped a little closer–honestly, just to find out if he smelled different. I was told they did. He ended up smelling like fish and the residue of earth worms, which was not unusual for people who frequented the sport.)
Marsh: What is your name?
Marsh: That’s a good Bible name. Jonathan–the best friend of King David. A good young man who got himself mixed up in family loyalty. Instead of siding with his friend, David, he followed his dad…to death.
(I crinkled my brow a bit because I knew the story, but found it more interesting coming out of the mouth of this wrinkled alien.)
Marsh: Is this the first time you’ve ever talked to a nigger?
(My expression must have been worth a million dollars, because Marsh laughed like he had just discovered a treasure.)
Marsh: You have heard us called niggers, right?
Jonathan: Well, once or twice, I guess, but never … near one, if you know what I mean.
Marsh: I do, son, I surely do. Usually they call us Negroes, right?
Jonathan: I guess. If that’s all right.
Marsh: I guess there’s a name we call every person to their face and another one we use behind their back. What do you think, Jonathan? What would Jesus think about that?
Jonathan: I don’t know. Are you a Christian?
Marsh: I sure am. But not like you.
Jonathan: What do you mean?
Marsh: You see, Jonathan, I’m a Christian because I need to be one to survive and get along in this world. You’re a Christian because there’s a church down the road where your friends go, that has some mighty good pot-lucks from time to time.
(I was offended.)
Jonathan: I believe in God.
Marsh: I know, son. I know. It’s just that my faith allows me to believe that God believes in me, too. That God somehow or another is able to escape staring at my color and sees right down to the tiptoes of my soul.
(I frowned, making him smile. Marsh held his freshly caught fish up to his face)
Marsh: Don’t you think this sucker looks just like me? Big lips and bulgy eyes?
(I didn’t know what to say.)
Marsh: You run along. I sure have enjoyed our conversation. I just hope you know that we Negroes–niggers, or monkey, or whatever you hear us called–are able to talk and really don’t bite or hurt nobody.
(I bit my lip because I couldn’t think of an adequate retort. Marsh turned around and started fishing again. I wanted to say something meaningful, warm or profound, but ended up pulling myself up the hill in silence.)
Marsh was the first Negro I ever talked to. Since then, I have purposefully had thousands of other conversations in honor of my initial “creeky” encounter.
I also have grown up and left my small-town, both in location and in thinking. Truthfully, I never did eat a sucker, smoked or otherwise.
But I did somehow manage … not to become one.
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