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Authors: Pearl Cleage

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BOOK: I Wish I Had a Red Dress
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stepping on angels

turned into a slow half hour, and by the time I took my shower and toasted a raisin bagel for the road, I was already running late. I dashed out the back door, slammed it behind me and stopped in my tracks. A spotless blanket of new-fallen snow covered everything from my porch steps down the slope to the frozen lake at the foot of my front yard. It looked like a Christmas card.

I grew up in this house, and I inherited it when my parents passed. In the days when Idlewild was a thriving Negro resort, this kind of lakefront property was prime. Nowadays, a lot of these houses are boarded up. My few remaining full-time neighbors are mostly retirees struggling to stay independent and stave off the moment when they will be gently forced to move into
that back bedroom in the house of a well-meaning son or daughter.

I tipped back my head and opened my mouth to catch some of the soft flakes on my tongue and resisted the impulse to throw myself on the ground and make snow angels. I was tempted. Ava and I used to cover the ground with them and then spend all winter stepping carefully around each one since my mother said any fool knows it’s bad luck to step on an angel.

I turned on my car to warm it up a little and walked down to the dock for a last quiet minute before the madness of the day. It’s easy to get distracted once I get to Lansing. Politicians are really only interested in two things: votes and money, not necessarily in that order. I’m always babbling at them about making the world safe for babies, and they’re always lecturing me about budget shortfalls. After a few hours of that, it helps to be able to close my eyes and remember mornings like this when the snow makes everything look clear and clean and possible.

My parents relocated here from Detroit when I was in high school. My father was tired of working at the post office and my mother had fond memories of summers they spent here in the fifties, before integration.
The glory days.
There were cottages for rent, and supper clubs with floor shows, and restaurants that took reservations and bathing beauties who gave Lena Horne a run for her money. It was, in the words of an early brochure, “a vacation paradise for colored people.”

They would be amazed at what this place has become. The land is still beautiful, but it’s a ghost town now, populated mostly by people too old, or too poor, to go anywhere else and a few romantic reformers like me and Sister who still think there’s a way to make it work. Integration was supposed to be a good thing, but up here, it was the kiss of death. Black folks running
from each other left behind some of the most beautiful real estate for miles around and never looked back. Sometimes I think I ought to pack up and move too, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, like believing there will always be wars. If enough of us want to fix this place, we’ll fix it.

Look at The Sewing Circus. That’s my program. When Mitch died five years ago, I used the money from his life insurance to create it from scratch because I felt like the way we were doing things when I was working at Social Services was just making people more depressed and more dependent. I thought I had a better idea. Now I
I do.

The formal name of my program is the Albert B. Mitchell Sewing Circus and Community Truth Center, but we usually just call ourselves The Circus. We tried using initials, but saying
took too much time, plus the younger kids couldn’t remember all the letters and the rest of us didn’t want to.

I like calling us The Circus because it references our history. We started out meeting at Salem Baptist Church on Wednesday nights, the same time as the Ladies Sewing Circle and the Senior Choir, but our discussions got kind of loud and there were always lots of kids around being kids, so one night when we had disturbed the peace one time too many, the organist told the choir director that I was running a three-ring circus down in the Fellowship Hall and the name just stuck.

I can’t deny it. I work mostly with young women and their kids. Not all of them have babies, but most of them do and all of them will. We just celebrated our second anniversary, and we’ve got eight regulars with ten babies between them. We offer the usual assistance—job counseling, GED classes, day care—but I think the most important thing we offer is an active, ongoing
the stated purpose of which is to “develop the
capacity for critical thinking as part of the overall process of becoming a free woman.”

I’m a big fan of stating your intentions up front as clearly as possible. Saves a lot of confusion and wasted time later, especially in a group like this one. They rarely read and most of them don’t know how to analyze information that’s presented to them any better than their kids do. The events of their lives and the relentless cacaphony of the popular culture just sort of wash over them, and sometimes they catch the wave, but more often they don’t. They need a way of decoding the world at least as much as they need basic computer skills.

So we meet for potluck dinners,
and we talk
. We watch movies,
and we talk.
Sometimes I know I get on their nerves and they accuse me of spoiling the simple pleasures in life by overanalyzing every little thing, but when you’re trying to teach people how to think in a completely different kind of way, you have to talk a lot, otherwise you run the risk of assuming that everybody agrees on the issue at hand when, in truth, they’re just confused or intimidated or overwhelmed by a bunch of ideas they’ve never heard before. When this happens once you leave the room, things go right back to business as usual, which is rarely the best option.

That’s really what The Circus is about, I guess,
and at this point, mine do not include spending the rest of the morning watching the snow pile up on the frozen surface of Idlewild Lake, although that certainly would be my first choice. My job today is to get in my car, drive two hours to the state capital at Lansing and convince the members of the Human Resources Committee that not approving our grant is tantamount to stepping on angels
and I know their mamas did not raise no fools.

black ice

You know that line you have to be real clear about in your own head so that when people step over it, you can be ready to bring their inappropriate behavior to their attention by whatever means necessary? Well, Senator Busbee and his buddies definitely crossed it and I definitely brought it to their attention, but whether or not the end justified the means remains to be seen.

I merged into the traffic leaving Lansing and flipped on the radio, trying to calm down. Aretha Franklin’s voice came pouring out like sombody had cued her.


“All I’m askin’ is for a little respect!”


And the backup sisters wailing “Just a little bit! Just a little bit!”

Sing it, Ree!
I thought, but I was still too agitated to sing along. Politicians don’t know anything about respect! I should have known this was not a good place for me to be when I walked into the meeting room this morning and saw the guys on the committee all sitting up on a raised platform behind a gigantic oak table with one tiny chair out front for the humble citizen who’s coming to ask for their stamp of approval. That big old table and that little bitty chair are supposed to make you feel
like Dorothy and the Scarecrow coming in to see the Wizard of Oz. The wizard didn’t really have to
powerful. He just had to
like he was.

I think all negotiations should take place at a round table and everybody should have to rotate counterclockwise once an hour so that even the perception of head of the table, or foot, are ritually obliterated. It’s not good to sit still longer than an hour in meetings anyway. Pools the blood and encourages the territorial spreading of notes, expensive pens, leather-bound legal pads and a variety of electronic devices aimed at keeping in constant touch with the world outside of the room in which the meeting has been convened.

Politicians are especially good at this. I don’t know whether they believe that an overcrowded desk is just the thing to impress a constituent or what, but I’ve been in meetings with these guys where they spread out so much stuff in front of them that it terminally clutters your brain if you even glance down at it. Sort of like being turned to stone for sneaking a glance at Medusa.


“Re, re, re, re, re, re, re, re—spect!”


The car skidded suddenly on a patch of black ice and I realized I was driving too fast. I turned off the radio and took a deep breath. The sun was already on its way down and all the snow that turned to slush during the day would be frozen solid in a few more hours. This was not the time to be careless. This was the time to review the events of the day and figure out
what went wrong?

I thought the proposal was perfect. Visionary without being mystical. Specific without being exclusionary. Optimistic yet firmly grounded in reality. Practical and passionate, it was,
if I do say so myself
, a fine example of the best kind of sixties rhetoric grafted onto the new millennium’s requirement that we “cut to the chase.”

Maybe I should have taken better notes in that grant writing class. I can’t believe I actually took a
in saying what you don’t really mean so you can get money they don’t really want you to have. The instructors kept telling me the key to raising money was to maintain a “businesslike tone,” like I’m supposed to be ashamed of the fact that I tend to get excited when I’m talking about things that are important to me. As a true sixties
voodoo child,
I know I am
to bring passion to the table just like this generation is required to bring technology and rap music.

That’s my legacy, but when I protested all this focus on what I regarded as style over substance, they gently suggested that I adopt a more civil
when voicing my objections. At that point, I informed them on my way out the door that toning down is of zero importance to me. I would instead simply commit to the passionate telling of the complete, unvarnished truth.

Seems like a simple statement, right? But it gets tricky. First
of all, there’s the problem of presuming that everybody thinks it’s always a good idea to tell the truth when there’s really nothing to suggest that we all agree on that. In fact, there’s overwhelming evidence that we don’t, including the fact that as soon as most of us read a statement advocating universal truth-telling as a goal worthy of pursuit, we start thinking of exceptions immediately.

we think,
truth is great,
except when:

—it’s your boss;

—it’s your lover/mate/partner/spouse or kid;

—it’s scary;

—you might lose money/power/love/your job;

—you might get killed for it.

The thing is, once you start allowing for exceptions, everything becomes relative and people start talking about absurd notions like “everybody’s got a right to their own truth,” as if there can be more than one real truth, and the next thing you know, they’re putting up fences and assembling armies and we’re right back to where we started.

But it couldn’t be my
The chairman even complimented me on the quality of our application and told me we’d have no problem being approved. At the appropriate time, they allowed me to make a three-minute statement and I used my time to stress the importance of self-sufficiency, since I know politicians are big on self-sufficiency and I am too. I worked in phrases like “breaking the cycle of poverty” and “taking personal responsibility for correcting societal ills.”

I even handed out copies of our basic Circus credo, which I wrote at my kitchen table when we were brand new:


Ten Things Every Free Woman Should Know

  1. How to grow food and flowers
  2. How to prepare food nutritiously
  3. Self-defense
  4. Basic first aid/sex education and midwifery
  5. Child care (prenatal/early childhood development)
  6. Basic literacy/basic math/basic computer skills
  7. Defensive driving/map reading/basic auto and home repairs
  8. Household budget/money management
  9. Spiritual practice
  10. Physical fitness/health/hygiene

The professional grant-writing people told me it was a pretty radical statement for general distribution so I agreed to leave it out, but at the last minute, I made enough copies to hand out anyway. I wanted to give these guys a feeling for how seriously we’re trying to impact the totality of these young women’s lives.

Secure in my delusion, I chattered on for my allocated three minutes, then thanked them for their time and offered to respond to any questions they might have for me. At that point, I thought I was doing pretty good. Nobody had yawned or excused himself to go to the bathroom and then the Honorable Ezra Busbee cleared his throat and cocked his head in my direction.

Congressman Busbee is a tall, thin, intense-looking man
whose jacket sleeves and pant legs are always a little too short, which makes him bear more than a passing resemblance to Ichabod Crane. In spite of this unfortunate image problem and his total lack of support outside of his own small district, he’s been around long enough to sit on a number of powerful committees, including this one.

“I’ve got a question for you,
” he said with a tight little smile like we had a first-name relationship going. “May I call you Joyce?”

I wanted to say,
Of course, if I can call you Ezra,
but I didn’t. I needed his vote.

“Certainly,” I said, with my own small smile.

” He held up his copy of the “Ten Things.” “This is a very interesting document.”

Was “interesting” good or bad?

“Thank you,” I said.

“Can you do all these things?”

“Almost all,” I said.

“Then would you call yourself a
free woman?

“Yes,” I said. “I would.”

“And that’s what you’re raising over there in . . . Idlewild, is it?
Free women?

He made it sound like I was running an illegal mink ranch. “Well, I wouldn’t say
we’re raising them,
” I said. “Most of our core constituency is eighteen to twenty-two.”

“And they already have babies?”

I kept my voice as neutral as possible. “Not all, but many of them do have children, yes.”

He nodded and peered through his glasses at the list, reading through it again quickly. “And what’s your definition of a free woman again?”

I think that for some men, using the word “free” and “woman” so close together seems such an obvious oxymoron that they assume it must be the setup for a funny story. Ezra struck me as that kind of guy.

“A free woman,” I said, reminding myself to keep smiling too, “is one who can fully conceive and consciously execute all the moments of her life.”

I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about.

“Look out, Ezra,” chuckled the committee chairman, a jovial grandfather from a tiny town as far into northern Michigan as you can go without falling into Lake Superior. “I have it on good authority that Mrs. Mitchell here is something of a
women’s libber.

What century were they living in?
The other members of the committee chuckled, but Ezra was not impressed. He waved the “Ten Things” in my face a bit more aggressively.

“Well, I don’t know much about women’s lib,” he said, “but I can’t see much point in spending people’s hard-earned money giving sex education to unwed mothers. Isn’t that a little like closin’ the door after the cow’s already out of the barn?”

Several members of the committee laughed. That’s what I get for saying he could call me
Give these guys an inch and they’ll take a mile.

“That’s just a small part of what we do,” I said.

“But you do it, right?”


The laughter had awakened the dozing reporter for
The Capital Daily
and her note taking inspired Ezra to pursue the question.

“And you think that’s the role of government, do you, Joyce?”

I reminded myself.
Just tell him the truth.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “I think the role of government is to support and nurture a strong, self-reliant population, regardless of gender. Don’t you?”

He looked at me and frowned. “I think I’m asking the questions here, Ms. Mitchell, not you. That’s what I think.”

I felt my face flush. “Excuse me?”

“In fact,” he said, turning to the chairman. “I have a number of questions that I would like to ask Joyce about her training ground for so-called
free women
before we vote.”

“I object to that characterization of our program!” I said.

“It is not your place to object,” Ezra interrupted me.

“My place?”

“I move to table this application until we have time to study it more carefully and determine the full scope of Joyce’s program goals. I’m tired of the taxpayers’ money being wasted when all these girls need is for somebody to teach ’em how to keep their dresses down and just say

“Mr. Chairman, I have a right to respond!” I said.

“If you’re not a member of this committee, you have no rights in this room!” Ezra snapped.

Enough was enough. I stood up. “Then I don’t belong here,” I said, reaching for my coat.

“There is a motion to table on the floor!” The chairman was tapping his gavel for order. The reporter was scribbling enthusiastically now, happy for any kind of story at the end of a long, dull day.

“I second it,” boomed a freshman legislator from Grand Rapids who had a pretty young female constituent watching his lackluster performance admiringly.

Before I could object any further, they had delayed action on our proposal pending my satisfactory answers to a list of questions that Ezra handed to the committee chairman, who accepted them, took another fast vote and adjourned the meeting for the day.

For a minute, I was too stunned to move as they all began to file out of the small room. I caught up with the chairman in the hallway, scurrying back to his office.

“Bob,” I said, too frustrated for formalities. “You know it will take months for us to get back on the agenda if we get turned back now! What happened?”

He patted my shoulder without slowing down and handed me Ezra’s list. “Don’t take it personal, Joyce,” he said and winked. “It’s an election year, remember?”

Then I understood. Ezra wanted to use his opposition to us as a way of getting a little free campaign publicity. I looked at the list. The first question was “How many illegitimate babies have your followers brought into the world for somebody else to take care of?”

There were six or seven more, but that was enough for me. I crumpled the paper in my hand and just stood there for a minute. What now? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I had said I was a free woman, so what would a free woman do?

I walked over to the chairman, who had stopped to have a word with Ezra.

“Excuse me,” I said, tossing the balled-up paper in his direction so he had to fumble to catch it. “I won’t be needing those. I withdraw our application.”

He looked at me, too surprised to say anything, which was fine with me. I turned to Ezra.

“Two things,” I said to him. “There are no
babies; and from now on,
you can call me Ms. Mitchell.

When I passed a big trash can in the parking lot, I slowed down long enough to take out my last copy of that carefully crafted proposal and tossed it in. Whatever happens next, The Sewing Circus is going to stand or fall on our own reality. What’s the point of fighting for the truth if you’re not allowed to tell it?

BOOK: I Wish I Had a Red Dress
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