I think I saw Venus Jones in Central Park today; we were wearing face masks, so I am not sure.
It’s been at least forty years since we last met in the same park near the Alice in Wonderland statue. This time she was with a tall teen-age boy who could have been her grandson. He was wearing a BLACK LIVES MATTER T- Shirt. I was hoping she would stop and talk to me like the last time, but she didn’t. I waved but she turned away. Maybe she didn’t recognize me with my white hair and my mask. But there was something in her eyes that made me think she did.
In 1965 when all things were possible. At Columbia Teacher’s College, I was in a master’s program and took a course called Negro Literature. Dr. Bone armed us with books we could take with us to teach in Harlem or the South Bronx. We were the future; we would change the world. Most of us were white.
At the end of the class Dr. Bone required each student to interview a black poet for an anthology he was writing. Gloria Oden was my assignment.
She lived in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village. To me the village was the epitome of romance back then. Having grown up in a white suburb with country clubs, no sidewalks, no grit. Greenwich Village meant freedom, sex, art and danger. My friends and I would go there on weekends to hear folk music. We vowed we would live there some day. If I was apprehensive about the visit, I don’t remember. In those days, I pretended to be fearless.
I walked down a short staircase to the basement apartment. I could see the poet through her window. She sat on a green couch looking through a book. I rang the doorbell. She opened the door and smiled a welcome smile. I could see that she lived alone. A record was playing, Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit. “Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” She asked if I knew the song and seemed surprised that I did. Her shelves contained a multitude of many books: poetry from Paul Lawrence Dunbar who wrote in dialect and was out of fashion, to Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and Leroy Jones. Every black poet in her collection wrote about race I don’t remember what we talked about or if she offered anything to drink. What I remember was her statement which upset me : “Inside every black person is a valid chasm of hate.” Maybe I wanted her to be wrong. I didn’t want to be hated.
In my senior year of college, I was a student teacher in the Hough Area of Cleveland. I was assigned to student-teach at Harry E. Davis Junior High School. Mrs. Sutphin was my master teacher. Tall, caramel and elegant, always in heels, her hair in a French twist, she had careful and what I thought was affected English. She pronounced literature “literatur.” She insisted that Friday was dress- up day. Each seventh-grade boy had to wear a tie. The girls dressed in their Sunday best. The children did a choral reading of James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” Her writing on the blackboard was like calligraphy. And she loved me. Didn’t she ? The kids seemed to. I know I was adored by Roosevelt Winbush and Boogaloo Bush . Boogaloo was the dance craze back then. I took them out of class every day for remedial reading. I gave Roosevelt a book about F.D.R. , his name sake. But we never talked about the book. I wished we had.
At the end of my teaching assignment, a male teacher and I went to a bar in downtown Cleveland to hear Miles Davis. I was shocked when Davis turned his back on the audience. I suddenly felt that he was rejecting me. I think I was the only white person in the room.
It’s the same way I felt today in the park, when I thought I saw Venus Jones. Of course, I could be wrong but after all that’s happened, who knows?
After graduate school I was assigned to teach at Benjamin Franklin High school on 116th Street. What I learned about black literature and the Harlem Renaissance stood me in good stead when Venus Jones sat in the first row of my tenth grade English class. She sat upright at her desk, always attentive. She loved the books we read and wrote about them with insight and grace. She asked me for more titles and recommendations. Her favorite was a play called “A Day of Absence” about what happens in a small Southern town when all the black folks refuse to go to work. She ignored the girl who slept slumped over at the desk next to her. It was my job to get the attention of each child. I threw out the assigned curriculum. Instead of Silas Marner, I opted for Bigger Thomas from Wright’s Native Son. The kids , even the sleeping girl, listened.
I didn’t have to work to get the attention of Venus Jones. She was my most brilliant student.
Venus’s mother was head of the PTA at Benjamin Franklin. She was one of only three mothers who came to parent- teacher night. It was hard for me to understand.
“These mothers are too busy getting high,” was what some white teachers said. The kids hated them. They told the kids to open their books and read while they flipped through the New York Times.
I taught with fury. I didn’t want the kids to miss what Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright could say to them. And just like in Mrs. Sutphin’s class, we did a choral reading of “The Creation” and invited all the other English classes. Years went by and I left Harlem. I got married, divorced. I was a single mother back then.
One day in Central Park in 1976, I ran into Venus Jones. She was working as a research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
I don’t remember if we hugged but I will never forget what she said,
“Mrs. McKechnie, I’ve never forgotten you. You were like a mother to all of us.”
Of all the things students have said to me over the years, these are words I most cherish.
But now in the middle of a terrible pandemic, when we are all afraid, we are seeing that chasm the poet talked about. The lyrics of Strange Fruit that played that day, played in my head when I watched the face of George Floyd. “Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” Has the curtain that hid a horrifying history been pulled back? We see the life of black mothers and more pain than we ever imagined.
So, if it was Venus I saw today in the park, she is the mother or grandmother of a black son. How can she still think of me as being like a mother to her or to any black child?
I understand if she turned away.