This morning I dialed my Grandma's number. Right before the sound of ringing on the other end reverberated through my cell phone speakers, I ended the call. I can't call my Grandma Annie Pearl. She is gone. I keep waiting for that reality to sink in because it hasn't yet. Grandma Annie Pearl was my North Star. My group of friends is in upheaval after a painful experience this week. Naturally in situations I'd call my Grandma to talk through what I experienced, how my friends are reacting in the wake of Mo's reflections on the incident, and what I should do. But she is gone. So I find myself trying to follow the memory of what my North Star would tell me to do, instead of being able to open my eyes and see her brilliant shine guide me home. I know what she would say.
One of my most vivid memories of my Grandma is a memory of a time I was playing with the kids in her neighborhood. My mom would send me to El Reno during the summer. She knew my Grandma could give me something that she, as a white mother, could never give me. I would arrive at my Grandma's house to the sounds of B.B. King dancing on clouds of cigarette smoke that permeated her living room. My mom would push open the door and announce, "we are here, Mama." The room was thick and filled with grey vapors and the smell of Crown Royal. My Grandma would be sitting in her chair, fly swatter close, in her floral house dress. I always thought she was so chic. Her cigarette would hang limp in her hands. Her fingernails were long and always painted red. She had several gold rings that adorned each finger. I always coveted them. My Grandma's face would break into a wide Cheshire grin and she'd holler, "AYE! Come let me look at you baby girl." She would hold my face in her hand and survey me. "You look goooooood, buhbay," she'd say. Her voice was worn and gravely from cigarettes and too many days telling folks off. To me her voice was everything. In her voice and her words were the power to make me feel invincible or strike me with deep frozen dread. It demanded all in the tenor and lilt of how she said my name. In this particular moment she said my name with the slow sexy pull at the beginning of the syllable. "Jaaaasmine, go put your thangs away and go play." She was pleased I was there and her Canadian whiskey had her relaxed.
I followed directions, because you always do what Grandma Annie Pearl tells you, and then went outside to play. North Evans street was full of Native American, Mexican, and low-income white kids. We all played together and didn't spend much time aware of the implications of the bigger world. My Grandma was known as the neighborhood watch. Didn't nobody fuck with Grandma Annie Pearl, her house, or her kids. Period. Young kids didn't know these rules and boundaries, however, and the little white girl from the block over didn't know she would teach me one of my life's most important lessons. We were taking turns sliding down the dirt hill in Grandma Annie Pearl's front yard. We'd fashioned a broke-down cardboard box into a sled. We used a piece of a destroyed extension cord to pull one another up and down the hill. Poor kids are the most creative. The little white girl from the block over was new to the neighborhood. She also seemed new to playing with other children because she insisted on not sharing the sled. She would take her turn and then another and then another until the other children would launch into a complaint.
The children encircled the sled. The little white girl from the block over sat on the cardboard incredulous with her arms folded while the other children complained to each other about her not sharing. I didn't say much. As a kid I found myself often watching more than talking. As the kids railed on about how the little white girl from the block over was being stingy, I heard the familiar sound of my Grandma's screen door open and close behind me. My Grandma has a screened in porch. The screen was dark and aged and it was hard to tell when she was sitting on the porch watching. I knew she was watching, though the other kids didn't seem to pay much attention. The kids were all talking ABOUT the little white girl from the block over, but no one had addressed her. So I spoke up. "This belongs to all of us. No one wants to play with you if you can't play right, little girl!" I was taller and stronger and I picked the little white girl from the block over up and set her to the side of the sled." She started to sob loudly. I was taken by surprise when the other children turned on me. They overwhelmed me with their frustrations. "Why would you make her cry?" "You hurt her feelings." "We were gonna do something about it." I explained that they were all standing around complaining and I had just fixed the problem. She was no longer on the sled. Now other people could use it. Two of the other children attended to the little white girl from the block over while the Native American girl yelled at me that I was a bully. I stood their stupefied when a familiar voice cut through my confusion and called me to attention.
"Jasmiiiine," Grandma Annie Pearl called from the screened in porch. She saw everything. I knew from her voice that lilt that I was in trouble, but I couldn't determine what I had done wrong. I walked toward the porch still dazed. I dragged my feet and started picking at the cuticle on my thumb. I pulled open the screen porch door to see my grandma sitting against the wall, smoking her cigarette. I could barely make eye contact. "Ma'am?" I sheepishly replied. "Girl, sit your ass down and tell me what just happened." Anxiety washed over me and I started stuttering and crying and explaining. My resilience and stubbornness rose up and growled through broken sentences at her. "I didn't do anything wrong I just saw what was happening and then said something about it and then did something about it and noooooow they won't play with me, " I howled through spit and tears. "Look at me, girl." I snapped myself into attention and looked at my Grandma. Her voice told me all I needed to know about how serious she was. She leaned over and spoke through gritted teeth. Her cigarette was stiff between her fingers as she pointed them at me in seriousness. "Black women been seeing the problems, child, calling them out, and fixing them since we was in Africa. Everybody wanna talk bout shit, but don't nobody wanna BE about shit. You got the real problem of always BEING bout shit. YOU a fixer. YOU wanna make thangs right. Folks ain't gon' like dat. You hear me?" I scowled, "so I am not in trouble? I didn't do anything wrong." "Little girl I swear 'fore GAWD if you don't fix yo mind to stop worryin' bout right and wrong and trust yo heart you gonna suffah. White folks, especially white ladies don't give a single damn about your conscience." She stopped and watched the mental wheels turn to see if anything clicked in place for me. "So I shouldn't have made her get off that sled?" My Grandma let out a terse laugh. "You'll learn baby. It don't matter how wrong white womens be in anything they do. If you make a white woman cry, it gon' be bout how bad YOU are. You gotta learn how to take care of their feelings while doin' what you gotta do." She paused and looked at me and the looked away and flicked the ash off of her cigarette. "We live my different rules, baby. These white folks don't have the same rules as us. Just because you got a white momma don't mean a goddamn thing for you. Here me now, bay-baby."
I still didn't understand. I just needed to know if what I did was right or wrong. My Grandma Annie Pearl always refused to honor my need for black and white answers. She always taught me from the lens of an entrepreneurial Black woman. She spent years going into the back door of places because colored folks weren't allowed in the front. She knew the different rule sets that we had to live by better than most. It wasn't until years later, while in junior high, that what she said solidified for me. I've tried to reject her lesson. I've tried to envision a world where if I am doing the right thing ( like standing up for myself during a racist attack, calling out racial injustices, or fighting for those with no voice) things will go as they should. Reality is that unless I do things in such a way that preserves the emotional fragility of white folks around me, I will be deemed the problem. I've learned the lesson she taught over and over again in many different forms. She was telling me that day, that in issues of race and relationships, white feelings, ESPECIALLY white women's feelings, will always be the most important. It won't matter if I am doing "the right thing". If the "right thing" makes a white woman feel attacked or hurt, I will be wrong. I will be the problem. Or maybe it isn't that black and white. I'd call my Grandma Annie Pearl to ask for an explanation, but she is gone.