Philip Ivory studied literature at Columbia University and lives in Tucson where he teaches creative writing at Writers Studio. His fiction has appeared in Edify Fiction, The Airgonaut, Literally Stories, Devolution Z, Bewildering Stories and elsewhere. In 2017, he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Visit his blog at writeyourselfsane.com.
How We Cured Racism
I can’t wait for Thursday! It will be my birthday. Mom says being a leap year baby makes me a precious gem. Dad says because my birthday only happens once every four years, I will only be three, not 12, on Thursday. Ha, ha, Dad. You are so funny. (But really, on the other years we celebrate my birthday on February 28th.)
When I was five, Mom and Dad had to explain to me that America changed what happens on a leap year. The day between February 28th and March 1st wasn’t going to be called February 29th anymore. It would be called March Freedom Day.
I didn’t like that idea at first because I thought my birthday was going away, or wouldn’t be special anymore. But Mom and Dad explained that my birthday would be more special than ever. Now it would be the day we all celebrate being free and how there will never be slaves ever again in America because we cured racism.
So I thought that was pretty good. I’m glad now that every four years my birthday is on March Freedom Day.
I’m going to have cake. Of course! Lemon with chocolate icing. Bodyguard Shem will cook pork cutlets for us on the grill. Not too dry and crispy, Shem! Millie Harper from next door and my other friends will be there and I will get presents.
This week at school, Miss Hallstein asked us to do reports on the history leading up to March Freedom Day. Mine is supposed to be on how we cured racism. It isn’t due until next week so at least I will get to enjoy my birthday before I have to write it.
But I told Mom I didn’t know what to write. She said, look in the encyclopedia, but I said: Can I ask Grandma Jean? Because she has a good memory for history. Mom said that is a real good idea and will give my report something extra. Yay!
I also asked, could I talk to Bodyguard Shem? She wanted to know why, and I said because he is Gray, so I think he would have something interesting to say. Mom said he is very busy and I shouldn’t bother him. Like today he was busy all day on the roof fixing our shingles after last night’s storm.
I like Bodyguard Shem because I like elephants and his skin is gray and wrinkled like an elephant. Hard but soft, too. He’s not really a bodyguard, except for that one time when there was a German Shepherd in our backyard and it scared our cat Juniper up a tree. And Bodyguard Shem said “No! No, sir, you go away!” It was funny how he called the dog sir, like he calls Dad.
(Ma’am for my mom, Master John for Johnny and Little Miss for me. Because I am special!)
Once he sneaked ice cream to my room when Dad said I had to go there because I wrote “Brother Retard” on the birthday card I gave to Johnny. He could have got in trouble for that but he did it anyway. The only time I was ever mad at Shem was when I wanted him to play dollhouse with me and he was washing the car and said “Go away, child, shoo.” I got mad and ran away and cried. But I was only four then. Now that I’m older, I understand that Johnny and I have to let Shem do his work, the way Ambassador Joe has to do the hedges and clean the basement at the Harpers next door. Or the way Professor Henrietta mows the lawn at Mr. Benning’s house and sprays pesticides on the garden. Or like all the Gray people do.
Everyone knows that the favorite expression of Grays is: “I sure don’t know about that!” No one, not me or Johnny or Mom or Dad or Mr. and Mrs. Harper or anyone, is supposed to ask a Gray person about what family they had or what their work was before they were Gray. It’s scary and wrong if someone is dumb enough to do that. But if someone does, a Gray person is supposed to say: “I sure don’t know about that!” And when we hear that, we all know everything is okay and we feel better.
On Sunday nights, we all watch “Nothing but Gray Skies” which is a funny show about a Gray named Archdeacon Sheila. Even Bodyguard Shem watches sometimes, from the kitchen doorway while he’s polishing silverware, although he doesn’t laugh much. Archdeacon Sheila really loves the family she works for, which is a lot like mine, with a mom and dad and a girl and a boy. But lots of times she makes dumb mistakes. Like one time she thought she was putting fabric softener in the laundry, but she put in the mom’s can of instant raspberry pudding mix by mistake. And then raspberry pudding kept coming out of the washing machine like a tidal wave, getting all over the house. It was so funny when the dad in the show said: “Sheila! What
happened here? I want an explanation!” and Sheila said “I sure don’t know about that!” That is always my favorite part when she says that, and Johnny, who’s six, will roll around on the floor laughing at the part. Sometimes Sheila says “I sure don’t know about that, something fierce!” just to make it funnier.
Of course, Bodyguard Shem says the expression sometimes. When he has to. All Grays do. Once he was taking me to the Dance Emporium on Westervelt Street to pick up my new slippers for ballet class, and I saw a piano in the window of a music store. I asked Shem if he knew how to play one. “I sure don’t know about that!” he said. I saw a big dog with a really high arched back and skinny legs and sad eyes being walked by a lady in the street, and asked Shem what kind of dog it was. “I sure don’t know about that,” he said.
Another time we were walking through Main Street and he stopped in front of the courthouse building. He was looking at a plaque that said “This building designed and planned by” and it listed about ten names. Shem’s finger kept touching one of the names on the plaque. I said: “Who are those names, Shem? Do you know them?” And he said “They are the Hunter County Municipal Design Committee.” And I said again: “Do you know them?”
He sounded more sad than the other times when he said it. “I sure don’t know about that.”
I went to Grandma Jean and asked if she would talk to me about how we cured racism. She said sure. So as soon as her soap opera was over, she turned off the TV and went with me to the sunporch. She said she could talk for a while but would have to take a nap as soon as Shem brought her medicine. I had a Yoo-hoo and she had pink lemonade while we talked. (It’s later now and I’m writing down what she said in my diary so I’ll remember it for my report.)
So Grandma Jean said, this is the history. Long ago, way before she was even born, there was the Civil War. We fought it about slaves. People having slaves was bad. And people on one side said you can’t have them. But the other people said, yes we can. And there was a war, and the non-slavery people won. And President Lincoln said there would never be slaves again.
That is good, I think. It’s bad to make people slaves if they don’t want to be. I will say that in my report.
But she said something funny happened in 1872 in a town called Marble Hill, Arkansas. And nobody knew it right away, but the thing that happened would change history forever.
The richest man in town was a white man named Lemuel Garrett. He owned the race track and a factory that made kitchen stoves and he was the Dean of Marble Hill University. He also preached in the church and believed all people were brothers and sisters and it was a sin not to get along just because of skin color.
But the people in the town weren’t happy. The white people lived in one part and the black people lived in another, across the railroad tracks. Grandma Jean said it was a shame, but that’s the way it was. “Human nature,” she called it.
And Lemuel Garrett told all the people in town, black and white, that he’d pay each of them $250 if they would do an experiment for one month. That was a lot of money, so they all did it, including Lemuel Garrett himself.
He gave everyone special makeup. And they had to put it on their faces every morning, because it would wash off if you took a bath. (I don’t like baths but my mom makes me. When I’m older, I will do showers.) Anyway, they had to put this gray stuff on their skins so everybody had the same skin color. So for a month, nobody could tell who was black or white. And Lemuel Garrett wrote a story in the paper saying everybody got along better because now they all had the same skin color. People from the white section would go to the store in the black section, and vice versa. They talked to each other for the first time. They became friends. And the story in the paper had a picture of the town people lined up in front of the courthouse and smiling and you couldn’t tell who was black or white.
Lots of people read the story, including some white people in a bigger town called Little Rock. They didn’t like what they saw. They thought black people had no right to pretend to be the same as white people, and white people were traitors to their race if they acted the same as black people. So they talked to the governor, and he sent police into Marble Hill and arrested all the people and brought them to Little Rock. There was a trial, and people all across the country read about it and wanted to know what would happen to the people from Marble Hill.
First they had to wash off all the gray makeup. Grandma Jean said there was a famous quote from the judge that went like this: “What you have done is a crime against the divisions of decency that noble men erected to preserve our integrity, both as moral beings and vital participants in our honored pursuit of liberty and prosperity.”
So the judge was pretty mad. He ordered that the people of Little Rock should use chemicals from the textile plant to make a new kind of dye that would stain your skin gray for a really long time and wouldn’t wash off. And they said to the people from Marble Hill: “If you like so much being gray, then you be will Gray forever!”
That must have been a shock to Lemuel Garrett and the others. But there was nothing they could do about it. Just like if Johnny or I are bad (I hardly ever am!) and then Mom and Dad decide what punishment we have to have.
And to teach them another lesson, the new Gray people were told they had to live in the houses of people in Little Rock and do work, whatever their new owners said. And they were given new names that their owners chose for them, and weren’t even allowed to talk about who they were before or whether they were black or white or Indian or Japanese or whatever. And if they didn’t do a good job as Grays, they would get in bad trouble, like get whipped and sent to a bad prison for Grays. (Now they don’t have the bad prisons anymore. They have special hospitals that Grays get sent to. I think they have one in every state.)
Well, my Grandma Jean said the idea spread to other states. But they added a new idea. People who were town drunks, or maybe girls who did bad things with boys, or people who could not keep a job or talked to themselves in the street, or could not pay the money they owed, could be turned into Grays and go to work in people’s houses.
Both black and white people liked having Grays. It brought them together. It made people realize that under their skin they weren’t so different. And they started to forget all the troubles that black and white people had had. So around 1900, lots of towns in lots of states were using the Grays idea. There were always people that could be turned into Grays, because otherwise they might have to go to jail or not have anything to eat, or worse.
There were no more white sections or black sections. I am glad for that. The Harpers next door are black, and Millie Harper is my best friend and I love her like my own sister. (Even if she did borrow my set of 64 Crayola crayons and I only got back 57, because I think her little brother Tobias ate some!)
I don’t care if Millie is black and she doesn’t care if I am white. I am glad racism was cured.
So I asked Grandma Jean, did the Gray people mind working for families like mine for the rest of their lives? Like slaves used to have to do? First of all, Grandma Jean said we never, ever call them slaves. Because of what President Lincoln said about how there would never be slaves again in America. So they are just Grays.
But the people of America are good, and didn’t want them to be unhappy about having to be Grays the rest of their lives. So America built in a loophole for them. Every time February 29th came around, the Grays had a chance to buy their freedom back. There was a department of the government that would tell families how much a Gray was worth, based on a lot of things: how old, male or female, what kind of work the Gray was good at, how polite they were, what bad thing they did to become Gray. And if the Gray could save the money, they could go free. A date that only came up every four years was used, so the Grays wouldn’t always be upset, always thinking about being free. (Grandma Jean said some people say the Grays were not allowed to save money. They weren’t always good with money and their families managed it for them. Well, who knows for sure?)
Here’s another way the people of America showed they cared about the Grays. About fifty years ago, they wanted to make the Grays feel better about the work they do. So they started giving them titles that show respect, even if the titles don’t match their work. Like Bodyguard Shem. Or Professor Henrietta or Ambassador Joe, or Alderman Janice, who is owned by the city and lives in back of the public restrooms at the courthouse.
Grandma Jean says sometimes the Grays get really sad. We have to remember that they are only human. Like Fireman Alonso, who used to take care of the horse stables at the Burbridge Mansion, that big house with the white columns on Dellacorte Street. He felt sad because he wanted to see his wife, who he said is living in a town in Iowa. But of course that was breaking a rule, talking about his life before being a Gray, and Mr. Burbridge reminded him of that. Well, Fireman Alonso went crazy one night and took Mr. Burbridge’s rifle from the display case in his den and shot out all the lights on Harriman Street at 4 a.m. Of course they had to take him away to the Hospital for Grays. No one ever heard from Fireman Alonso again but Grandma Jean says he must be in a better place. I don’t know what a better place is because, from outside, the Burbridge Mansion looks super nice.
After school yesterday, I went over to Millie Harper’s because I wanted to make sure she got me the color Spirograph for my birthday and not just the black and white one. Nobody answered the door so I went inside, and I found Bodyguard Shem there, and he was with the Harper’s Gray, Ambassador Joe. They were in the kitchen. Joe was handing something to Shem wrapped in a dishtowel with a sharp metal point sticking out at the end.
Joe looked mad for a minute when he saw me, and Shem looked really worried about me seeing it for some reason and put the pointy thing in the dishtowel behind his back. But then Joe’s mad face turned to a smile and he said: “Little Miss, Brother Shem tells me it’s your birthday on March Freedom Day. Is that right? I might have a piece of peach pie I could share with you as an early birthday present.” And he had me sit in the dining area and eat pie while they kept talking in the kitchen.
That night Bodyguard Shem knocked on my door and he just looked at me. Like he wanted to say something. “Precious child,” he said and he hugged me. I nodded and just let him hug me. “Oh, Little Miss,” he said, and his voice sounded like he was crying. He hugged me for a long time. My hair was wet after. I hope the hug made him feel better.
I like Bodyguard Shem’s hugs. They make me feel safe like I am in the best place in the world. And I like the hard-soft feel of his gray elephant skin.
I don’t know why he was crying. I know Grays work really hard and sometimes they are lonely. I only remember one other time when Bodyguard Shem cried. I went up to the attic to look for my plastic bows and arrows, and he was sitting on a trunk looking at a photograph. His eyes were wet. He put the picture away as soon as he saw me and wiped his eyes, but I saw that it was a picture of a man and a little girl. She kind of looked like me, around my age, except that, like the man, she had creamy brown skin. And my eyes are hazel but her eyes were deep brown like a dark pool with secrets in it you could look in forever and ever.
So after I saw him looking at the picture of the man and the little girl with the dark brown eyes and being so sad, I was worried about Shem and told my mom and dad what I saw. They looked at each other and seemed real concerned. My dad went to have a talk with him.
From down the stairs, I heard Bodyguard Shem saying: “You have no right. It is all I have.” My dad was telling him it was for the best. He was only torturing himself by having that picture. Then Shem said some things I didn’t understand. “One mistake, just that one time, driving after my insurance expired. Having to pay like this the rest of my life. My little girl, she lived, I know she did. She would forgive me if I could just …”
And then my dad banged his hand hard on something and was yelling for Shem to be quiet. My dad almost never yells, so it was real scary. I couldn’t hear Bodyguard Shem say anything else except “No, please,” in a real quiet voice now. Soon my dad left Shem’s room, and he was carrying the picture with him. He stood in front of the fireplace. Then he put it real carefully in the fire. I started to ask him a question but he “shushed” me and I know I needed to be quiet. It was between my dad and Shem.
I watched the picture burn. It made me sad. I wondered where the people in the picture were now. I saw the deep dark eyes get crispy and curl up and turn to ashes.
After my dad calmed down, he told Mom and Johnny and me that we had to be extra nice to Bodyguard Shem for a while. So that night I drew a picture of myself with my crayons. I drew Shem in the picture, too. The picture showed us holding hands. I drew a big red heart over our heads.
I put the picture under the door and I hope it helped. I don’t want him to be sad anymore.
Grandma Jean said it would be important for me to tell in my report why February 29th was changed. Of course, we all know there was a rule that said Grays could be freed on February 29th. But it was changed. That day went away, and the rule went away, too.
One reason it was done is because families like mine would get upset about their Grays buying their freedom and leaving. Because in a way they are part of our family. Also, once the Grays were free, Grandma Jean said sometimes they would go back to doing bad things, like the things that got the in trouble in the first place and made them become Grays.
But the main reason was so that, with that rule being gone, the Grays could be happier and more at peace, not thinking about finally being freed all the time.
“It’s enough to drive a person crazy,” Grandma Jean said.
She says it was for the best, although lots of Grays were unhappy when it happened and some had to go away to the Gray Hospitals and never come back.
Now everyone, regular and Gray, can celebrate March Freedom Day together, once every four years. Like how long it took to fight the Civil War and end slavery.
Last time on March Freedom Day, I was turning 8. They had a fair in front of the courthouse and there was a Ferris wheel and a puppet show and a petting zoo and popcorn and bleachers where people could sit and hear music.
The next day when my mom was driving me to school, we went by the fairgrounds and men were trying to scrub out something written in spray-paint on the side of the bleachers. It said:
“NAT TURNER LIVES AND HE IS GRAY.”
Mom covered my eyes with her free hand, like she was scared for me to see. That was silly, because I saw it already. Later, I looked up Nat Turner in my encyclopedia. He was a slave during slave times and led a rebellion. But it was a long time ago and he was black, not gray. So the writing couldn’t be right.
After Grandma Jean talked to me for over an hour, Bodyguard Shem finally came to tell her it was time to take her pills and go lie down. But that was okay because I already had enough for my report.
Tomorrow, we will go to March Freedom Day and ride the rides. This year, along with everything else, they will have ponies! Yay! You bet I will ride one. Then we will come home for cake and presents. Millie and all my friends will be there.
Before writing this, I went to the kitchen to say goodnight to Bodyguard Shem and remind him not to overcook the pork cutlets. I said I was happy he would be there for my birthday because he is my friend. He is family.
Bodyguard Shem did not talk right away. He squeezed my hand for a long time like he didn’t want to let go.
It felt warm, like sun on soft-hard elephant skin.
Finally, he did let go. He turned away real quick, looking out the window.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said.