Jacqueline Doyle

Remembering Mahalia

Every Sunday my father used to blast Mahalia Jackson gospel records on our old, upright hi-fi, a spiritual experience of greater depth and resonance than we ever found at our local Catholic church. I sang in the children’s choir at St. Catherine of Siena, pallid Catholic hymns, even the most celebratory never very rousing. “Holy, holy, holy. Lord God almighty, Heaven and Earth, are full of your glory.” We sang in sweet, uncertain, quavering voices, as the choir director waved her arms like a sea anemone. I don’t think the congregation sang along at all.

Even alone, and before stereophonic sound, Mahalia’s voice was so rich and deep and sure that it filled the neighborhood. My father played her records as loud as the hi-fi would go. We had the new kind of turntable, the kind where you could stack three or four records, each dropping on top of the previous one when it was finished. He would play several hours of her music. The sunlight streamed through the banks of windows at both ends of our living room, dappled and filtered by the leaves on the trees, ripples of light on the polished wooden floor swaying and moving as the wind moved through the tree branches. The light seemed to come from God Himself, along with the warm gusts of wind that made the transparent curtains billow, and the smells of new-mown grass and honeysuckle, the buzz of the bees, the distant drone of a lawnmower, the faint, far-off cries of children playing. This was holy. This was soul stirring. This was sacred.

Mahalia’s voice would begin quietly, deep and low. “Why should I feel this discouraged? Why should the shadows come?” And climb gradually from sorrowful questioning to her conviction in the comfort of God. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” And then more slowly, deepening the meaning, with vibrato at the end of the line: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” Then pick up the tempo and volume, expansive and jubilant. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know,” her “know” spiraling upward, as she slowed the tempo again, “he’s watching me.” She projected a wide range of emotional effects—joyfully trumpeting “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere,” drawing “where” out into two satisfying syllables, or softly, mournfully, contemplatively crooning, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Whatever she sang, it was always clear that she wasn’t just singing a song: the song came from her innermost being, she believed what she sang. “We shall overcome,” she sang, deeply certain that it was true, and then more urgently and melodically, the notes climbing, “We shall overcome one day. Deep in my heart you know I, I do believe …” “Hallelujah,” another voice rang out, and she improvised on the lyrics. “We are not afraid, oh Lord, no more … Lord, Lord, Lord, everything gonna be all right, one day.”

I didn’t know anything about call and response, or African culture, or African American Christian churches, but I could hear the music building through dialogue, the responses to the singer’s words stirring responses in the rest of the listeners, drawing them to participate in the worship embodied in the song, even when the listener was a small, white, suburban, Catholic girl.

In the 1950s, our town of Mountain Lakes was an affluent, all-white, New Jersey suburb of New York City, the kind of place where Beaver of “Leave it to Beaver” might have lived. The Italian American and Irish American Catholics, like us, were ethnic, at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. The town’s leading figures, the members of the country club, the majority, were white, Protestant, and American. The richest were the Episcopalians, who went to St. Peter’s church, but the town was small and well off, and pretty much all of the Protestants were wealthy. There were no immigrants, no Jews. I barely remember encountering any Blacks at all when I was growing up. Sometimes we had cleaning ladies from the neighboring town Boonton who were Black, but no one who was around for any length of time. Our cleaning ladies came later in my childhood, once a week while I was at school, many of them poor whites. My mother’s family had a Black cleaning lady when she was growing up in Mountain Lakes, who was there for her entire childhood, a caricature “Mammy” in her memory. She enjoyed imitating her rolling eyes and exclamations. “‘Ye Gods and little killifishes,’ she used to say. Can you imagine? ‘Ye Gods and little killifishes.’” Of course my mother had some Irish American exclamations of her own that she didn’t find strange. She’d walk in on my brother and me in the living room, our crayons and coloring books and toys strewn across the floor, and roar dramatically, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Will you look at this mess!”

Born in Jersey City in 1951, I moved to Mountain Lakes, where my mother grew up and her parents still lived, when I was two years old. Sheltered from historical change in “Leave it to Beaver” land, I hardly noticed the turmoil and transformations going on in the nation. I didn’t notice the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling when I was three, of course, or the historic stand of Rosa Parks on the Montgomery bus when I was four, or the brave young girl at Little Rock Central High School when I was six. You’d think by the time I was nine, I would have heard about the sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, South Carolina, but I don’t remember it. We didn’t get a television until relatively late, and my father allowed my brother and me to watch only one hour a week, so I didn’t watch history being made on the news.

The election of John F. Kennedy made a strong impression on me in the fourth grade, because the school staged a mock election to teach us about the democratic process. One by one we gravely marched to the front of the auditorium to cast our ballots, all eyes upon us. I don’t know what I learned about democracy, but the school election taught me a lot about the social and political makeup of Mountain Lakes. Out of hundreds of students, only two of us cast our votes for JFK. Everyone knew who we were—me and Hallie Blake—and it didn’t make us very popular. I don’t suppose I had strong political convictions in the fourth grade, though I was proud and defiant about my support of Kennedy. While I imagine I must have been following my parents’ lead, I don’t remember discussions of politics at home. I don’t remember Mahalia Jackson singing at Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961, something my father undoubtedly took note of. “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy declaimed to the nation in his inaugural address. Mahalia Jackson did more for her country than most.

She appeared at rally after rally in support of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and at his express request sang the spiritual “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” at the famous March on Washington in 1963. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she called out, a cry that inspired his improvised peroration, the most famous speech in twentieth-century history. I’ve heard it so many times now, that I can’t remember whether I actually heard the speech in 1963. Like everyone in the nation, my family was glued to the TV later that year when Kennedy was assassinated, a newsreel we watched over and over, straining to fathom what had happened. Grave with the importance of the moment, I started a diary the day Kennedy was shot, recording the event. There were no more entries in the journal. It was as if history stopped there.

When King was assassinated in April 1968, I was a junior in high school. I don’t remember watching the funeral on television, or listening to Robert Kennedy’s eulogy, or hearing Mahalia Jackson sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” though I’d heard her sing it often enough on Sundays at home, and had always been stirred by the quiet dignity and beauty of the hymn:

Precious Lord, take my hand.
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light.
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

That year I had a new, radical Sociology teacher at Mountain Lakes High School, fresh out of college—Mrs. Cox, a pale skinned young woman with blonde hair so pale it was almost white. In her classroom we read Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown’s autobiographical account of growing up in Harlem, and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, about a white journalist who dyed his skin black to experience racial discrimination first hand. I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well, but it seems unlikely that the Mountain Lakes Board of Education countenanced that as part of our school curriculum. History was intruding even on Mountain Lakes, and rioting across the nation was uncomfortably close, as Paterson and Newark erupted in violence. By the time I got to college, Blacks had become Afro-Americans, Black Power was sweeping the campuses, and the image of Angela Davis, flaunting a huge afro, fist raised proudly in the air, was soon to become iconic.

The African American football player I fell in love with in my sophomore year was not my first Black boyfriend at college, but he was my first serious one, really my first serious boyfriend of any color. Freshman and sophomore years I lived in South Quad, an enormous high-rise dormitory that housed, among others, female undergraduates in the Honors Program, and the University of Michigan football team. The team members represented a kind of elite to me. Tall and broad-shouldered, they walked with easy strides, ate steak every night in their own dining room, and barely took courses because they were training all day, every day. They were aiming for the Rose Bowl. Football was big business in the Big Ten.

I dated a lot my freshman year, making up for my largely dateless high school years, when I was the “smart girl,” alienated and bookish and rebellious. In Ann Arbor I could be anyone I wanted, I firmly believed, and I wanted to shed my intellectual image for a brand new persona. I dated a lot of boys, a few African Americans among them. On Saturday nights I used to go to an after hours dance party hosted by the Black football players in a room in the basement of South Quad that started at around 1:00 a.m. and sometimes lasted all night. It wasn’t a particularly wild party. I don’t remember drugs or even alcohol. The party was really for people who liked to dance, and I loved it, learning to dance, taking in all the new music. My good friend Reggie or someone would whirl in brandishing a record he’d just brought back from home and call out, “You all’ve gotta hear this.” And it would be great, feeling that heady fusion of music, body, and spirit. A football player they called Cowboy showed up there some times, and I would look at him furtively, impressed by his mean good looks and edgy urban style: the slow prowling walk, erect carriage, and deliberately deadpan stare that spoke of dangerous city neighborhoods. During Thanksgiving break my sophomore year I came back to a largely deserted dorm after dinner with a local friend’s family. Cowboy was there, in the lobby, and the next thing you know we were listening to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and talking seriously about our lives. Within a few weeks our largely clandestine affair had started. He was rooming with Bo, a friend of mine, and we didn’t want Bo to know about it. And somehow the secrecy went with the depth of our explorations of each other.

I don’t flatter myself that falling in love with an African American meant that I had transcended the prejudices of my upbringing. In fact it may well have been an expression of those prejudices—the belief common among white Americans that African Americans represent body and soul to white intellect, and that African Americans embody sexuality in some raw and unmediated way. The attraction was real. I couldn’t have told you the source then, but it’s not so surprising that an inexperienced and inhibited white girl would be drawn to an experienced Black athlete. It’s also not so surprising that a middle class white girl intent on escaping from the suburbs and making sure that she never landed back there would be fascinated by a lower class, inner-city African American whose experiences were well out of the range of anything she knew, or that he would be interested in her for similar reasons. We communicated across the gap of our differences, so intriguing to us both. We communicated through touch, reading each other like Braille. We played chess every day, evenly matched in the game, and talked about everything, our childhoods, our feelings, our dreams.

We were never fully integrated into each other’s lives, but met somehow in a space apart. I was excited by my literature and history classes, while school didn’t interest him much. He was dealing mescaline; I never saw any of those transactions. He was also writing poetry that he was performing at all Black poetry readings, offspring of the Black Arts Movement that was flourishing on campuses across the nation. We pulled the curtains in his room, fragrant with marijuana smoke and glowing with flickering candles, while he read his poems aloud. Legs entangled on his narrow twin bed, we listened to The Last Poets chant “Wake Up, Nigger” and “When the Revolution Comes,” to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced,” and to the slow rhythms of Miriam Makeba’s “Lumumba.” The Black Power movement was becoming more aggressively separatist, as Makeba’s husband Stokely Carmichael—now living in West Africa—railed against not only Civil Rights leaders but also Black Panthers for their alliances with white activists. We shared his poetry in private, but it wasn’t a public world I could enter.

There is a vivid dream that I associate with Alan, which turned out to be Cowboy’s real name. I don’t know whether I had it back then when we were together, or some time in the many years that have passed since then. I suspect it is more recent than 1971; the details are so intensely clear. I am in my bed in the dorm room I lived in sophomore year. The lights are out, but light from the corridor spills into the entrance of the room from the crack under the door. Outside in the dimly lit corridor there is something going on, a lot of excited laughter and shouts and hooting. It sounds like a large crowd of people. It isn’t clear if it is rioting, or just a party out of control. I am fairly sure that the voices outside are Black. I am afraid. Alan lies sleeping, sprawled diagonally across my body on the bed, a comfortable weight and shield. He makes me feel safe.

So what did I need to feel safe from, at age 19, in 1971 America? What were those riotous voices, which may not have been riotous at all? Was I drawn to Alan as a kind of inoculation against the unknown, a shelter from a perceived danger that I wasn’t sure was a danger at all—it might have been a party, after all, I was thinking to myself in the dream. The dream is strange, and strangely vivid in my memory. The dream seems to mean something that I can’t quite decipher, that seems to hold a key to changing race relations in my generation, in the wake of a decade of violence and riots and social change.

When Mahalia Jackson died on January 27, 1972, I was living in Ireland, spending a year abroad at Trinity College, Dublin. Absorbed in studying Irish literature, and the discovery of my Irish relatives and roots, I didn’t notice her passing. Tensions had exploded at home, my father in an ugly, hysterical fury over my relationship with Alan. Close to the end of the school year I had started hanging around with a white, Boston Irish baseball player named Eddie. I wasn’t sure where the relationship with Alan was going, or whether we’d continue it a full year later when I returned from Dublin. So when my father threatened to cut off funds for college if I went back to Ann Arbor, I acquiesced. I was already on the way to Ireland, I reasoned. So I’d go somewhere else when I got back. I applied to some Ivy League schools I thought I probably wouldn’t get into. I felt deeply betrayed by my father’s response. His bigotry had shocked me. His strong-arm tactics left me feeling I’d sacrificed my integrity in order to stay in college. In some ways I had. The following year I went off to Brown University, without really looking back. I didn’t see Alan again. My relationship with my father was never the same.

Now, almost forty years later, I teach at a California State University campus with one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the nation. The first course I taught here happened to be twentieth-century Black literature. Generally I teach our American and women’s literature surveys, and graduate seminars on ethnic American women’s literature, my primary area of scholarship. My husband, who teaches creative writing in the department, is second-generation Mexican American. When our son was little and drew pictures of our family he colored me pink, his father brown, and himself black—until his first-grade friend Miguel pointed out that his skin wasn’t actually black. In reality his skin tone is golden, about halfway between my husband’s skin tone and mine. So he is a golden-skinned American of Irish and Mexican descent, with a Mexican last name. He studied Spanish in high school and now in college, he’s mildly interested in his ancestry, without being particularly Mexican or Irish at all. He’s one of the many mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity kids in the larger Bay Area. Our mixed-race president signals their omnipresence nationwide. They are the new America, or a good part of it.

In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison reminds us of the crucial centrality of African American culture and the undeniable Africanist presence in the American experience, even where it was largely invisible. Maybe this is a story of the sexual and spiritual surrogacy that Morrison describes, whites acting out their deepest desires and longings, anxieties and fears under cover of darkness and the racial Other. Or maybe it is a story of becoming visible, of the emerging mutual recognition made possible by the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Surely it is the story of a particular moment in American history, a time in the sixties and seventies when Blacks and whites mingled in liminal spaces such as college campuses, and families were permanently torn apart in the wake of sweeping social changes. It is an era my son and his friends have difficulty even imagining.

But the races have never been separate in our society, even when they seemed so in 1950s America. I was raised on Mahalia Jackson, by a father who later shocked me by reviling African Americans. Always struck by synchronicity, I marvel at the fact that I was delivered by a Black female doctor in the hospital in Jersey City where my mother trained as a nurse, surely an unusual occurrence in 1951. The first face I saw when I emerged into the world was African American and female. I marvel too at the fact that my father and Mahalia Jackson shared the same birthday: she born on October 26, 1911, he born on October 26, 1918. Coincidences mean nothing in themselves. But in an era in American history where so many paths crossed in so many remarkable ways perhaps they mean something after all.

As for my father and Mahalia, in his later years I don’t think he listened to her any more. He switched from LPs to tapes, never replacing most of his LPs, and never following through to CDs either. He retired from northern New Jersey to the South, to a beautiful spot nestled between two mountain ranges. A sophisticated town, in many ways, Asheville, North Carolina is nevertheless Southern, even hosting the occasional KKK parade in streets lined with hip cafes and trendy boutiques. The wealthy Southern Protestants who populate the opulent, Methodist-run retirement complex where my mother now lives alone seem friendly and civilized, but there’s undoubtedly Southern prejudice underneath, in that large all-white population. The genuinely sweet, soft-spoken, elegantly dressed widow across the hall from my widowed mother, who counts a modern-day Colonel among her distinguished relatives, refuses to have Black health aides come in. She has nothing against them, she confides to my mother, but she just doesn’t like Black people touching her.

My father died four years ago. Increasingly deaf, he listened to less music as he aged, but when he did he favored Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Irish tenors, muzak for dinner time, and white gospel. Not authentic country white gospel, but slick, commercial, full-chorus white gospel. He didn’t live to see his wife enthusiastically vote for the first African American president of the United States, a prospect unimaginable to him, or to hear Aretha Franklin’s stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Shrunken and frail at the end, silver hair thinning, my father seemed to retreat from the world in the final months of his cancer. He sat in silence for long hours in his worn tan easy chair, staring into space, or slowly turning the pages of photography books, peering through his bifocals at antique pictures of New York City, lost in memories of the past. I wonder as he passed from this life to the next whether he heard the far-off strains of Mahalia Jackson’s “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” and remembered those days when a little girl hungry for God listened, wide-eyed, to the music that gave her so much spiritual nourishment, and that was changing the future of our nation.


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