“Blacker than Black”

Rowhome

“Come on, now, elder, I’m black, but I ain’t that black. In that picture, I’m blacker than black! That’s ridiculous!”

I looked at the framed photograph and couldn’t help but laugh. I was 20 (but looked 15) and stood there smiling, wearing a white jump suit from shoulders to ankles. Next to me stood 13 year old William, 18 inches shorter than me, wearing the same head to toe jumpsuit. He had a huge grin on his face, his teeth sparkling white. But William’s skin, normally a deep mocha brown, appeared as dark as coal in the photograph, largely offset by all the white in the jumpsuits as well as the camera’s flash. In the photo, the two of us stood in front of a painting of Jesus Christ.

Clarice reached over, pulling the photo out of my hand to look at it herself. “Boy, let me see that.” She scanned the photo and then cocked her head back, laughing raucously. “Boy, you is right! In this picture, you is black!”

Clarice’s laugh was a wicked witch cackle, and it made the rest of the room start laughing. She didn’t have her teeth in at the moment, which made it all the funnier. She began gasping for breath, laughing even harder, slapping her knee over the photo.

William grabbed it again, laughing, playing along. “Come on, now, grandma! Quit it now!” But the laughter went on for a full minute before we started to get our oxygen back.

Clarice patted her grandson’s back, affectionately, puling him in for a squeeze. “Boy, you is beautiful just the way you is. Now why don’t you go out and play some ball, let me talk to these elders here.”

William scampered outside, grabbing the ball on the way. My companion, Elder Shoney, grinned, standing up. “Hey, I’m gonna go play with him for a bit, is that cool?”

I smiled. “Yeah, of course. I’ll be out in a bit.” Honey knew I didn’t care for basketball, and liked to take chances to play with William when he could during our visits for a few minutes. After a string of difficult companions in my last area, Elder Shoney was a breath of fresh air. He was hilarious. We got along like brothers, which sometimes meant we argued like brothers, but he was a great first companion to have in inner city Philadelphia, where I was now living. He had me in stitches constantly.

Clarice sent her other two family members out of the room, leaving just she and I. She was in a comfortable house dress, a dark green that was beautiful against her clay-colored skin. Her hair was grey and thin and scampered about on her head haphazardly in a way that suited her. She wore no makeup, and her lips and cheeks sank in a bit since her teeth were out, making her look a bit older than her actual age. Clarice was in her mid-60s, and I had never known anyone like her.

We had been knocking doors in inner city Philadelphia, in Germantown, a section of the city that was divided into rich and poor. Clarice had a beautifully kept home, a three story row home that was tightly packed between other homes. There was no space between the buildings, no yards, just a driveway and a sidewalk out front, where they had placed the makeshift basketball hoop. She and her neighbors had lived in these homes for decades, and they were close, having regular barbecues and get-togethers. Crime was rampant in the neighborhoods around them, but they watched out for each other.

Clarice had graduated high school on time but had never planned on college, something that she felt was for boys in her generation. Instead, she’d gotten a job, had gotten married, and had had three children, two sons and a daughter. Her family became her entire world. As her husband struggled to make end’s meet, she kept working, raising her kids, and keeping them safe and in school. Once they became teenagers, life became harder as she say them struggle with choices. The streets of Philadelphia were full of drugs, violent crime, and gangs. But they were also full of happy families trying to get by and keep their heads down, as Clarice phrased it to me once. Clarice’s kids were grown now, and she was a grandmother, and her husband had died a few years back. But when her own son ended up in prison ten years before, Clarice had agreed to raise his only son, William, as her own, as William’s mother wasn’t fit to raise him herself, according to Clarice. She had had William since he was 5, and she was doing a fine job. William was a great student, a respectful young man, and impeccably mannered.

When two white missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had come knocking on her door, Clarice had been surprised to say the least. She told us she didn’t often see white people in her neighborhood, and especially not young men in white shirts and ties. Her curiosity led to her inviting us in, and we told her all about our church. She liked the idea of William having some nice Christian influences, so she invited us back, and soon we were teaching the both of them regularly. Other family members lived in the home, but while they were friendly toward us, she had no interest in learning about the church. Secretly, we hoped that by converting Clarice and William, we could convert the whole family, perhaps the whole block, and then move on from their. Elder Shoney and I talked about how maybe this is the kind of missionary work we were called out here to do, maybe we could convert hundreds starting with just a few.

A few weeks prior, Elder Shoney and I had baptized the two. They had had dozens of family members and friends there to witness the event. Shoney baptized Clarice, and then I baptized William, and the room had erupted into applause, something that was generally not done at baptisms. It had been a happy, wonderful day, perhaps the most happy of my mission, as I had felt like I was making a big difference.

I glanced at the window, seeing Shoney scampering about outside with William and a few of his friends with the basketball. Clarice took a long sip of her iced tea, and we made small talk for a few minutes before she got to the point of what she wanted to discuss.

“Now listen, Elder Anderson,” she smiled, “I wanted to go over a few things. That boy, he’s mine, he’s my whole world, and he’s gonna have a future. He’s gonna go to college and he’s gonna have a whole life. Now becoming Mormon, joining up with your church, I’m hoping that gives him some nice friends, some nice people to keep him safe and on the right track. But I have to be honest, I don’t plan on him being any typical kind of Mormon.”

Clarice leaned in, her voice lowering. “I don’t plan on him being no missionary. And I don’t plan on teaching him to give ten per cent of his money over. And to be honest, we ain’t going to be going to church every week. I want him to have influence of nice young men like you and Elder Shoney, but we ain’t going to be doing all the rest. Is that gonna be okay?”

A dozen answers flashed through my brain, all about obedience and how we are supposed to do everything God asks, sacrificing our own interests to show our faith and dedication. The word sacrifice flashed in my brain in neon lights. It was the only answer I had for myself.

But I closed the shutters on my brain and gut, and instead answered from the heart.

“Of course that’s okay, Clarice. Of course.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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