Scars – Visible and Invisible
Mommy, what’s that big brown spot on your hand? Tell us that story please Mommy” squealed Cynthia, my four-year-old daughter.
“Oh that,” pointing to the back of my left hand. “I’ve told you that story a hundred times.”
“Noooo Mommy you haven’t. You told us that story maybe four times.”
My five-year-old, Narissa agreed. “It was four times you told us that story.” She was always a bit more precise.
The two of them worked together often to cajole me into doing things I wasn’t keen on doing. As a young mother, I didn’t always think about their age when sharing stories. And that included the story of the burn on the back of my left hand.
“Okay, okay, but we have to agree this is the only story I am going to tell today. Do you agree to that?” Narissa said yes immediately, but Cynthia decided to negotiate.
“What about doing two stories? Can we pick the second story?”
I acquiesced easily because I wanted to get the stories over with so I could complete the rest of the housework and prepare for a graduate-level class I was taking on Saturday morning at Prairie View A&M University where their father, Horace taught. And today was Friday, a day off for children who attended the university laboratory school for children ages two through five. It seemed like every week they had days off for some reason or another.
The girls agreed that the second story would be the one-inch scar on my right lower arm below the elbow. I didn’t mind sharing that scar story because it taught the values of hard work, taking initiative, and supporting family. I often used story-telling to teach values like honesty, kindness, and commitment to whatever task they were given to complete.
I sat on a tall stool in their playroom while the girls sat below me on the floor. Their little brown well-defined legs were almost hidden in the deep blue plush carpet. They were attentively looking up at me with huge gorgeous brown eyes as though I held the key to their daily dose of happiness. I was always surprised the girls enjoyed hearing about my childhood. It was just normal farm life to me.
My introduction was short plus the girls were not interested in too much background information.
My father had 15 children before he married my mother and that was long before I was born. Actually, he had 16 children and one was out of wedlock as the story goes with his wife’s sister. After my birth, he had fathered 17 children. He was 73 years old and my mother was 33 when I was born. My mother had four children of her own before she married my father. Her husband died when her baby was eight months old and her eldest was five years old.
I didn’t tell Narissa and Cynthia about my father’s alleged infidelity with his wife’s sister. They had many years ahead to learn of sordid family stories.
Both girls had begun to squirm and I knew it was time to get into the story. I loved looking at my daughters. Just watching them gave me a feeling of accomplishment, of just knowing that both came from my body through lots of excruciating pain. I was in labor for 14 hours with Narissa. Cynthia’s birth was a lot less painful and labor was a shorter duration – about five hours. Both girls weighed the same, eight pounds, eight ounces. Narissa had a head full of long black satin hair and Cynthia was nearly bald with a few strands of reddish-brown hair at the very top of her head. I learned from their birth that not all pain is bad and that some pain brings joy. And as with the scars on my body, not all came from places of unhappiness.
Hold on girls, a little bit more background. My father’s youngest son, Emerson, brought his three children to live with us. The oldest child, Bettie, was five and the youngest, Larry was three. Don the middle child was four, the same age as me. I was overjoyed. I would have someone to play with because all four of mommy’s children were in school and I was left to play alone.
One cold winter evening in 1944 during the Christmas Holidays all eight children sat around the wood-burning heater occasionally reaching out the window to grab an icicle hanging from the roof of our four-room unpainted wood frame home. The room we sat in was large and right next to the kitchen. The only light we had in the room was an oil lamp that cast shadows on the walls. It gave off an eerie feeling as the wick fluttered inside the recently cleaned glass globe. The eight children in the room included Bettie, Don, Larry, me, and my four sisters and brothers. The room was used as a family room where we played games, like jacks, told stories, and sometimes popped popcorn on top of the heater. My father raised a special kind of corn on the farm for popping. We sometimes made popcorn balls from blue ribbon cane syrup and roasted peanuts that we raised.
“Can we make popcorn balls mommy” the girls pleaded. These were the type of questions laced throughout storytelling time.
The room where we were sitting around the fire was also mommy and daddy’s bedroom. The room did not have much furniture in it. It held my parents’ bed in the corner of the room. Three long pine benches that daddy made surrounded the room. The wood-burning iron heater sat in the middle of the floor.
Don, the four-year-old middle child kept moving closer and closer to the heater. He ran back and forth from the bench where he was sitting to the heater. RH, my older brother asked Don to move back from the heater, but Don ignored him. Finally, my brother Charlie told Don that if he kept getting close to the heater he would throw him in the fire.
Children often believe what older people say. So, it's important, to tell the truth. I thought my brother was going to throw Don in the fire if he disobeyed again. Besides, I didn’t care for Don. He annoyed me by pulling my hair and pinching me. When Don laughed and ran toward the heater again, I decided then and there that my brother was right and that burning Don was a good idea; so, I rushed across the room to where Don was sitting, grabbed his neck with my right arm, encircling it and dragged him toward the heater. I needed my left hand to open the door to the heater. The door was very hot. I placed my left hand toward the door handle while keeping Don under control with my right arm. He kicked, screamed, and tried to get away while everyone laughed. No one in the room knew I was actually trying to burn him up. The back of my left hand slipped and landed flat on the door of the heater. You could smell the scorching skin immediately. I pulled my hand from the door quickly but the top layer of the skin was stuck to the door.
At this point in the story, the girls, eyes wide, moved toward me to study my hand. One little hand from each girl stroked the burn scar gently.
“Did it hurt mommy? Did you go to the doctor?” Both little voices were in concert.
These were Questions I had answered many times before but I held my hand close to their small innocent faces and showed them the edges of the fading burn scar. The scar was still visible and covered the entire back of my left hand.
Yes. It hurt terribly. The pain was awful. I did not go to the doctor because we did not have doctors where we lived. Besides some white doctors in neighboring towns did not serve Black people. My mother was our doctor and when she couldn’t figure out how to treat us when we were sick, she took us to an herb doctor and an older Black woman who lived nearby. An herb doctor uses special plants, oils, and roots when someone doesn’t feel well like the mint growing in the yard or the dandelion roots that I use for tea. My mother also used castor oil, a terrible-tasting oil for colds.
“What happened after you burned yourself, mommy?” Narissa wanted to bring us back to the story while Cynthia continued looking at the scar.
Well, my mother made a paste of honey and white powder. I’m not sure what the powder was but it thickened the honey so it would not run off my hand. Mommy said the white powder would draw the heat out. She then wrapped the scar loosely with several layers of gauze.
After crying so hard I had no more tears, mommy laid me gently on the floor on top of a pallet from one of the quilts she had made. She placed a pillow next to the pallet for my damaged hand. Everyone in the room was quiet including Don, staring at me.
I slept on the floor alone all night because mommy thought if I slept near someone I would hurt my hand.
The hand healed in a few weeks but I was not allowed to place it in water during that time. My mother cleaned and dressed the burn wound daily. She also told me to open and close my hand several times a day. I didn’t understand why I was doing this at the time, but my mother knew the muscles in my hand would tighten up and I would not be able to use my hand.
“OK, girls. The story is over. We need to move on to the next story.”
I tried to delay telling the next story because over half an hour had passed and their little eyes had begun to droop. However, that was not going to happen. When I mentioned telling the story after their nap, their eyes immediately opened wide again;
“No mommy, you promised.”
Both Narissa and her sister Cynthia, born 11 months and three weeks apart were pretty by any standards, not just mother standards and they were quite smart. Sometimes we had visitors from the university, both faculty and students who came to see the girls after hearing about their prettiness and precociousness. Their father, a professor at Prairie View A&M University, and I made an effort to expose them to what he had been exposed to as a child and what I sometimes wished I had been exposed to.
Their father, Horace Bond grew up in an upper-middle-class family. Both of his parents, Louise and Tom earned graduate degrees from prominent universities, Syracuse and Indiana University, respectively.
The Bond family represented a long line of educators dating back to the 1800s. Horace’s grandfather, James Bond was a member of the Board of Trustees at Berea College before the 1896 Landmark Supreme Court Decision in Plessy v Ferguson. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation did not violate the constitution as long as facilities were equal for each race. After this landmark decision, James Bond, a graduate of Berea could no longer serve on the Board.
The Bond family’s history is filled with highly accomplished members with Julian Bond being the most visible public figure. There were architects, ambassadors, college presidents, ministers, and other professionals of note.
Julian Bond was a prominent civil rights activist, television commentator, and professor. He was one of the first Black civil rights leaders to advocate for victims of AIDS. He was also a strong supporter of the LGBTQ community. Julian passed away when he was 75 years old in 2015. Both Narissa and Cynthia had a warm relationship with Julian. They spoke of him as being kind and supportive of their careers. I attended his memorial service In Washington D.C. with Narissa and Cynthia. I had not planned to attend the service because I had not been with the Bond family since I was in my early thirties when Horace and I were divorced. I had seen Julian over the years at conferences where he was the keynote speaker. He was always gracious claiming me as a family member. Despite feeling uncomfortable attending Julian’s service, my daughters convinced me to go. The service was both somber and uplifting. It was a reunion of sorts for me. I recognized some of the adults that I had not seen since they were small children. Hearing the greeting “Aunt Zelema” from Horace’s nieces made me feel welcome.
I met Julian’s father, Dr. Horace Mann Bond in 1963 when he came to Prairie View University to speak. I was anxious to meet my husband’s uncle, his namesake. The school had closed because Tropical Storm Cindy was headed off the Gulf of Mexico toward Prairie View. Dr. Bond ended up spending more time at our home until we evacuated. During his visit, he attempted to trace my lineage to some influential family. He kept probing into my background and finally after failing to connect me to a notable family, he said, “well you look like us.” I was not offended but I did feel sorry for Dr. Bond for not being able to connect me with a well-known and respected family. It seemed so important to him.
My family’s history was not the same. I grew up being unaffected by social class. My parents were respected in our all-Black community and everyone from miles around knew my father because he built homes throughout East Texas. Social class has not defined my relationships. I tend to gravitate toward individuals who are committed to a cause that improves the lives of individuals and groups that have been marginalized. I also prefer associating with individuals who find joy in living. I believe our lives must impact others in positive ways. I attempt to live by the philosophy expressed by Marion Wright Edelman, Shirley Chisolm, and Muhammad Ali: Giving back is the rent we pay for living on this earth.
My mother graduated from eighth grade and was smart about life and the Bible, the King James version to be exact. After I became active in the NAACP and later as president of a local community college in Kansas City, Missouri I was invited often to speak at Black churches. I grew up in the church and was familiar with scripture, but my mother was the expert. I would send my mother the theme of the event and she would write by hand her interpretation and scriptures that reinforced the theme. She also wrote religious poetry. She was a hard worker who did not separate a woman’s work from a man’s work. I saw her build a table once when she needed more space to place her mason jars full of vegetables and fruits that she had prepared for the winter. Most of all at 32 years old she found a way to keep her four children together after her husband died when her baby was eight months old and her oldest was five years old. That’s when she married my father, a 72-year-old farmer, and carpenter.
My father could not read or write which was not unusual at the time. He was born in 1866 a time when few Blacks in Texas were literate. He started working on various local farms in Newton County, Texas when he was as he laughingly said “knee-high to a duck” meaning very young. But he learned skills that provided for his large family of fifteen children by his first wife who was deceased and later my mother’s four children and me. He “barely made ends meet” as a small cotton farmer, but supplemented his income as a carpenter, and douser who located groundwater with a divining rod. He and my brothers, RH and Charlie dug and cleaned water wells. He was a pioneer entrepreneur,
I was 19 years old, a junior in college when I married Horace and was unaware of his family’s history. He was 31 when we were married. He was my theater director and I was an active thespian. My father had recently passed when I met Horace. When our last production ended with You Can’t Take It with You where I played the character of Gay Wellington, I missed my theater family and I missed Horace. He was well aware of the boundaries set between students and faculty and never violated that boundary until he called my dormitory to see if I could get the students in the play to return their costumes. I told him that I missed him. We met in Houston at the home of one of his parents’ friends who was an administrator at Texas Southern University. The following week in his office on campus, he proposed.
I loved Horace’s family. His mother’s influence on me was significant from preparing meals to having a career of my own. She also reinforced self-reliance and responsibility. She had a career writing a column for one of the Black newspaper society columns and teaching young Black women at the YWCA. She worked while raising three sons.
I met my mother-in-law in December 1959 when Horace and I traveled by train to Louisville, Kentucky. Mother Louise, as she was affectionally called and I was discussing family. I still had some unresolved issues with my mother. I mentioned that to her expecting sympathy. Her response was “Honey you are grown now and you are responsible for yourself. You can’t blame anyone.” That one statement from Mother Louise impacted me in a positive way and still does today.
“Okay. Okay, girls. I’ll tell the story of this scar.” I held my arm up to expose the scar. It was approximately one inch long and looked like all other scars on my body that did not heal properly without closing the wound with surgical stitches. The skin was a little lighter in color. Again, their little fingers touched the scar as if to make sure it existed.
When I was nine years old I lived on a small farm in Liberty Community, Newton County. Approximately 500 people lived in the community. My father had just finished building our new home. He was a carpenter who had designed and built homes for many years. My mother was happy to move into our brand-new house. She had mentioned papering the home in colorful wallpaper. She loved wallpaper and wanted to start with the guest bedroom where my grandmother slept. My grandmother moved around staying with her three daughters but decided to live with us permanently.
That year, 1949, my father did well on his cotton crop and had enough money to buy some of the items my mother wanted for the home. She ordered wallpaper from the Sears, Roebuck, and Company Catalog. When the wallpaper came I opened the box filled with rolls of colorful flower patterns. I asked my mother if I could paper grandma’s bedroom. She agreed but said she would have to help
She showed me how to measure the length of the wall, cut the paper, and prepare the glue for the back of the paper so it would stick to the wall.
Mommy mixed a white powder that came in a box with water to make the paste. I stirred the mixture until it was smooth like cake batter.
I cut the first strip of wallpaper and carefully brushed the paste on the back of the paper. I needed the ladder to reach the top of the wall. I climbed the ladder as I held the wallpaper in both hands. I was over five feet tall and I still could not reach the highest point of the wall so I jumped to land the paper at the top of the wall and my arm was sliced by the pointy end of a nail that did not belong in the wall. Apparently, the nail from the other side of the wall had come through the bedroom wall. My arm hit the nail hard piercing my arm. As I fell to the floor the nail sliced my arm. I screamed in pain. My mother had gone into the kitchen and when she heard me screaming, she raced back into the bedroom.
Again, there were no doctors near where we lived so my mother cleaned the wound with a foaming cleanser called hydrogen peroxide. She then wrapped it with gauze and told me to rest. I was given the day off from work.
Narissa and Cynthia both wanted to know who finished papering the wall. I had to admit that my mother did not allow me to finish the job. When we moved from our new home to Beaumont Texas in 1952 the wall was still not papered nor were the other bedrooms. I suppose my mother knew the house my daddy built would no longer be her home. She had seen my father fall a few times while plowing the fields. At the age of 85, my mother knew she could no longer rely on my father to make a living on the farm. She also wanted her children to get some type of training beyond high school. The little farm community in which we lived did not offer any opportunities.
The girls were now ready to play with each other. I told them many stories about my early life. Their favorite stories were about the visible scars on my body. These visible scars were a reminder of my carelessness, taking a risk, being curious, or simply believing that burning my nephew was an option. After all my older brother, Charlie was the one who mentioned burning Don.
Many of my stories did not include visible scars on my body but invisible ones. The invisible scars were more difficult to explain to my children. These are scars that many Black folks tuck away into their subconscious and are later manifested in high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, diabetes, obesity, and early death.
I told Narissa and Cynthia about the time my mother and I went to the grocery store in Beaumont, Texas. Our family had moved to Beaumont recently from Liberty Community, Newton County. My mother asked me to go with her grocery shopping. I had never been to a real grocery store. On the farm, we raised everything we ate. Other items were purchased at the general store in our community and my father bought farm supplies in Newton or Jasper. I was quite excited about going to a “real” grocery store.
As we entered the store I was struck by the size of the store and the number of food items on the shelves, the array of colorful vegetables, and fruits, and the huge meat department. Mama took a basket from the baskets that were lined up at the store’s entrance and started walking down the isles placing items in the basket. The red, green, and yellow cans and fresh vegetables began to fill the basket. It was by far the most exhilarating experience I had after moving to Beaumont
Finally, Mama was through shopping. The basket was filled to the top. We then got in line to check out. As I was standing in line, I noticed two water fountains near the front of the store. One had a printed sign on the wall above it labeled “whites” and the other fountain a few feet away had a sign labeled “colored.” The all-Black community in which I grew up did not have separate public facilities. One thing that stuck out to me was the difference in the fountains. The “whites” fountain was white and shiny and sat in a metal box-like structure. The “colored” fountain was dull looking as though it was not cleaned regularly and was definitely older than the “whites” fountain. It was not in a box-like structure but attached to the wall.
I left the checkout line and moved quickly to get a closer look. I could not resist testing the water. I first drank from the “colored” fountain and it tasted like tap water from home then I tried the “whites” fountain and the water was cold. Before I could step back from the fountain, Mama grabbed my arm. As I turned to face her from the corner of my eye, I saw a white man rush down from the elevated booth near the front of the store. Mama must have seen him too because she slapped my arm and said “you know better.” The white man was the store manager and when he heard Mama reprimand me, he turned and went back to his booth. Mama and I discussed this later when she said “you are going to get us killed.” At 12 years old I had broken a Jim Crow Law. And my mother protected me in the only way she knew. She appeased the white man.
The term Jim Crow refers to that era in American history where a caste system was created in the southern and border states to keep freed Blacks “in their place” after the Civil War ended and federal troops that protected them were pulled from the south in 1877. All public facilities were segregated. The “colored vs whites” water fountain was one of the most visible examples of segregation.
I was angry with my mother for hitting me and ashamed that it took place in front of everyone. Yet, I understood that she was protecting me and herself from severe penalties that could have been imposed. After 70 years I still have a vivid picture of an angry white man rushing toward me because I dared to taste a splash of cold water. I recall speaking to a very good friend of mine, the late Dr. Don G. Phelps who was the W. K. Kellogg Regents Professor at the University of Texas Austin in the Community College Leadership Program. I was a Visiting Scholar in the program for several years during Don’s tenure. I always valued Don’s wise advice and friendship. Don and I talked many Sunday evenings after I left work and came home in time to watch 60 Minutes. In one of those conversations, Don observed that Black people who have achieved in their field do not share their stories with white people because white people do not want to hear them. This was such a simple observation but I understood to my core what he was saying. White people do not want to hear stories of your suffering nor do they want to know about the laws that imposed restrictions on where you ate, drank, worked, and slept. They do not want to hear stories of the not-too-distant past that live on today. They do not want to feel guilty.
But our bodies and our minds hear the stories replayed over and over again. We are deeply wounded by the stories we cannot tell.
Over 20 years ago, Gladys Hunt, MSW at the University of Illinois Community Psychology Department and a personal friend, spoke at a workshop at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois where I was president. She spoke about the need for Black people to get mental health therapy. She made a bold statement: “All Black people need therapy. We have been traumatized as a people.” I understood exactly what Gladys was saying. The brief everyday slights, snubs, or insults directed toward us because of our race have not gone away. These microaggressions are more prevalent if our cultural identity is more obvious such as wearing locks, style of dress, skin color, and other cultural identifiers.
Gladys penned an article in the News-Gazette newspaper in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Her article was in response to the newspaper asking local Black residents to share their stories and solutions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“What most white people don’t know is that racism is multifaceted and multi-leveled. Most of it is hidden underground and insidious. It happens individually. Institutionally and systematically.”
Reading Gladys’ words made me smile with pride to know she is still telling her story. She challenges whites to listen “to Black voices and stop trying to invalidate our stories.”
One of the most shocking invisible scars occurred in the mid-1990s in Champaign, Illinois, one of my favorite places to live. The Board of Trustees hired me as President of Parkland College in 1990. I was 50 years old and was the first Black and first woman in downstate Illinois to hold such a position. The college needed new leadership. The founding president had passed away. He was revered by the community, faculty, and staff. The president who was hired to replace him did not work out and lasted two years before I was hired. I experienced an excellent working relationship with the Board where my expertise was valued. I served as president for 16 years before retiring from Parkland. I did go on to serve two major community college systems before retiring permanently in 2014.
I will tell the following invisible scar story as an example of the microaggressions many Black folks suffer on a daily basis. It is a story similar to those I still hear today.
It was in the mid 90’s when I decided to get my nails done at the spa I had heard about in downtown Champaign. I walked in and was met immediately by a young white woman who was sitting when I entered. She jumped up immediately and asked if she could help.
“I would like to make an appointment for a manicure.”
“Sure. But we only do regular.”
I thought she meant non-acrylic nails. I held my hand out to show her my natural nails. “We only do regular here, but I can tell you where you can go to get them done.”
I thought she meant another part of the spa as she pointed to her left. I started to walk further inside the spa toward the left when she moved quickly toward the front door and opened it. Standing in the doorway she pointed toward the sidewalk on the left and said “around the corner.”
Still confused, I followed her directions, turned the corner, and saw a sign for a manicurist upstairs. I walked up the steps to the second floor and saw another sign directing me toward a manicurist. I opened the door and saw this beautiful 30ish-looking Black woman, sitting facing the door spraying the nails as a finishing touch of a white female customer. The room was small. Three manicure stations were set up near the front of the room and three pedicure tubs with comfortable chairs were in the back of the room spaced closely. The room was white. Everything. The walls, chairs, and tables were all white. The only color was part of a wall with rows of nail polish. I liked the smell. Alcohol, nail polish, and a slightly floral scent.
“Hi, I’m Zelema Harris, and I would like to make an appointment to get my nails done.”
“Did they send you here from downstairs?”
“Uh Huh. Let me finish here and I’ll help you. Do you have time now? I can take you now.”
I was still not sure what had happened. Did this Black woman work for the spa downstairs?
Why did she say “uh huh” in such a knowing way? I was baffled.
After the client left the Black woman introduced herself as Denise. She had two daughters who worked in the shop but they were in college. We chatted in a familiar way. Finally, I decided to expose my ignorance.
“Do you work for the spa downstairs?”
“No, but they send me a lot of clients.”
“Are the clients they send to you Black?”
“Yes, but I have many other clients who come to me directly because they know the quality of my work.” I did not bring up the topic again. Nor did Denise. But we both knew the spa downstairs did not serve Black people.
Something as small as being denied a manicure seems so minor when compared to the atrocities that are being committed against Black people. However, the experience stayed with me as an affront to my intelligence by forcing me to interpret their racist code of “regular.”
My scars, both visible and invisible are my stories. The invisible ones were more difficult to experience and share with my daughters. However, I found a way to share with them the most heinous invisible scar, the murder of my father’s daughter, Carrie.
I heard the story of Carrie’s murder in 1947 when I was seven years old. The murder occurred in 1934. A boy my age, Fate Gatson told me the story. Carrie became a cautionary tale for Black people to “stay in their place.” Carrie took care of three white children. The children’s mother was the sheriff’s sister. Some say the mother was deceased when Carrie was hired. Carrie and the children’s father became involved with each other and behaved like husband and wife. This relationship between Carrie and the children’s father, a white man led to her murder. According to her death certificate, Carrie was shot in the neck and body and left on the side of the road. Her murderers were listed as unknown.
My father was broken. He went on with his life like so many other Black men who saw their sons lynched, their daughters raped and other horrors committed against their families. There was nothing he could do to the men who committed this crime. After all, they were men who were sworn to uphold the law and protect its citizens.
Both of my daughters have used their platforms to address injustice. Cynthia explores the murder of Carrie in her fiction writing, as well as other social injustices during the Jim Crow era in East Texas. She has convinced me that telling my story is important. And she is my writing teacher. Narissa writes songs about the invisible scars of segregation my father experienced, the horrors of slavery, and the injustices directed toward the LGBTQ community. I am proud of them and their stances against injustice.
My son Jay, who was born years after the girls were born has been right by my side. He knows all of my scars both visible and invisible and has helped me to navigate through the cultural norms of a different generation. He keeps my mind current and challenges me.
My life’s work has been to make a difference in the lives of Black people and other marginalized groups. I have found the only anecdote to the invisible scars left by hatred and ignorance is to challenge the systems that caused them – not with bitterness but with truth, hope, and love.
My blog is my attempt to do just that.