I am a writer and yet I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the Zimmerman/Martin situation. Every time I try to do so, I am overcome with tears and feelings of despair. So as I do when I just can’t seem to “right” myself, I write, and below is what came out of my head and heart.
by Ann Fields
One spring evening, while the sky was still gray not black, me, my brother and sister were playing in the back yard of Grandmother’s house near the kitchen window. This area was actually prohibited from play for two reasons: one, we often ended up in Grandmother’s small herb garden trampling on her fragrant, fragile plants and two, we sometimes lingered under the kitchen window to eavesdrop on grown folks’ conversation, which is exactly what happened when I chased a ball into the herb patch. A few enticing words tickled my ears, making me pause in play and stand possum still, unaware that the next few minutes of talk would result in me losing my childhood, but gaining my life’s purpose.
Ms. Flora, my Grandmother’s best friend was saying, “…no help from the police. Wouldn’t surprise me if they cheered ‘em on.”
I heard my Grandmother tsk-tsk, followed by, “No justice for his parents. Was a good boy too, if’n you don’t count the heavy drinking.”
“That Six ain’t no place after dark for darkies I tell you.” I heard a chair scratch against the wood floor and knew Ms. Flora was pushing back to leave.
“I prayed hard that when they laid that new road all the killin’ would stop.” Grandmother sighed. “But I guess the white folks are okay with new blood on their new road.”
“A-pa-runt-ly. And that bein’ the case, I’ma take my black tail home ‘fo it gets much darker.”
I heard their footsteps and parting words veering toward the back door, and flew out of that fertile patch of land. By the time they made it outdoors, play had resumed further away from the house, but neither my mind nor my heart was into kick-and-catch. Their words bounced around in my head, distracting me.
Blood. Six. Killing.
The words were scary enough by themselves but when added to the dark tones I’d heard in Grandmother’s and Ms. Flora’s voices, they became downright frightening. But meaningful too. The scary part I understood, but the weight of their words I didn’t. I thought about it hard though, trying to figure it out and came up with nothing. Frustrated, I turned back fully to the game and realized I’d missed catching another of my sister’s kicks. Angry now that those words and an unexplainable, uncomfortable feeling had me so bound that I was losing, I kicked a rock way out into the field. That felt good but I still couldn’t believe that I, the oldest, was losing to my younger and smaller siblings. Well, I hadn’t lost yet. I was only two points behind; I could easily make that up.
Crouching low and holding my arms out wide, a position meant to threaten my siblings and guarantee my success, I glared at the ball. But by the time my brother lined up his kick and launched the red rubber ball into the air, my mind had latched yet again onto the adults’ word puzzle. I wondered about a meaning and a feeling that avoided understanding, and grew even more upset. I bet, I thought, if I were an adult I would understand. Or maybe if I were a straight A student. But thinking things didn’t make them so, so their words kept clouding my brain, causing me, the big brother, to do something I never did—lose a game of kick-and-catch to my brother and sister.
Shortly after I lost, Grandmother called us in for dinner and baths. Neither the delicious meal Grandmother had cooked nor the thorough scrubbing distracted me from my distraction. Even when we were on our knees with Grandmother leading us in our nightly prayers, I could not keep my mind on Jesus; I kept thinking about killings and Highway Six.
I wish I could tell you the troubling subject vanished during sleep, but no. It waited for me upon waking. I dressed for school thinking about it and as I was walking out the door to catch the school bus, I decided that since I couldn’t undo the hearing of the words, couldn’t undo the feeling of mystery and fear, couldn’t talk to Grandmother or any other adult about it—for fear my questioning would get back to Grandmother who would quickly figure out I’d been eavesdropping, which would mean another butt-busting and my behind was still sore from the last one—the best thing I could do was research the topic myself and once settled, return my mind to more important things like playing ball and winning.
The school day stretched out longer than I willed it to but finally my fourth period, my free hour arrived. I was so eager to begin and end this search for understanding that I broke the school’s rule about running in the halls. When I entered our segregated school’s library, slightly out of breath, I was not surprised to see only two people there—me and the librarian. My classmates had headed outside to play, which is where I would have been had I not been eavesdropping. I went straight to Mrs. Wichette and using my most polite and proper speech asked, “May I have yesterday’s newspaper?”
“You want the Sunday paper?” she asked back, looking at me suspiciously. I didn’t blame her. The only time students requested the newspaper from any day of the week was toward the end of a semester when research papers, essays, or book reports were due. This was not that time.
I nodded in answer to her question and her pitch-black, drawn-on eyebrows raised, but she didn’t say a word as she handed over the paper. I took the paper and could sense her staring hard at me as I walked away, heading for the most distant table.
Before I got to the table, I started reading the front page, looking for any reference to blood or death or Highway Six. Nothing there. Seated, I thoroughly searched several more pages, and finally, buried deep inside the paper, I found it. The headline read: Man Slips and Falls to His Death. The story itself was one short paragraph: “Jamey Tyner, 37, died Saturday night on Highway Six near Merridale. Authorities who investigated the death believe it to be an accident owing to Tyner’s drunken condition. Lowell & Williams Funeral Home will handle the burial. Attendees should be aware the body is not intact.”
The body is not intact? I questioned, wondering how that could be. Even I, a seventh grader knew it was impossible for a man—Colored or white; drunk or sober—to slip and fall on a flat highway so many times he dismembered and killed himself. That didn’t make sense. Perhaps I’d misread. Using my pointer finger as a guide, I re-read the story, slower this time, word by word, in hopes of a better understanding. But upon reaching the end, it still didn’t come together. I stared hard at the paper, willing the facts to re-arrange themselves into something sensible, and that’s when I got a jolt. From a memory. From a long time ago.
I must have been six or seven years old when I was awakened one night by loud talk. Sleepily, I crawled over my brother, ignoring his grunt when my elbow caught him on the cheek. I shuffled to our bedroom door. Grandmother always left it cracked at night so she could hear if one of us called out. I pressed my forehead into the crack with one sleepy eye peering out. A handful of black men stood, leaned, or sat in my grandparent’s kitchen. I recognized all of them as acquaintances of the family, with the most distinguished man being Rev. Halsey of First Missionary Baptist Church. He still wore his black suit and white collar even though Wednesday night prayer service had ended some time ago. I saw Grandfather limp into the kitchen, fastening his suspenders. He was barely in the crowded space when he said, “I’ll go, but I’ma need help if the body is as bad as you say.” Some of the men looked down at Grandmother’s clean floor; others suddenly found interest in her wallpaper pattern. Only one man raised a volunteering finger, the reverend. When seconds ticked away and no other volunteers signed on, Grandfather added, “There’s power in numbers. They cain’t kill us all.” My Grandmother must have sensed an extra presence or her mother’s instinct perked up because before I could see or hear anything more, she appeared in front of the crack, gently pushed my head back, and pulled the door closed. I crept back to bed, rolled my brother over to make more room for myself, slipped in, and fell right back to sleep. I didn’t give the scene another thought until now.
Now that old memory and the current newspaper story forced me to the microfiche machine, a relic that our school received from the white school after the school board bought them a brand new one. I coaxed the old machine to work and then after locating and reading film, I learned the following:
In its earliest days, Highway Six was a dirt-and-grass cattle trail; however, as civilization evolved, so, too did Six. From a dirt-and-grass trail to a gravel street to a two-lane, paved farm-to-market road and now to a four-lane, asphalt state highway. In its current state, Six was a north to south, fairly straight road that connected four towns with populations of around 3,000 each. The four towns were bookended by two colleges—one a state school, the other a private institution. With traffic generated by approximately 12,000 people and the comings and goings of two major schools, Six was well-traveled.
More interesting than Six’s history and profile was the number of deaths that had occurred on Six. From its early days to present: 42. And that was just within our stretch of Six which amounted to about 105 miles. Forty-two deaths. That far outnumbered the deaths that had occurred on other rural highways in Oklahoma. Further research showed that many of the deceased had been men, but a few women as well; all had been mid-aged adults except for a few teenagers; all of the deaths had occurred at night; all had died under violent circumstances—slip and fall; accidents involving horses, carriages, or vehicles; fist or knife fights; several suicides by hanging; burned while burning brush and fields; shot accidentally by hunters; another shot during the commission of a crime; and variations thereof—and the real kicker, all of the deceased had been Coloreds.
At this point, I ended my research and turned away from the microfiche machine because a hollow, rolling feeling began stirring to life in my stomach. I knew that if I allowed this familiar feeling to come fully alive, I would get sick and then Grandmother would be called and she would have more questions than compassion. But even knowing this and knowing that my discomfort resulted from my new knowledge, I could not turn my mind away from Six. How could I when Six was a major part of our lives? We traveled it every day, couldn’t help it since it cut through the center of town, was only four blocks from our school, and only four blocks in the other direction from our church, First MBC. We traveled Six to shop and settle accounts, to visit family and friends, and to attend community events. We traveled Six early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and sometimes at midnight. Was it luck that had saved us from a violent death on Six thus far? Maybe we’d been spared because we didn’t fit the age profile. Grandmother, of course, wouldn’t tell her exact age but rumor put her in her mid-sixties. Me, 12; my brother, 9; my sister, 7. Was age our saving grace?
With no answers to such troubling questions, my concern and fear increased, making my stomach roll worse. I propped my head between my hands and closed my eyes, praying for my stomach to settle down, and it did for a short while until my thoughts returned to poor Jamey Tyner. He had not had luck or grace. He’d met Death on Six and because of that—and my own hard-headedness—I was on a path I had no idea how to get off. In fact, this new information seemed to cement me to this path. That thought gave full life to that dreaded sick feeling. I became light-headed and nauseous, and both hot and cold. My stomach felt like it was trying to escape my body, my bowels too. Greedily, I began sucking in air. Grandmother told us to try that first to calm our insides and keep us from vomiting and diarrhea—the next and final symptoms of the condition we all had and hated—and if that didn’t work, then eat the pills. I didn’t wait to see if fresh air would work. While breathing deeply, I dug in my pants pocket, pulled out the chalky discs and popped two of them in my mouth. I chewed quickly, swallowed. The homemade, nasty medicine went to work immediately, providing some relief but it was short-lived because a new worry hit me square in the gut—Grandfather.
As the only mechanic for miles around, we rarely saw him. He worked long hours, circuiting the area, fixing farm equipment, trucks and cars for the farmers and ranchers. He was always on Six or crossing Six, but more disturbingly, he traveled Six late at night when Colored deaths happened most frequently on Six. Not only that, he was a man, the gender most at risk, and lastly, he carried his age well which gave the impression of a younger man, which put him closer to the ages of the documented dead.
Now my nervous stomach really pitched and rolled as I wondered if late one dark night the men in our community would visit our house with Grandfather’s body in tow. The imagined sight of his battered or burned or mutilated body lying lifeless on our front porch was too much for my childish mind to bear. I began to heave, feeling my stomach rise higher and higher and my bowels began churning more aggressively. I clutched the table, praying for the sick feeling to go away, and clamped my lips and squeezed my behind tight to keep the sickness within.
In my physical distress and with my mind thus occupied, I had forgotten I was in the library until a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned quickly, scattering the small squares of paper I had been taking notes on. With my eyes wide and my body tense, I faced Mrs. Wichette. Her hand now hung limp by her side and her face wore its usual displeased expression. “Your stomach again?” she asked. I shook my head no then yes then no. Those scary eyebrows drew together in one arched line across her forehead and I knew I had to hurry and correct my condition—both my physical and mental, the image of Grandfather, dead—or she would call Grandmother. With that motivation, I managed a lie in a surprisingly normal voice. “It passed. I’m better now.” She stood over me, brows still merged, searching my eyes and surveying my body to detect a lie or the truth. I couldn’t stand the silent inspection so I began gathering my notes and stuffing them in my pockets. When I finished, I looked up at her and claimed victory. She had decided on truth because her eyebrows had separated and all she said was “Leave the pencils. They belong to the school.” She turned and walking as stiff as a German soldier, left my side. I counted five of her steps, making sure she was good and gone before turning my back to her and releasing the breath I’d been holding. I may have fooled her but not myself. The truth was I wasn’t better. I felt like I had been gut-punched and stomach-kicked on this path that had no exit, and now, too late, I knew why Grandmother did not want us eavesdropping on grown folks. Our underage selves were just too simple, too unprepared to do anything with adult information other than what I was currently doing—worrying, fretting and making myself sick.
And it only got worse.
Over the next weeks, my fears and worries, based on the tone and significance of Grandmother’s and Ms. Flora’s words, the facts I’d learned about Six and Colored deaths, and the risk to all Coloreds in the area, burrowed deeper and deeper inside me. I ate with my fears and worries. I dreamt with them. I studied—or rather attempted to study—with them. I prayed with them. I even played with them. They became me and they were making me sicker. I was vomiting more. I had headaches, diarrhea, blurred vision, and I was tense all of the time, especially when we traveled on Six. It was becoming harder and harder to hide my distress, yet I could think of no way—other than confessing my sin to Grandmother—to free myself.
One evening, after dinner and baths, I knelt alongside my brother, sister and Grandmother for prayer. But Grandmother touched me on the shoulder and pointing said, “Go into the kitchen. Wait for me.”
Surprised, I stared at Grandmother, wondering why. What had I done or not done to be picked out? Of course the first answer to come to mind was that she’d found out about my snooping and research. But I immediately dismissed that idea because I had told no one about my actions, fears or worries. Not even my best friend Marshall. So unless Grandmother was a mind reader, she couldn’t know about my transgression. So what else could it be? Why did Grandmother want to speak to me alone? Looking at her face, I couldn’t tell what was on her mind but I do know Grandmother did not appreciate disobedient children. So before her calm expression changed to anger, I rose from my knees, took the ten or so odd steps to the kitchen, and sat at the table with my back to our bedroom door. That way, she was as blind to my nervousness as I was ignorant of her reason for setting me apart.
While I waited for her, I continued guessing at the reason why Grandmother wanted private time with me. I couldn’t think of any wrong I’d done, other than my original sin, so maybe Grandmother had decided to let me work the produce stand this summer instead of the fields. Or maybe she was ready to share her decision about me having a later bedtime since I was now older. Or maybe she was going to tell me when we could visit Mama’s and Daddy’s graves again. The guesses continued to come and in the background of my thoughts, the sound of my family’s unified yet distinct voices raised in prayer. This was followed by the sounds of Grandmother helping my brother into bed, kissing him—always on the forehead—then saying sincerely, “Rest well” before repeating the same with my sister in her room next to ours.
Finally, Grandmother entered the kitchen, bringing a stop to all my guesses. As she claimed the chair next to me, I stared into her face, desperately seeking a clue about what to expect, and got one—a stern look that told me no good news was coming. Somehow she had found out my secret and this was actually a punishment session. My heart dropped; my head and shoulders too.
Grandmother snagged my chin and lifted my head to look fully into my eyes. She asked, “Who did you sell your soul to?”
I knew exactly what she was referring to, but it wasn’t a who, rather a what—those disturbing stories of Colored people dying on Highway Six and the poor investigations into those deaths. But could I tell Grandmother that? From years of punishment sessions with her, I’d learned that it was best to be honest. So with no other choice, I prepared myself for laying out the truth by sitting up bold and straight in my chair and by mentally thinking of myself as the man the news articles had invited me to be. But all that brief preparation fell apart when I admitted to myself in dismay that I was no more capable of being a man in this matter than my dog, King Rex. But now was not the time to dwell on that or get dirty in pity. Grandmother sat waiting and I had to say something. So taking a deep breath, I opened my mouth with good intent…and burst into tears.
She let me cry, rubbing my back in small circles and cooing encouraging words. After a time, the tears trickled to nothing and she softly demanded, “Tell me Armond, tell me all.” Which I did, starting with the eavesdropping, then moving on to the research, then expressing my fear for our family and all of the Coloreds in the area, and finally ending with an “I’m sorry.”
At the finish, Grandmother just sat there staring at me, her face unreadable. Then, after several long minutes of silence, a softness overtook her face and she nodded her head slowly, saying, “That explains why your eatin’s been off. Why your grades been tumblin’. And why you been talkin’ in your sleep, tossin’ and turnin’ too.” She shook her head. “I knew it was somethin’. Just didn’t know it was Six.” She sighed from deep within, leaning back in her chair. On her face, I didn’t see the look of relief she normally carries when one of us lands on the side of wellness after a bout of sickness, but I also didn’t see the anger that comes before discipline. Without relief or anger marking her face, I had no idea what came next so I sat still, except to occasionally wipe my nose. Even not knowing what Grandmother would do next, I was grateful for two things: I now knew it was my behavior that had told on me and I felt slightly better since exposing my sin and dark knowledge.
Grandmother leaning forward and pressing her hands together in prayer position on the table returned my mind to punishment. When she spoke, I was glad to hear her everyday voice—soft, yet hard around the edges—instead of her disciplining voice—loud and hard through and through. “Everything you said ’bout Six and the folks murdered on it…it’s true. And it was murder, no matter what the paper or police say. It was hate killed those people. And fear and ignorance. Don’t matter if the killers was dressed in white sheets or a policeman’s uniform or in a suit and tie. Those folk just happened to be caught during a hatin’ time. Your Grandfather too.”
At this news, my eyes bucked and Grandmother nodded her head. “Oh yeah,” she continued, nodding her head, “They caught him once, late at night on Six and beat him. But when they saw…”
“They who?” I asked, interrupting.
“The KKK and others like ’em. They don’t all wear white sheets.” Temporarily suspending Grandfather’s story, Grandmother went on to educate me about the history of racism in this country, starting with slavery, then pushing past the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and ending with the destructive nature of hate. The more she talked, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I wished I had backed out of that garden that evening. Too late though. The deep, dark, ugly veins of hate and fear that ran beneath the skin of this country had been exposed. And did it satisfy me now that I had a full understanding? No! Adding this knowledge to what I already knew made it worse. In fact, it effectively destroyed the remains of my childhood.
I’m sure Grandmother saw the death of innocence in my eyes but that didn’t stop her. She went on saying, “I know white folk ain’t havin’ this same talk at they dinner table with they twelve-year-old sons. They probably passin’ on family history and business ways and other learnin’s, but us colored folks…” Here, Grandmother reached out and laid a heavy hand on my head as if she planned to baptize me. There was a sad look in her eyes; it matched how I felt. “…we got to prepare our boys for survival. How to stay alive even when doin’ somethin’ as simple as travelin’ down a road.”
Unexpectedly, Grandmother’s sad expression changed to happy, surprising me. She chucked me gently on my chin and her tone rang light yet sly when she said, “But you okay. For now. White folk ’round here know you Hank’s grandson. They see you on rounds with him from time to time. Him teachin’ you what he knows ’bout machines. That gonna save you just like it saved him.”
“You mean they didn’t kill Grandfather because he’s a mechanic?” I asked in wonder.
“Not because he a mechanic…” Grandmother explained “…but because he keep they business goin’. One thing ’bout white folk, they ain’t gonna mess up they money. They can’t help it; that’s what make this country go ’round. Money and the power that comes with havin’ it. Sose they think. Your Grandfather is money to them. He the only one keep they machines going. At harvest time, that’s important. All year, that’s important. And your Grandfather, he smart.” Grandmother tapped a finger to her temple. “He take you ’round with him sose they think you bein’ trained to take his place. Keep that money flowin’. But we got us a surprise for ’em.” The secrecy in her voice deepened. “You goin’ to college, like your Mama. You gonna be a big man in business or law or somethin’ grand. Make us proud.”
Grandmother chuckled and I felt relief. I even smiled until I remembered my friend Marshall. Worry and fear returned, upsetting the tender nature of my stomach. “But what about the other Coloreds?” I asked in deep concern. “The ones that don’t have Grandfather.”
All gladness dropped from Grandmother’s face. She shook her head gravely. “’til these times give way to a better time, a time of gentleness, understanding and love, Six will continue to be a place that collects our blood.”
“When is that time coming?” I asked desperately.
It was not Grandmother’s nature to lie, not even to ease the troubled minds of her loved ones. “No time soon I’m afraid. But in the meantime, we gonna keep on prayin’ and we gonna keep on lovin’.”
We both fell silent, holding on to her last few words of hope, nursing them and cradling them in our troubled hearts. Soon, Grandmother sat up straight and held out her arms to me. I gladly fell into her bosom feeling lighter than I had in weeks, but still heavy too. We hugged each other hard, and when the hugging ended, Grandmother cuffed me on the chin and said, “I’ma let you get by this time with the eavesdroppin’ ‘cause you punished yourself. But do it again and I’ma bust you one good.”
“Gone to bed now and rest well.”
“Yes ma’am.” I turned quickly before she changed her mind about that whipping and took a few steps toward the bedroom. But before I reached the door, I turned and ran back to Grandmother, giving her the biggest, hardest, most sincere hug of my young life. I couldn’t help myself. It felt so good to have my load lightened and I had Grandmother to thank for that. But that wasn’t the only reason for the hug. I needed strength from her. My concern for the other Coloreds in the area remained and I could already feel it changing into something dark and heavy—anger. I would need her strength to help me direct my anger appropriately. I did not want to be consumed again.
When I’d had my fill, I withdrew from Grandmother, quickly kissed her cheek, then dashed off to bed to the best sleep I had had in weeks.
Until I encountered the knowledge of Six and Colored deaths, I had no idea of the violence that permeated our country, or of the type of ignorance that incites fear, or of the type of hate that justifies murder. Until that time, I had only been concerned with playing ball, keeping my grades up, counting the days til summer break, and enjoying all the other advantages of being a boy sheltered by love. But like I said at the beginning, learning about Six and the deaths of my people stripped me of my innocence, but also gave me my life purpose.
After that talk with Grandmother, directed by anger, I became determined to tell all about the injustices going on on Six in hopes of stopping the killings all together. I didn’t know how to accomplish this, but I knew if I kept watch a way would present itself. And it did, years later, after college and while engaged in a successful career as a journalist. During my off hours for many, many years, I researched the black deaths that had occurred on Six and compiled that research into a book that I simply titled, “Six.” In “Six,” I honored the black men and women who had lost their lives on that state highway, telling their stories with such truth and passion that it led the families and others to approach the justice system. Some of the cases were re-opened, investigated properly, and resulted in arrests and trials.
I attended one of the trials and sitting in that courtroom with my stomach churning and burning, I felt anger at the lies and omissions that were offered as truthful testimony. But in the end, truth won out and joy erupted when a handful of very old men and a few younger ones were convicted of murder and sentenced to serve the rest of their lives in prison.
Justice was not had in all cases; simply too much time had passed and along with it key witnesses, evidence and other material information. But at least the covers had been pulled back, exposing Six’s soiled past. And that airing, plus the fact that the murders on Six had ceased decades before, satisfied me.
It would be nice to report that the murders on Six had ceased because the time my Grandmother had spoken of—a time of gentleness, understanding and love—had been achieved, but that would be a lie. Still, I remain hopeful that that time will one day come.