Web Essays

A Crash Course

The myth surrounding my beloved Aunt Myrtle only grew when she moved down South in the 1940s

By Kenneth A. McClane | January 6, 2022
Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 (Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation)
Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 (Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation)

My mother’s only full sister, Myrtle, always thrilled my childhood mind. I didn’t see her often, since she lived in Georgia, a place as mythical to me, the northern boy, as Xanadu. Though my mother—with her spirit, wonderful cheekbones, and delicate hauteur—was lovely, Myrtle was simply elegant in her prim, beautifully tailored suits, possessing a dazzling balance of grandeur and earthiness. I simply could not make sense of her.

Myrtle, at least to my small mind, seemed capable of everything. I once asked her to take me to a storefront church in my Harlem neighborhood, which could be a dreary place full of the disenfranchised, but on Sunday mornings was thick with singing, testifying, and stern rebuke for last week’s dissipation. The church was formerly an old shoe repair shop, and you could see the remnants of the electric wires, like small plugs of hair, framing the hand-painted, gilded cross, which was multicolored and garish, with a Black Christ, who, amazingly, had steel-blue eyes, like the progeny of some mad geneticist. The preacher was a thin, serious man, so well starched and pressed that my friend Robin called him Mr. Clean Slinky, thinking of the toy then indispensable to us. Robin’s analogy never made much sense to me, since a slinky seemed to collapse in every possible direction, but Robin, I now realize, was being metaphorical. The preacher did seem other-centered, proximate, diffuse, like an erector set gone haywire. Myrtle, being a Riversider in spirit—that is, someone who attended Riverside Church, the great cathedral near Columbia University where William Sloan Coffin, Reinhold Niebuhr, and yes, Dr. King, famously orated against the war in Vietnam—never intended to take me to the church. In a voice as boisterous as Bessie Smith’s, she said, “Ken, you’ve got too much spirit for churches. Come let’s go and get pancakes.” Now, I can’t explain why the conjoining of spirit and pancakes seemed so magical to me, but pancakes, to this day, evince the very cup of trembling.

And then there is the story about Myrtle’s desire to get a learner’s permit in Georgia in the 1940s. After getting married, Myrtle moved from her hometown of Boston to the South, to be with her husband, a prominent dentist in his town’s African-American community. After six years in that hamlet, where she had become secretary to the local Black parents’ association and founded the local NAACP chapter, Myrtle decided to learn to drive, so as to not “grow old and idle,” as she put it, waiting for the “geriatric” bus. As was the practice those days, she went to the local sheriff, who took care of licensing motor vehicles.

“Aren’t you that nigra girl who married the nigra dentist?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes,” Myrtle demurely answered, balancing her anger at the racial denigration with her desire not to show any disrespect, something that might have cost her far more than the loss of the right to drive a car.

“Well, since you were smart enough to marry that dentist,” the sheriff said, “you don’t need a permit. Here, I’m giving you a license. You can drive right now. There’s no use to fool around with any of this. You don’t need to take a test.” He motioned for her to accept the license, watching as her thin body moved, proud if a bit tentative, before him.

“Thank you,” Myrtle said, taking the license, surprised at how quickly she had been transformed from a novitiate to the elect.

The experience was boorish, yes, but it was not as horrific as she imagined. One friend of Myrtle’s had gone to a different sheriff in a neighboring county, a man who had addressed her as “Ms. Smith,” speaking to her with unusual courtesy. And yet, as she was collecting her license, this seemingly fine southern gentleman stood up, tore the form in two, and hit her squarely across the mouth. “Get of here, get out of here,” he yelled.

Myrtle had not suffered any of this.  She didn’t like how the sheriff’s eyes lingered on her body, she didn’t like his absolute denial of any sense that she existed outside of her husband, and she didn’t like being called nigra girl, which she knew was segregation’s shorthand: the sheriff was being mannerly—he would not have used that same delicate term if he’d been speaking about her to his friends. Still, she had waltzed out with her license, joyful in the knowledge that she would no longer have to take a colored taxi, wait for the bus, or walk through the hundreds of eyes of men—white and Black alike—mentally undressing her. Once, a man had the temerity to upbraid her, for all to witness. “Uppity bitch, she’d squeal like a hog,” he said. Myrtle had a mind to tell him something that would truly “hog-tie him,” but she wasn’t stupid. She understood men. “Six feet of mouth, two inches of brain,” she once told me, about one of her husband’s fellow dentists.

The next day, dressed up as always in her smart suit and clutching her new license, Aunt Myrtle sidled behind the wheel of her husband’s car, drove six blocks, and, with a few halting jerks as the clutch hit the floor, plunged the hood of her automobile 16 feet through the anteroom of a lovely house, tumbling a morass of books, slicing through the dining room of a white family just sitting down to eat. When the car stopped, my aunt was three feet from a surprised man who, amazingly in his fit of shock, asked her what she desired to eat. No one was hurt at all.

I’ve always thought that this vignette testifies to what racism—or any belittling of others— invariably accomplishes. In the sheriff’s malevolence, he presaged a situation in which the members of an entire family could have lost their lives.

Still, I can’t imagine how that family felt seeing my Aunt Myrtle, prim, proper, and, though a bit disheveled after the accident, sitting at their dining room table. I asked Myrtle if she said anything to them, and I recall how her eyes twinkled. She was about to tell me a falsehood, something that would enlarge the myth surrounding the aunt I had loved. But she was a church lady, a Riversider, and for the first time in my life, almost as if even she could barely comprehend it, she was absolutely church mouse silent.

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