Meet the Lord
I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.
My Pa was a full-blooded Negro out of Osawatomie, in Kansas Territory, north of Fort Scott, near Lawrence. Pa was a barber by trade, though that never gived him full satisfaction. Preaching the Gospel was his main line. Pa didn't have a regular church, like the type that don't allow nothing but bingo on Wednesday nights and women setting around making paper-doll cutouts. He saved souls one at a time, cutting hair at Dutch Henry's Tavern, which was tucked at a crossing on the California Trail that runs along the Kaw River in south Kansas Territory.
Pa ministered mostly t o lowlifes, four-flushers, slaveholders, and drunks who came along the Kansas Trail. He weren't a big man in size, but he dressed big. He favored a top hat, pants that drawed up around his ankles, high-collar shirt, and heeled boots. Most of his clothing was junk he found, or items he stole off dead white folks on the prairie killed off from dropsy or aired out on account of some dispute or other. His shirt had bullet holes in it the size of quarters. His hat was two sizes too small. His trousers come from two differentcolored pairs sewn together in the middle where the arse met. His hair was nappy enough to strike a match on. Most women wouldn't go near him, including my Ma, who closed her eyes in death bringing me to this life. She was said to be a gentle, high-yaller woman. "Your Ma was the only woman in the world man enough to hear my holy thoughts," Pa boasted, "for I'm a man of many parts."
Whatever them parts was, they didn't add up to much, for all full up and dressed to the nines, complete with boots and three-inch top hat, Pa only come out to 'bout four feet eight inches tall, and quite a bit of that was air.
But what he lacked in size, Pa made up for with his voice. My Pa could outyell with his voice any white man who ever walked God's green earth, bar none. He had a high, thin voice. When he talked, it sounded like he had a Jew's harp stuck down his throat, for he spoke in pops and bangs and such, which meant speaking with him was a two-for-one deal, being that he cleaned your face and spit-washed it for you at the same time—make that three-for-one, when you consider his breath. His breath smelled like hog guts and sawdust, for he worked in a slaughterhouse for many years, so most colored folks avoided him generally.
But white folks liked him fine. Many a night I seen my Pa fill up on joy juice and leap atop the bar at Dutch Henry's, snipping his scissors and hollering through the smoke and gin, "The Lord's coming! He's a'comin' to gnash out your teeth and tear out your hair!" then fling hisself into a crowd of the meanest, low-down, piss-drunk Missouri rebels you ever saw. And while they mostly clubbed him to the floor and kicked out his teeth, them white fellers didn't no more blame my Pa for flinging hisself at them in the name of the Holy Ghost than if a tornado was to come along and toss him across the room, for the Spirit of the Redeemer Who Spilt His Blood was serious business out on the prairie in them days, and your basic white pioneer weren't no stranger to the notion of hope. Most of 'em was fresh out of that commodity, having come west on a notion that hadn't worked out the way it was drawed up anyway, so anything that helped them outta bed to kill off Indians and not drop dead from ague and rattlesnakes was a welcome change. It helped too that Pa made some of the best rotgut in Kansas Territory—though he was a preacher, Pa weren't against a taste or three—and like as not, the same gunslingers who tore out his hair and knocked him cold would pick him up afterward and say "Let's liquor," and the whole bunch of 'em would wander off and howl at the moon, drinking Pa's giddy sauce. Pa was right proud of his friendship with the white race, something he claimed he learned from the Bible. "Son," he'd say, "always remember the book of Heziekial, twelfth chapter, seventeenth verse: 'Hold out thy glass to thy thirsty neighbor, Captain Ahab, and let him drinketh his fill.' "
I was a grown man before I knowed there weren't no book of Heziekial in the Bible. Nor was there any Captain Ahab. Fact is, Pa couldn't read a lick, and only recited Bible verses he heard white folks tell him.
Now, it's true there was a movement in town to hang my Pa, on account of his getting filled with the Holy Ghost and throwing hisself at the flood of westward pioneers who stopped to lay in supplies at Dutch Henry's—speculators, trappers, children, merchants, Mormons, even white women. Them poor settlers had enough to worry 'bout what with rattlers popping up from the floorboards and breechloaders that fired for nothing and building chimneys the wrong way that choked 'em to death, without having to fret 'bout a Negro flinging hisself at them in the name of our Great Redeemer Who Wore the Crown. In fact, by the time I was ten years old in 1856, there was open talk in town of blowing Pa's brains out.
They would'a done it, I think, had not a visitor come that spring and got the job done for 'em.
Dutch Henry's sat right near the Missouri border. It served as a kind of post office, courthouse, rumor mill, and gin house for Missouri rebels who come across the Kansas line to drink, throw cards, tell lies, frequent whores, and holler to the moon 'bout niggers taking over the world and the white man's constitutional rights being throwed in the outhouse by the Yankees and so forth. I paid no attention to that talk, for my aim in them days was to shine shoes while my Pa cut hair and shove as much johnnycake and ale down my little red lane as possible. But come spring, talk in Dutch's circled 'round a certain murderous white scoundrel named Old John Brown, a Yank from back east who'd come to Kansas Territory to stir up trouble with his gang of sons called the Pottawatomie Rifles. To hear them tell it, Old John Brown and his murderous sons planned to deaden every man, woman, and child on the prairie. Old John Brown stole horses. Old John Brown burned homesteads. Old John Brown raped women and hacked off heads. Old John Brown done this, and Old John Brown done that, and why, by God, by the time they was done with him, Old John Brown sounded like the most onerous, murderous, low-down son of a bitch you ever saw, and I resolved that if I ever was to run across him, why, by God, I would do him in myself, just on account of what he done or was gonna do to the good white people I knowed.
Excerpted from The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Copyright 2013 by James McBride. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.