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(The African Meeting House in Boston has been a spiritual, educational, political, and community gathering place for African-Americans since the 1800's, and during our tour of it, the venue took me back to my own childhood raised in the church. Our church buildings were always used for more than "churching." They were multipurposed in edifying the lives of our people in all the ways the African Meeting House has been utilized for centuries. In my fictional short story, I incorporate a few authentic childhood memories to help illustrate the significance of faith and spirituality in the African-American subculture, especially during some of our most trying times as a community.)

 

STAINED-GLASS JOY

by Monique Franz

"Ya’ll get up now,” Grandma says smacking our legs as we lie sleep in the bed. I’m at the foot and Latrice is at the headboard. We lift our fuzzy ponytails from the pillow, wiping the guck from our eyes and slobber from our faces.

 

“Got church dis mornin’,” Grandma says.


“Yes Ma’am,” we answer, but no sooner she leaves the room, we lay our heads right back down again. We close our eyes for what seems like a second before we hear Grandma again, “Didn’t I tell ya’ll get up twenty minutes ago? Git out dat bed righ’ now.”

 

This time, Grandma got the switch in her voice, and we don’t want her to get that switch in hand, so me and Latrice hop out right away, “Yes Ma’am.”
 


 

The night before, Grandma pressed our dresses – the ones from Kmart. My dress is blue with a laced hem. Latrice picked the lavender one first. Grandma had to buy them both, because Ma told her that she’s broke and “ain’t got no money for Sunday dresses.” 

 

Ma works at the BBQ joint on Kinsman Avenue, so Grandma watches us on the weekends and brings us to church. She lays out our stockings along with our church hats, white gloves, and patent-leather shoes. She sets out our slips and panties too. Latrice have the panties marked Sunday. I've got the ones marked Thursday, but Grandma said, “Don’ worry ‘bout the day on ‘em. Panties is panties.” So, me and Latrice share the seven pair, and when either of us wear one, we always wash them out in the sink, so they’re always clean.

We took our baths last night. Latrice took hers first ‘cause she’s a year older, and I had to get in her cloudy water afterwards. The water had gone cold, so Grandma poured the hot kettle in there to warm it back up.


“Why we got to go to church?” I asked Grandma when she brought me a washcloth.

“’Cause it’s the Lawd’s day,” Grandma said eyeing me from the brim of her glasses. I wasn’t sure why Jesus had a special day every week, but I wished he only had a special day once a year like everybody else.

 

 

 

On Sunday mornings, Grandma tidies up real nice. She put her teeth in, which means she’ll call me “Renee” instead of “Menee.” She wears a sharp purple suit and a purple hat with a large brim. Her gray cornrows are now covered under a wavy, black wig like Diana Ross’, and she smells like Royal Crown hair grease and tea rose spray. Grandma calls the spray her “smell-me-good.” Sometimes, she sprays me and Latrice with smell-me-good too.
 

When we get into Grandma’s old Cadillac, it clears its throat and coughs. I’ve heard that sound before, and I know the car doesn’t want to go to church either. But Grandma wakes up Uncle Fred who comes out in his T-shirt and boxers to give the car a jump. I don't know how he got his  green hooptie with the one gray door to make Grandma's car work again, but he does. Finally, the Caddy ahems, coughs again, and then roars like normal ready to take us on our way. I’m still worried about the car – that we’ll make it all the way to church but Grandma ain’t worried at all. She hums "God Has Smiled on Me" as she holds onto the wheel, turning hand over hand, sometimes peeking back at us with a smile.
 

I guess Grandma was right not to worry, because we make it all the way to church. When we get to the parking lot, I can already hear the organ playing. In my mind, I can already see Brother Roger stepping on the organ pedals while the saints sing:
 

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

Until I die….

I inhale deep, because I know it’s going to be a long day. Sunday school, morning service, then an afternoon meeting where Reverend Lawrence talks about cleaning up the neighborhood while me and Latrice melt like ice cream on the pews. Grandma will cut us an eye that alerts us to sit up straight, and we will. Afterwards, we will eat a potluck dinner, and if we’re lucky, we can get some of the macaroni and cheese before it’s gone. Finally, we’ll finish the night with evening service and the most faithful of the saints. But for right now, we will go in with Grandma, sit on those hard pews fanning ourselves in the July heat while the saints talk and sing. Reverend will go on and on, hollering and huffing about what God said, but not before Grandma get up and testify about how good God is. How her car hadn't started and yet she’s “in the house of the Lawd one mo’ time.” Brother Roger will tap his feet on those organ pedals, and Grandma will end with a holler, “Hallelujah!”

 

It won’t be long before someone else will get up and testify about how they were “going through,” or how they were sick in the their body or  how they “had no job” but got one, or how they "had no rent money," but “God made a way out of no way.” Tears will fill their eyes as they raise their hands to the ceiling. The mothers in the church will fan themselves and say, “My, my, my.” Others will say, “Look at God.” The deacons in the front on the other side of the church will yell in their baritone voices, “Glory!”

 

Then after enough people talk about how God has answered their prayers, everyone will get happy. The organ will play real fast, and Cousin Earl will keep up on the drums; hitting that snare, the hi-hat, and base drum – dukka, dukka, dukka, duke, dukka, dukka, dukka, duke. The saints won’t even be able to help themselves, getting up shouting and singing, jangling tambourines, and hands raised to the Lord.

Sometimes, my eyes grow teary too. I want to raise my hands and catch the Holy Ghost like some uncontrollable disease. Instead, I just watch the saints. Other times, me and Latrice laugh, but mostly I wonder about prayer and how it seems to make things better. I pray for Ma – that she don’t have to work so hard, that she can “keep the lights on” as she say. So, she don’t have to work Sundays, and maybe she can come to church and get happy too. After that, I pray for my Daddy – wherever he is now, that God love him and keep him, and that I see his face again one day.  

As we walk through the church doors, I see all the familiar neighbors and family members rocking and fanning themselves with stain-glass glows on their faces.  I guess it's okay that every week has a Lawd's Day, when we all forget the trouble of Monday through Saturday. Before I know it, I start to mumble the song along with the saints,

 

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

I’m going to trust in the Lawd

Until I die….

Under the Floorboards 
by Jon Jon Stefan Franz


 

Under the floorboards

 

Eyes, black hands spinning

 

That type of desperate dancing

 

Like they had everything they could want

and were still swatting at more

 

Power! Power! Power!

 

I could feel my language loosen

 

My tongue no longer carpeted my mouth

and I felt comfortable letting it fly

 

I would smile unapologetically.

 

Instead of painfully tugging at the ends of my mouth.

 

The hands grew tired of holding up the ceiling

and let the sky fall into night

 

The type of poetry and philosophy we would test each other with

 

We documented each other.

 

Allowing ourselves to be hopelessly wrong but we were frustrated

 

When we admitted to ourselves

 

How close we were getting to the truth.

 

We would fantasize someone would peak between the floorboards

and see us in all our majesty

 

Or maybe all our wretched human honesty

 

We laughed

 

They couldn't force them to see us if they tried.

Not yet anyway

 

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        The man behind the counter handed over an inhaler and some discreetly wrapped strings for Thankful’s standing bass. With a wink and his odd, repetitive shoulder twitch the man behind the counter said, “Good luck and remember your place.” Thankful exited the apothecary and anxiously made his way to the site his initiation would take place.

       Buildings on this side of the hill that made up the city were almost never without graffiti these days. No matter how hard the high council tried to crush the movement. Every alleyway can be found with a mural depicting bands and instruments, messages displayed for everyone to see, all stating that music is not evil. That it is as natural as the Earth.

       He soon passes by the Graveyard of the Damned. This is where Ms. Evette was buried after being caught with her harmonica. He would miss her soulful sound.

       Thankful finally came upon a dark blue door, set lower into the ground than the sidewalk. He made his way down the steps and opened the door. In the decaying meeting house he found everyone sitting in the pews that circled the Stage already. He knew he would not sit with them today. Today he would claim his place in the Company. He wouldn’t be spray painting buildings or practicing with the others after he was ordained, he would be playing his bass with the rest of the selected talent.

       He finds his way to the Stage, unnerved by the slightly shadowed faces of his community surrounding him. The hall was dark, barely illuminated besides a few candles spread about. 

       The lead musician, Sacré Bleu, came up from her pew to the Stage and stood behind him with a hand on his shoulder.

       “Today we gather for the installation of Thankful, son of Mumba, into the crew.” She announces. “He has proven himself worthy, despite being a man, through his talent with the standing bass. He will live up to his mother’s legacy as he proves himself loyal to the cause.”

       Bleu walks up beside him and turns to face him directly.

       “Thankful, you have been extended a sacred responsibility. Though our numbers are few and our resources limited, our influence and abilities are not. With our movement and our music we tell stories that need to be told, we speak to both the mind and the heart. To take your seat in the crew you must accept that life has no order or meaning outside of that created by the sounds of the earth.”

       “I do.”

       “And do you accept your responsibilities as a man in this order of ‘illegal witches’?”

       “I do.”

       “You accept that you are a servant to our cause?”

       “I do.”

 

       Sacré Bleu turns back to face the crowd, raising her hands high as someone brings Thankful’s instrument on stage.

       “Musicians! With this, Thankful has dedicated himself to a cause greater than him, greater than all of us. All welcome our newest member, Thankful the Jazz player.” With that she walks off the Stage.

       Thankful takes hold of his bass and looks back out into the indistinguishable faces of the crowd. He takes a deep breath, settles his nerves, and begins to pluck the strings. He thinks of the people all around him that he’s known his whole life. He thinks of the building housing him that has been his school and church for as long as he can remember. Passion weaves itself into every note he plucks and vibrates back into his soul.

       He immerses himself in the magic. It consumes him and he surrenders. His mother would be proud.

Lost to Music
by Raquel "Rocky" Franz
 

       “O ye sons of academics, additional reminders have passed from the council up high to beware the call of witches and the unorthodox sounds of their witchcraft. New legislations 3004A.6 and 3004B.4 ensure further that the Human Brotherhood continues to reach further scholastic heights.”

       Thankful’s eyes rolled at the recorded message coming from the front of the trolley as he consciously stopped himself from tapping a beat on the poll he was using to keep still while on the bumpy ride. As soon as he saw the familiar corner apothecary, Thankful made his way out the exit. He walked across the street and the store door opened silently to a room filled with the smell of herbs. The man sitting behind the front counter brushed his long, bushy hair out of his face to get a good look at the new customer approaching.     

A 1963 photo of the Saxony Bar Lounge of Boston where prominent African-American musicians brought order and meaning to our culture through blues and jazz.

       “Good Evening Thankful. So good to see you! I just got a letter from your mother for you. Must have come early this month since today you get initiated. That mother of yours sure is an amazing woman. I mean, I can’t believe the authorities haven’t caught her yet!”

       “Well I suppose the high council would call it magic.” Thankful chuckled while taking the letter. “I’d like a refill on my prescription and iron supplements please.”