Only Believe

My grandmother was born January 9th, 1911.

She was born black and woman in South Carolina during Jim Crow’s heyday.

She had a middle school education because cultivating her mind wasn’t more important than cultivating cotton or tobacco.

Irene Harvin McCray was a smart woman.

She was one of the few literate people in her neighborhood.

She was the one people brought their letters to for them to be read and she was the one who wrote the responses back.

She was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

She could read the Bible well into her 90s without the need of reading glasses.

She sewed clothes with her big black Singer sewing machine with the gold letters.

She stitched quilts made from old clothes, sheets, tablecloths, anything that could stand the piercing of a needle and thread.

She was the granddaughter of a woman born during slavery.

She made the best deer hash you ever set your lips to.

She made the best biscuits, not them thick ones they sell at those chicken joints.

She gave you the best advice: just what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it.

She was fiercely in love with her grandchildren and wanted the best for them.

She would have been 108 years old today. And although she died in 2013 at the age of 102, her legacy is alive in me.

She cleaned white folk’s homes for the price of a hoghead; she cropped tobacco and picked cotton so that I wouldn’t have to, so that one I could become the poet and teacher I am today. She knew I would be a bearer of the story before I did, and nurtured it by telling me her life story.

I’ve been thinking about her much lately, especially after I was named Teacher of the Year (TOY) of Spring Valley High School about two months ago. My granny, who didn’t finish middle school and had dreams of being a teacher herself, would let up a holler to the Lord if she were still living! Look at my grandbaby! she would say. All things are possible if you only believe! she would say.

My tenure as TOY won’t begin officially until the 2019-20 school year, and I dedicate it to her. This honor is her honor.

And in honor of her memory and the life she lived, I am sharing here a story I wrote about her for her 95th Birthday Celebration. It’s written in her voice, in her beautiful, Geechee voice. Happy Birthday, Grandma!


January 2006

We used to play all the time and make mud pies when I was little. I learned to plait on a grass dolly. We used to wash it hair too. We used to have a good time playing.

I went to school at Battery Park. It was a rotten-down two-story building. We had one book with a green back on it. I wore old shoes to school. I didn’t talk much as a girl. I stopped going to school in the 6th grade. Sometimes I would go one day to school but when April come and tobacco come, I didn’t go to school none.

When I was little we would help the white folks sweep up the yard, pick up the sticks and we would get a piece of hogmeat, rice or flour for pay. They would give us clothes sometimes, good clothes.

I been sewing ever since I was big. I was sewing with two fingers and I had holes in my fingers and black spots right now from that.

My Ma learn me how to quilt. I only gave my quilts away never sold ‘em. I give them away to me and my family and my kin folk. But I tell you who could make a quilt. My ma could make a quilt.

We used to sleep on the quilts on the floor. We cover with the quilts—we had a time, hear?

I been cooking ever since I was big enough to cook. I learn myself to cook. The first thing I cook was flourbread. “Moonsie can cook,” is what my sisters say. My sisters started calling me Moonsie but I don’t know who learn them that.

We used to make brooms out of straw and sell them to white and black folks for 25 cents.

These two little legs here were the only way we used to get around. We used to be so tired.

We had it hard, hear? But I made it through, thank God for that.

Mama always kept clothes and decent shoes on us. My ma would make our clothes but one day I say, “Ma, let me make my own dress.” And I did.

Some people ain’ had no shoe and went barefoot.

Sometimes we had grits and peas and fried meat for breakfast. For dinner we had rice and peas. Daddy would buy meat sometimes. My Pa was a sharecropper.

It been a time when I was coming up. I’m glad you didn’t come then.

We got paid 40 or 50 cents a day to work all day long. Jesus, I don’t know how the people made it. Stuff was cheap then. I work so hard for 50 cents a day! Until the sun go down. Great daddy! I hope it never come back to dat.

I started picking cotton when I was 10 and doing ‘bacco too.

We went to church every Sunday and we walked there. People don’t go all the time now and they got something to ride in.

I would take care of myself real good. Black and white ointment at night and I put some cream or Vaseline on my face in the morning.

I met Sonny when he came by the house one Sunday. A man had told Sonny about me and he came to see about me. He came to the kitchen door and talked to me.

Two weeks later we went to the courthouse in Kingstree to get married.

I felt good at the birth of my children. Aunt Blanche helped me with all of ‘em except Bobbie. Being a mom means to me taking care of my children, keeping them warm, putting clothes on ‘em, keeping their bellies full.

I don’t remember how I felt when Sonny died in ‘76. I don’t remember nothing about no Civil Rights Movement.

In all I lived on the Huggins place, Roy Stuckey place, Oddell Stuckey place, little white house in Muddy Creek, Johnsonville projects, Lola house, and Helen house.

I was scared when I got into the car accident in ’98. I had slowly forgotten about it. I thought I was going to die. I pray nobody never get in a wreck.

I’m happy and glad that the Lord thought good to spare my life. Back then folks didn’t have no time to tell us stories, all they had time for was work. Now everything is much better.

I’m going and you coming, honey. You coming everyday of your life

I want for all my grands and great grands to go to school and get a nice education and a good job. What can you do without an education? You don’t get too much education. You can use something everyday. If I could go to school I woulda been a 1st grade teacher.

Thank the old people for what they do for you. You don’t know what you come into.

Everyday is New

There’s nothing new under the sun, but everyday is new. As we say goodbye to 2018 and welcome 2019, I keep this saying in front me. I’ve had some good years and I’ve had some bad years. The two worst years of my life were 2006 and 2011. In 2006 my mother died after a battle with colon cancer. In 2011 my father died suddenly of a heart attack.

One of the main reasons I have kept and continue to keep a journal is so I can reflect on my life. See what was happening then and assess how far I’ve come and how far I’ve got to go. My last journal entry of 2006 was a list of people who died in 2006 with my mom: her sister Bertha, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Ed Bradley, Coretta Scott King, Octavia Butler, Gordon Parks, Gerald Levert, and others. I then write:

There were some good deaths this year. Or should I say some good people died this year, well, and bad too. Sadaam was hanged yesterday and General Pinochet was no prince by any means. This year was the hardest one of my life. Much pain, many tears—but from all of that joy. Ma is healed now. I’m happy she’s not in pain anymore. I saw a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. It’s amazing what the human spirit can endure. We truly don’t know our strength until it is put to the test. 2007 is a new year. With new hope. Not a fresh start, but a chance for something new.

 I share this because not every year is going to be great. I share this because although I’ve had some terrible years in my life (not just the years my parents died, but the subsequent years following their deaths as well), this year was one full of wonder and joy.

For example, these are some of my moments from 2018:

  • Accepted a marriage proposal on Christmas Day
  • Named 2019-20 Teacher of the Year of Spring Valley High School
  • Sent/Sending my poetry book back out into the world (for the second time) for book publication contests
  • Published a story on Ed Surge about my students
  • Created this website…finally!

I appreciate this year even more so because I know what it’s like to struggle and be hopeless. This year my good outweighed my bad. And I am so thankful! I have much to look forward to in 2019. And no matter how your 2018 went, I want you to remember: Tomorrow is a new day.

Photo Credit: Evonne Washington

Caption: I am hugging my cousin shortly after being named Teacher of the Year on November 30th, 2018.



Helping Students Find Their Purpose

I went on a journey with my students last school year. Some of the steps we took involved inquiry, reflection, writing, and collaboration. But more importantly, it helped students discover their passion, their purpose. I learned about them as full human beings. I learned from them. They taught me as I was teaching them. Using The Purpose Project has been one of the most meaningful tools I’ve used with young people; it shows them how to use their passion to help others. Take a look at these amazing young people and the work they did … Find information about The Purpose Project here.

(The student who did the projects on the women’s shoes and seizures are not my students.)

A Brief Voting History

When Election Day came, my daddy and I crawled up into his truck,

the 1980 lime green and white Sierra or the dark blue King Cab

Ford Ranger—always American cars because he was an American

man although America didn’t always want him.

The Masonic Lodge downtown was the polling place then.

Mr. Pete Jacobs, our neighbor, was a poll worker.

“Hey, Little Barbara!” he would boom and I would wave,

look at his light eyes and his black suspenders.

I would go with my daddy into the ballot box.

He would draw the curtain; there was always plenty of room

for us. I stood beside him and he cast his vote. He didn’t

say anything. My Pa was a man of few words. He’d come out

grinning with his ballot in hand, say something to Mr. Pete, who gave

me a sticker that I’d wear with pride all day.

Although at that age I didn’t know what a vote meant.

Didn’t know how many people had died for me to be able

to watch my daddy cast a vote in the 1990’s. Didn’t know

about the Hamburg Massacre or how black women

in the South still weren’t voting in 1920.

We would climb back into the truck and drive home.

My daddy, one of my first teachers, modeled for me

how to participate in a democracy that ain’t never been

about the people; he taught me how to show up.

Like I’m doing now at this new polling place, the line

long. I brought a book. I’m scared they’ll say I can’t vote.

I’m scared that I left my photo ID that’s required now.

But it’s all good. I have the voter machines in sight

in this middle school gym.

A little boy is with his mother at the table where you sign

your name. “You’re coming to vote today?!” the poll worker

asks him. And nearly all of the poll workers here are Black women.

“Yes ma’am!” the boy replies. “And what’s your name?”

“L.J.” the boy replies. My daddy’s name. And I wonder what

the little boy’s L.J. stands for, because L.J. was all my daddy ever had.

The poll worker tells L.J. to have a seat in the bleachers.

He can’t go to the voting machine with his mama,

but he can watch her vote from afar. L.J. is mad he can’t go,

but he sits on the bleacher with his Spiderman figurine anyhow.

I go vote. Not straight ticket. I want to click on every name.

Write in a few others. I press and press and cast my ballot.

I get my sticker. I will wear it with pride all day.

Surviving the Storm

I was at my Aunt Lola’s house—a second home for me. My mother picked me up around dusk to take me back to our house. I was only six years old when Hurricane Hugo barreled into Charleston on September 22, 1989; it was a strong Category 5 storm. Johnsonville is only 88 miles from Charleston and 45 miles from Myrtle Beach. Hugo was much bigger than the entire state, which meant we would definitely feels its impact.

I don’t remember if I slept in my room at all that night, but I did sleep at the foot of my parent’s bed. I awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind and the rain. I looked out of the window and even in the darkness could see those tall pine trees swaying in the wind. It was the first major hurricane of my life, and though I felt safe there in my parent’s room, I went back to my make-shift bed of blankets, eyes wide open, listening to the rain and the wind.

It’s how the wind sounds now that the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Florence batters the Carolinas. My partner Lester and I are as prepared as we can be: we have our flashlights, water bottles, and non-perishable foods ready. Just two years ago we prepped for Hurricane Matthew and before that for the 1,000-year flood of 2015.

When Hugo finally passed, we went outside to see the damage: felled pine trees throughout the yard, huge branches all over the place, one of our neighbors had a tree fall on their house, the hole like a gaping wound. It took weeks for us to get electricity again. Some of the food in our deep freezer spoiled, and the lines to get gas were long

But we survived.

Even without electricity we ate good. My father had a portable burner with plenty of propane, and he tried to grill as much of the meat as he could. We had coolers full of ice and drinks. We cleaned up our yard. Weeks later my father would follow many of our neighbors and cut down the remaining pine trees in our yard.

We don’t know yet the sum of what Flo will bring to South Carolina. I live in Columbia now, so we’re three hours inland from the coast, which affords us a buffer of sorts. But like Hugo, Florence is just as big, if not bigger than the entire state and we don’t know how the rivers and dams will handle all the extra water.

We are survivors by nature, even when Mother Nature lashes us with the reminder that we are not more powerful than her.

One of Lester’s cousins was to get married in Charleston today, but instead of re-scheduling the wedding, they had a private ceremony in her parent’s home. On the short drive there, we didn’t see much of anything, just little tree limbs and leaves strewn about and a light rain. The ceremony was full of laughter and tears and love, even in the midst of storm churning all around us…

Love survived today.

My mother was fifty-eight years old when she was wheeled into a non-emergency ambulance and transported to the Hospice House in Florence (the city that’s one hour away from Johnsonville). She took her last breath there as Tropical Storm Ernesto dumped rain outside her room window.

I survived that grief.

My mother was six years old too when Hurricane Hazel came through South Carolina. I remember her telling a story about how they went to the home of a white man her father worked for to wait out the storm. They endured that Category 4 hurricane on the man’s screened-in back porch. On the back porch.

My ancestors survived.

I survived Hugo when I was six years old because I had the privilege of growing up in a home where my parents had the means and experience to be prepared. They knew what to do. They didn’t panic or lose control. So although the storm itself was terrifying, what happened in its aftermath was not. I was safe, fed, and hydrated.

Hurricane Florence will be a record-breaking storm; storms come and go often. It’s what we do when the storm is over that matters.