KEITH THOMAS WALKER
HOPES AND PRAYERS
“So, what do you think their problem is? The ones that hate us, why do you think they feel that way?”
Zahra wasn’t sure what to make of the question or the man asking it. They sat at a high-top table in a Starbucks on the west side of town. Outside, the mid-morning sun was blazing. The temperature inside was cool. Her companion was named David, but he’d told her he preferred to be called Demon. The moniker didn’t seem to fit him, as he didn’t appear to be evil or sinister. He was handsome, in an unassuming way. His skin was dark. He wore his hair in a box-style haircut. Zahra was twenty-three, and she guessed he was around her age. Demon wasn’t muscular, but he wasn’t skinny either.
She couldn’t take her eyes off his.
He stared at her intensely, waiting for a response. She felt as if he could read her mind, which wouldn’t have been helpful, because she didn’t have a profound response to his question. The answer seemed obvious.
She asked him, “What do you mean? They hate us ‘cause we black.”
Zahra’s skin tone was a couple of shades lighter than his. She wore her hair in long braids. She hadn’t found much reason to smile in the past couple of months, and she wasn’t smiling now. Without makeup, Demon would consider her features more serious than attractive, but he thought she was naturally beautiful, even in the midst of her despair.
“The ones who hate us do hate us just ‘cause we black,” he agreed. “But why is that? What makes a white man racist against a black man?”
She shrugged, still not sure where he was going with this. “They been hating us since slavery. They think they’re better than us. They didn’t see us as real people back then, and some of them still don’t. The hate gets passed down from one generation to the next.”
Demon nodded, studying her. “Do you think there’s anything we’re doing – currently – to contribute to the way they feel about us?”
She frowned. “No. All we’re doing is existing.”
He grinned at that. He was always so serious, she didn’t think she’d ever seen his lips curve like that. He placed his forearms on the tabletop and leaned closer. Beyond the strong smell of coffee that permeated the café, she caught a whiff of his scent. It was faint. Not cologne, maybe deodorant. She thought his smell was pleasant.
“Well, let me ask you this,” he said. “Do you think if our ancestors had rose from slavery and made something of themselves, and all of the black people in America today were homeowners, upper class – do you think they would still see us as inferior?”
She wasn’t sure why his questions felt loaded, or why they were even having this conversation. She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Do you know why the slaves didn’t hit the ground running and set up the next generation for success?” he asked. “Why is it that only 43% of blacks in this country own their home, compared to 72% for whites?”
She bristled. “They wouldn’t let us. They stopped us from being successful.”
“If you’re talking about what this country did to us in the 1900’s, you’re right. They kept their foot on our neck that whole century. But the plan to hold us down started right after they freed the slaves. Every freed family was supposed to get forty acres of land. This land was supposed to be confiscated from the Confederates. The army offered to toss in some mules. This order was issued by Union General William T. Sherman in 1865. Do you know why it never came to be?”
Zahra shook her head. Demon was clearly more knowledgeable on this topic, and she was intrigued by the history lesson.
“Lincoln got popped,” he said, “and his successor, Andrew Johnson, overturned the order. Most slaves started their free lives with nothing. A hundred and fifty years later, a lot of their descendants are still passing down nothing to their kids. That was definitely the case for my family. My father was poor. His father was poor. His father was too…”
Zahra held his gaze for a few beats and then looked around. There were white people in the coffee shop with them. Demon didn’t seem concerned about having this conversation in their presence.
“How do you think we can fix it?” he asked. “If we’re still being smothered by the horror of slavery and another hundred years of oppression, how do we rise above it, so maybe the whites who choose to hate us won’t be able to use our circumstances as an excuse?”
“I don’t know.” She watched his eyes again. “Reparations?”
He grinned again, but it was humorless. “That was a trick question. What you need to understand is they don’t need an excuse to hate us, and they will always have an excuse. They say they hate us because we’re poor. They hate us because we’re uneducated. They hate us if we go to college and make something of ourselves, because we’re taking jobs away from more deserving white folks. They hate us if we abort our babies. They hate us if we have a lot of children. They hate us because we keep voting for Democrats. They hate us because we wanna take down the statues of our oppressors.
“The only bright spot in any of this is the whites who hate us are in the minority, and there’s an even smaller number of them who are willing to act out violently. But I’m sure you know that a small number can do massive damage. It only took one man and one bullet to silence Martin Luther King.”
Zahra’s nostrils flared as they, along with her eyes, filled with moisture.
“Then there’s nothing we can do about it,” she asked, “just keep letting them attack us?”
After all the buildup, she felt Demon had led her to a demoralizing conclusion.
But he shook his head. “I didn’t say there was nothing we could do about it, Zahra. I never said that…”
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Two months before meeting the mysterious intellectual at Starbucks, Zahra enjoyed what most would consider a normal life. School had never been something she was good at, so when she graduated from high school five years ago avoiding college was a no-brainer. After bouncing around a few menial jobs for the next four years, it was her grandmother who encouraged her to rethink that stance.
“Zahra,” she had told her, “I know you and them books don’t get along, but I saw a commercial on TV the other day talking about becoming a pharmacy tech in only a year. You remember you worked at Walgreens for a little bit when you first graduated. You didn’t never think about going to school for that?”
Zahra had considered it at the time. The store she worked for made the training sound quick and easy. The only problem was she’d just graduated, and her position on more learning was resolute. But things were different when her grandmother broached the topic. Zahra wouldn’t say the real world had been kicking her ass since she got her high school diploma, but she’d be lying if she said she’d been winning the rat race.
“I thought about it,” she told her granny.
“Well, why you ain’t did it then?” Granny wanted to know.
Zahra could do nothing but laugh at that. There was something about old age that made everything cut and dry. Then again, her grandmother had been of this mindset for as long as Zahra could remember.
“What’s the number?” she asked her. “I know you wrote it down.”
“Actually, I got it right here on my phone…”
Granny pulled a new iPhone from her purse that was still more of a mystery than a convenience. She found the number.
A year later, Zahra was a certified pharmacy technician. Less than a month after that, she landed her first job – at CVS, rather than Walgreens. Two weeks later, Zahra was hard at work on a Wednesday afternoon when her estranged mother called with news that shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was.
Zahra stood stunned in the brightly lit pharmacy. All of the air had suddenly been sucked out of the room. “Wha, what are you talking about? I just saw Granny this morning, before I left for work.”
“I know,” her mother said. “It just happened.”
Zahra could hear the emotion in her mother’s voice then. She also heard a commotion in the background. Different voices. Frantic. Some screaming. Some angry.
Tears welled in Zahra’s eyes. Her grandmother had raised her since she was six years old, back when her biological mother found an affection for crack cocaine.
“How – how did she die?”
The question came from a deep pit of despair. Even as she asked, Zahra understood that her mother’s response would be unenlightening. Her grandmother was eighty-two years old. She was in relatively good health, but at that age, there was nothing wrong with Jesus simply calling you home. The life expectancy for black women in America was 78. Granny was blessed to have made it past that.
But her mother’s response was enlightening, even though it made absolutely no sense.
“She got shot.”
Zahra’s tear-filled eyes widened. “What?”
She took a stumbling step backwards. Realizing she was falling, she reached blindly with her freehand and encountered a table that would support her. Half a dozen bagged and neatly stacked bottles of medication fell to the floor. She didn’t notice her colleagues look in her direction. Another pharmacy tech whom she’d befriended rushed to her side.
Her mother was talking.
Zahra couldn’t hear her. A loud hum was stuck somewhere between her ears.
“What?” she cried. “I can’t hear you, Mama.”
“… shot a lot of people,” her mother was saying. “It was a white man. He shot a bunch of black people. He killed Mama. It’s on the news, baby. The man killed my mama…”
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
The next two hours were worse than any nightmare Zahra’s subconscious could’ve conjured. Her brother picked her up from work and drove her to the only place she’d ever called home. There were so many cars parked in front of her grandmother’s house, her brother had to drop her off while he went to find an available parking spot down the street. Inside the home, Zahra was greeted by faces she recognized, some she loved, some she and her grandmother had despised. All were grief stricken. All confused. Most were in the living room. That was where Zahra found her mother.
Her mother rushed to her and held her tightly.
“Baby, this is so bad,” she cried against the side of Zahra’s head. “This so bad.”
Although Zahra needed to be comforted, needed to feel that her family was there for her, and they would get through this, she stiffened in her mother’s embrace and then pushed her away. It was hard to breathe. In a trance-like state, she continued moving through the crowd. Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Gladys, Aunt Yolanda, everyone was there. Most were watching Granny’s TV, sitting on Granny’s couch. Zahra wanted to tell them that Granny didn’t like to have this many people in her house – she didn’t want to clean up after so many folks – but Zahra couldn’t find her voice.
Every part of her body felt like it was losing the ability to function.
She felt like she was dying from some unknown, debilitating illness as she stood shoulder to shoulder with her cousins and stared at the television. A reporter stood outside of a supermarket. Zahra recognized it as the neighborhood Walmart, the only place to get fresh fruit and vegetables for fifteen miles in either direction. Granny drove there once a week to restock their refrigerator and pantry. Whenever Zahra wasn’t working, she would go with her. She had fond memories of pushing the cart around the big store with her granny.
On the television, the store looked the same, but nothing about it was normal. Too many police and ambulances. Zahra wondered if her grandmother was still inside. The thought of her grandmother lying amidst what had to be complete carnage caused her to wail and lose her balance again.
She felt strong hands on her.
She didn’t remember much about the rest of that day.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
By day two, the killer had been identified: Twenty-two-year-old white man named Brandon Guillory. His motive was also revealed: He subscribed to The Great Replacement theory. Brandon believed blacks and other minorities were pursuing a calculated agenda to replace the white man, who was the rightful owner of the United States.
Brandon lived in Plano, a predominately white city in northern Texas. On the day of the shooting, he traveled fifty miles to a mostly black neighborhood in Overbrook Meadows. According to information collected from message boards he frequented on the internet, he chose the Walmart because he knew he would “find a lot of black people there.”
His weapon of choice was an AR-15 style rife and a Glock 19.
His death toll was 18 black souls, ranging in age from 18 to 82.
Fifteen additional shoppers experienced life threatening or life altering injuries.
The shooter remained on the scene for forty agonizing minutes, slowly marching down the aisles, shooting those who remained in the store who were injured but not yet dead. He doubled-back and shot his deceased victims again, just to be sure.
In the days that followed, Zahra refused to allow anyone to tell her how many times her grandmother had been shot or what part of her body had taken damage. All she knew was that her grandmother had to have a closed-casket funeral, and that was enough.
That alone was too much to know.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Zahra was not an activist. She was nothing like Reverend Al Sharpton, who traveled to Overbrook Meadows to console and pray with the bereaved families and attend every one of their loved one’s funerals. Zahra would never be a civil rights icon like Reverend Jesse Jackson, who once stood on the balcony of the infamous Lorraine Hotel and witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson arrived in Overbrook Meadows along with throngs of reporters, politicians, well-wishers and looky loo’s. On the day of her grandmother’s funeral, Zahra met with both Jackson and Sharpton. She remembered that they held her hands and spoke to her at length. But to this day, she couldn’t recall what either of them had told her.
She did not want to speak at her granny’s funeral.
But despite the enormous amount of love her grandmother had put out into the world and the many people who loved her back, there was no doubt that Zahra was her closest relative. They had lived together, just the two of them, for the past seventeen years. As her grandmother’s age began to catch up with her, Zahra had been the one to help her out of bed when her knees became stiff overnight. Zahra made her coffee and toast each morning; this was all the old woman would eat for breakfast. Zahra was the first face Granny saw each morning and the last person she spoke to each night.
Zahra tried to plan the words she would speak during her grandmother’s eulogy. She’d even gone as far as jotting down a few notes as a memo in her phone. But as she stood behind the podium at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, staring out at a crowd that was so dense, half of the attendees did not have a seat, none of the things she wanted to say seemed to matter.
Her eyes once again filled with tears as she stared down at her grandmother’s coffin. She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, saying nothing at all, until one of the pastors standing beside her touched her shoulder and said, “That’s alright. Take your time.”
Zahra looked up at the crowd then. She swallowed roughly. She took a deep breath, which came out in shudders. She spoke from the heart.
“Granny, my grandmama, she was the sweetest person I’ve ever known.” The grief in her voice was palpable. She vaguely heard dozens of voices in the crowd echo their agreement. “She always gave whatever she could to help people,” Zahra continued. “She gave more than she had. She never asked for anything in return.”
She paused to try to get her breathing under control. There was nothing she could do about her tears. “Granny was 82 years old,” she bawled. “I knew that one day I would be standing here, speaking at her funeral, but she was so strong. I didn’t think it would be no time soon. I sh – I shouldn’t be standing here today. What that man did to my granny ain’t right. He didn’t have no right to do her like that – none of them people. Everyone in that store was innocent.”
Her grimace was gut-wrenching. She felt the pastor’s hand on her shoulder again.
“It’s alright,” the man told her. “That’s alright…”
Zahra’s breaths were audible. She squeezed her eyes closed. The tears streamed down her cheeks.
She told the crowd, “I will never understand how somebody can hurt somebody who never did anything to them. I don’t understand why so many people in this country hate us. After all y’all did to us, all these years. All we ever did was be born. How can y’all hate us for that?”
Zahra sensed she was getting away from the purpose of the eulogy, but since her grandmother’s death, she had quickly progressed through two stages of grief (denial and bargaining). She wasn’t aware that she had transitioned to anger until that very moment.
“I’m sick of everybody on TV offering their thoughts and prayers,” she announced gruffly. The bitterness in her heart strengthened her voice, if not her resolve. “This ain’t the first time some white man opened fire on us, like we targets at the gun range. My granny deserves more than your thoughts and prayers. Somebody needs to do something about this. If y’all care about us, like y’all keep saying y’all do, then y’all need to do something to make them stop killing us! I’m sick of it!”
She was so angry, her whole body was trembling. She realized the pastor’s hand was not just resting on her shoulder now. He was tenderly pulling her away from the mic.
“It’s alright,” he repeated. “That, that’s alright.”
Zahra looked down at her grandmother’s casket one more time and backed away from the microphone on her own accord. She had nothing left to say – not to these people. She could give her grandmother a better eulogy tonight when she said her prayers, and the Lord was the only one listening.
© Keith Thomas Walker