On the Waterfront: Christ knowed dat Peter meant dat thing

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2007

On a recent trip to Alabama, I was able to buy a book I have long sought. I found it at the Huntingdon College bookstore in Montgomery.

It is called "Mules and Men," written by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s and '40s.

She believed that black men and women needed to define themselves from within, to create their own dignity and freedom.

"Freedom is something internal. ... The man himself must make his own emancipation."

"Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off."

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This didn't set too well with some including a male dominated black literary establishment. Hurston was shunted aside and mostly forgotten, although in her day, she was awarded prestigious prizes.

For a time she was even forced to work as a maid and died in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Her greatness as an authentic original voice was recognized by black female writers in the 1970s, and her works were celebrated and republished.

In "Mules and Men," she wrote of her experiences visiting her home in Northern Florida and collecting stories or fables told by working black men and women. Not only was she a novelist with marvelous descriptive powers and beautiful prose, she was trained as an anthropologist by Franz Boas at Barnard College.

Many of the stories have a religious background. It is fascinating to listen to these tales. Unlike the traditional concept of God, from Abraham and Moses, who is all powerful and mostly mysterious and unseen, Hurston encounters a vision of an accessible God who can engage in conversation with man and the Devil, and all the creatures of the farm and forest such as Brer Rabbit.

To give a sense of this world let me repeat a tale of Jesus and his church.

"Christ was walkin' long one day wid all his disciples and he said, "We're goin for a walk today. Everybody pick up a rock and come along." So everybody got their selves a nice big rock 'ceptin Peter. He was lazy so he picked up a li'l bit of a pebble and dropped it in his side pocket and come along.

Well, they walked all day long and de other 'leven disciples changed them rocks from one arm to de other but they kept on totin' 'em. Long towards sundown they come 'long de Sea of Galilee and Jesus tole 'em, "Well, le's fish awhile. Cast in yo nets right here." They done like he tole 'em and caught a great big mess of fish. Then they cooked'em and Christ said, "Now, all y'all bring up yo' rocks." So they all brought they rocks and Christ turned 'em into bread and they all had a plenty to eat wid they fish exceptin' Peter. He couldn't hardly make a moufful offa de li'l bread he had and he didn't like dat a bit.

Two or three days after dat Christ went out doors and looked up at de sky and says, "Well, we're goin' for another walk today. Everybody git yo'self a rock and come along."

They all picked up a rock apiece and were ready to go. All but Peter. He went and tore down half a mountain. It was so big he couldn't move it wid his hands. He had to take a pinch-bar to move it. All day long Christ walked and talked to his disciples and Peter sweated wid dat rock of his'n.

Way long in de evening' Christ went up under a great big ole tree and set down and called all of his disciples around 'im and said, "Now everybody bring up yo' rocks."

So everybody brought their's but Peter. Peter was about a mile down de road punchin' dat half a mountain he was bringin'. So Christ waited till he got dere. He looked at de rocks dat de other 'leven disciples had, den he seen dis great big mountain dat Peter had and so he got up and walked over to it and put one foot upon it and said,

"Why Peter, dis is a fine rock you got here! It's a noble rock! And Peter, on dis rock Ah'm gointer build my church."

Peter says, "Naw you ain't neither. You won't build no church on dis rock. You gointer turn dis rock into bread."

Christ knowed dat Peter meant dat thing do he turnt de hillside into bread and dat mountain is de bread he fed de 5,000 wid. Den he took dem 'leven other rocks and glued em together and built his church on it.

And that's how come de Christian churches is split up into so many different kinds - cause it's built on pieced-up rock.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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