But There Is Also Rosa by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Associate fiction editor Jason Teal on today's bonus essay: An essay preoccupied with humanness could not have arrived at a timelier juncture in our country’s marred history. With everything piling up, almost insurmountably in recent months and weeks, we need revelations like “But There Is Also Rosa” to remind us it’s okay to be tired. Poring over "steel-heavy" qualities of McCauley's distant relative in the essay, we glimpse Parks’s legacy mirrored in Cousin Ricky's pride for his doctor uncle, Black Lives Matter protests, and students united against death threats at University of Missouri. Investigating Reconstruction in these trying times, McCauley has unspooled a startling self-portraiture reified by that “Something Important” roaring within generations of loved ones and groups fighting daily for basic freedoms.
But There is Also Rosa
Sometime ago, Cousin Ricky found out about my father.
Ricky lives close to where Daddy grew up, which is five minutes outside of Ferguson, Missouri. Ricky is sharp-brained, slick-tongued, and fought in the Iraq War. He was surprised Daddy became a famous doctor, especially since my father grew up true-poor and life-hurt. Ricky was impressed Daddy got out of the Lou and became an Important Man who makes kidney medicines you can find in every hospital. McCauleys don’t do shit, Ricky said, far as I know. Almost didn’t believe it when Mama told me your Daddy was a doctor.
Ricky does not have my father’s last name. He told me he thought the McCauley name was plagued with prisonbars, drug trouble and liver sickness. To him, McCauley meant failure, a bad fate. But here was my Daddy: one of those bad-named folks. Acting smart and doing good with that no-good last name.
I understand this thing Ricky said, because I always thought my last name was no-good. Unlike Ricky, I never knew a McCauley outside of Daddy and my brother Tim. I didn’t like McCauley for different reasons. I simply wanted a last name that fit my Blatina-black skin, something like: Marisol King or Kenya Gonzales or Magarita Freedman, a name that showed my ancestors had some kind of agency; a name that offered no dark surprise when I came into a room. I didn’t know how to be proud of my last name, but I wanted to be.
Sometime ago, when I was a teen-kid, I found out about Rosa.
I discovered Rosa Parks’s maiden name was McCauley. I found this thing out while working on a project for 7th grade social studies. I got a book about Black Heroes with Rosa’s name on the first page. That name, in big golden scrawl: Rosa Louise McCauley Parks. I stared at the McCauley, loud and long, between the delicate-sounding Louise and the stately Parks. I thought then: could Rosa be one of ours? Was she, even superficially, part of me?
A year later, Grandmama let it out at a family party in St. Louis: she knew ‘bout Auntie Rosa, said she was our kin. She was my greatgreatgreat grandcousin.
When I learned all of this, I thought my name wasn’t so bad. Hey, a holy dark woman on a history-bus shared my blood-line. She’d spent her full, young life walking around Alabama with our ill-fitting name.
I am an adult, in Montgomery, Rosa Parks’s homecity. Montgomery is clean, old-feeling and normal. Many folks claim Rosa’s blood here; they are proud and confused and searching for heritage, like me. I say my last name to the folks who work at her museum and they say oh wow. Like it means something. Like it’s a good name that doesn’t belong to a Scottish whitegirl. Like it’s a name that fits my skin. They say: Well, you’re part of some legacy, aren’t you? You should be proud. I think of my Daddy, Timothy, my Mami, my Georgian cousin Dee, Ricky and his Mama too. I say YeahIam.
I am an adult, in Montgomery, at the Rosa Parks Museum. I am sitting on a big fake bus, and going back in time via digital presentation. There is all this rainbow flashing and it stops on Rosa’s face. I know this picture. There are only three or four photographs of Rosa Parks you’ll usually see on television or in books. What Rosa looks like: calm-faced, fair-skinned. In that picture she is straight-backed, ready, pleasant, about to turn history into revolution.
There is a presentation in Rosa’s Museum that takes you on Cleveland Avenue on December 1st 1955, when the Alabama night got cool, purple-red, shaggy with fog. They show us digital Rosa: she is dark-eyed and dead-tired, waiting for this historical bus to take her home. Rosa sits in her hard, famous seat and the night gets full-black. Her busmates are grumbling, the museum shows the other passengers—black and white—getting mad she’s holding up the ride. She stares out of a bus-window while the bus driver barks for her to get up. She doesn’t. Everyone on the bus is annoyed and yelling. The driver says he’ll get authorities if she didn’t move, and Rosa says, firmly, near-politely, “You may do that.”
Rosa, you know, wasn’t always-polite You’ll never see pictures of her hollering, but you know she can get upset. Rosa Parks, you know, wasn’t always a Negro Saint; she was a woman who could get tired. She wanted folks to know she wasn’t body-tired on that day, though. Her spirit had been kicked enough times it got hard from hurt. Then that hardness got steel-heavy, wouldn’t let her move from that damn seat. She said: “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” The video at the museum quotes her saying this too.
I think about when I was a little girl, friendless and bullied by a bevy of suburban white faces. I think about them coolly slinging “niggers” at my child-face, remember them theorizing my skin was brown because God didn’t wash black folks. I remember a whiteboy I sort-of liked saying, “I can see you in private, but we can’t go home ‘cause Grandma lives there and she’s racist.” I remember the richboy who cornered me after class and asked what black girls taste like. I think of when I was at Trayvon and Mike Brown protests in Miami explaining to red-eyed critics why black folk lives matter. I remember being at the University of Missouri, the morning after the death threats on black students. I remember coming to work and seeing empty buildings and sidewalks and quads, save for a few dark faces, even though dark folks were the ones targeted. I remember the blackboys in front of the library who came up to me, asked to escort me to my car just in case someone started shooting. I remember asking them if they were scared of what had happened the night before. They said, “Nah. No way. We’ve seen worse. We got classes to go to.”
I remember thinking, then, manoman, darkfolks can get so tired.
After Rosa got tired of giving in, she did That Great Thing. They show you it on the fake bus. How she kept sitting, until the cops showed up. She is staring forward; you can’t read her thoughts. You think, maybe she is angry, maybe this soft-featured woman is boiling inside, but you won’t see that anger because her lips are a straight line. She is barely blinking, her small body taut; she is preparing for a battle you can’t see.
You know, just by looking at that face, you should watch out.
The museum presentation is over. I am talking to some folks who work at Troy, who knew Rosa. They say she was small, saintly, and kind. They are trying to find ways to talk about her like she is a real person while still being reverent. They are trying to say she wasn’t all about that bus. They come back to the bus eventually, because how can you not?
They are talking about her as if she is an idea, not a person. They don’t know how to go beyond her hagiography, but they want to. They try. They say Rosa was good at cooking. Her husband loved her; she loved her kin. I am wondering if this is how Ricky felt when somebody told him about Daddy being a doctor. Ricky didn’t know anything about Daddy but he got proud quick. It was easy for him to talk about my father in symbols, as if my Daddy represented success and transcendence of stereotypes. I think of my own father the same way, resume-first.
This is a survival technique, for dark people: if your kin does good, you mention that good first. Everybody else will be trying to find some speck or thorn.
I am an adult, in Montgomery. I linger in the lobby of the museum. An elderly blackman walks in, goes straight past the front desk. He does not share Rosa’s blood. He has lived in Montgomery all of his life, and came in the museum looking for a bathroom. The oldman can’t find it. He approaches me and grumbles about the lack of obvious bathrooms. I say ohyeah, though I’m not in the mood to care about what he is talking about. He says, “You look like a young woman,” as if he assumes I don’t know what I look like. “Sure,” I say. After being in antebellum South and researching Reconstruction for the past few weeks, this skin feels ancient, but he is right-- I am nauseatingly young, in the scheme of things.
The oldman asks why I am here, in this place without obvious bathrooms. I say I admire Rosa and add quietly, as if I don’t deserve to say it, she was related to my Grandfather. The oldman doesn’t congratulate me. He tells me to remember Rosa was just another sweet-smiled woman who lived in his town. She wasn’t just about busses and revolution. He says remember she was a woman too, like you. He means things I know but hadn’t thought much about because I was so full of pride: That Rosa loved, got sad, was unhappy. That she had other sides too, not just what they show us in Negro Temples.
Then the oldman says: Man, I got to take a shit.
I try to help him find the bathroom, but he walks out quick, unsatisfied.
When I leave the museum, I see a gleaming statue of Rosa. I look at this Rosa, the not-real, frozen one encased in polished bronze. She is sitting serenely, looking off at something. You don’t know what she is looking at. You can’t know what she is staring at, this fake Rosa, and you’ll never know what the real Rosa---the one they modeled this statue after--was looking at either. In this museum, at least, we are supposed to assume she is looking through a bus-window, forever.
I stare at her man-made eyes. Those eyes: defiant and aggressively calm. That look: lonely, tired of being slapped, resolved. Those eyes tell her body, a body warm with blood like mine: sit and rise on your own terms.
I’ve seen that look in my Daddy’s eyes, in the eyes of so many dark folks who have not been awarded Negro Sainthood.
Their eyes: beat-up, steely and shining, looking forward to Something Important.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a writer, teacher and PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri. She is also an editorial assistant at The Missouri Review, a reviews editor at Fjords Review and an associate editor of Origins Literary Journal. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in editions of The Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, Split this Rock’s “Poem of the Week,” Puerto del Sol, The Feminist Wire, New Delta Review and A Shadow Map Anthology (CCM Press), among other outlets.