A prologue to ‘The Mediocre White Man’
Back in eighty-four, her doctor had given her four months to live–six if she were lucky–which is nothing short of generous given Miss Johnson’s cigarette consumption. She’d been on a diet of two packs a day since sixty-two. Unfortunately for her doctor, she’d have had the last laugh had she’d known to laugh eight years later when newspapers printed the thirty-eight year-old health and fitness enthusiast’s obituary. But by then, her vision had long since failed her and she stubbornly refused her optometrist’s insistence she needed glasses, not that she read the papers anyway.
“What I’ma read the paper fo’? The devil is a lie!” Miss Johnson would scream to justify anything with which she’d disagree without basis.
“You don’t even much believe in the devil! The fuck is you talking ‘bout?” I’d reply.
I knew it was just a figure of speech, like when she’d say “bless you” when someone sneezed or “shut the fuck up, goddamn it” when a nigga said some inappropriate shit. That was just the way she talked.
She was the way she was, and what she was was convinced she was too old to change, and, so, she didn’t. She accepted the cards she was dealt and played her hand. “If it’s for ya, it’s for ya,” she’d say, and she meant it. So, when the levees broke, and flood waters washed over the Lower Ninth Ward, I imagine it came as no surprise to her when it came rushing into her home. I doubt she flinched as waves crept across her floor, submerging her ashy ankle. She probably held tight, oiling her pistol as the water crawled up her one calf and she eventually found herself waste deep into a watery grave. She minded her fucking business, because that’s what OGs do. Over six feet of water wouldn’t have frightened her, not even when it lifted her until her face pressed against her living room ceiling, or as her old tar-stained lungs filled with canal water, and her black ass unceremoniously drowned to death.
I can’t possibly know how she went out since I wasn’t actually there to witness it, but since history will most certainly neglect her, this is how I’m gonna choose to remember her. If her life is any indication of how she died, it’s not a stretch to believe Miss Johnson drowned with her middle fingers toward the sky, just in case someone was watching.
Regardless of how Miss Johnson faced her fatal circumstances, the results remained the same. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina made the Lower Ninth Ward easy pickings for pale-faced invaders–gentrifiers, is what they called them–who descended upon the dilapidated homes of displaced and deceased residents in droves. These privileged predators purchased property at prices that prohibited previous residents from returning home.
Miss Johnson’s story embodies the struggle that almost lost black folks the Lower Ninth Ward to culture vultures in the early twenty-first century. She lived in, fought for, and died in that single shotgun house, a strong black woman of interest, the queen of her castle, only to be written out of the history books, relegated as a commoner, and her home assumed by some mediocre white man named Stephen.