Kiss in time

The last lynching of a black man in the United States took place in 1964. But there were many other travesties perpetrated on American blacks in the mid-part of the last century to make it clear that racism was very much alive in this country. Emmett Till was murdered for purportedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. He was fourteen. The slaughter of four little black girls in a Birmingham, AL church happened in 1963. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s saw a surge in the activities of the Klu Klux Klan, not a diminishment.

When Robert Alderson kissed me in 1967 he handed me his life. I was seventeen, he was about seventy-five. It was not a predatory kiss. He took my shoulders in his hands, drew me to him and kissed me passionately, tongue and all, but he never otherwise touched me. I believe he was as surprised by his action as I was. He had to have known the risk he’d taken in that rash, impulsive gesture.  I did not. Not then.

Robert came to work for my family when I was about twelve. He was retired from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and looking to pick up some extra cash doing yard work. He was unskilled and, I’m pretty sure, all but illiterate, so he was prepared as he’d probably been all his life to do whatever came his way that would bring in a little spare change. He was well recommend to my father and was soon an adored fixture in our family. Hard working and kind-hearted, Robert ended up doing more for us than just work alongside my father around the yard. He bartended at my sister’s wedding (and looked the other way when I, at thirteen, stole a bottle of champagne and proceeded to get rip-snorting’ drunk). He looked after the house when we were out of town. He kept an eye on me and reminded me often that he knew what I’d been up to and so I’d better return to the straight and narrow, pronto.

Robert, time would teach me, had no choice but to let me steal the champagne and to turn a blind eye when I stayed out all night with a boy. I was the white daughter of his white benefactor. He knew the rules and if I complained about him, even if the stories were lies to cover my own bad behavior, it could cost him his job. Or worse.

And my father was his benefactor. When the L&N tried to renege on Robert’s railroad pension because he was making money working for us — albeit only pocket money — my father went to bat for him, taking on the railroad and defending, successfully, Robert’s right to his retirement benefits.

Time would also teach me what history books could not when I was just a teenager — how slavery wasn’t something that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, that Reconstruction only provided different constructs for racism and discrimination, that having the right to vote didn’t mean you were welcome at the polls, that Jim Crow wasn’t a Native American but a decades’ long campaign to denigrate and dehumanize America’s black citizens.

Until this week, I’ve never told a soul about Robert kissing me. Not because I was ashamed. I never was ashamed. Shocked in the moment, yes, but never ashamed. On some level, I knew what he’d done wasn’t ‘right’. But I also knew what I’ve always known: Robert loved me and I loved him. In that pure way that sometimes can overwhelm you with its need for expression. I was about to leave for college and he did what was in his heart, paying no heed to the red light in his mind.

It may have been the most courageous act of his life and certainly was the most dangerous, to put himself at the mercy of a white girl in a society that needed no excuse, no excuse at all, to put him away. Some might think, What a terrible burden for Belle to bear! But it wasn’t. It was just a secret, and a sweet one at that.

— Belle Songer