On those 90+ degree days when our slick press-and-curls would shrink into Afros just from sitting down, my grandmother shooed us out of her little red and white house to keep us cool.
None of the homes on the block in Hollis, Queens had air-conditioning so on the most sweltering of days, the street was lined with moms, grandmoms, and aunties sitting in lawn chairs holding tiny cigarettes in one hand and glasses of sweet tea — or Budweiser — in the other. They gossiped. Played numbers all while waving church fans. They stayed outside all day long. Only getting up to take the clothes off the line, finish the dinners they started in the morning before the sun started to blaze, or to shower us with the lawn sprinklers.
The coronavirus has brought me back to this simpler time. On one hand, we’ve relied on technology — Zoom calls, shopping on Amazon, and streaming services — to stay connected, and to stock up our pantries. But at the same time, our gardens are blooming, and we’ve gotten used to cooking at home. Still, The Universe continues to challenge our comfort zone in 2020. We’ve been blanketed by a heat wave for the better part of the last two weeks. Never mind that the safest way to socialize is outside.
So as I think about how air-conditioned restaurants and movie theaters are a no-go this year, I’m reminded how my grandmother conquered the summer outside. She had less of a choice than we do. Little Johnnye Elizabeth grew up in Georgetown, Texas, in a shotgun house that wasn’t air conditioned. Sharecropping didn’t stop in the heat. The AME church she attended wasn’t air conditioned. The movie theaters and department stores in town were air conditioned, but owners didn’t take too kindly to Black people, so dipping in to escape the Texas heat was out. This was, after all, the Jim Crow South. So when my grandmother moved to New York in the late 1940s, with the millions of Black people who fled to northern cities during the Great Black Migration, her bones told her how to stay cool outside during a New York heat wave.
I’m not alone when it comes to thinking about my ancestors this summer.
“My grandma had a glider on the porch,” said Monna Morton, 61, an artist who grew up in West Philadelphia, and now lives in Overbrook. Morton is the cocurator of The Colored Girls Museum’s Washer Woman Room, a multimedia exhibit inspired by Black women who provided for their families by washing clothes and keeping house. That kind of work was backbreaking year-round, especially in the summer when the heat was unrelenting. Growing up, Morton remembers her grandmother’s advice in the heat. “But when it was hot, she wouldn’t let us rock [in] the glider because we would cool off faster, she said, if we just sat still.”
Denys Davis, 65, Morton’s cocurator, who lives in Wynnefield, remembers sitting under the awning on her grandmother’s deck. There was a cross breeze on the deck and that is where she gardened. It was hot out there, but it never really felt hot.”
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My grandmother’s Southern ways stayed with her especially when the heat that day threatened to be oppressive. She rose before dawn to wash clothes, sweep, and get most of the day’s cooking done. She kept the blinds closed so the broiling sun wouldn’t make her hardwood floors, “too damned hot to walk on.” She only wore cotton house dresses because only a fool would wear “head-to-toe black like Johnny Cash,” one of her favorite entertainers. And although she loved a statement ring, she took off all of her jewelry.
When she wasn’t fanning herself with an old magazine or a church fan, my grandmother was handing out Dixie cups of ice cream or plastic mugs of sweet lemonade to those of us who jumped rope on her block. Opening up the fire hydrants was not allowed. (Only kids that had no class did that, she said.) Sometimes she’d wash our hair, part it in sections, plait it and let it air dry. The hot air cooling our necks as it hit our damp hair. Only in the summertime could you get the hair to become bone dry. That makes for a smooth press the next day. Mama carried a damp cloth with her at all times, too. Perfect for calming down an overheated child.
But shade was the key. City kids, she said, didn’t spend enough time under the shade of an oak tree just letting our minds wander. Sprawling trees — especially when it was so hot the devil stayed in hell to keep cool — were the perfect refuge. Here is where you thanked the Lord for your blessings, thought about dreams for tomorrow, and shared dreams with friends. Advice we can take today, as long as we stay six feet apart.