Black People Dress for God

Two sides of the human coin

Their independent churches have always been a refuge, though between the bricks of faith the mortar contained old fears as well as the preternatural powers of togetherness. Having one’s own church conveys the deep claim and belief that God protects, that freedom is guaranteed as long as one remains his houseguest.

I have experienced the extraordinary welcome of a black church. As a German stranger I was startled by the unanimous, extreme heartiness of the greeting. At the same time I sensed an unspoken spiderweb of historical dangers, a slight overcompensation, as if walking on eggshells to avoid ripping open old wounds. Almost a conspiracy of souls. As if the evils of the past could intrude once again if one did not carefully wrap the gift of sacred time.

The situation has the insecurity of a flickering flame, which is dispelled by a declaration of brotherhood, of sameness, a hunger for a peace at the hour of worship. It connects all concerned through a yearning for acceptance. Hallelujah.

When we came to live in New York in the seventies, leaving behind our secure, predictable life in Munich, we were so excited. Everything had the stamp of novelty. We dove straight into the river of the New, à la Studio 54, where we left my mother -- in her black, bejeweled cocktail dress, her gaze veiled by a little black hat upon which perched a tiny bird -- in the tender care of the coke-sniffers. She thought them the most divine group of people she had ever met.

See? Innocence is often delicious, and makes you experience pleasure without prejudice.

Our apartment was renovated by Peter Morino, fresh from Cornell. We were his second client, Andy Warhol having taken his architectural virginity. Of course we met Andy.

With our first apartment came Thelma, a black Southern personality. Without her we would in many instances have been totally helpless. The first thing she asked me: Which color uniform would you like me to wear?

She showed me three: pink, green, and blue.

But Thelma, you look great in your own clothes. As far as I am concerned you don’t need a uniform.

Yes, ma’am, I need one.

I was new to Black history and had only noticed that there were no black people on the streets of the Upper East Side, except perhaps the delivery boys or a nanny here or there. I learned only later that she truly needed the uniform, at least in our neck of the woods, to identify her as belonging, as being part of our lives and not just a stray citizen in her own right, her own dubious role. Discrimination of the instincts.

And so it went, all the way down the social ladder. Thelma in her turn did not trust the black delivery boy.

You stay and wait.

She would shut the door in his face when she went to fetch his money.

On Sunday mornings, Thelma would transform herself into a black fairy-tale queen.

Thelma, show yourself, I would call. We want to admire your regalia.

In the doorway would materialize a grand stranger, someone we truly did not know, transformed into a creature free of sorrows, luxurious and elegant. Only her posture betrayed her. She did not believe in her own magic. The violet dress, the wonderful plumed hat: a disguise that moved her so far from herself, so close to us.

Downstairs her son is waiting out front in a white Cadillac, and there, in the moment, she surrenders herself to the plastic paradise of the car, the flowered shawl spread over the frilled mountain of her breast, her purse waiting perched on her lap, sailing northward into Harlem. On the familiar course to Sunday service, she would exhale and transform herself back into Thelma.

Where does it come from, this uniquely Black feel for elegance? It is like jazz. Only around us is she insecure, as if remembering slavery; in her church, where she sings and dances herself into an ecstasy, she shows herself to her divine Father, clad in the garments of success, liberated from everyday banality, glorious, rich, in style.

It’s the philosophy of a better life: I show myself to Thee, O Lord.