(from the forthcoming memoir, Children of the Evening: Growing Up Civil Rights in Selma)My grandfather was a trip.
Reverend D.A. Gaines had big balls. He literally had big balls. I remember accidentally walking in on him in his bedroom when he was nearing 80. No kidding: his balls damn near grazed the floor. I’m guessing from natural heft, gravity, and time. What’s more, is that his figurative balls were even more colossal.
I thought my grandfather was at least 6 feet and two inches until I was grown. There is something to be said about a person’s persona, the way they carry themselves, about the force that surrounds them. It distorts perceptions of their size and physical appearance, and they appear larger than the shadows they cast. It’s almost as if the energy surrounding them embodies a Delphian loupe that warps our perceptions and reflects not objective reality but how they think of themselves. My grandfather was barely 5 feet and 5 inches tall. And that was with his church shoes on.
PahPah, as we affectionately called him, dressed exactly like the villain from the classic film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mr. Toht: All-black suit, white dress shirt, dark tie. Metal frames with perfectly round lenses. The whole ensemble was capped off with a menacing black Fedora.
But despite PahPah’s powerful presence, he was a family man. He brought his five children gifts home from every trip. He insisted that the entire family sit around the table for supper.
One night his Bishop came over for dinner. When the Bishop came in and saw the entire family sitting at the table, he balked: “You mean you gone let your children eat with us?” PahPah quipped, “Yeah, les’ you gone go eat in the kitchen.” Now PahPah spoke the Queen’s English, a highly educated man. He had a college degree and a master’s from divinity school. But the man was also down to earth. And he was all too willing to get down in the mud when folks pissed on it.
His speech would often reflect the transition. “Going to” went to “gone;” “lest” went to “less;’” and “are not” went directly to “ain’t.”
PahPah was gangsta. No, not a gangster. No. No. Not a shooter—although, he was that too. He was g.a.n.g.s.t.a. He did what he wanted when he wanted, how he wanted. He was free. And in the Black community, with its history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, free is as gangsta as it comes.
PahPah also cared deeply about the people in the community. He would randomly go to the courthouse and stay all day, testifying for anybody he knew. He would frequently go hang out at the pool halls and barbershops where his true flock congregated. He code-switched when talking to the street cats that populated these habitats. He taught without preaching. And he did so without the natives knowing they were being schooled.
But PahPah also appreciated the good life. He was a Buick man. He took pride in his cars. He always had a Buick. It was: crash one, get anotha. One breaks down, buy a third. Third gets old, buy the latest model. Every loss was an occasion for an upgrade. Out of all my relatives, I was the favorite of only one, PahPah.
I remember PahPah selecting me out of his several grandchildren to go visit his parishioners on Sundays. To my 8-year-old self that Buick seemed larger than a battle ship and more intimidating than a pedunculate oak tree. It was legendary. Like the Knight Rider or the Bat Mobile. That PahPah kept it shoe-shine clean added to its lore. It seemed like a cascade of radiant black light jumped off the black metal exterior and formed layers of sparkle. The inside of the car was just as awe-inspiring. The front seat swallowed my little body whole, my head barely able to peer above the dash. Small cartoon stars seemed to fairly twinkle about the passenger compartment. There appeared to be a gulf of tan leather between PahPah and me as we rolled coolly down Bush Boulevard.
For the most part, PahPah’s parishioners were middle-class black folks. You know, the teachers, lawyers, business folk, managers, supervisors, and un-degreed black folk with good jobs. He didn’t seem to like these folks very much, particularly the educated ones.
PahPah frequently told us stories of his exploits as an AME Zion pastor. The stories teemed with action, adventure, bad guys, conspiracies, and enough drama to keep a hippopotamus calf attuned. There were unsavory characters, belligerent congregations, and ruffian trustees. One of the best stories was the event that led to my grandfather’s infamous coronation as Old Damn Gaines. Old Damn Gaines earned the name through his acrimonious dealings with a gang of trustees at a North Carolina church. The name, meant to convey infamy, came to connote a type of begrudging respect and…fear. And, to PahPah, it was dead on.
It seems that PahPah’s Bishops dispatched him to unwieldy congregations on purpose. They seemed to want to exploit his….how should I say ….unique expertise. He was the clean-up man.
The very first thing D.A. said from the pulpit of every church he ever pastored was—no not “Praise God;” No No…not “let the church say Amen,” but words that captured exactly who he was, and come to think of it, who his daughter, my mother, is and who I am trying desperately—despite multitudinous relapses—not to be: “I can be as nice as you let me or as mean as you make me.”
One infamous church in North Carolina had trustees that were nothing short of terrorists. They were middle-class thugs in church dresses, loud suits, and Sunday shoes. The members had run a shockingly long line of preachers out of the Church and, then, directly out of town. My grandfather, who had long since developed the atypical habit of storing a .38 revolver in the pulpit, was nonplussed.
Late one night, the trustees launched a plot to run my grandfather out of town. Several trustees showed up at his home. He was asleep inside with his wife and five small children. The gang banged on the door and demanded that Reverend Gaines produce himself. D.A woke up and walked towards the front door wearing his off-white long johns. You know, the ones made with that wife-beater material that got the regular cotton at the crouch. He yawned nonchalantly and wiped the sleep from his eyes as he dawdled. When he got to the door, he peered out of the window. He saw a small mob of trustees standing on his front porch. Their ranks also filled the steps leading to the porch. To a man, they wore balled fists and clutched teeth. But they obviously didn’t understand the nature of the situation. And they certainly had no clue about the type of person they were dealing with.
D.A. grimaced and muttered. Then, with an almost imperceptible grin, walked smoothly but deliberately to the area of the house where he kept his second pistol—remember, the first one was in the church under the lectern. He then dropped six bullets into the brown-handled, black barreled .38. He spent the revolving chamber and placed the weapon by his side. He then tip-toed out the back door, walked gingerly down the back stairs, and then moved to the side of the house where he could get a good view. D.A. then raised that pistol and yelled at the church mobsters who were basking in gang hubris at the front door, “Yall wanna talk!” He quickly manumitted one round in the direction of the trustees. In the face of the .38, the trustees took off running. Some frantically searched for cover. Others tried to jump into their cars. But their palms were so sweaty and their fingers so unsteady they couldn’t grip the door handle. Old Damn Gaines then unloaded that .38, spinning the entire barrel at the cowering mob.
D.A. then went back to his bedroom. His anxious wife demanded to know what was going on. Let my grandmother tel’ it, PahPah said, “nothin’,” in his raspy Reverend voice. “Nothin’” meant “Ion wanna talk about it. And that’s FINAL.” He then laid down, immediately took a cozy sleeping position, and surrendered to the wondrous world of dreams. He slept peacefully through the night as if nothing had happened. Not a single toss. Not a single turn. And that’s how the legend of Old Damn Gaines was born.
Some while later, the congregation took to calling him the epithet, which, of course, they muttered with pinched lips and oppressed scowls. And, no doubt, out of the earshot of O.D.G.
One day after Church, a new member of the Church curiously but gingerly approached Old Damn Gaines. This smiling, obsequious fellow asked the good reverend what the D.A. in his name stood for. PahPah responded politely, “They are my initials, Damon Anthony. Welcome to the Church,” then went about his way. But you better bet that he turned the rest of that reply into a sermon. He preached it the next Sunday. The theme of the sermon was “big things come in small packages,” one of his favorite themes. He went on.…a diamond comes in a small box, dynamite in a small cylinder, great knowledge in a small book.” But I’m sure he was also thinking, “Big balls on me, you mutha fuckas.”
At the crescendo of the sermon, he asserted with the bravado of a rap-star, “Yall ask me what the D.A. stand for. Go ask them trustees what it stand for.” If he had a mic, he would have dropped that mutha fucka. He then instantly pirouetted, walked back to his seat, which now had to appear to his parishioners as a magisterial throne, and plopped the fuck down.
I always wondered whether PahPah meant to hit those trustees. I figured maybe he was just trying to scare them. So, when I got older, I asked a leading question, “you weren’t really trying to shoot them folk, right, PahPah?” He shook his head and briefly balled up his face as if a memory had earned his disgust. He shot back, “what!” as if now he was disgusted by the question. I throated a small gasp. “I was trying to blow their damn heads off. They were just moving so fast that by the time the bullets reached ‘em, they were gone,” he deadpanned.
PahPah’s last post was in Birmingham, Alabama. He moved his family there in the early sixties. In the next couple of years, Birmingham would become a Civil Rights war zone, and after that, the situs for one of the non-violent movement’s greatest victories, the Children’s March.
PahPah was never a part of the non-violent struggle. Because he wasn’t a visible part of the movement, the City’s leadership mistook him for one of them “responsible negroes.” If they believed that, they were about to be mugged of that notion. One day, the mayor of Birmingham called Reverend Gaines. PahPah Answered the phone with his trademark, “Gaines speaking.” His voice big, powerful, and confident. It announced his dignity to whoever was on the other end. The Mayor had called to tell him that his oldest son and a group of friends were downtown participating in an illegal sit-in. D.A. feigned outrage, “What!” He roared, “Tell me where they are!” Pause. Anticipation. Punchline: “so I can go join ‘em,” he said flatly in a way that he would have done irrespective of who was on the other end. He was no respecter of positions. Only persons. He was not inclined to shuck and jive. Ever. He said exactly what was on his mind. Every time. All of the time.
PahPah also earned another handle once he moved to Birmingham. It takes my aunt to tel’ it. (In my aunt’s voice:) “You know he was lil’,” she follows with a whole bunch of sniggling, “but he would tell folks off,” and “they would walk off saying ‘that’s a big little man.’” The big little man was also known as the little giant in some circles.
When the little giant and his family arrived in Birmingham during the early Sixties, right before the city became a boiling cauldron of terror, protest, murder, and mayhem, they moved to the Smithfield District, infamously known as Dynamite Hill. The city acquired the sobriquet from the 50 bombings white supremacists committed between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s.
It’s chic to call organizations like the Klan domestic terrorist organizations. However, it is too legitimizing to esteem the murderous wings of these cults as such. These groups more resembled societies of serial killers like the Thuggies of India than organizations like Al’Queda. The designation “terrorist organization” implies that the group has a potentially legitimate beef against a more powerful foe, but they go about redressing it in the wrong way. The murderous wing of the Klan was inspired solely by a perverse and irrational hatred for black folk who were already raking the bottom of the American barrel. And just like serial killers, they often lynched and dismembered black body parts, collecting them as souvenirs. They had a particularly satanic fetish for black dead men’s balls.
There are also atrocious stories of white organized serial killers murdering pregnant black women, cutting open their wounds, removing the viable fetuses, and stomping the little bodies to death. Burning down homes occupied by black families and throwing black infants back into the inferno. Blowing up churches, sending little girls’ small, dismembered body parts flipping through the southern air. Yet their mangled white minds gave them the nerve to call us savages.
Not long after my grandfather and his family moved to Dynamite Hill, they started receiving bomb threats. Threats. Plural. Several. My grandfather abandoned his home once but vowed not to do it again. He kept his vow. Not by using the quiet courage of nonviolence but through the conflict resolution skills he had developed all of his life.
Now, much of the following story does not appear in history books like many other instances of successful black forcible resistance. But from individuals close to the sources, it appears to be the truth. However, my grandfather never mentioned a mumbling word.
This much is known: a group of black men on Dynamite Hill planned to take the law into their own hands because, hell, the real law was in the terrorists’ hands. Literally. Many of the serial killers bombing Dynamite Hill, Black establishments, and the hotel rooms of Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., were cops. My grandfather and others assembled a posse of black men to defend the community. They were Dynamite Hill’s deacons of defense. When the serial killers made the next bomb threat, the posse members gathered their arms, convened under cover of night, and lay in wait. The killers came to the Hill in a truck. When they alighted from it with implements of destruction, they were met with a hail of gunfire.
The following is not in the historical record: the posse shot one member of the terrorist group dead. PahPah, apparently, was a fan of the Old Testament God. The terrorist loaded the body in the truck and drove away in great haste. Mysteriously, or not so mysteriously, the terrorist never reported the death. I guess reporting it would have been admitting guilt or, worse, defeat. It was a choice between horrible.
There was never another bombing on Dynamite Hill. The Hill had ceased to be dangerous for the residents. But for the terrorist? It had become a hill of death. I can’t help but think that them damn satanist were saying to themselves, “We ain’t going back to Dynamite Hill ‘cause Dynamite Hill shoots back!”
The incident reminds me of PahPah’s favorite poem, Lena Mason’s “A Negro is In it.” He remembered it by hard and often recited it:
In the last civil war,
The white folks, they began it,
But before it could close,
The Negro had to be in it.
At the battle of San Juan Hill,
The rough-riders they began it;
But before victory could be won
The Negro had to be in it….
White man, stop lynching and burning
This black race, trying to thin it,
For if you go to heaven or hell
You will find some Negroes in it.
Obviously, PahPah wasn’t the run-of-the-mill black preacher, but his fiery personality and stomach for war only scratched the surface. When my mom went off to college and took a religious studies class, she began to learn about the origins of Christianity. She learned about all of the precursors to the biblical Christ. The similar bios: saviors, who died on some form of a cross and arose from the dead, amongst dozens of other similarities. And about how the bible came to be THE BIBLE. Turns out the bible has many books, many of which didn’t make the final cut. The ones that failed the cut suggest a more gnostic form of Christianity. A “blasphemous” form of Christianity where every human could aspire to obtain the consciousness of Christ. But what troubled her the most? The mythical nature of the Bible. That it was not history. That it was not fact.
My mom accosted her father with this new, staggering information. I don’t know what she expected his response to be, but whatever she expected, it wasn’t this: “Any fool would know that,” Old Damn Gaines quipped dismissively. His response wobbled my mother’s world, and her world is still wobbling today. It was a rude awakening. Her heart dropped, and her guts sank. Her thoughts darted, and her skin tingled and burned. Her head spun around like the hour hand on a cuckoo clock thrown into a black hole. Questions swarmed her mind, bumping into and overwriting each other. “Is it really true? Why did he….How could….why didn’t he tell us this? Why didn’t he preach this at church? Why would—how could–he allow us—that be—to be misled—true?” And the exact moment she came up out of that tailspin marked the end of my mother’s religious conviction for the better part of sixty years.
But why was she so devastated? It wasn’t simply the facts. It was that a man stood before her she no longer recognized. It was as if a mysterious gateway tunneled out of his torso, providing a porthole to the incomprehensible vastness of space. And the man who stood before her was just as unknowable as the vastness that bore through him. And being unknown, he was indistinguishable from the awful.
And it wasn’t just what he said. It was how he said it. His response revealed a nakedness that escaped its dress before he had time to re-clothe it. My mom knew that this was just the tip of the iceberg, that something unfathomable clung beneath the waters.
I’m certain my mother never figured it out. She did not have the tools to understand it and continues to struggle to make heads or tails of the mysteries of life. She is a brilliant, creative, but practical woman. Ideas about spirit in matter, mysticism, magic, auras, secret societies, clairvoyance, etc., register to her as conspiracy theories. Mere philosophy at best. At worse? The machinations of untethered minds. Her reality is consensus reality….Well…. black consensus reality….she still believes a lot of conspiracy theories about you white folk.
My grandfather had discovered differently.
PahPah was a Freemason. Some of the family scuttlebutt has him as one the highest-ranking Masons in his district. I was unaware of my grandfather’s affiliation until about 15 years ago. I didn’t know much about the organization save the popular conspiracy theories peddled to the curious minds of co-eds.
Freemasonry is not an organization given to traditional religious dogma. To my knowledge—I am not a Mason—the organization doesn’t subscribe to any one particular worldview or religion—except some branches of the York rite, I am told. It is clear, at least in my mind, from the teachings and arcane knowledge Masons themselves have shared with me directly that, if anything, freemasonry is a decidedly gnostic and, even, metaphysical organization. Some members even study alchemy and magic. At least at the top rungs.
Whatever it is, in many ways, it is the polar opposite of orthodox Christianity. Not in terms of good and evil. I am sure both multiply in ample supply in both circles. I’m talking about as far as beliefs go. Whereas orthodox Christianity believes that Jesus was the one and only son of God, Gnostics view Christ as possessing a consciousness to which all can aspire. A couple of hundred years ago, individuals harboring beliefs in magic and the attainable consciousness of Christ would have not only been shunned by the Church but burned at the stake. And during the period PahPah was preaching, had them trustees known this, it’s quite likely he wouldn’t be known as Old Damn Gaines, but Old Damned Gaines, or worse, Old Dead Gaines.
So how did an AME Zion minister manage to be involved, not to mention attain rank, in an organization that plays so fast and loose with religion? Believe it or not, quite a few “enlightened” preachers hide in plain sight behind pulpits in traditional churches. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if MLK possessed some shocking beliefs himself. I heard straight from the mouth of one of his closest lieutenants that MLK had some peculiar unwinding rituals. Hell, he said they all did.
I believe that my grandfather carried a gun to Church, shot at trustees and domestic terrorists, and hung out at pool halls because he never really adhered to traditional religious dogma—although he did not disabuse others of the notion. He was a member of an organization that at the time was considered a secret society, and that’s exactly what he did, keep it secret. He may have been using his cover as a typical preacher to spread more empowering but vastly less acceptable teachings to a select few of individuals he came across who he deemed ready for the “strong meat” of the word. I am not certain that Christ himself did not do the same thing. There are numerous passages in the bible where Christ refrains from disseminating certain information he refers to as “mysteries,” choosing instead to wrap the essence of metaphysical doctrines in digestible pills he called parables.
Furthermore, there is a long tradition in this Country of preachers who claimed to see visions, hear the audible voice of God, perceive behind the perceived, and reluctantly adopt violence as the only solution to intractable social problems they deemed unholy. Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, and John Brown come to mind. They viewed their own violence as a necessary weapon against a devil they believed had made himself inseparable from the white majority at the time. These preachers were, to a man, literate, holy, and uncommonly intelligent. The archetype was particularly active during slavery. However, the revolutionary rhetoric of more modern black leaders like Minister Malcolm X, the intellectual assassin of Sixties’ fame, reflects its image.
But there were also millions of other legends. Unnamed. Old Damn Gaines was among the ephemeral class of souls that defy description. He was amongst those gods whose identities themselves are encryptions, those original souls that conceive fame as the cinematic amusement of lesser gods. Not those potent but limited entities that confine the circumference of themselves to a lifetime. Not the ones whose memories churn slow. Not the ones who have etched their names in the legends of creation. Not the ones whom most of us know.
I never saw my grandfather flustered, emotional, or out of control. He was calm, cool, and collected. He shrugged off bad situations and bad news like lent off his lapel. One of his favorite sayings was, “it’s a small thing to a giant.”
What’s for damn sure is Old Damn Gaines was cut from a different cloth. Hell, he probably cut the cloth himself. He was a big little man. A little giant. Gunpowder in a stick of dynamite. An irretrievably irreverent man of God. And ultimately, he was the most dangerous type of black man: one who owned both his own mind and a gun. And definitely not afraid to use either.
Header photograph by Erica Sandifer.