Every town with black Catholics has a St. Peter Claver’s.
My first was nursery school.
Miss Maturin made us fold our towels in a regulation square and nap on army cots.
No mother questioned; no child sassed.
In blue pleated skirts, pants, and white shirts,
we stood in line to use the open toilets
and conserved light by walking in darkness.
Unsmiling, mostly light-skinned, we were the children of the middle class, preparing to take our parents’ places in a world that would demand we fold our hands and wait.
They said it was good for us, the bowl of soup, its pasty whiteness;
I learned to swallow and distrust my senses.
On holy cards St. Peter’s face is olive-toned, his hair near kinky;
I thought he was one of us who pass between the rich and poor, the light and dark.
Now I read he was “a Spanish Jesuit priest who labored for the salvation of the African Negroes and the abolition of the slave trade.”
I was tricked again, robbed of my patron,
and left with a debt to another white man.
Toi Derricotte, “St. Peter Claver” from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.