Larnell Custis Butler was born in Norfolk, Virginia. She learned to draw from her high school art teacher. Decades later, she’d sit on a park bench, dip a sharpened stick in India ink, and draw pictures of the people that walked past.
She said, “I sit still and get very quiet. Then, a name will come into my mind, and then that person’s story will begin to come through me, and I write it down.”
Her book Improvise in the Amen Corner is a collection of those visual and verbal portraits. Here’s one of those portraits, “Pie Maker Ellen Emily Matthew.”
Ellen Emily Matthew makes
Large sweet round pies to pay
Her rent and help her mother
Buy her medicine for high blood
She will make your pie before
Your eyes with fresh
Homemade flour dough, fruit
From a store-bought can added
With some sugar and other
Dollar store spices to make
The best homemade pie you’ll
Ellen Emily Matthew will
Tell you kindly to bake
Your pie in your own oven
‘Cause her electric bill
Is already high from
Washing clothes for SEVEN
Children who bring home
Tons of playground dirt
Every afternoon because
Their television is broken.
And here’s another, “Black Church Mother.”
Black church mother sits on
The first pew of a Baptist
Church wearing a Sunday hat
As wide as her double-wide hips
With an extraordinary dress
Made by her own black hands.
Black church mother has a
No-nonsense approach to reading
Her “God is the word” Bible.
Black church mother is
Definitely black, an agreeable fact.
She has not tolerated any other
Name except “BLACK,” not a jazzy
Compound word to hype the meaning of Negro.
She has challenged folks who have screwed up her name as well.
“Ifetayo” is NOT a deadly disease.
. . .
Improvise in the Amen Corner contains not only Butler’s imagined stories about the people she saw, but also the pen and ink drawings of the people she’s writing about.
To buy Improvise in the Amen Corner or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com.
This audio-cast was made possible in part by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council.