Forgiveness, love heal searing wounds

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2006

By Deirdre Parker Smith

Salisbury Post

Love conquers all.

Author Gene Cheek believes that, no matter what.

Speaking to Dr. Lyn Boulter’s first-year seminar, “Villains and Heroes,” Cheek said he wanted students to take away two things:

1. Try to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. “We have a saying in the South, ‘the chickens will come home to roost.’ I’m here to tell you, if you keep throwing out the corn, you shouldn’t be surprised when the chickens come. Prejudice is prejudice no matter what it is … and it doesn’t go unpunished.”

2. Love conquers all. “It takes a while, but right wins, every time. … I’m an optimist.”

The author of “The Color of Love,” which came out in 2005, Gene was taken away from his mother in 1963 because she had a mixed race child.

His father, an alcoholic, didn’t want him. “He was incapable of being a father,” Gene says. “He was sweet and he had a good heart, but the alcohol destroyed all that. He was weak-willed and could not overcome.”

The book tells a heart-wrenching story of Gene’s childhood. His loving mother, Sallie, endured repeated verbal and physical abuse from his father, Jesse. She worked hard, she loved Gene hard, and she tried and tried to love Jesse and forgive him.

She didn’t have much help — virtually no support from Jesse’s side of the family.

But Sallie’s mother and brother, Bill, and sister, Goldie, were loving. To this day, Gene’s eyes go soft when he talks about Grandma.

After Sallie leaves Jesse for the final time, she develops a friendship for Cornelius Tucker, a “colored” man who did repairs at her mother’s house.

“No one decides to fall in love. It happens. Mama and Tuck didn’t intend to fall in love.”

But they knew how dangerous it was. “Just to be seen in conversation with a white woman was serious trouble.

“It was the rule of the land.”

When Sallie got pregnant, she had to enter the hospital under an assumed name and lied on his birth certificate.

“There is no official record that my brother was ever born,” Gene says.

When his racist father discovers Sallie had a child with a black man, he sets out for revenge. Gene walks into court thinking they were going to get the child support his father owed. But his mother is accused of being unfit because of the baby. The courtroom scenes in the book are searing; the quotes genuine, taken from court records.

Even Gene’s beloved Uncle Bill testifies against Sallie. The judge asks her to make a choice — give up her months- old baby or her 12-year-old son. Gene saves her the trauma and volunteers to go.

“You think, at that time, that baby was going to go someplace where they’d take care of him? He never would have had a chance.”

Gene did it because he loved his mother, Tuck, and that baby, and he knew they loved him. “I knew I could figure out a way to get back.”

That’s not exactly how it worked out.

“I would not change a single thing,” he says, looking you straight in the eye.

“The pain never goes away. The pain is no better. The understanding got better.

“When I walked out of that courtroom, I was a totally different child. … I left that other 12-year-old in the detention center. And he had been waiting for me. HE wrote that book.”

Gene ended up at the Lake Waccamaw’s Boys Home, where he stayed until he graduated from high school.

He started the book as an act of vengeance, and even now he cannot read some passages. “I wrote night after night, crying at the typewriter.”

The vengeance turned to forgiveness, but it was a slow process.

“You know, they’ve got a pill now that erases memories. I don’t want it. Life hands you certain unpleasant things. …”

He never thought anything would come of his writing. He figured it would be “in a notebook somewhere and the kids might find it after I’m gone.”

When it was published, no one was more surprised or relieved.

“People ask me all the time, am I all better?

“No. It’s a work in progress.”

He’s been able to forgive, because “no one set out to say, ‘Let’s figure out how we can hurt Gene.’ ” But he doesn’t want to forget.

“Things happened — they happened because of what was going on in the world,” and especially, as the subtitle hints, “in the Jim Crow South.”

“Anybody who was not living at that time is surprised by the depth of racism. You have to live through it.”

He forgave his Uncle Bill a long time ago. “He was a sweet, good-hearted man,” but he was not very smart, and racism came easily.

“He was the only one who came to Mama and asked for forgiveness,” Cheek says, pausing, “the only one.”

In 2000, the Winston-Salem Journal found out about Gene’s story and interviewed the lawyer who worked for his father. “The reporter said the minute she mentioned my name, he described that court scene like it was yesterday. I bet that’s because he wishes he hadn’t taken that $200.” The lawyer said he still sees Gene’s face.

He went home to Sallie and Tuck, Randy and Greg (born in 1970) for 10 days each summer and 10 days each Christmas. “They had pictures of me all over the house. Tuck’s grandchildren told me later I was like a ghost and I was. We never talked about what happened. We were happy for 10 days and then it was over.

“I wouldn’t change a second of it. … The Boys Home was a good experience. It taught me a lot. … If I had to give something up, I wouldn’t trade that.”

His grandmother always told him that as bad as things were, they could always be worse.

He remembered that. “There were 104 boys around me who no one gave a crap about. I knew people loved me, Mom, Tuck, Uncle Bill, Grandma.”

That’s why he says love conquers all, and that’s what he preaches as fervently as a Baptist minister.

You feel like the bad times will last forever, he says, but they end. They’re powerful, but they lose power over time.

“You’ve got to give people hope.” When he talks to students or residents of the Boys Home, he tries to give them hope. “If they go to bed expecting the worst, they’ll get it over and over.

“When you remove hope, nothing should surprise you. Without hope, you ain’t gonna make it.”

That’s why he’s so insistent on treating everyone, regardless of color or size or religion or clothing or any other difference as equal.

“Whatever rights I have should be extended to everyone. Period.”

Prejudice takes many forms, so his simple rule for living is, “If you can’t make their life more than, don’t do anything. … Be careful how you treat people — it will come back and you will know it. Your life will be less than.”

His life was less than when he wanted vengeance.

“The past is the past. Some people carry some of it around, some carry all of it around and it’s like a millstone around your neck, it weighs you down.”

But it wasn’t easy.

“My cousin Susan told me years later they drove by the Boys Home every year on the way to the beach and she asked why they wouldn’t stop.” No one on his father’s side of the family talked about it.

Uncle Bobby, Jesse’s brother, is still living. When the reporter talked to him, he said, “Why is he bringing all that up now? We got over it, it’s time he did, too.”

When Gene went to his father’s deathbed seeking resolution, Jesse had little to say. Gene said, “For whatever it’s worth, I want you to know I forgive you.”

His Uncle Bill, a sweet, good-hearted man, testified against Sallie. He was too weak to overcome prejudice. But Bill was the only person who came to Sallie later and asked for forgiveness. Gene had already forgiven him. “I knew he loved us.”

Somehow, Gene did not repeat his father’s patterns.

He says he was too strict with his kids, now grown, and remembers a T-shirt they gave him: “Whatever the question is, the answer is no.”

“I thought I’d be the perfect father, the perfect husband, the best friend,” he snorts. “Things happen along the way.”

He has never abused alcohol. “I’d rather take a beating than drink that stuff,” he says. “But I do smoke. When people ask me, ‘Have you tried the patch?’ I say, ‘Can you light it?’ ”

He reminds you that he lived in the ’60s and ’70s, and might have been involved in other stuff.

He has not been physically abusive, but “I yelled and screamed a lot. There’s lots of kinds of abuse.

“I didn’t have the best of tools, but my kids will tell you they were loved. … To this day, if it hits the fan, they call Dad, because they know he’ll take care of it.”

He’s divorced.

He is close to his brothers, Randy, who lives in Oklahoma, and Greg, who lives in Florida.

His parents were finally able to marry in 1979 — the North Carolina law against mixed-race marriages was only repealed in 1974.

Speaking to students in high school and college, he tells them, “If you think, ‘Am I living wrong?’ then you’re probably living wrong. … But if you know that, it means you’re getting better.”

He hopes his son will be better, and his son’s son better yet.

He never gets tired of telling his story — the lesson is too important to forget.

He brags about being just an ordinary man, but he comes across large, wise and darn smart for a man who never went to college.

His learning came hard, but it stuck. And the lesson isn’t easy.

“Forgiveness is like a pie. I’ll give you a slice or two, but if you want the whole pie, you have to ask.

“Hate is poison.”

Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or