Mary Guillory and the Righteous Cause

By Celine Aenlle-Rocha

We are the children on the stoop, the siblings in the twin beds, the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving. We are the ancestors who fled up north and the babies who are not yet born.

When we came for Mary, it was not the first time, and even before then, someone else had come for her. And some time since, everyone, all of us, have been sure to keep an eye on Mary.

The reason some of us were not the first is that Mary is our great-aunt, or for some of us, our first cousin twice removed, and it has been many years since she was rescued. Some of us (the elders) are her siblings, and we went to get her first. It has been so long since then that the youngest of us can hardly remember she ever needed rescuing.

But she did need it, though even now, Mary herself forgets.

Mary Guillory was a bright girl in her youth. She went to college not too far from her mother’s house, at San Francisco State, and wore high-waisted skirts with collared sweaters. The boys liked her for her soft skin and her smart mouth. We loved her for her lemon chicken sauce, her afternoon naps, her willingness to keep our secrets.

Mary grew up in Oakland and spent summers in Los Angeles and Louisiana with the rest of our family, and kept an eye on the children while they played on the hot streets. She was twenty-one in 1967 when she was taken from us. We remember the day perfectly because it was still late spring, one year before her graduation, three years away from us. To make up for her continuing pursuit of education, she was to stay with the family until August.

Some of us, bright children in the age of flower power and diner shakes, were sitting on the steps outside Auntie Connie’s house, sipping ice cream, when she came to tell us.

“I’m going to live with a friend in San Francisco,” Mary said. “So I won’t be here every evening like usual. It’ll be a little too far for that. But I’ll still come by on the weekends.”

“Don’t be so boring,” one of us said, Cousin Val, Connie’s eleven-year-old daughter. “We know you don’t mean it, Mary.” She held little Cousin Josie bouncing on her hip, and the child let out a vicious squeal.

“Excuse me, but I certainly do,” Mary said, giving Val a playful shove. But she did not smile, and we didn’t like it.

Josie’s older brother, Lawrence, pawed at the ground with his tennis shoes. “Will you have your own bedroom? And get to eat whatever you want?” He looked like he was tempted to ask her to take him with her, so we shushed him.

“I guess so,” Mary said.

“But we’re all supposed to go down to Louisiana next month,” said Val. “Auntie Dell is having her baby.”

Historically we spent June with our second cousins in Opelousas. The reason we didn’t stay longer was that it became too humid, and Auntie Connie would begin to suffer reminiscences of her childhood on the Arkansas reservation.

“You’re eleven years old,” Mary said. “You don’t need me anymore, and I don’t got time for babies at the moment.” She looked very serious, and not at all like she’d expected a fight. Her wily hair hung around her face, and her light brown skin looked darker in the shade of the porch roof.

Mary wanted to live away from us, and we did not understand it. She almost had a degree in political science now and wanted to be a politician. She was threatening to go to law school in a few years, probably at Berkeley. So far away. 

We wouldn’t hear of it, even though some of our cousins were settling nearby and could keep an eye on her. Oakland might sound close, but it isn’t close enough.

“I’ll see you at Christmas,” Mary said.

“I don’t believe you,” Lawrence said, turning from her. He was only five years old and did not know the best methods of negotiation.

“I’m doing just fine,” Mary told her mother, Auntie Lillian Guillory (a Janisse, before marriage). Lillian with the good hair who taught us a handy trick: how to open our wallets, gingerly, at the supermarket to show the cashier our many packed bills. This way, they do not ask as you pluck your cheeses from your cart if you’re sure you can pay for them.

“What have you been up to?” her mother asked her. It was summer, and she knew Mary wasn’t in class. 

“I’ve been going to the student meetings,” Mary said. “You know, improve campus and all that.”

Mary was not completely honest with her mother. These particular student meetings were only for the Black students. She had gotten mixed up with some people and they suggested she join them. Mary was living with her best friend from school, a Lisa Washington from San Diego. We knew nothing of this girl and advised against it. She could be practicing premarital sex or, worse, helping Mary with her law school applications. She was Black but not the right kind. Not like us. Her father was dark, and her mother was white. A bad combination.

The only thing worse than marrying a dark-skinned girl in our family is to marry a white girl. We do not mix with the white. We aspire to rise above them, to shine down a light from above that reveals the true meaning of equality to them. It may seem a contradiction to some, but we have Creole roots in New Orleans, and this is how things are.

It was Lisa who took her to that rally where Stokely Carmichael warped Mary’s mind. For the first twenty-one years of her life, Mary was not a Black Woman but a nice Catholic girl in white button-ups who volunteered at homeless shelters on Saturdays and went to Confession on Sundays.

She hadn’t known a single white person in Oakland, so what use was there in calling herself Black?

Now she was at university, and most of the people were white. They were silly, treating her different as they did. She pretended it didn’t happen until Stokely Carmichael came to campus and said, again and again, Black is beautiful, Black is beautiful.

Mary had never thought about whether she was beautiful or not. Her high school boyfriend Henri told her so, of course. He was also Creole and wanted nothing more than to wed her. But she thought he just meant that her face was nice to look at.

Mary had always assumed that whether or not she was beautiful depended solely on her parents’ good genes and nice features. Mary had no idea that she could be beautiful just because she was Black.

She liked this thought very much. We didn’t agree with it. We thought it was very wrong. To say that we were beautiful just because of a happenstance of genetics, an inherited body all the way from Africa, was to think we were better than anyone else. We knew plenty of ugly Black people. Old man Jeffrey down the street with the dirty jeans and the angry wife was plenty ugly. He never even smiled.

Mary would hear none of it. “We are beautiful because we have suffered,” she insisted.

We hated Lisa, blamed her for these silly things Mary would say. We told Mary that Lisa was leading her astray. But Mary kept on living with her. Lisa even introduced her to a man named Mathias, whom Mary liked very much. He was very handsome, and he was older than her, done with school, and contributing to the economy.

Mathias asked her to go with him to a movie. We believe it was Bonnie and Clyde, a movie he liked very much and to which Mary was indifferent. But Mary recalls that it was The Dirty Dozen because although she didn’t like it any more than Bonnie and Clyde, she pretended to because it was the first date and she hoped to impress him.

“I like you,” Mathias said. “And I really mean it.”

“Because I’m beautiful,” Mary finished. They were sitting on her doorstep, her wanting him to come inside and him thinking it was too soon. The warm air fizzled in her ears.

“Nah, I’m not into all that stuff,” Mathias said. “I’m not looking for revenge on white people. I just want to pay my dues and have a good life.”

“I hear you,” Mary said. “But I can’t help but want more.” She began to wonder if he did find her beautiful, but when he kissed her, she stopped worrying.

Despite his being a friend of Lisa’s, we hoped Mathias would be good for Mary. He didn’t like that she went to the Black Student Union meetings and admired Angela Davis. He didn’t like how handsy the men at the meetings were with the girls.

“I don’t like it myself,” Mary reassured him. “They don’t appreciate us enough. They tell Lisa she’s beautiful, Black is beautiful, to get her to sleep with them. But they don’t let us decide when the rallies are, or let us choose who comes to speak. I can’t trust men like that.”

“That’s why I like you,” Mathias said. “You’re the kind of girl who wouldn’t let me sleep with you after the first date. You waited.”

“Yes,” Mary said, and she began to forget what she had really wanted. She did think, however, that Mathias was not really hearing what she was saying.

We hoped that her being so light might be a problem with the Black Student Union. But it wasn’t. Mary, like the rest of us, hardly even knew it herself. In those days, she looked as Black as anybody by her hair, which she began wearing natural, and by her men, which were never white.

“Why do you say things like ‘Black is beautiful’ when you hardly even look Black?” we’d remind her.

“Both my parents are Black!” she’d cry. “Whatever mixing happened was a hundred years ago, at the hands of the white man. It wasn’t our fault. Would you really rather I said I was white?”

“Of course not,” we said matter-of-factly. “We’re Creole.”

“Just excuses for not saying Black,” Mary asserted.

We set about to find some other way to change her mind. We tried everything. Auntie Connie and Auntie Maggie and the other mothers got together and performed spells to bring her back. We consulted the ancestors under long white candles and laid salt on the floor while we chanted. Nothing worked. Each phone call and visit ended with, “I’m making a difference.” It was terrible.

We don’t want to be misunderstood. Ordinarily, we would never interfere so much with a family member’s life. It’s not our place to do so, and we’re not busybodies. But Mary made us look bad. It was as simple as that. We were very respectable before the sixties. We had good jobs and attractive children. We didn’t have as much money as we wanted, but who does?

The best thing to do is to behave. This way, they cannot pull you up into trees, and they cannot put your men away. Mary refused to abide by this very basic rule. She put us all at risk.

The eldest and wisest of us, Connie’s mother-in-law, Alma Guillory, tried her best to set Mary straight. She was Lillian’s sister-in-law and closest friend, and Mary would listen to her.

“Your grades are slipping. And your hair looks wild,” Alma told her gently. It was over the phone, of course, because Mary still refused to come back down to Los Angeles.

“I’ve decided to drop out,” Mary said. The phone crinkle made her voice sound very far away. “My heart’s not in it anymore.”

“Not as much as the cause, right?” Alma finished.

“It’s not just that, Auntie,” Mary said. “I’m pregnant.”

“But you were going to be a lawyer,” Alma cried. “Or was it—a senator?” Either one of those options was starting to look real good to us.

“I ain’t gonna be a lawyer,” Mary spit. “They’re as bad as cops.”

“How could you say so?” Alma asked. “What about Cousin Alain, who’s worked for the LAPD for almost twenty years? He’s never killed anybody at all.”

We tried to warn Mary about having a baby. It was too late not to have it; we were Catholics, after all. But she wasn’t even married.

“Well, I’ll get married, then,” Mary said. And she did. Mary and Mathias went to the church, and we gathered in the pews, and afterward, only one cousin, ancient Grandma Margaret, said anything snide about it. She was quickly hushed by Connie’s mother, Bea, who, we recalled, had never told us who Connie’s father was, and was quite sensitive about the matter.

Mary seemed excited to be married, but it didn’t live up to her expectations. Mathias spent hardly any time at home. Suddenly, as if overnight, he’d become radicalized, probably by Mary’s hand. This was ironic, considering he didn’t take her with him to the meetings anymore.

When she asked, dressed in her black turtleneck and eyeliner, he would say to her: “It’s Black men who are attacked the most, killed the most, and it’s us who have to do the most. You’re a Black woman, and you’re needed so much, to birth beautiful Black children who will people this land when we have reclaimed it.”

She stared at him long and hard. “If women ran the movement, maybe we’d actually get something done.”

She was beginning to forget what she loved about him. He refused to help Mary carry bags of baby clothes from her mother’s house. She watched with anger as he ranted at the television set in the evening. “I’ve been saying this for months. You said you didn’t hold a grudge against them,” Mary reminded Mathias.

“I’m starting to think I’m more loyal to the cause than you ever were,” he said.

And that was it for Mary.

But even with an impending divorce, she refused to come home. Only six months married, a humiliation, the baby not even born yet. We thought she’d crawl back to Lillian with her tail between her legs. “I miss her,” Lillian wailed. “She’s forgotten me.”

But the movement, the movement. Mary would say this, again and again, to sing herself and her unborn child to sleep. She was going to change the world, she said, husband or not.

That was it for us. The last straw. Mary was an embarrassment. We couldn’t think what else to do but to carry her home, kicking and screaming if necessary. So we drove up to her house one afternoon. It was a perfect San Francisco day. Just a little bit cloudy.

Mary opened the door because she knew us. She trusted us. We had her best interests at heart. But when Cousin Theodore said, “You’re coming home, Mary,” she refused to accept it.

Mary clawed at her door, at her porch, at her mailbox. “You can’t do this,” she screamed as we hauled her into her mother’s car. “I will hate you forever, I will!” She kicked at Theo as he opened the car door, and her head suddenly snapped back, hit the mailbox, and we dropped her, we couldn’t hold her anymore. She fell hard onto her stomach, and when she started bleeding, she didn’t stop.

We didn’t know what would happen. How could we have done such a thing, had we known?

We feel guilty about it now. Of course, we do. Any loss of life is devastating, but an unborn child is the worst death of all. The death of what could have been.

Mary said she would hate us, but she never did. Hatred was not in her nature. She never talked about her baby except once, two years after the fact, when she and Henri got engaged.

“It was for the best,” she whispered to her mother, so quietly, Lillian almost didn’t hear her. “She wouldn’t have survived long in this world.”

The newest of us, so recently born into this childish millennium, know now what happened up in San Francisco. This is because the youngest of us, the grandchildren (not her grandchildren, but might as well be), were told now and then that we might have to check on Mary. She was so unpredictable. She had a good job now. She worked cases until a reasonable hour and then went home to Henri. But you never know. We never knew. Not for sure.

But we children, we weathered youths, we were told Cousin Mary wouldn’t want to talk about it, so we went about looking for evidence. It was Val’s daughter Sibella who found the diary in long-dead Lillian’s attic, cracked it open, and breathed in the dust.

We’re a little embarrassed we hadn’t found it before now. You can always depend on diaries to be hidden in attics. If you really wanted to hide your past, you would do it below the tree in the backyard, or beneath a floorboard in your child’s bedroom. No one would look there. We certainly didn’t.

When we finally went to Great-Aunt Mary, she told us she was once a radical, but that one day she woke up and came to her senses.

“What changed, Auntie?” we asked desperately. “Fight the power!”

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Mary said.

We were very surprised at this.

“We don’t believe you, Auntie,” said Sibella. “We’ve seen what you wrote. You said Black Is Beautiful. You said—what could’ve been.”

“I was brainwashed,” said Mary.

“But what about now, Cousin Mary, what about now?” Sibella said. We looked out onto the streets. They were torn up and bloodied, but Mary didn’t seem to see it.

“I think Blacks blame all their problems on white folks,” Mary said thoughtfully. She was not angry at all, and we saw there was no use in it.

Although Cousin Mary could’ve been a bit more amenable, we were still happy as can be to find the old journal. How exciting to have a Black Panther for a first cousin twice removed. It made us feel inspired. “I am going to write this down,” Sibella said. “So we don’t forget.”

It was important to Sibella that we remember. Once our family shied away from these beliefs, but they were so new then! We’ve had some time to get used to them. Fifty years. Mary’s diary spoke of sad things, an expired movement, a lost cousin we would never meet.

But also—the most beautiful things. Freedom and liberty. We’ve found that they are fashionable and exciting. They are real.

About the author

Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer and educator based in New York City, where she is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University and teaches undergraduate writing. She has contributed fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to Pen+Brush, Broad! Magazine, The Rational Creature, The Suburban Review, HIKA, and Luna de la cosecha. You can find her @celineaenlle on Instagram and Twitter.

next up...

The Written Testimony of Brooding John Thomas

By Clayton Lister