Do Lord Remember Me: A Novel

Do Lord Remember Me: A Novel

by Julius Lester

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In a gray fieldstone house in Nashville, Tennessee, the Reverend Joshua Smith Sr.--the staunch and gentle man known to thousands in black churches throughout the South as the Singing Evangelist and to one white reporter as "the Colored Billy Graham"--is trying to compose his own obituary on what will be the last day of his life. In doing so, he looks back over that life--from his childhood in rural northern Mississippi to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, from tears of humiliation to songs of celebration and triumph.

When Do Lord Remember Me was first published in 1984, the Chicago Sun-Times compared it to Alex Haley's Roots, Newsday described it as "exquisitely crafted," People as "distinguished," the Philadelphia Inquirer as "riveting," and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer declared "every page has something worth remembering." Thirty years later and now a classic, Julius Lester's Do Lord Remember Me is an eloquent and deeply moving story about a black family's dignified struggle for survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466862913
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 245 KB

About the Author

Julius Lester is the author of over forty books for children and adults. He has received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor for To Be a Slave, ALA Notable Book for Sam and the Tigers, and Smithsonian magazine's Best Book of the Year. He lives in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Julius Lester is the author of over 30 books for children and adults, for which he has received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor, ALA Notable Book, and Smithsonian Magazine Best Book of the Year. His books include The Autobiography of God, Time's Memory, and Do Lord Remember Me. He lives in Belchertown, MA.

Read an Excerpt

Do Lord Remember Me

A Novel

By Julius Lester

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1984 Julius Lester
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6291-3



The Reverend Joshua Smith, Sr. was born November 5, 1900 in Ouichitta, Mississippi.

He stared at what he'd written. It was a simple statement of fact. Or it was supposed to be. But it wasn't. Reverend Smith's eyes narrowed. Couldn't he remember even when he was born?

He rubbed his cheek as if it were a talisman that would yield the memory as elusive now as life itself was becoming, but his fingers found only the stubble of gray hair. His hands had trembled so that morning, he hadn't been able to hold the electric razor steady. Some mornings he steadied his wrist with his left hand, but not that morning. He preferred the clean stroke of a blade, but his hands shook so now that he couldn't put on shaving cream. The last time he had tried, more had gone on his lips than around them.

"What'd you do that for, Reverend Smith?" she'd asked from the doorway of the bathroom.

"I didn't do it on purpose," he snapped, not knowing she'd been there leaning on her cane.

"I wish you'd let me call the visiting nurse service and have them send somebody around every day to help you with things like that," she continued, concern in her voice.

"If you'd just let me alone, I'd be all right." He glared, a glob of shaving cream dropping from his upper lip onto the lapel of his bathrobe. He looked down at it and then at her. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.

She nodded, as if it were foolish to be sorry for what couldn't be helped. "Your breakfast is almost ready," she said, before turning and walking away.

It didn't matter now. Death had shown him its face twice and the last time it hadn't been so frightening or ugly. It was only his fear that had made Death ugly.

As if waking from a heavy sleep, he saw the sheet of paper at which his eyes were staring, and, for an instant, didn't recognize the handwriting, the words trembling on the page as if shaking in a cold wind.

He read the sentence again. It was wrong, but what was right? It was like that more and more, the seeing but not recognizing, the recognition without knowledge. There were old people, like her brother, Earl, who didn't know what year they were living in, didn't know that they were no longer who they had been.

With some effort he pushed the chair back from the desk and opened the center drawer. A manila folder lay atop a clutter of pads, pens, paper clips, and pencils and he placed it on the desk. Laboriously moving the chair forward, he opened the folder and looked at the first sentence of the obituary he'd written last week.

Reverend Joshua Smith was born November 5, 1900 in Ouichitta, Mississippi.

That was wrong, too. He read all three pages of the obituary and was pleased that everything else seemed correct. He turned the three stapled pages facedown on the empty side of the folder and looked at the next obituary, one he'd written last month.

The Reverend Joshua Smith, Sr. was born November 5, 1897 in Ouichitta, Mississippi.

He read the sentence again and nodded. That was right. He closed the folder of previously written obituaries and pushed it to the side. He drew a wavering line through "1900" and with an almost childlike intensity and concentration, wrote "1897" above, trying to make the lines and curves of the numbers as sturdy as youth. Shaking his head, he dropped the sheet of paper into the wastebasket beside his chair.

Opening the drawer to his right, he took another sheet of paper and wrote again:

The Reverend Joshua Smith, Sr. was born November 5, 1897 in Ouichitta, Mississippi.

That was wrong! He was born in 1900. He started to drop the sheet of paper in the wastebasket and then stopped. Carlotta was born in 1897! Twenty-seven years old when they married, but she'd put twenty-one on the marriage license. Then she waited fifty years to tell him, waited until he had a stroke and didn't know if he'd ever walk again, if he lived.

The doctor said he was making good progress, considering that the week before he couldn't even wiggle his toes. Who wanted to live when toes that wiggled like crippled fish were a sign of life?

The first night after he was brought home from the hospital, he lay in bed, glad that if he was going to die, it would be at home. Dying was less alien if he slipped into it from familiar odors.

She was sitting on the edge of her bed, reading a magazine on her lap. He turned his head and stared at her and it was as if all their fifty-six years were molded into a tiny heart which pulsated weakly and irregularly now and he had to talk about that shrinking and wrinkled heart before it was dust and imperfect memory. He started telling her how young and pretty she looked from the pulpit that Sunday morning. It was his first church, a little whitewashed frame building in the middle of a field and he was nervous, knowing that everybody was waiting to see if this man as black as a thousand midnights in a cypress swamp could preach. He was even more nervous when she walked in. What was a white girl doing in a colored church, black hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back like a silken waterfall? Beside her walked a white woman with dark brown hair wrapped in a ball at the back of her head. He knew they couldn't be white, not in Pine Grove, Arkansas, in 1923, but he was still afraid to look at her.

"I wasn't as young as you thought," she interrupted.

"What're you talking about?"

"I'm three years older than you." She didn't look up from the magazine and said it in that dry way of hers, as if he didn't have feelings she was supposed to care about. "You know how it was back then," she continued, still not caring to touch him with her eyes. "If a woman got to be twenty-seven and wasn't married, everybody called her an old maid. And I figured you wouldn't be any different. If I was twenty-seven and still single, you would've thought there was something wrong with me."

Maybe it wouldn't have hurt as much if she hadn't laughed.

"What's so funny?" he demanded, wishing he could rise up from the bed and slap her.

"Oh, nothing," she said, still cackling. "But it is kind of funny, you thinking you were the oldest all these years."

"I don't see anything funny about it."

"Wouldn't expect you to."

He wiped at his eyes.

"Would you have married me if I'd told you the truth?" she asked, looking at him for the first time.

"Of course I would have," he said, his voice weak and unconvincing to himself even.

"I'm glad I didn't put you to the test back then," she concluded, closing the magazine and dropping it to the floor.

He sniffed and his attention returned to the sentence he'd written. He changed the period to a comma and resumed writing.

the seventh child of Charles and Mary (Collins) Smith.

He put down the pen, closed his eyes, and tried to remember them. Dallas was the oldest. Then came Pecola, who died of diphtheria before he was born. Alice died the year he was born. She'd been five. Pauline was little when she died. Myra died when he was seven and Sue Ann when he was eight. Samuel and Louis were born after him, six and ten years later. Nine children and only the four boys lived to be grown. Two were left now. Soon there'd be just one.

He smiled, pleased that he remembered all of them without having to pause and think. He might forget where he put his house key, but he could probably remember on which side of the bureau he'd laid it fifty years ago. Dying wasn't nothing but going back to the beginning.

The first box he'd ever made was the one he helped Poppa with for Myra. It was only four foot long, because she had always been tiny. She died in the night. He was awake in the dark listening to Poppa praying and crying and then, way up in the night, Momma shrieked and he knew Myra had died.

He got out of bed and Sue Ann whispered, "Where you going, Joshua?"

He didn't answer but climbed over her, took off his nightshirt, slipped on his pants and a shirt, and walked across the porch to the other side of the house where Myra had been sleeping in his parents' room since she'd taken sick.

Poppa was sitting in the rocking chair staring out the front window into the night. Momma lay across the bed atop Myra whose eyes were open and looking through the ceiling at the stars. He pulled his mother away gently. "She's with God now, Momma. It's all right. She's laying in Jesus' arms."

He led his mother to the front porch and sat her in the swing, stroking her arms. As first light eased up from the horizon soft as a cloud, he heard noises from the barn and in a moment, Poppa came riding past on the wagon, hitting at the mule with the whip.

Joshua left his mother and returned to the bedroom. Poppa had closed Myra's eyes, laid her straight on the bed, and folded her hands at her waist. Joshua sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked the face of his favorite sister. He didn't let himself ask God why she had died. He didn't let himself be angry with God for taking her away from him. She was with Jesus and didn't have to worry about sin now. He stroked her face, biting his lower lip, and then went to the other side of the house and woke Sue Ann.

"You got to get up and get breakfast started."

"Leave me alone," she muttered, turning her back to him.

"You get up and do it right now!"

"Don't you be telling me what to do!" she yelled, sitting up. "I'm older than you. You can't be bossing me around."

He was only seven years old, but Poppa said there was something about him that was different and he felt it at that moment as rage hardened his body and mind as he looked at his older and only sister now acting childish while Momma was sitting on the porch like she wouldn't ever move again and Poppa was on his way to the lumberyard to get wood for the box and Myra wasn't going to laugh anymore and make them happy and how Momma was going to have another baby soon and how he was going to have to get the eggs from the hen house and feed the chickens and then go to the field and start picking the pole beans because they were ready and pole beans didn't know nothing about sisters dying and he slapped Sue Ann and it wasn't a little boy's hand against the side of her face but something as rigid as a board and hard as stone. "You get up and get up right now!"

A year later she was dead. It was almost the same time of year. She came in from the field complaining of being hot and no one paid her any mind. Poppa didn't go to town for the white doctor because he was hot and tired, too. The next morning when Momma said that Sue Ann might have the galloping fever, Poppa went but it was the day after that before the white doctor came. It was too late then and the doctor said that niggers were too triflin' to even send for the doctor like they oughta and a week later she was dead. Poppa didn't sit in the rocker staring at the night this time. He left the house and Joshua thought he was going to get the pine boards from the lumberyard but he wasn't back by sundown and when he hadn't come by sunup the next morning, Joshua took the other mule from the barn and rode to Brother Emory's to borrow his wagon and went to the lumberyard.

He made Sue Ann's box himself. The hardest part was carrying her and putting her in it, because it was just him and Momma and Momma couldn't carry for crying. "I ain't got no more girl chillen," she said over and over. "All my girl chillen is dead. God took'em all from me."

Finally they got Sue Ann in the box and Joshua nailed on the top. By then Brother Emory had come with some of the neighbors and they put the box in the wagon and Joshua helped his mother onto the seat and they drove to the colored cemetery in town.

Joshua didn't feel right about no words being said over his sister, but Poppa was the preacher and hadn't nobody been able to find him. Brother Simpson, who said he'd dug every grave for colored in Ouichitta since back in slavery, was finishing with Sue Ann's when Joshua hollered "Whoa!" to the mule. Some of the men got ropes and slung them around the box and as they lowered it into the ground, Joshua stepped to the edge of the grave, lowered his head, and said, "Our Father, You gave her life and we give her back to Thee. We don't understand why, but You do. Dry the tears of them that weep. Hold them in the palm of Your hand, Father, until that glorious day when we all meet again in Heaven. Amen."

He took a handful of dirt and threw it on top of the box and Brother Simpson began shoveling on the rest of the dirt as the people started singing, "Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. ..."

Late that night Poppa came home. He was a tall, lean man, skin as black and sleek as crow feathers. Joshua knew from the redness in his eyes that he'd been drinking. Josh wasn't black like his granddaddy, but was as tall and drank about as much, probably.

That was how sin worked. It skipped a generation and Reverend Smith had seen the sign watching his firstborn, Josh, shoot up like a clump of ragweed. His lips might've been thin like his mother's, but he walked in that loose-jointed way like Poppa had, as if he'd rather dance to where he was going.

But Poppa had stopped walking like he was surrounded by dance music after Sue Ann died. His legs didn't seem to have no more strength than the tops of green onions as he stumbled up the steps and across the porch night after night. Joshua would awaken in the bed where he'd slept with Sue Ann and listen to Poppa struggle to his feet, muttering curses, sometimes under his breath, sometimes shouting, listen to him fall against the house, a sudden silly chuckle disturbing the night stillness, until finally, he found the doorknob and lurched into the dog run that separated the two parts of the house. Some nights he fell onto the porch and Joshua waited for the chuckle or the curse, and when neither came, he would get out of bed and go outside, and kneel beside the prone, foul body.

"Get up, Poppa," he'd whisper. "Come on. Get up." Sometimes he would and other times he couldn't and Joshua would have to leave him for the morning sun.

But no matter how many nights he came home drunk during the week, Poppa was always up with the sun on Sunday mornings. Momma stopped going to church after Sue Ann died, but Poppa would be the first one there, and every Sunday morning as Joshua stood beside his father at the front door to the church, watching him say "Blessings on you" to each person as he or she came in, Joshua thought that maybe this week Poppa would be Poppa all through the week.

He sat on the first bench, looking up at Poppa as he danced back and forth across the pulpit, his arm thrust high into the air like the steeple on the white folks' church, shouting, "God don't like ugly! God don't like sin and if you think He do, you and hellfire gon' be good friends all through eternity!" And he'd laugh and Joshua would smile and know that this week he wouldn't have to lie in the darkness and hear Poppa screaming and slapping Momma, because once he'd asked Poppa how come he laughed when he was preaching and Poppa had said, "Son, it seems like sometimes I get so filled with loving God, I just got to laugh," and Poppa was laughing and dancing and Brother Emory shouted, "Preach it!" as Poppa laughed about "how good it feels to be saved, to know that the Lord Jesus Christ is my salvation and my redeemer!"

After church when the members would say, "Your poppa sho' did preach this morning," Joshua would blush and smile. "You gon' be jes' like him, ain't you?" and he would mumble "Yes'm" or "Yes, sir."

He would walk home with Poppa, his short legs stretching to match Poppa's long and easy stride, but the closer they came to home, the shorter Poppa's step became and by the time they walked through the gate, Poppa was almost shuffling and Joshua knew that come sundown, Poppa would put the bridle on one of the mules and slip into the night. He wished he knew why the Poppa of Sunday morning didn't tell the one of Sunday night to stop making friends with hellfire, and when summer was near dead, so did the church members.

It was late one Sunday afternoon when Brother Emory brought the word.

Joshua was sitting on the front porch step dreading the coming of night when he heard the gate swing open and saw Brother Emory step into the yard. He was a little man, the color of an autumn oak leaf, and everybody said he was old as autumn, too. He didn't look it. His knotty hair was white as a star, but his skin was smooth and he walked like he knew that the earth would hold him up. Poppa said that Brother Emory was born in slavery times. He never wore anything except bib overalls, sometimes with a brightly colored shirt underneath, as often not; sometimes he wore shoes; most times, he didn't. It was cool that afternoon and he had on a black-and-red-checked flannel shirt.

"How you this Sunday afternoon, Joshua?"

"Jus' fine, Brother Emory. How you?"

"Fair to middling," he responded, as Joshua had known he would. "Is the Reverend around?"

"Yes, sir. I'll get him for you."

But as Joshua got up to go in the house to get his father, the screen door opened and Poppa stepped out as sleek and black as a sinful thought.


Excerpted from Do Lord Remember Me by Julius Lester. Copyright © 1984 Julius Lester. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Praise for Julius Lester and Do Lord Remember Me,

Reading Group Guide

In a gray fieldstone house in Nashville, Tennessee, the Reverend Joshua Smith Sr.--the staunch and gentle man known to thousands in black churches throughout the South as the Singing Evangelist and to one white reporter as "the Colored Billy Graham"--is trying to compose his own obituary on what will be the last day of his life. In doing so, he looks back over that life--from his childhood in rural nothern Mississippi to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, from tears of humiliation to songs of celebration and triumph.

When Do Lord Remember was first published in 1984, the Chicago Sun-Times compared it to Alex Haley's Roots, Newsday described it as "exquisitely crafted," People as "distinguished," the Philadelphia Inquirer as "riveting," and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer declared "every page has something worth remembering." Twenty years later and now a classic, Do Lord Remember Me is an eloquent and deeply moving story about a black family's dignified struggle for survival.

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Do Lord Remember Me 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
He knows he is dying, but no longer fears Death. He writes his obit, but struggles with his memories and his writing hand as the stroke has debilitated him, but he accepts the late evening of his life with death near. Reverend Joshua Smith, Sr. looks back to morning in Jim Crow Mississippi as the seventh child but did his time begin in 1897 or 1900? He thinks back with affection of his afternoon of fifty-six years with his wife Myra and their children as they worshipped the Lord. Civil Rights led him to hope for his people but Joshua drifts from Afternoon to a Night that no longer frightens him. Joshua with the Lord, his family, and a cigar to guide him no longer fears that ugly monster Death. Evening is calling in Nashville and Reverend Joshua Smith Sr. works on his obituary trying to give himself the solace he gave to thousands as the Singing Evangelist for this is the last day of his life.--- This reprint of a 1980s classic homage touches readers as Joshua has lived a fill life helping Southern Blacks cope with the changes in society while bringing the Lord to the flock. This passionate reverence to Reverend Smith is also a terrific look at the metamorphosis of the Deep South. DO LORD REMEMBER ME is superb biographical ¿fiction¿ as readers understand how Julius Lester rightfully lionizes his father Joshua by looking back at his life and impending death; clearly the son pays his deepest regard to his father (and his mother) in a fantastic thank you that will touch the souls of readers.--- Harriet Klausner