*Debra Roberts, an attorney with more than twenty-five years of legal experience, has written a memoir with both candor and wit, of being raised by Pentecostal Holiness Ministers and life with her fanatical preacher mother who inflicted both physical and verbal abuse upon her. She reflects on how the Church’s views and actions – speaking in tongues, casting out demons, and dancing in the spirit – caused her to grow up with no self-esteem, to suffer panic attacks, and live with constant torment about the rapture, demons, the devil and hell.

debra roberts

Debra Roberts

Having such a provocative title, I had to inquire of the author as to how she came about it. Again, it seems to stem from her childhood and upbringing. Roberts indicated to me that her father was prone to habitual use of racially perjorative words and phrases, the “N” word, and that her father’s use of the “N” word was not just limited to African-Americans. The author admitted to me that she actually debated using the “N” word in the title, while giving me a history lesson on “Negroes and Flies” and “Raiders and Flies,” sprinkled in with the foibles of “Jim Jones” of Jonestown fame or infamy. Clearly, in reading Negroes, Flies and Wet Toilet Paper, one might understand more as to how the author might grow up with issues of self-esteem, suffer panic attacks, and other psychological conditions.

This East County (San Diego) resident, while working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California, enjoyed the good life with her husband, dining at fancy restaurants and dancing with judges and honorable members of San Diego, California’s finest, yet, her upbringing always seemed to haunt her. The author thought that she had finally escaped the image that she had given herself growing up – that of a poor, nappy-headed, holy-rollin’, colored little girl. Inside, however, her turmoil continued to manifest itself through low self-esteem, failed relationships, panic attacks, depression, and feelings of guilt.

Roberts had lived in San Diego for years, but still could not drive over the Coronado Bridge without medication because of the severity of her panic attacks. She missed out on a lot of social engagements – on a lot of life, really – for the same reason.

Frankie Roberts heard a preacher pronounce that a woman’s place was in the home, not in the pulpit. But this mother of four daughters and wife of a pastor in New Jersey wouldn’t hear of it; she knew she had a special calling. In 1956, Frankie packed up her children, left her husband, and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, to open a ministry. In this memoir, Roberts narrates this story as one of Frankie’s daughters.

This book resonates with me, as I too grew up as a Pentecostal, and just like the author, “I was taught that I was of a peculiar people and that the ‘world’ – or non-Pentecostals – hated us because of our dedication to Jesus Christ. Yes, our behavior was somewhat different, “speaking in tongues,” and the like.

“It is Children’s Day at Mt. Sinai Holiness Church of God In Christ in Newark, New Jersey, in the Fall of 1959 and I feel as though I am being held prisoner on the first pew. I am five years old and wearing one of my favorite dresses … On my feet I am wearing a pair of shiny black patent leather shoes, so shiny I swear I can see my reflection in them. My short sandy brown hair, parted in three pigtails and secured by three large pink and blue ribbons, is standing on end like corkscrews. We are blessed this day with a great speaker, Reverend Walter J. Cook … When his sermon began three hours earlier, he promised he’d talk to us children about going to Heaven and how wonderful life will be once we get there. ‘You wants to go to Heaven, don’t cha?’ He asked. I shook my head yes. Considering the alternatives, I definitely wanted to go to Heaven. But … that was over three hours ago. Now my head … bobs up and down and back and forth like ping pong balls, as we desperately fight to keep our eyes open.”

Roberts states in this provocative book: “While most Negros were fighting for equal rights and education, standing up for equal access to drinking fountains, and struggling for equal choices in bus and restaurant seating, I was preparing for the end of the world. What difference did it make to me where I sat on the bus or where I ate my food? Jesus was coming soon, at which point, the world, along with all of its busses and restaurants and drinking fountains and schools, would be destroyed. I completely missed out on the civil rights marches, as well as on the notorious messages spread far and wide by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was somewhat aware of the Vietnam War, but only because several members of our church had a son or a spouse stationed there. Nor did I get to enjoy Motown or the Beatles or any other worldly music. As a Pentecostal, I was to ‘be apart from the world and separated from sinners.’ A sinner, of course, was anybody who disagreed with our interpretation of the Bible and did not belong to a Pentecostal church.” 

Another poignant passage in the book has the author stating: “I vowed that when I turned eighteen, I’d show them how to live the life of a sinner the right way and be good at it.” This was after Roberts’ preacher mother had the older sister of the author’s marriage annulled – for being married to a man yet still married – and having a child with him. This seems to be the central theme throughout Negroes, Flies and Wet Toilet Paper.

The “Preacher’s Daughter” narrates how she broke out of a self-destructive lifestyle by joining the military and later attending college and law school and becoming an attorney. This is her story about truly finding God and leaving religious dogma behind. The author has come a long way from those early years, where her mother’s preaching and teaching seemed to have such a hold on her life. This is a fascinating book – a book that provides us all something that we can relate to about our own upbringing, a tremendous book that I highly recommend for so many reasons.

Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild and the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago. Mr. Moore can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.

dennis moore