Guideposts Classics: Esther Rolle on the Healing Power of God's Love

In this story from September 1981, the star of the popular 1970s sitcom "Good Times" recalls when her prayers were answered by a wondrous display of God's love—right in her own backyard.

by
May 10, 2017

Actress Esther Rolle, star of the popular 1970s sitcom Good Times

Mama and Papa had started calling me “Black Velvet” when I was a baby, the tenth of their 18 children and the first to be born after they moved to Florida from their Bahamian homeland. When friends from the islands came to visit, they’d say, “Let us see the American one, the one with the velvet skin,” and Mama would proudly hold me up so everyone could admire my flawless nut-brown complexion.

Then, when I was eight, a bouncy little girl with glossy black braids, the dreadful skin problem began. Rough scales and unsightly red patches all over my face.

“Try rubbing her with lemon juice,” one old woman told Mama.

“Boil up pine and chinaberry roots and give her a bath in it every night,” another neighbor suggested.

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We soon found that home remedies didn’t work and began going to specialists, one after another. “Never saw anything quite as stubborn as this ailment,” a dermatologist in Fort Lauderdale said, shaking his head.

As Mama and I trudged out of his office with still another eczema prescription, I felt her arm slide around my shoulders and squeeze me tightly. “We’ll just have to keep talking to Jesus, Velvet,” she told me gently. “You know He hears us and helps us.”

Talking to Jesus was a way of life in our family.

“We may be poor in money, but we’re rich in spirit,” Papa would often say. At dawn every Sunday, his “Up! Everyone up!” roused us from our beds. Sleepy-eyed, we knelt together to talk with God, recite Scriptures we’d memorized and sing hymns. Later in the morning, at church, my family filled two whole rows. As I sat in the pew, my legs not yet long enough to touch the floor, I loved to gaze at the beautiful painting of my friend Jesus, holding lambs in His loving arms. It was easy to picture myself as the smallest lamb when I tired of the long sermons.

Though all my family prayed about my problem, it grew worse. The new prescription didn’t help any better than those a dozen other doctors had written for me. By now the rough scales and red patches had spread all over me. Every part of my skin either hurt or itched. The final insult to my small body—and pride—came when a Miami skin specialist told Mama to shave my head. “The lesions will have a better chance to heal if we get rid of her hair,” he said.

I wept, and Mama had a hard job not crying herself as she clipped away at the shining black strands of my hair. When it was over, she drew me onto her lap and held me close. “Velvet, the doctor says you’ve got one of those allergies that just has to run its course. Only Jesus knows when the healing will come.” She began to hum an old gospel song, and I lay in her lap until l dropped off to sleep.

The next day I went to school wearing a little straw hat perched on my head to camouflage my baldness. But my ruse didn’t succeed for more than a few hours. At recess, Big Dora began dancing around me, trying to grab the hat.

“Leave me be!” I shouted at her.

But with a gleeful laugh, she snatched the hat and dangled it out of my reach. “Janie! Bobby! Come see!” she yelled, pointing at me.

Other children dropped baseball bats and jump ropes to run over and stare and taunt. “Go home, else we’ll all catch it, whatever it is you got,” shouted a pigtailed girl I’d thought of as my friend.

Tears made hot little rivers down my cheeks as I darted toward the schoolhouse. The kids had seen it all now. Not only the reddened, itchy patches that covered my small body as a result of the cruelly persistent eczema, but also the supreme humiliation: my poor shaved head.

I fled inside the school, expecting to collapse in my teacher’s arms for consolation. But she hadn’t known the reason for my straw-hat disguise either. As I dashed toward her, I saw her eyes widen in surprise, her hand move to conceal what I took to be a smile. I stopped short, then turned and ran every step of the way to a pine grove near our house, where I sometimes went to pray.

Throwing myself down on the carpet of pine needles, I buried my face in my hands. “Oh, please, God, I want to be Black Velvet again...please.” I got up on my knees and raised my tear-streaked face toward the sky. “At least You can tell me if I’ll always be this ugly. I need to know.”

I waited and listened—for what, I don’t know. Only the low, mournful sound of the wind stirring the long pine needles reached my ears. Wearily, I got to my feet and turned for home.

The next morning, after a restless sleep, I woke up especially early, just before sunrise. I dressed quietly so as not to wake anyone in our crowded little bedroom, then tiptoed barefoot through the kitchen to the rear door. Unlatching it, I stepped out on the porch step—and caught my breath.

The entire ground, as far as I could see in the first morning light, was covered with millions of tiny, jewel-like flowers, some like orchids in color, some with the palest suggestion of purple. Dew diamonds sparkled everywhere on the little lavender blossoms, and the whole yard seemed a fairyland, its wonder enhanced by billows of fog floating just above the lilac-colored expanse.

I looked up and down the sand road. I was the only human being stirring.

Then, as the sun’s gentle rays shone brighter on the fragile blossoms, each quietly folded. In a heartbeat, every bloom vanished. Now there was only the familiar green and brown earth.

Spellbound, I continued to stand on the porch. It was as if the lovely scene had been held in focus just long enough for me alone to catch a glimpse. I had to tell Mama!

In the kitchen’s half-darkness, I found her dressing herself. She listened quietly while I told her about the magical lavender carpet I’d seen outside. “It was so beautiful, Mama. Almost like a miracle.” Her warm brown eyes searched mine as we stood facing each other, holding hands tightly.

Finally, she leaned down and kissed my eager face. With a tender look that I shall always remember, she said, “Maybe it was a miracle, Velvet. God works in wonderful ways. He has the power to call beauty out of nowhere. He’ll call yours out when He’s ready. Today you got a special reminder of that.”

The healing didn’t happen right away. But His answer was real to me. I believed with all my heart I would be beautiful again. And the morning came when I checked my skin and found no new patches of eczema. As weeks passed, the detested blemishes began to disappear; beautiful skin, brown and smooth, replaced them. Slowly, my hair grew out.

The little girl who returned to school that fall was Mama’s Black Velvet.

As an adult, I’ve learned from botanists that they too have seen the phenomenon of brief, massive blooming. But no affirmation has helped me more than the one my mama gave me when I was a little child:

If you look for messages of hope from God, you will surely find them.

Everywhere.

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