“In December of last year I swallowed some pills and I died. EMS broke down my door and they resuscitated me. When I regained consciousness, I was angry. I really wanted to die. Because I was not remorseful, I was placed in a mental institution where I remained for several weeks under strict surveillance. After reading this book, I realized that even I could survive the darkness and, perhaps, help someone else.”
Information was provided directly from the author 2015.
I was raised in dirt road, out house, stewed chicken feet poverty—poverty so intense that it developed its own personality, its own odor. It had a way, this poverty, of camouflaging itself and making us believe that things were the way they were supposed to be. Most of my classmates and I did not realize how poor we were until we grew up and started to progress (or not). Some of us stayed forever, but a lot of us left, escaped, you might say. Either way, we came to recognize that we had grown up in a bubble that feigned a protection from the real world.
Wilson, North Carolina was a small, dusty, tobacco town with a railroad track that divided it into colored and white neighborhoods. Colored and white schools. Colored and white businesses. Colored and white toilets at the bus station, train station, and court house. We knew little about the white side of town except that you had to go there to buy groceries or pay the light bill or shop for clothes and shoes. And regardless of your heritage, if it was non-white, you lived and went to school in the colored section of Wilson.
Of course, our parents had access to the white settlement because many of our mothers worked in service; our fathers were yard boys. For many years my own mother worked at Jimmy Dempsey Laundry, sorting the dirty clothes of people who naturally assumed that black people were supposed to clean up after them and handle their filth. Because they did not know better, some of our parents simply submitted to this new kind of slavery. They had families to feed, and they had not yet entertained the notion that it is better to live freely as a pauper than to wallow in the lap of oppressed luxury. They
considered it luxury to work for “good” white folks, to take home leftover ham and cake with which they could feed their own families, and to accept with beaming pride the outgrown shoes and clothes. These they would polish, or starch and iron, and give to their kids for school or church, and if there were items they could not use, they hand-delivered the pieces to someone less fortunate than they in our neighborhood. This was done with an air of benevolence and the absolute expectation that the favor would be returned.
The houses on our street were all the same. Some people called them shotgun houses; we called them inways. I suppose it was because if you went in one way and walked straight through you’d come out the other way. There was a front room, a middle room, and a kitchen. The spigot was on the back porch, and the outhouse was a few feet away in the back yard. Nearly every family had a grandmother who lived with them, and it was the grandmother who tended the gardens and kept the yard clean. She made yard brooms out of small tree branches, which she tied together with hemp. She took great pride in sweeping the front yard every Saturday morning. The broom made intricate little designs in the yard and nobody in our neighborhood—nobody—dared to disturb that pattern without permission. Since there were no telephones, visitors would just stop by, but they would stand at the edge of the yard and holler, “Hoo…wooo.” If one wanted company, she’d open the door, wave her arm and say, “Y’all come on in!” If she was busy, tired or sick, she simply did not respond to the holler, and the visitor would continue down the street.
Because there was no living room, the front room was kept ready for company
with the chenille bedspread that the lady of the house purchased from the traveling
salesman. He kept in the trunk of his car everything a household needed --dishes, glasses, pots and pans--and especially those pink and white rose-designed chenille bedspreads. They cost thirty dollars and he had an installment plan: fifty cents a week or two dollars a month, whichever was more convenient. He and Mr. Vick, the insurance man, were the only ones with gall enough to walk on the newly swept yard, and even they were met at the door with a scowl.
Electricity was a luxury. Many of our houses used candles or oil lamps for light. Winters were sometimes brutal in Wilson, so we filled pot-bellied stoves with kindling and half a bucket of coal. A splash of kerosene and a lighted stick match provided heat throughout the entire house if we kept all the doors open.
Nothing was wasted in those days. Women often inverted soda bottles into the ground to line the walkway to the house. Boys bent the bottle cap over the tip of a stick and used it as an arrow for fishing or hunting rabbits. Aunt Doretta cut old tires into triangles on one side, painted them white, and used them as yard pots for geraniums. Mama tore brown paper bags into strips and twisted them to make hair curlers. Grandma took worn out socks that could not stand yet another darning and used them as dust rags. She saved buttons and zippers from shirts, pants, dresses and Army uniforms. And each piece that looked like it had no more life in it was cut into squares or rectangles and sewn together to make a quilt. Leftover bread and biscuits were mixed with sugar, eggs, milk and raisins to make bread pudding. The grease from ham and bacon seasoned collard greens and black-eyed peas. Almost everyone had a small garden, and each year they would put up tomatoes, beets, peaches and pickled watermelon rinds. I believe my people invented recycling.
So this is the way we survived in the days before welfare and food stamps. Not that my parents would have taken such charity--they were both such proud people. My
father was illiterate, but he was pretty--pretty as a girl, almost. He was tall and light-
skinned, with wavy hair and a kingly attitude. He was trained in dry wall plastering, and he was good at it. When it rained, and it rained a lot in Wilson, he could not work. So he didn’t, because some things were beneath him. Don’t get me wrong; he was a hustler. He used to cook at the Do Drop Inn, and the Silver Boot, and the Snooty Fox. He’d come home in the middle of the night and wake us up with a platter of fried chicken and fluffy biscuits, and then we’d all go back to sleep, our bellies full, and our minds content that all was right with the world.
But something broke him. And while I would be a grown woman before I could put it all together, I remember the exact moment it happened.
I am four years old. I have a new little brother. He is different from the last one. The last one was white. I could see through his skin. He did not stay long. One day Dr. Barnes said he was dead. So they took him away. His name was Cornell. This one is dark. They name him Wiley, Jr. I don’t think they like him. I hear Grandma Easter say, “He’s a fine boy. He just black.” Then Daddy gets mad and he beats up my Mama. I scream and beg him to stop. Grandma Easter smiles and walks away.
Today is Friday. Daddy comes home early from his poker game. He hollers at Mama and makes her take me and Jr. to Mrs. Wilson’s house. Mama is crying when she leaves us. Me too. I peep out the window. I see Daddy slap her and make her get into the car. They are gone all night. When she comes to get us in the morning, Mama is still crying. Her face is swollen. It looks like she fell down on it. She tells us to be quiet because Daddy is asleep.
Now it is Saturday night. Daddy is leaving for his game. He stands at the front
door and hollers at Mama again. He says he will kill her if she leaves the house. All the neighbors hear him say this. When Daddy leaves, Miss Louise comes to our house. She says, “What happened?” Mama puts Jr. in his crib. She blows her nose and puts me in the corner to color. “Stay in the lines,” she tells me.
I like to color. I mix blue and red to make purple. Orange and green make
brown. I sing in French: “Allons enfants de la patrié. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
Mama and Miss Louise speak softly, but I hear every word:
“He came home yesterday mad as hell. Somebody told him something. He wanted to take the baby to a doctor for a blood test. I told him, ‘Wiley, you can’t believe everything you hear in them streets. You know people are always trying to make trouble for other people.’ He denied being Jr.‘s daddy, just like he denied Barbr’ann. God fixed it so she come here looking just like him. But Jr. is dark. He said, ‘Ain’t no way a yella man and a yella woman can have a black baby.’ He don’t stop to think. My daddy was black. His own daddy is black. He just don’t stop to think about that.”
I stop singing. Mama and Miss Louise look at me. I want to correct Mama’s English the way she does me, but I am not supposed to be listening. Besides, I know what she will say: “Don’t do as I do; do as I say do.” I pretend to be busy choosing a crayon. I hear Mama say,
“So I told him, ‘If you gonna take the baby to the doctor, I’m going, too.’ I know him, see. He’d come back here, tell me anything and kill me for nothing. So when I said that, he put the baby down, told me to go get in the car. He made me take the younguns over to old lady Wilson’s house, and then he took me to the woods, out by the lake. It was dark out there. I was scared. But as God is my witness, my conscience is clear. And I trusted the Lord to save me. He took a piece of rope from the back seat and tied me to a tree. He opened the trunk and took out his shotgun. I watched him load it, praying all the time. But I didn’t say a word to him. He sat on the back of the car and pointed that gun at my face all night. He pitched and reared…accused me of all kinds of things. He was a crazy man--crazy! He kept saying, ‘Why you do this to me?’ Every time I try to defend myself he’d tell me to shut up. I cried. I couldn’t help it. I really thought he was going to kill me. I peed on myself. I started praying. I promised God that if He would get me out of this alive, I’d stay and take care of Wiley for the rest of my life. Way after while he untied me and put the gun away.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I didn’t do nothing.” She blows her nose again. She says, “I always loved that nigger much too much, but now…I’m scared of him. I don’t want to stay here. But I promised God!” Then she starts to cry really hard. Miss Louise hugs her. “Lord have mercy,” she says.
After that, everything changed. Every time my little brother cried, or ate, or pooped his diaper, Daddy would holler at Mama. Sometimes he wouldn’t go to work. He spent a lot of his time in bed with a legal pad and a pencil, which he used to write down numbers, myriads of them. On Friday nights he would bathe, get dressed in his grey suit and the new shirt that Mama had just bought, tuck two cigars into his jacket pocket, carefully arrange his Stetson by tilting it just slightly to the left and go off until early Saturday morning. Sometimes he’d come home with a wad of money and make Mama beg for some of it. Other times he’d come home without his watch, or his ring, with nothing but lint in his pockets.
He was such a braggart, Daddy was. I remember once we all went to visit Grandpa Starkey who lived in the country near Sharpsburg. After he and Grandma Easter separated Grandpa Starkey married a woman named Annie who was much younger than he. They had a whole lot of children. Charlie was the oldest and he was two years younger than I. It was hog killing time and Daddy and Grandpa cooked a pig in a hole in the ground. Mama and Aunt Annie made cabbage and boiled potatoes and chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. I called her Aunt Annie because she was younger than my mama. Besides, I already had two grandmas.
Daddy had left Grandpa’s house when he was only twelve years old and he had fended for himself ever since. I suppose he wanted his father to think that he had made the right choice when he said, “Yeah. I’m doing real good in Wilson. Got my own car, a good job. Got money in the bank.”
Then Grandpa said, “Well, Son. Look like you would give Daddy something.” And Daddy clenched his mouth shut tight as a coffin.
We used to be good friends, Daddy and I. He took me with him on long walks.
All his friends called me “Little Wiley.” And then one day, when I was four, he took me to Mrs. Brodie’s house when Mr. Brodie was out of town. He bought me an ice cream sandwich from the truck and left me on the porch swing to eat it while he went inside. When we got home, I told Mama about my day. Daddy stopped taking me with him after that.