When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the
musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—“To Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.
porter had been charged with our welfare—he got off the train the next day in Arizona—and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.
I don’t remember much of the trip, but after we reached the
segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up.
Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for “the poor little motherless darlings” and
plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad.
Years later I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly
affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.
Years later I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North
reneged on its economic promises.
On Saturdays, barbers sat their customers in the shade on the porch of the Store, and
troubadours on their ceaseless crawlings through the South leaned across its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigar-box guitars.
Before she had quite arisen, she called our names and issued orders, and pushed her large feet into homemade slippers and across the bare
lye-washed wooden floor to light the coal-oil lamp.
In later years I was to confront the stereotyped picture of gay song-singing cotton pickers with such
inordinate rage that I was told even by fellow Blacks that my paranoia was embarrassing.
winced to picture them sewing the coarse material under a coal-oil lamp with fingers stiffening from the day’s work.
When Bailey was six and I a year younger, we used to rattle off the times tables with the speed I was later to see Chinese children in San Francisco employ on their
She seemed to hold no
rancor against the babysitter, nor for her just God who allowed the accident.
nonchalance was meant to convey his authority and power over even dumb animals.
The ugliness and rottenness of old
Aghast, the ladies would ask, “Die?
We wiped the dust from our toes and settled down for schoolwork, corn-bread,
clabbered milk, prayers and bed, always in that order.
All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus, Miss, Auntie, Cousin, Unk, Uncle, Buhbah, Sister, Brother and a thousand other
appellations indicating familial relationship and the lowliness of the addressor.
Nobody with a
smidgen of training, not even the worst roustabout, would look right in a grown person’s face.
indignity would they think of to subject her to?
Because of the kinds of news we
filched from those hushed conversations, I was convinced that whenever Reverend Thomas came and Momma sent us to the back room they were going to discuss whitefolks and “doing it.”
Eggs over easy, fried potatoes and onions, yellow
hominy and crisp perch fried so hard we would pop them in our mouths and chew bones, fins and all.
But on the Sundays when Reverend Thomas preached, it was
ordained that we occupy the first row, called the mourners’ bench.
So my interest in the service’s potential and my
aversion to Reverend Thomas caused me to turn him off.
savior came for neither of these reasons, but because Bailey yelled so loud and disturbed what was left of the service, the minister’s wife came out and asked Uncle Willie to quiet us down.
Laughter so easily turns to
hysteria for imaginative children.